Chirlane McCray’s City

Bill de Blasio has called her the love of his life, his partner, his No. 1 adviser. and that’s not the half of it.

NY Cover Chirlane McCray

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.

In the 1970s, when Bill and Chirlane came of age, it would have been very hard to imagine that a marriage to an African-­American feminist with radical activist politics and a queer past would have been anything but politically devastating for an ambitious white politician. But what’s so remarkable about the de Blasio era is not that Chirlane is the mayor’s spouse. It’s that she is such an unambiguous asset, and with him a vision of a hopeful, hipster egalitarian future. Chirlane’s approval ratings have registered higher than de Blasio’s, and it’s partly to her credit that the mayor polls so well among blacks; that’s one reason why even when his ratings took a dive in March, they only fell to 39 percent.

McCray knows all this. Having spent decades in PR and as a speechwriter, she understands well how image-making works and the power of political symbolism, even as someone basically new to center stage and uncomfortable there. Which may be why, on the day Chiara accepted her award, Chirlane tweeted a photo. Chirlane is on the left, smiling shyly, and Chiara is on the right. Wedged between them, looking very pale, is Hillary Clinton, a former boss of de Blasio’s and the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016. It is unclear whose spotlight is shining on whom.

Chirlane McCray is not, by temperament, a people pleaser, though she makes a pointed distinction between quiet and shy: “Some people are just quiet—they don’t need to be talking all the time and aren’t extroverted, but they’re not necessarily afraid to talk,” she told me in one of several interviews over the past few weeks. “I’m not really a shy person. I don’t think I would have managed to get this far if I were.”

With strangers, McCray can be reserved, careful to remain in control of her own story—“measured” is how one old friend puts it. So I was surprised when, at our first meeting, she came inside from the rain and shook my hand so warmly. Her eyes sparkled. We were at the Little Purity diner near her house in Park Slope, where I also live, and the two of us, both neighborhood parents, chatted with ease about high-stakes testing and public schools, the hassles presented by spring vacation for working parents, and where’s the best takeout—she likes the Chinese restaurant Red & Hot II on Seventh and Mr. Falafel near the Barnes and Noble. “I don’t think you can overestimate how many changes have occurred in my life and Bill’s in the last 130 days,” she said later, admitting that she’s in mourning for the time, not so long ago, when she had time to drink tea with her friends in Park Slope and care for her garden there.

McCray is at heart a New Englander, having grown up among flinty people with uncompromising values—Puritan is, weirdly, the word that kept coming to mind as I sat with her, an African-American woman who has written paeans to sensual pleasure and long ago stopped going to church. Her great-grandmother moved from Barbados to New Hampshire to work for a family who needed domestic help. “She could not possibly have known how cold it was in Claremont, New Hampshire,” McCray joked in a recent speech. “I know she had never been there.” In 1964, when she was 10, McCray and her family moved from Springfield, Massachusetts, to a nearly all-white suburb, Longmeadow, known for its excellent schools. ­McCray was always the only black kid in her class, and often the only one in the school, where she was not bullied or harassed as much as treated (by other kids and teachers alike) as though she were entirely invisible. And when, at home, young Chirlane mentioned that she yearned for a friend, her parents rebuked her. “You’re not here to be popular; you’re here to get a good education,” she has remembered them saying. “You didn’t complain to our parents at home,” her sister Cynthia Davis reiterated to a reporter. “You were just expected to deal with life as it came.”

All New Yorkers, including Chirlane McCray, mythologize their arrival in New York. She landed in Manhattan after Wellesley College (“How many different kinds of women there were!” she says of her college years, and still, “I didn’t belong”) in the summer of 1977. She had two potential job contacts, a place to sleep, and $35 in her pocket. It was “the summer of Sam,” she recollects, “the summer of the blackout.” It was two years since Gerald Ford had told New York to drop dead, and the city was emptying out—its white middle class, anyway. But it was a thrilling time to be a young, black lesbian and feminist with literary aspirations. Two years earlier, Ntozake Shange had mounted her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Alice Walker would publish The Color Purple in the years ahead. Excluded from mainstream white feminism, black women were also diminished by the male leaders of the Black Power movement who prioritized their own virility and sexuality at the expense of their sisters’. “The only kind of sexuality that was really celebrated was black male sexuality,” remembers Marcia Ann Gillespie, who was editor of Essence from 1971 to 1980. “The black male sex machine. The great lover. The great penis. This was celebrated. There was nothing about women. Our sexuality.”

