Once Alienated, and Now a Force in Her Husband’s Bid for Mayor
Chirlane McCray Plays Key Role in de Blasio Campaign
She was the seventh-grader too frightened to stand in front of the room
because her white classmates would mock her, contorting their mouths to
make their lips look big. She was the smoldering teenager who took to
writing poems every day to wrestle with her isolation and anger. She was
the eldest daughter of one of the only black families in Longmeadow,
Mass., who arrived home to see their new house scrawled with racist
“I had never had a deep sense of belonging anywhere,” recalled Chirlane McCray, whose husband, Bill de Blasio, is now the front-runner to become the next mayor of New York. “I always felt I was an outsider.”
Now, this onetime student of powerlessness, a woman whose early identity
was profoundly shaped by feelings of alienation — because of her race,
her gender and her evolving sexuality — is emerging as the ultimate
insider: a mastermind behind the biggest political upset of the year and
a sought-after voice as the city re-evaluates what it most wants from
its first family.
New York has begun to digest the jarring contrasts that Mr. de Blasio,
an avowedly activist, tax-the-rich liberal, would provide should he
capture City Hall after 12 years of rule by a data-driven billionaire.
Ms. McCray with her sisters Cynthia, center, and Cheryl, right, in
Longmeadow, Mass., on an Easter Day in the mid-1960s.
Less understood is the role his wife, a 58-year-old poet, has played in
molding his political vision and propelling his ascent toward the
As much as anyone on his staff, Ms. McCray has built and guided her
husband’s campaign, thoroughly erasing the line between spouse and
Political meetings are planned around her schedule. She sits in on job
interviews for top advisers. She edits all key speeches (aides are known
to e-mail drafts straight to her).
Her encounters with city life directly influenced Mr. de Blasio’s
approach in the campaign. Ms. McCray was horrified when St. Vincent’s
Hospital in Greenwich Village was razed to make way for luxury
condominiums: 30 years ago, despite the fact that she had no health
insurance, doctors there kept her alive after an acute asthma attack. So
at her urging, the closing of city hospitals became a central theme of
her husband’s candidacy.
Together, Mr. de Blasio and Ms. McCray are as much a package deal as
Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a reality etched into the campaign
hierarchy affixed to a wall of the de Blasio political headquarters. It
lists “Bill/Chirlane” above a sprawling team of aides.
In an interview, Ms. McCray embraced the model of the Clintons’ working
partnership, saying that the former secretary of state is the first lady
she most admires. She acknowledges feeling so passionately in 2002
about which way her husband would vote on the next City Council speaker
she threatened to divorce him if he backed the wrong candidate.
He sided with his wife.
(The candidate Ms. McCray opposed later went to prison. “He was a slimeball,” she said.)
Asked if she had ever considered playing a less assertive role in the
mayoral race, Ms. McCray physically balked, leaning in from across the
table at a Brooklyn diner.
“No, no,” she said. “It’s not who I am. It’s not who Bill and I have been as a couple, either.”
She added, “We’ve always been partners in the campaigns and any major thing we have taken on.”
Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, as a teenager in 1971.
They are, in their relationship, their politics and, above all, their
lifestyle, a striking departure from the city’s reigning pair, Michael
R. Bloomberg and Diana L. Taylor, his longtime girlfriend.
Ms. Taylor, a banker, rarely campaigned with the mayor and kept a
studied distance from City Hall, adopting the role of his glamorous
sidekick on the city’s charity circuit, often seen but seldom heard.
“We are very different people from him and Diana,” Ms. McCray said.
She does little to disguise her deep distaste for the Bloomberg era,
when, by her lights, the ranks of the poor surged to unconscionable
levels (“that’s not sustainable” she said), gentrification brought a
commoditized sameness to once quirky neighborhoods (“we are losing our
communities,” she worries) and New York City venerated its swelling
class of ultrarich.
“I mean, our leader was a billionaire; I think that contributed to it,” she said.
Ms. McCray recalled, with a mixture of awe and amusement, the experience
of dining at Mr. Bloomberg’s opulent home on the Upper East Side a few
years ago, a home she described, dryly, as “very structured.”
“It was all very, to me, very stiff,” she remembered. “I think everyone was, like, on their best behavior.”
Ms. McCray has taken her dismay to the ballot box, saying she had not
once voted for Mr. Bloomberg. She yearns to restore New York’s
reputation as what she called “a progressive capital,” worrying it has
trailed behind cities like San Francisco, Seattle, even Cleveland.
