Does the NYT’s Great Christine Quinn Documentary Go Easy on Her?

If you have 30 spare minutes and an obsession with history or politics, watch “Hers to Lose.” The New York Times’ documentary about outgoing New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who went from front-runner to third place in the city’s mayoral primary, is often downright brilliant. You get a sense of that in just the first 30 seconds, as the camera lingers on Quinn’s labored smile before she can explain why she agreed to be followed. We see Quinn and her wife singing along to Bruce Springsteen and Helen Reddy in the campaign’s SUV. We see a heckler tell Quinn, to her face, that her vote to give Mike Bloomberg an out from term limits was “unforgiveable.” We see Quinn’s poor campaign staffers try and fail to spin away her implosion and the rise of Bill de Blasio, something they credit almost entirely to de Blasio’s “Dante” ad. The cute kid with the afro and the fear of stop-and-frisk beats the tough “dyke,” as a supporter calls her at the Stonewall Inn.

Often brilliant, like I said—but a little easy on Quinn. Since she lost, the woman who would have been NYC’s first lesbian mayor has been almost martyred as a victim of sexism. Anyone watching the documentary would think she was brought down due to the term limits vote, her gender, stop-and-frisk, and a reasonable vote to allow horse carriages to operate, which incurred the wrath of crazy animal rights activists. But the left that opposed Quinn had practically 95 Theses worth of complaints. For example, Quinn opposed paid sick leave for families. An exit poll found that liberals deserted her over that position. It’s never mentioned in the film.

“I believe I did talk with her about paid sick leave at one point, but I would have to dig into the transcripts and footage to confirm what she said,” said Brent McDonald, the lead videographer. “Mike Morey, her campaign communications director, expressed frustration that her decision to hold up the bill in the interest of small-business owners—a move he considered a success—was framed as shameless power politics by the media and her opponents. We did not see a place to address the issue in the film. … Paid sick, while important, wasn’t nearly as present in our material and thus much harder to illustrate.”

Why were the animal rights nuts, the Anybody But Quinn campaign, given such a large role? “How much to include them was a question we talked a good bit about,” said McDonald. “As Mitchell Moss says in the film, they’re a well-financed special interest group. Still, we could not ignore them; they were everywhere with their signs. And once we decided to include them, we had to explain what they were about. And frankly, their story adds a fascinating aspect about what it means to campaign in New York City. ABQ seemed to embody public outrage over a number of her legislative decisions and manifested in a rather haunting way.”

I’m making some minor quibbles, but Quinn’s loss has to be explained with factors that are too complex for a short, solid film. In “Hers to Lose,” the faces of anti-Quinn resentment are ABQ, some homophobic rabbis and old people, and some nasty hecklers. You don’t lose 84 percent of the votes in a Democratic primary if that’s your only opposition.

“While there was of course lots of great material we would have liked to have included in a short doc,” said Steve Maing, one of the directors, “Quinn didn’t really have much to say in terms of her reasons for losing. When asked, she spoke about how it was just too early to reflect on her feelings about what went wrong. Generally speaking, it was interesting to see the boundaries of her self-awareness—and in a way, media-awareness, considering there were probably things she also was just not willing to offer up on camera. It was interesting to see how Quinn seems to have embodied a dramatic conflict between political approach, well-meaning intentions and inability to manage the harsher public/media perception of her identity and legislative choices.”