For those entranced by the de Blasio–family fairy tale, in which a tall, goofy white dude married to a tiny, black former lesbian runs for mayor of a city managed for a dozen years by a plutocrat inhospitable to the couple’s leftist politics, then improbably wins, in a landslide, thanks in part to a very modern family campaign portrait showcasing two teenage children, both of whom have eye-catching hair, the political theater of May 6 seemed so exemplary as to be almost surreal. Outside Washington, D.C., before a standing ovation of mental-health professionals, the de Blasios’ daughter, Chiara, who is 19, received an award of recognition from the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. The recognition was for her having spoken out: At Christmastime, just before her father was inaugurated and with the support of his campaign staff, Chiara had recorded a confessional YouTube clip in which she described herself as a pot and alcohol abuser. On the morning of the press conference, she published a wrenching essay describing her disease: years of depression and anxiety leading to regular reliance on substances. Even now, Chiara wrote, in recovery, she has to make herself “get out of bed even when I really, really don’t want to.”
In a supremely self-conscious display of parental support, Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray introduced their daughter to the crowd, expressing admiration for her courage and personal strength. “This is a very special day for our family,” said McCray, reading from a teleprompter. “I am not just proud of her, I am in awe.” Mayor de Blasio stood by his wife, nodding fondly, and when she was done, they shared a little arm squeeze. Then their daughter came out in a navy dress, and the trio took time out for what in my house is called “a family hug.” Chiara spoke for just a few moments, and she was smiling—glowing in the spotlight. But she trembled like a flower in the breeze.
It was all very authentic, and therefore gripping—unprecedented candor from a political family of unprecedented symbolic dynamism. No one knows better than de Blasio himself the degree to which his charismatic big-tent family had made him mayor—had boosted his unlikely ascent during a crowded Democratic primary and elevated him, a career local pol with a left-of-left orientation, into not just an electoral inevitability but a major figure on the national stage. And into something more, too: by virtue of that family, a seeming sentinel of a new political era, defined not just by the class politics the de Blasios share with Elizabeth Warren but also by the cultural ones they embody better than any diversity ad—black, white, gay, straight, Afroed and ear-gauged, all under one roof, a hologram of a liberal utopia, yes, but also regular Joes, with a plain vinyl-sided house in Brooklyn and gym memberships at the Y, two hardworking parents and their smart, mouthy kids, looking to each other first and last for mutual love and support. All of which makes it impossible not to wonder, watching Chiara this month or Dante during the campaign, to what extent this was simply an enviably positive, progressive family living out loud, celebrating its private loves and personal triumphs for all to see. And to what extent we were admiring a politically deft performance.
The best explanation for Chiara’s appearance was standing right beside her that day—a diminutive, dark-skinned woman with braids, who once wore a nose ring only slightly less ostentatious than her daughter’s, and who did something very similar when she herself was young, publishing a roughly 5,000-word declaration in Essence titled “I Am a Lesbian,” aimed at making other queer women of color feel less alone.
That essay—passionate, radical, subaltern, queer—is an unusual fact in the biography of a political spouse, but the gesture it contains is at the very heart of McCray’s worldview, which has come to govern her household, which has come to govern the city. McCray came of age at a time and in a place when speaking out about who you are, making declarations of identity despite convention and in defiance of taboos, was the bravest thing a person—in particular, a black woman—could do. Over the course of her adult life, spent in and out and on the margins of the public sphere, identity politics has become something of a pejorative term, the name given to demeaning performances of political victimhood, but for McCray and her contemporaries it has always been an imperative, the purest kind of activism, the most powerful weapon against injustice, and a sort of prerequisite for political engagement of any kind: How else does one make one’s needs known, if not by first making oneself heard? “Be the truth,” she exhorted in a poem she posted to Tumblr in April, “the knife / that cuts through the lies.” For her, self-expression is politics just as much as acts of government or legislation are, even in a city that can seem deracinated by corporatist values. Perhaps more so, since McCray believes in the power of political symbolism to awaken, agitate, and ennoble. In that way, she is both a throwback to an earlier era and an anachronism who has found an unlikely second moment. For her, political theater is not theater, it is politics proper—the way a society expresses its values and the way it shapes those values, in the image of ideal future generations who grow to model them.
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. read more