Where His Wife Is Concerned, de Blasio Fights Extra Hard to Control the Media Narrative

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray host a reception at Gracie Mansion for prominent New York Jewish leaders, days ahead of moving into the mayoral residence.
Let me get this.Photo: Timothy Fadek/Corbis

When it was clear that Bill de Blasio was going to be elected mayor, in the days after he won last year’s Democratic primary, I asked one of his longtime Democratic friends how things might change at City Hall in 2014. “Bloomberg almost never cared about what was on the front page,” the political colleague said. “Bill will react.”

Those reactions have certainly covered a wide range in the administration’s first ten months. De Blasio has taken to the streets to talk with aggrieved Upper East Siders (January’s Snowplowgate); walked out of a press conference when things got uncomfortable (February’s Stopsigngate); and answered questions narrowly before declaring “case closed” (October’s Noerdlingergate).

More often than not, though, de Blasio has responded to media brushfires calmly and moved on. And in the past two weeks he’s risen to the Ebola occasion, appearing levelheaded and scientifically grounded, even if the shoutouts to de Blasio’s labor union base seemed a bit gratuitous.

So it was somewhat surprising how anxious the mayor appeared yesterday. One day after the Post’s front page claimed that First Lady Chirlane McCray was mad at Police Commissioner Bill Bratton over the resignation of Philip Banks III, the NYPD’s chief of department and highest-ranking black cop, de Blasio abruptly scheduled a Sunday afternoon press conference at Gracie Mansion to denounce any notion of a rift. There sat the mayor and the PC, both men looking as if they’d been rousted from a leisurely afternoon of watching the NFL. They repeatedly professed their devotion to one another; they managed to punch back at the Post for 35 minutes without speaking the words “the Post.”

The facts do indeed matter. Yet regardless of whether the Post got McCray’s words or opinions right — and she later took to Tumblr to proclaim her own faith in Bratton — the episode showed that the paper knows exactly where two of de Blasio’s rawest nerves are located.

The mayor has been upfront and fulsome about the benefits of making his wife a full partner in his professional life. Yet the downside of erasing the lines between political and personal was on display yesterday — inside the mayor’s new house, with his wife somewhere out of sight but in the building. It’s hard to imagine de Blasio reacting quite so viscerally if a paper had reported criticism of the police department by a top staffer who isn’t a relative. And this wasn’t the first time the mayor had explicitly defended McCray’s honor against the tabloids: de Blasio had ripped the Post and the Daily News in May (Badmomgate), making yesterday’s outburst look as strategic as chivalric.

The second fraught subject is de Blasio’s command of the police department. It is crucial to the rest of the mayor’s agenda that he keep the city safe while reducing friction with poor and non-white New Yorkers. Entrusting the task to Bratton initially reassured the city’s elites, who were skeptical of the new lefty mayor, but the choice of commissioner has been a tougher sell to progressive true believers. Now Bratton, like any new boss, is shuffling his lieutenants, fueling tension within the NYPD. And the mayor himself, after running a campaign that left many cops feeling they were the bad guys in the stop-and-frisk era, is still viewed warily by many rank-and-file.

Running through both dynamics, of course, is race. McCray, in her righteous blog post, made clear what she thinks is the root of the problem — not dubious sourcing, nor her own unprecedented role in City Hall. “Too many city newsrooms do not reflect the population of NYC or the experiences of the majority of New Yorkers,” she wrote. “We must demand newsrooms that are as diverse as the city they serve.”

De Blasio is still figuring out how to calibrate his reactions to the moment. Responding the way he did yesterday guarantees the mayor will get even more chances to confront, or deflect, headlines he doesn’t like.