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Chirlane McCray’s City

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Her biggest achievement so far has been in staffing, helping hand-pick the people who will actually run the city and staging the new optics of power in the de Blasio era. McCray was adamant that the de Blasio administration field the most diverse leadership team New York City had ever seen. Now, of the dozen senior staff the mayor meets with each morning, six are women. Only three are white men. Of the 80 or so commissioners, deputy mayors, and agency heads de Blasio has hired, more than half are women. McCray’s own communications director, Rebecca Katz, is a white woman who went to a mostly black elementary school. Her chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, is an African-­American woman adopted and raised by white parents. McCray is busy revitalizing the city’s Commission on Women, Noerdlinger says; first up is hiring the executive director.

For McCray, feminism is not so much about the fulfillment of personal ambition as it is about helping women to get the basic things they need. “My mother worked for this place called Phelon for a while,” she says—a job, at an electronics factory, that she made Chirlane promise to keep secret from her classmates. “When I was very young, she went on strike. Yeah, she went on strike a couple of times. She put on her pants, and it was a big deal to wear pants. Right? It was like, ‘Why’re you wearing pants, Mommy?’ ” It’s a powerful image, and a double one—the hardworking mother dressed for a fight, and her daughter, 50 years later, conjuring up the images in an interview inside City Hall.

“I don’t think it’s about ‘leaning in,’ ” she says. “In this day and age, it comes down to improving life, for girls especially, young girls—improving the numbers of opportunities, the kind of opportunities. But it’s not just about opportunities anymore. Violence against women is a huge issue. A good feminist should be working on that—making the world a safer place for girls and women, wherever they live. Economic opportunity is hugely important. That’s why paid sick leave was so important. But we’ve got so many women who are employed as teachers, nurses, health aides, fast-food workers, and don’t have access to child care, can’t afford child care. I mean, that’s an issue that feminists should be working on. We have to think about the state of women in a more holistic way going forward. We can’t be segregated by class and race as we have been. Because even the women at the top can do something about violence against women, right?”

I wonder aloud whether, even now as she holds the opportunity to make real change in New York, she misses the community she found there in her 20s, with its vibrancy, idealism, and sense of purpose—and McCray, who has been deliberately eating a salad, practically jumps out of her seat. “I do! I really do!” Her eyes shine. “It’s just kind of strange, like, What’s happened?” She cites a couple of factors—“people disagreeing about issues,” “people hooking up and getting married,” “tenure.” “But what happened?” she asks. “You got me.”

One answer is easy: The city changed. In the New York of her activist youth, ­McCray remembers, “things were so accessible. There were places you could go. Where would you go now? Everything costs money. You don’t have the same access. After the ’60s, ’70s, you couldn’t protest. They’d developed ways to deal with it. Remember? I mean, the government grew more sophisticated. And it’s not just that people changed, but government and the status quo changed—kind of clamped down. The city grew less open and welcoming. People grew, and grew up.” She pauses. “But I think there’s something happening. I think things go in cycles, and it’s been a long period of quiet,” she says. “I think it’s time again.”

Staffers at City Hall call McCray the mayor’s Mophie, after the iPhone case: One entirely covers the ­other; they are inseparable. She is his gut check, his sounding board. Universally, friends of the de Blasios refute the idea it’s McCray who’s running the show. It’s not like that, they say. De Blasio and McCray “clearly treasure the thing they have. They clearly get a lot of joy out of each other. Once you get that part, then the dynamic with the mayor is a lot more clear and a lot less foreign,” says Emma Wolfe.

People who know the couple describe them as like-minded professionals; their “partnership” takes the form of incessant marital patter, similar to what two doctors or two lawyers would do. It’s always tempting to analyze another marriage—­especially a public one—based on appearances. And de Blasio and McCray invite such assessments, even as they shake them off, because their image is so central to their appeal. From outsiders, I’ve heard everything from “She wears the pants” to “He’s elevating her out of gratitude,” but the truth seems, as always, more complicated, even alchemical. De Blasio can be indecisive, insiders say, and she is resolute; he turns to her when he’s uncertain. One resonant analysis has McCray, the true believer, keeping de Blasio, the pragmatist, focused on their mutual ideals, but McCray herself laughs that off. “I think we’re both a mix of idealism and pragmatism,” she says. “And which one of us is which can change at any time. Sometimes I bring him down to reality, and sometimes he brings me back to reality.”


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