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Chirlane McCray’s City

Chirlane McCray, in the foreground, with siblings Cheryl McCray, Cynthia Davis, and Reggie Jackson in 1974.  

The mayor has called Chirlane McCray the love of his life, his partner, his No. 1 adviser. When he’s being charming, he says he defers to Chirlane in all things. Others have called McCray his “conscience,” “a voice for the voiceless,” “someone who talks and listens to everyday New Yorkers.” In various day jobs since she moved to New York in 1977, McCray has worked in magazine publishing and as a freelance writer, as a speechwriter for city officials and as a public-relations consultant, but her professional résumé falls very far short of defining her role in Mayor de Blasio’s life and this city. “Understand Chirlane, and you’ll understand me,” he has said.

The de Blasios have been described as virtual co-mayors, and though their staff bristles at the term—“The mayor is the mayor,” says Emma Wolfe, a key aide—the couple refer often to their “partnership.” “We do everything as a couple—we think as a couple,” the mayor said last week. “We act [as a couple] in terms of everything we try to do for this world.” During the campaign, de Blasio put McCray’s name at the top of the org chart—alongside his, and above senior staff and everyone else. Staffers worried about how that perception would reflect on the candidate himself—that it would make him seem weak, even cuckolded, says someone who worked on the campaign. But “I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘Don’t call her your partner,’ ” because that would be unthinkable in de Blasio’s world. Those who have worked closely with the couple at City Hall describe McCray’s role as really two roles: optics guru and political conscience. But that description undersells her brief. She has conducted job interviews for important hires along with her husband; almost every commissioner, as well as much of the Gracie Mansion staff, has been vetted by her. She is at Bill’s side for most public appearances and is called to his office in scheduled and unscheduled meetings all the time. (She recently joked with her staff that she wished she and her husband could wear bracelets that beeped when they needed each ­other.) McCray says the administration’s ­priorities are her own—inequality, affordable housing, paid sick leave, after-school programs, hospitals. She was the face of its signature initiative, universal pre-K, making dozens of appearances to generate support and delivering the rallying cry that pre-K was “the defining civil-rights issue of our day.” When the de Blasio administration emerged from the battle, it was McCray who recorded an ad claiming victory and thanking New Yorkers for their support. Probably most significantly, she is also in charge of the Mayor’s Fund, a public-private philanthropic partnership that distributes tens of millions of dollars annually to initiatives reflecting the administration’s priorities. That responsibility is significant enough that her predecessor in the role, Michael Bloomberg’s deputy mayor Patti Harris, was called, by Crain’s, the fourth-most-powerful woman in the city. Not to take anything away from Harris, but she was not also married to the mayor, functionally his first political adviser, or celebrated as his moral conscience.

In the 1970s, when Bill and Chirlane came of age, it would have been very hard to imagine that a marriage to an African-­American feminist with radical activist politics and a queer past would have been anything but politically devastating for an ambitious white politician. But what’s so remarkable about the de Blasio era is not that Chirlane is the mayor’s spouse. It’s that she is such an unambiguous asset, and with him a vision of a hopeful, hipster egalitarian future. Chirlane’s approval ratings have registered higher than de Blasio’s, and it’s partly to her credit that the mayor polls so well among blacks; that’s one reason why even when his ratings took a dive in March, they only fell to 39 percent.

McCray knows all this. Having spent decades in PR and as a speechwriter, she understands well how image-making works and the power of political symbolism, even as someone basically new to center stage and uncomfortable there. Which may be why, on the day Chiara accepted her award, Chirlane tweeted a photo. Chirlane is on the left, smiling shyly, and Chiara is on the right. Wedged between them, looking very pale, is Hillary Clinton, a former boss of de Blasio’s and the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016. It is unclear whose spotlight is shining on whom.

Chirlane McCray is not, by temperament, a people pleaser, though she makes a pointed distinction between quiet and shy: “Some people are just quiet—they don’t need to be talking all the time and aren’t extroverted, but they’re not necessarily afraid to talk,” she told me in one of several interviews over the past few weeks. “I’m not really a shy person. I don’t think I would have managed to get this far if I were.”