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Speaker Quinn's Painful Dilemma
Crain's New York
Greg David

October 9, 2011
View the Original Article

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is widely believed to be the front-runner for the 2013 mayoral race. Last week's maneuvering over the living-wage proposal showed why that piece of conventional political wisdom is flawed.

The living-wage movement believes that New York's problems reside in the disappearance of middle-class jobs, which have been replaced by low-wage jobs that do not allow a family to live adequately. Its remedy is to impose a higher minimum wage in the city, something on the order of $10 an hour with benefits, and $12 without.

The movement coalesced three years ago when Bronx politicians tried to impose a living wage on a redevelopment plan for the Kingsbridge Armory. When their demand caused the project to crater, they realized it wasn't possible to raise the minimum wage on a piecemeal basis.

However, the city may not have the power to impose the requirement citywide. So the movement's supporters—unions, the Working Families Party and politicians usually described as liberals—want to tie a living-wage requirement to receiving city assistance. The definition of assistance is quite broad, so, for example, anyone leasing space at the Brooklyn Navy Yard would be covered because the facility has received substantial city investment, even though the businesses there receive no direct subsidies.

Faced with fierce opposition to their proposal's broad reach, backers last week dramatically narrowed their plan. They raised the subsidy threshold to $1 million and exempted small businesses and manufacturing.

The problem is that nobody believes supporters are sincere in their offer to limit the scope of a living wage. They rightly regard last week's concession as a tactical maneuver; once a living wage is adopted, proponents will try to expand its reach.

While the new plan didn't change the battle lines, it certainly put Ms. Quinn on the hot seat again, as she was over the paid-sick-leave bill earlier this year. She has worked to portray herself as a friend of small businesses, which will be useful when she runs for mayor in 2013. She is also an ally of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's, a strong opponent of the living wage, and is positioning herself to be the person most likely to continue his policies. Neither small businesses nor the mayor will forget (or forgive) if she sides against them.

Politically, the speaker's positions are exactly right for the general election in November, when all city residents vote. They are not helpful for the Democratic primary, in which unions who support the living wage carry such sway and voters have little concern for small businesses and increasingly dislike the mayor. City Comptroller John Liu, a strong living-wage supporter, is appealing to those primary voters; Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is going to have to move decisively in that direction.

The speaker punted last week, saying she has to study the bill. The question is whether she will decide to move to the left and embrace the bill to compete in the Democratic primary. Or she could stick to her guns, but then she runs the risk that she'll have to run as an independent. In either case, she's not the front-runner.