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Chirlane McCray’s City

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The weight of all that family responsibility, though, made it easier for McCray to shoulder her new role as mother, wife, and caretaker. She was committed. But it was also the case that, for all her lifelong diligence and toughness, McCray had never been someone who defined herself primarily through her work—in fact, she often defined herself against it, as someone animated by fiercely held values rather than self-interested ambition. Her friends from the time describe a devoted and relaxed parent, autonomous within her sphere. Bill wasn’t around too much; Carol Joyner, who befriended McCray when their daughters were in diapers, remembers only a couple of occasions over a decade when the families, including husbands, socialized together. “Chirlane and I were together with the kids; [the husbands] were together doing politics,” remembers Joyner. But when she did see Bill and Chirlane interact, she found them relaxed and affectionate. “Some couples are really intense and wear you down,” Joyner observes, but Bill and Chirlane aren’t like that. With Bill so often at work, Chirlane built around herself a different kind of women’s world, centered on her kids, their friends, and other mothers in the neighborhood. As a much younger woman, she knew a group of feminist writers called Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, so called because women’s lives are so often revealed in that place; by the early 2000s, the kitchen table was no metaphor but a reality lived every day. In the evenings, McCray would also sit around the table with her husband, who by then was beginning to consider higher office, talking through political imperatives surfaced by her own experience: how to afford child care; how to get kids through the harrowing years of middle school; how to coordinate elder care without going insane. “It’s such a natural thing to talk shop,” she says. “We would say, ‘How could this be better? If we had our dream world, how would this work?’ ”

McCray went back to government work in 2002, after Dante had begun elementary school, and spent several years alongside Schickele, when the two women were speechwriters for then-comptroller Bill Thompson. Schickele remembers McCray as an easy colleague: fun-loving, hardworking, alert to the absurdities of city politics, and low on ego. She was a working mother who did her job well and went home. Uninterested in the spotlight for herself, she was suited to speechwriting. “When I knew her, she was the opposite of public,” Schickele says. “No one was sticking a microphone in her face, and she didn’t carry herself like someone who expected to have a microphone put in her face.”

McCray is not comfortable with labels, but if she will accede to any, it would be “outsider”: the black girl in the white town; the outspoken lesbian drawing disapproval within her own family; the advocate who hopes to give voice to the voiceless; the feminist married to the powerful man. (Even her definitions of sexual attraction are category-busting: “I am more than just a label,” she told Essence last year. “Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins.”) Three years ago, McCray was a woman on the outside of politics, laboring in marketing at Maimonides hospital in Brooklyn. When I meet her for a second time, she is surrounded by all the trappings of insider power—deep within the bowels of City Hall, managed by a crew of handlers and a security detail, some of whom refer to her deferentially as “the First Lady.” But she says nothing has to change; she is, and has always been, a nonconformist, and “I can’t help who I am,” she tells me. “Government is not just about maintaining the status quo. It’s about helping people’s lives to work.” Just because you have influence, “I don’t think you have to be conventional or rigid. The only thing that’s different is that we’re in positions of power now, where we have the tools to actually make things better for people.”

So what would she like to do? McCray is uncomfortable listing priorities, saying it’s too soon to talk about specifics, that she’s been so busy, and that she’s listening carefully to the advice of the commissioners and other city leaders. Instead, she points to the de Blasio platform, which she says holds all the clues. “Universal pre-K. Yes, we’ve got it; now we have to make it a success. That’s a huge job. After-school programs. Huge,” she says emphatically, recollecting how the YMCA of Greater Springfield was her second home as a child. “You know, because of our family, mental health is going to be big in some way, shape, or form. I don’t know exactly how, but it will be in there. And neighborhoods. That means affordable housing and the things that go along with that. Those are huge. They will definitely inform what I do, however I do it. But in my way.”


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