A particular group of women revolted, creating their own activist scene out of their own experience, and McCray was among them, women of color who were also (mostly) gay or bisexual, gathering in homes and bars and coffee shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Staten Island and elsewhere, writing essays and staging plays and performing their poems, starting theater companies and dance troupes and political performance-art collectives like the Salsa Soul Sisters and the Flamboyant Ladies Theater Company. (McCray was briefly an editor of the Salsa Soul Gayzette.) Within these groups, African-dance classes anchored everyone’s weeks; in studios downtown, women would appropriate the realm traditionally reserved for men: As their friends danced, they would drum. The mantras were clear, and McCray absorbed them: The personal was political—all of it, even something as private and intimate as sex, was outward-facing activism. “Women were trying to say, ‘This is who I am fully. I am black and female and a lesbian’—or what we would call today queer—‘and I am trying to live fully as I am,’ ” remembers Alexis De Veaux, the biographer of the poet Audre Lorde. De Veaux remembers McCray from that time as “kind of on the quiet side”—still a little unsure, perhaps, of how she might best perform her own identity in a way that could alter the world around her. “If I were beautiful, I could be angry and cute,” McCray wrote in a poem called “I Used to Think,” “instead of an evil, pouting mammy bitch.”

It would have been a coup for any young woman to score a job at Redbook, where McCray started working in 1977. It was the intellectual women’s magazine, having published fiction by Mary Gordon and Jane Smiley and articles by Betty Friedan, and staffed by pathbreaking women who understood keenly the art of the political gesture. In 1970, a band of Redbook editors took a stand by wearing pants to work, and Sey Chassler, the magazine’s editor, was convinced by a scholar to use she instead of he in print as the generic pronoun. A couple of years later, he persuaded dozens of magazines to simultaneously publish articles on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. McCray was young but made her home there—though what co-workers remember, mostly, is how soft-spoken she was. Frances Ruffin remembers lots of editorial assistants working at Redbook at the time. “They were all very smart. Chirlane was the quietest.”

“I Am a Lesbian,” published in 1979, was a quiet girl’s scream, and a coming out on multiple levels: a declaration of sexual preference and a fierce insistence on being heard, damn the consequences. In it, McCray describes falling in love with a woman in her freshman year in college, exploring her sexuality through relationships, literature, parties, politics, and gay bars, and, in a final devastating lament, her desire that her father accept her for who she is. She wrote the essay, she says near the opening, because even though she “fears the monster of conformity will rear its angry head and devour me … I’m weary of playing games, and hiding and being afraid.”

Marcia Ann Gillespie was the editor who published the essay in Essence. “It was brave,” she says. “It was by a fierce, brave woman who was not ashamed to say, ‘I am a woman who loves women.’ ” But Gillespie was also about a decade older than McCray and remembers having the minutest maternal hesitation about McCray’s uncompromising certainty. “I thought, She’s so young. She’s going to have a long life.

The De Blasios’ meet-cute story has become part of the family myth. She was working in the Dinkins administration, needed some information to write a press release, and sought out the man who had it. He saw her and was bowled over—heard angels singing, is how he puts it. She resisted, he persisted, and in 1994 they were married in Prospect Park.

But what did she see in him? She was nearly seven years older than he was and pushing 40, having spent her adulthood in relationships with women, working at jobs with little glamour, not much more established than she had been at 25, and here was this person who loved her, immediately, who shared her aspirations for changing the world—for living politics. For the girl from Springfield who was told not to complain about not having friends, Bill de Blasio must have been a relief, as comfortable as an easy chair. Early on in their courtship, Bill insisted that Chirlane meet his aunts and his mother, elderly, formal Italian women who lived in Hastings. McCray was charmed, not just by the ladies, whom de Blasio called the Three Graces, but by her boyfriend’s respect for the women who raised him and his determination to share his love for her with them. “That moved me,” she says. “It really did.” People who knew McCray in her early years and then fell out of touch are struck at how she has bloomed, how the young woman who once wrote that “the poem will surely come out wrong, / like me” has now “stepped forward,” says De Veaux, “a beautiful black woman, just exquisite-looking.” Her friend Karla Schickele puts it more succinctly: “She’s into him.”

Chiara was born in December 1994, seven months after the wedding, when Bill was working on Francisco Diaz’s state assembly campaign. McCray had always imagined a life with children, but as with so many women the reality of motherhood—the loss of independence, the relentlessness of the responsibility—was difficult. “I was 40 years old. I had a life. Especially with Chiara—will we feel guilt forever more? Of course, yes. But the truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reason not to do it. I love her. I have thousands of photos of her—every 1-month birthday, 2-month birthday. But I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into ‘I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.”

By the time Dante was born in 1997—the same year de Blasio started working for the Clinton administration as a regional director for HUD—Chirlane had mostly assumed the role of the default parent. She stopped working full-time for several years, and even when she resumed, it was she who was usually at after-school pickup at 6 p.m. “The kids came first,” she says. It was then that de Blasio’s ascent in Democratic politics began in earnest—first running Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and then winning a City Council seat to represent brownstone Brooklyn. In 2005, Bill and Chirlane decided to move their mothers, both in failing health, into a house that de Blasio’s mother, Maria Wilhelm, owned down the street. Katharine McCray, who had multiple myeloma, occupied the top floor, and Wilhelm, who suffered from heart ailments, lived below. It fell largely to Chirlane to coordinate “the grandmas’ ” care, keeping track of the coming and going of home health aides, driving them to doctors’ appointments, rushing to the emergency room as needed. It was, she remembers, one of the most difficult periods of her life.

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.”

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.”

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.”