Unlike other First Ladies, McCray isn’t known as a meddler, though she will call staffers on occasion and offer unsolicited thoughts. One person who interviewed for a top-level job was surprised, in meeting her, that she was so unassuming—not the Svengali that the grapevine had promised. She was smart and listened carefully. She had her husband’s ear. But she wasn’t a hard-bitten strategist brimming with solutions.
In a world of strivers, McCray is an odd person to have gained so much power. Unlike Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton, she isn’t a careerist, and her circuitous path through life can make her ascent seem accidental or, her skeptics might say, undeserved. Her résumé doesn’t sparkle; in fact, as some close to City Hall have grumbled, it makes it seem as though she can’t even keep a job, and that some of the ones she has gotten, like her gig at Maimonides, were thanks in part to her husband. For all their closeness and commitment to one another, de Blasio is a much more traditional politician—deal-making, arm-twisting, glad-handing. His career has been spent climbing the ladder of party politics; the ladder has never been McCray’s thing.
Practically speaking, of course, McCray has a new job, at the Mayor’s Fund. In her supervision of that money, she is in a listening phase, meeting with commissioners about pet projects and underfunded initiatives and doing a lot of thinking about how to order her concerns: elder care, incarcerated youth, victims of domestic violence, families with disabled children. On a recent afternoon at City Hall, she was hearing pitches. First, Rose Pierre-Louis, who runs the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, came in and ran through her to-do list: Raise awareness, focus especially on elder abuse and abuse within communities where spousal rape and beating are considered cultural norms. McCray sat mostly quietly, eating soup out of a takeout carton, occasionally nodding her assent.
Next up was Mary Bassett, the city’s new health commissioner, a woman who spent nearly 20 years as a health advocate in Zimbabwe. Her priority, she explained, is to promote better health, neighborhood by neighborhood, deploying battalions of community health workers to the poorest areas—who can knock on doors and in face-to-face meetings help people improve their eating and exercise habits and cut back on tobacco use. Bassett was a passionate ambassador and a font of relevant survey data; it was only when the conversation turned to maternity-leave policies that I realized that nearly every person around the conference table was female. We were white, black, Hispanic, biracial; gay and straight; 30-something and pushing 70. And there we all were, at Chirlane McCray’s kitchen table. All eyes on her—quiet, as she says, but not shy. When she spoke, finally, she agreed with the room—current maternity-leave policies “are not acceptable,” she said. Then, as if not wanting to be part of an easy consensus, she paused and changed the subject: to mass incarceration, drug laws, and the life expectancy of African-American men. “What are we going to do about our boys?” she asked.
At the end of the meeting, Bassett, who is tall and gangly, rose, and before she left the conference room, she turned to the First Lady, who was still seated, and smiled. “You have a great brand,” she said. “I’m sure you never imagined that.”