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Chirlane McCray: New Yorkers will get to know me better

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's wife

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's wife Chirlane McCray arrives at Northside Center for Child Development to meet Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge on December 8, 2014 in New York City. Credit: Getty Images / Neilson Barnard

Chirlane McCray, looking ahead to her second year as New York City's first lady, said there are public misperceptions about her role as Mayor Bill de Blasio's policy partner, and she intends to fix that.

"I believe people do not yet have a good understanding of what I do, and that will soon change," she said in emailed responses to Newsday questions.

The poet, former speechwriter for ex-Mayor David Dinkins and current chair of the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City spoke at more than 100 events last year, usually bringing prepared remarks, and promoted awareness of domestic violence, mental health and prekindergarten, among other issues.

Despite her elevated position as Blasio's "top adviser" -- a departure from the typical functions of the city's first ladies -- McCray has never hosted a solo news conference and has conducted few sit-down interviews, leaning instead on her blog,, to directly communicate with the public.

Officials who have worked closely with McCray, including Deputy Mayor Richard Buery on the rollout of de Blasio's universal pre-K plan, say that behind the scenes, McCray contributes much-needed personal and big-picture perspectives at meetings. But a poll two months ago suggested public skepticism about her role.

Her low-profile approach did not spare her from high-profile controversies last year. There was the rise and fall of her chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, a close associate of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who left City Hall amid revelations about her boyfriend's criminal past and omissions in Noerdlinger's disclosure forms.

De Blasio spoke on McCray's behalf time and again. In November, he called a hastily arranged Sunday news conference at Gracie Mansion to reject a New York Post report painting her as distrustful of NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, calling it "flat-out lies."

'Crucial adviser'

The mayor, 53, describes McCray, 60, as "a crucial adviser on a whole host of matters," and his partner in all he does.

"I am Bill's conscience, confidant, or adviser, but none of those words are exactly right," she wrote Newsday. "We are partners in love and work."

McCray has not publicly discussed Noerdlinger, who received a $170,000 salary and has been replaced by Roxanne John, who gets $200,000 in a dual role as chief of staff and executive director of Gracie Mansion. Additionally, she now has a deputy chief of staff, Jackie Bray, who is paid $125,000.

As unpaid chair of the nonprofit Mayor's Fund, which promotes public/private partnerships to finance programs, McCray's latest cause has been to raise money for the families of slain NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. She also sought aid for Ebola relief and victims of an East Harlem building collapse in March.

Asked why she prefers blogging or email interviews over live exchanges with reporters, the Wellesley College graduate told Newsday: "I am most at ease when I can communicate through my writing, but I am growing more comfortable with public speaking and media interviews. Why? I am more a writer than talker."

McCray did not answer follow-up questions about an NYPD CompStat meeting she attended with Noerdlinger, perceptions that she and de Blasio have elevated Sharpton's influence, and their talks with biracial son Dante, 17, on handling encounters with police in the wake of the Dec. 3 Staten Island grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer in the death of Eric Garner, who was black.

Iona College professor of political science Jeanne Zaino cast McCray as an "enigma" and said she seems caught between those who believe she has overstepped the boundaries of a traditional political spouse and those who think she has not challenged them enough.

"There's this enormous gap in perception," Zaino said. "It's so hard to wrap your head around who she is at this point. That might be intentional."

A Quinnipiac University poll in November found 71 percent of city voters believe a mayor's spouse should have a minor or no role in shaping public policy, and 61 percent say that spouse does not need a chief of staff.

"It can be difficult to get acquainted with people in the public sphere," McCray said about the poll. "There are so many filters and so much contradictory information. It will take time for people to get to know me better, and I am really looking forward to getting to know them better, too."

McCray and de Blasio met and fell in love when both were aides in the Dinkins administration -- a decade after she gained attention for a 1979 Essence magazine column titled "I Am a Lesbian." The pair celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary this past year.

Their telegenic biracial children -- Dante and Chiara, 20 -- were a focal point in de Blasio's campaign for mayor.

Chiara received awards for mental health awareness after going public with her substance abuse and depression problems in a video her parents put out on Christmas Eve 2013.

But McCray's public persona seems to have grown more guarded over the past year. Besides the Noerdlinger scandal, there were unflattering headlines over her comments to a New York magazine interviewer describing her emotional struggles when she was a new mom.

The big picture

Top mayoral aides in interviews portray the unseen McCray, with several public relations jobs on her resume, as a devoted, persuasive operative. They say she is a conduit to de Blasio who influences policy by reminding them of the big picture, using personal experiences to buttress her case.

"When you're a hardworking bureaucrat, it's very easy -- and it's understandable -- to get wrapped up in numbers and goals," Buery said. "One important thing that Chirlane brings to the table is a very practical and personal engagement with issues."

At a recent meeting of the city Children's Cabinet, McCray encouraged agency representatives to highlight the importance of quality time between parents and children by singing a song she sang to her own kids, Buery said.

"Not everybody would be comfortable being so personal and sharing their experience and I think once you do that . . . the room changes," he said. "It really helps that obviously she understands the mayor and understands how he thinks and what he's passionate about."

Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett, who has worked with McCray on Ebola relief and mental health awareness, said the first lady drew on Chiara's struggles.

"It's absolutely striking, the depth of her commitment, how rooted it is in her personal experiences, her willingness to share human stories," Bassett said.

The first lady is not as shy as she may appear, Bassett said.

"She's very forceful and clear, but she's looking for impact, not notoriety," she said.

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