De Blasio and McCray first met in City Hall, and may return there soon if the Democratic mayoral nominee wins the election. From outing bullies in her high school newspaper to penning an Essence magazine piece titled, 'I am a Lesbian,' McCray has always been outspoken — and says she will remain that way if she becomes First Lady.
Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio (left) says wife Chirlane McCray is his 'reality check.'
She was a new assistant in then-Mayor David Dinkins’ press office, an “out and proud” lesbian with a nose ring and a passion for social justice.
He was a lanky junior aide in City Hall who was developing a reputation for taking on tough assignments and getting them done.
For him, it was “some version of love at first sight.” And for her?
“Chirlane felt absolutely nothing,” he now says with a laugh.
“The first time I met her, I remember vividly, it was partly look, partly style, and partly just the vibe,” Bill de Blasio says.
“I was totally struck, because she presented herself entirely differently than everyone around us. ... Wearing a nose ring (in 1991), in a place like City Hall, you had to be really different to do that.”
McCray has been by de Blasio’s side for 22 years. De Blasio says for him, seeing McCray was 'some version of love at first sight.' Here, the couple on vacation.
Two-and-a-half years later, de Blasio married Chirlane McCray. Today, they are on the cusp of returning to City Hall in roles neither could have imagined 22 years ago.
“Never,” McCray says.
With de Blasio the heavy favorite to become the city’s 109th mayor, McCray, 58, is on the brink of becoming First Lady — perhaps the most influential mayoral spouse in city history.
“Understand Chirlane and you’ll understand me,” says de Blasio, who promises his wife will be an “activist” First Lady if he’s elected.
“A lot of times I will turn to Chirlane whether it’s the most mundane thing, a family thing, a political thing. She is my reality check in the world. She is the person who interprets the world with me.”
One of McCray’s sisters, Cynthia Davis, an author and childhood educator in Boston, says it is a partnership in every way.
“They are one brain,” she says.
Those close to McCray describe her as a feisty and focused multi-tasker with a Zen-like air about her.
She is also extremely guarded and private, friends say, qualities that surely will be tested if her husband becomes mayor.
In an interview with the Daily News, McCray said her life has been turned upside down since “the surge” that vaulted her husband from fourth place in July to victory in the Sept. 10 Democratic Primary — and now a 40-point lead over his Republican rival, Joe Lhota.
“The things that drive me crazy are not things that I have a lot of control over,” she said.
“The pace of our lives, especially now. It is just hard to have a normal life, in short. The big adjustment is when you go to the store now, or walk down the street and people are either turning their heads or calling out to you or honking their horns. That’s different.”
McCray and De Blasio with young children Dante (center) and Chiara in 1997.
McCray’s journey to this remarkable point was not without loneliness, alienation and pain.
She grew up the eldest of three sisters in Longmeadow, Mass., a well-to-do suburb of Springfield where the McCrays were just one of two black families.
Her father was an inventory clerk at a military base; her mother was an assembly worker at an electronics factory. They moved to Longmeadow in 1964 for the town’s stellar public schools — only to be greeted by some neighbors circulating petitions demanding that they leave.
“We had nice neighbors, too, who embraced and welcomed us,” said Davis, her sister. “But there were incidents — primarily at school — which were challenging because we were different.”
The McCrays expected their three girls to keep their troubles to themselves and stay focused on schoolwork.
“You didn’t complain to our parents at home, you were just expected to deal with life as it came,” Davis said.
“There would be some perfunctory ‘How was your day?’ There were no raucous family dinners. We towed the line pretty much. There was a lot of silence around the dinner table.”
At Longmeadow High School, McCray was ostracized and bullied. She fought back, in an essay for the school newspaper.
“I could see a young person who was hurting, and many picking on one, so I went up to her in the hall and told her to stop by my home room to talk,” said Michael McCarthy, a Spanish teacher who remains in touch with McCray.
“She was feisty, the only African-American kid in the school, she was being picked on ... and she outed them in the paper,” McCarthy said. “She stood up to them all and said what you are doing is wrong. That is pretty tough stuff.”
Those experiences shaped the outspoken woman McCray would become, first as a feminist at Wellesley College, and then, in 1979, when she penned a piece for Essence magazine titled, "I am a Lesbian."
The purpose of the essay, she wrote, was to dispel the myth that there were no black gay people.
The essay re-emerged to headlines last December as the mayoral race was beginning. McCray and de Blasio unflinchingly explained her past and that sexuality for some people, like herself, was “fluid.”
“Chirlane has been so frank, so candid and open about the personal details of her private life,” said Laura Hart, a friend since they worked in the Dinkins administration. “She stood up with incredible grace. To come from (a childhood) being that alienated, the ‘other’ really being bullied, she is courageous to not have bitterness or rancor.”
In 1991, Hart witnessed the moment that de Blasio met McCray. Hart remembers McCray asking her, “What’s up with de Blasio? He’s calling me and I don’t know what he wants.”
Hart answered, “He’s a cool guy, really smart, incredibly funny and in case you haven’t noticed, he’s really, really tall … Go out with him already.”
De Blasio poured on the charm to the understandably wary McCray.
“No one had ever approached me like that before,” she said. “He definitely had my attention. He is very smart — I like smart — and he’s funny and I also admired his work ethic.”
The couple married in 1994, just as de Blasio’s political career was beginning. They had two children — Dante, 16, and Chiara, 18, both of whom have been featured in campaign ads.
McCray’s own resume includes stints as a speechwriter for Dinkins and for the city and state controllers. She also worked in public relations for Citigroup.
From 2005 to 2010, she held a six-figure job in marketing at Maimonides Medical Center, which some criticized as a political quid pro quo between de Blasio and the Brooklyn hospital.
McCray has had a prominent role in the campaign, delivering speeches and making her views known through Twitter, where she has more than 3,700 followers. A former ballet dancer and debutante who swam competitively in her youth, she works out at least five times a week.
Neither de Blasio nor McCray will say whether she would be the first First Lady with her own City Hall office.
She told The News that if her husband is elected, she would like to use her new platform as a “voice for the forgotten voices,” focusing in part on women and children in need.
“I hope ... whatever I do, I do it in such a way that makes a positive difference in people’s lives. Especially as a black woman (because) black women do not have as many positive images in the media as we should. I just hope that I can be someone that young girls can really look up to, take inspiration from.”
If the election goes as polls predict, one of the couple’s first decisions will be whether to trade in their Brooklyn brownstone with one bathroom for historic Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side, overlooking the twinkling lights of the East River. McCray said she is torn.
“Dante loves Brooklyn and Brooklyn Tech, and his commute,” she said. “We haven’t had a family discussion yet, but when the day comes — if it’s appropriate — we will figure it out.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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