By Sara Sugar and Alex Wolf
NEW YORK CITY — College student James Polite remembers when he had every reason to give up.
Ostracized by his family for being gay, he said he was kicked out of his Brooklyn home at age 13 and placed in foster care. He said his mother told him he deserved to be disowned.
But his fortune changed a year later after a chance meeting with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who offered him an opportunity to intern in her office. The two say they quickly developed an emotional bond that’s deepened over the last six years. Quinn has since paid for some of Polite’s living expenses and helped him get into Brandeis University.
“Nothing has gone particularly well or easy in James’ life and he is the most grateful, positive young man I’ve ever met,” Quinn said in a recent phone interview. “Not every foster family was perfect, not every school was perfect but he just always seems to believe there’s something better around the corner and keeps working towards it.”
Polite revealed the story of his unlikely relationship with the mayoral candidate during an unrelated interview about homeless LGBT youth.
After being forced from his home, Polite said he bounced from one foster home to the next without having much opportunity to form meaningful relationships. He believes the stigma attached to being a gay black male left him vulnerable as he shuttled among foster parents — some of whom, he is convinced, were out simply for financial gain. Some foster parents gave him little food and sometimes locked him out, forcing him to spend nights in shelters, recalled Polite, now 20.
The one constant in his life was a love for politics, a passion that grew when he volunteered for the Obama campaign as a high school student in 2007.
“I needed a distraction,” Polite said. “I wasn’t in my home. I was like, ‘I’m going to do this Obama thing. I’m going to get food that they feed you at the campaign.’ And I spent a lot of my time volunteering, knocking on doors, making phone calls and getting involved in politics.”
His volunteer work brought him to an LGBT for Obama rally at City Hall in 2007, where he met Quinn. The two talked politics and struck an instant rapport.
“I said, ‘Well, you’re going to come and intern for us at the City Council,’ and he said yes and the rest is history,” Quinn said.
He interned in her office in 2008, and again in 2010 before finishing up and graduating from Williamsburg Charter High School.
“We’ve kind of adopted him as our little brother at the City Council,” Quinn said.
Taking on the role of a big sister, Quinn frequently stressed to Polite the importance of finishing his education: “I would always say to him, ‘You have to go to college. It doesn’t matter to me which college you go to, but you have to go to college.’”
She even wrote him letters of recommendation — and picked up the phone after he was accepted to Brandeis.
“Once he got in, I called the school to alert them that I wanted him to be watched out for and taken care of. The school must have been like, ‘Who the hell is this pushy broad?’ But I just didn’t want anything to go badly,” Quinn said.
Her office threw Polite a party before he left for school. Staff members gave him towels and other items to make dorm life more comfortable. Quinn paid for his textbooks, Polite said. Quinn said she also bought him a suit, which he later wore to her wedding to her longtime partner Kim Catullo last year.
Polite loved his first year at Brandeis, but didn’t know where he would end up during the summer. Quinn said she and Catullo paid for Polite to live in an NYU dorm.
“You know you just don’t want him to want for anything. You want him to be able to focus on working hard and studying. So he needed a place to stay and we took care of that,” Quinn said.
Now finishing his second year at Brandeis, Polite thinks about which classes to take next semester instead of where he will sleep at night. This summer he will return to City Council and spend part of the summer interning in Quinn’s office.
“I haven’t had the same life I had before I met her. I’ve never had to worry about where I was going to get my next meal from, I haven’t had to worry about anything,” he said. “I’ve got to be honest with you. You have Christine Quinn make a phone call for you and you get results a little more quicker.”