“They are all doing exciting new things,” she said. “And what are we doing?”
Her anti-establishment sentiment runs deep. In high school during the
late 1960s, where for a time she was the sole black student, she caught
the attention of the faculty by calling out cruel classmates in a column
for the campus newspaper, a social outcast publicly challenging her
“She was subjected to what clearly today would be called bullying,”
recalled Michael McCarthy, her Spanish teacher and mentor. “I was
probably the only friend she had in school.”
Her greatest fury, however, was reserved for the adults who let her
down: the white construction workers who spit at her as she rode a bike
in town, the parents who excluded her from boy-girl mixers, and the
instructors who allowed students to mock her with racial epithets.
“The shocking thing is that the teachers wouldn’t do anything,” Ms.
McCray said. “It was horrible. To know that they could get away with it,
that it was condoned behavior.”
There was little sympathy at home, where her father, an inventory clerk
at a military base, and her mother, an assembly worker at an electronics
factory, waged their own battle to fit into an upper-middle-class town
of strivers near Springfield, Mass. Ms. McCray was instructed to tell
anyone who asked that her mother was a homemaker, just like the other
women in the neighborhood, a lie she learned to repeat reflexively.
So she poured her disillusionment into poems and short stories, many of
them laced with adolescent self-loathing. “I’ve spent my life as a Black
girl,” she wrote years later. “A nappy-headed, no-haired, fat-lipped,
big-bottomed Black girl and the poem will surely come out wrong like
Her four years at Wellesley, an all-women’s, liberal arts college,
brought both a long-sought social acceptance and a new form of
rejection. Her being a lesbian was discovered when a classmate found her
in an intimate dorm-room embrace with another woman. “Some of the women
in my dorm were totally freaked out by it,” she said.
It was then that her social and political activism took root, building
on the belief, articulated by a nascent group of like-minded women in
Boston, that black lesbians had something different to say about
discrimination and identity than the mainstream women’s liberation
Ms. McCray joined what would become the Combahee River Collective, an
influential collection of black feminist intellectuals, many of them
gay, who felt overlooked by the 1970s politics of Betty Friedan and Ms.
“We knew it was revolutionary,” Ms. McCray said. “Just by sitting down
and talking to each other, it was breaking through the madness.”
By the time she started a job in the press office of New York’s City
Hall in 1991, there was no confusion: she had zero interest in dating a
man, a message that Mr. de Blasio, then a lanky, bearded operative
across the building, jauntily ignored.
He flirted with her mercilessly, she said, calling nonstop and trying to
steal an unwelcome kiss. “I actually told him, ‘Slow this down,’ ” Ms.
McCray said. Her resistance became less diplomatic: “Back off.”
But a romance blossomed: Mr. de Blasio, five years her junior, won over
her family with an overnight visit that earned him a new moniker:
For Ms. McCray’s lesbian friends, her engagement to Mr. de Blasio, in
1993, was a stunning turn. Not all of them could stomach it. One of them
refused to attend the wedding.
Their marriage was defined by politics and activism. He ran for school
board, City Council, then public advocate. She wrote speeches for Mayor
David N. Dinkins, City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. and State
Comptroller H. Carl McCall. A stint in the public relations department
at Citigroup, the Wall Street bank minting cash in the early 2000s,
ended after six months when she realized “this was not a good fit for
Even as their clout grew, they kept their distance from Manhattan’s
corridors of wealth and power, making their home in Brooklyn’s
left-leaning Park Slope, a place so woven into the family’s identity
that Ms. McCray feels conflicted about uprooting her son, Dante, a high
school junior, should they move to Gracie Mansion on the Upper East
She has been taken aback by the sudden stardom of her Afro-favoring son
who has been mobbed at public events, deluged with requests to appear on
television and irritated that those who approach him only want to talk
about his hair.
“What blows my mind is how much there is, it’s amazing,” she said. “I
don’t think anyone — not one of us — anticipated it would be such a
These days, Mr. de Blasio and Ms. McCray are a ubiquitous tag team on
the campaign trail; at times the candidate interrupts voters midsentence
to introduce them to his wife, as he did with victims of Hurricane Sandy in Far Rockaway a few days ago.
It can seem as if a moment is incomplete for him unless his wife has experienced it, too.
In Harlem recently, Mr. de Blasio was walking to his city-issued S.U.V.,
a large crowd of residents trailing behind, when he stopped and looked
around, disoriented. Ms. McCray was not there.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “Let the first lady through.”