Fadwa Mutasser is thrilled about New York City’s incoming first lady, Chirlane McCray.
“For once,” she told The Root at a postelection party last month, “someone who is the face of New York City” will reside in Gracie Mansion. McCray’s family, she exclaimed, “are what we actually look like!”
And, indeed, on Nov. 5, New York welcomed not only Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio but also a new first lady in McCray, who is the city’s first first lady in more than a decade. She’s anything but a stereotypical political wife, and she helped bolster her husband’s racially and economically diverse campaign strategy in the primary and general election.
“She has always been very involved in social and conscious issues,” New York Rep. Gregory Meeks said, between shaking hands during the de Blasio celebration in Brooklyn.
“She’s going to raise the consciousness of many New Yorkers on the needs of children, working families and women,” Meeks added. “She’s been a leader in that area long before Bill de Blasio ran for mayor. She’s going to be a great first lady.”
Now New Yorkers are wondering as much about what her priorities will be as they are the new mayor’s.
Raised in New England, McCray says that hers was often the only black family in Longmeadow, Mass., and she felt set apart from her classmates. After attending Wellesley College, she began working as a journalist in New York City and penned an Essence magazine essay entitled “I Am a Lesbian,” sharing her sexuality at a time when society wasn’t especially open to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
Then, while working at City Hall as a speechwriter and organizer for the likes of Mayor David Dinkins, she met de Blasio. He was, she says, handsome and persistent, and she agreed to go out with him. Now the couple have been married 22 years and have two children: Dante, the teen with the famous Afro, and Chiara, an undergraduate in Northern California with the famous flower headband.
McCray told The Root, “One of the reasons I was attracted to Bill in the first place is because he is very in tune with the minority voters [that are the majority now] and appreciative of the wonderful, ethnic mix that is New York City.”
Their interracial family became a trump card of sorts with minority voters, who responded favorably to a commercial featuring Dante explaining his father’s anti-stop-and-frisk position and how the practice had affected their family talks. Elsewhere, McCray’s down-to-earth charm and political background warmed other voters who began to feel that de Blasio understood their plight of constantly having to make ends meet in one of the world's most expensive cities.
“It is true that we have not seen families like ours reflected in mainstream media, but there are many like ours,” she said. “So many people have expressed their joy that, finally, they can see a family featured publicly that looks like their own. Our population census tells us that there are many families like the de Blasios and many more to come. I think we will see a voting population that is increasingly focused on the issues that matter, and fewer people voting solely because they share the ethnic identity of the candidate.”
On election night, 96 percent of black voters chose de Blasio. So what will McCray’s focus be as first lady of New York City?
“My parents drilled into me that education is the key to making a better life for oneself, and I believe that's true,” she said. “Without a good, quality education, it is difficult to secure a well-paying job, maintain good health or handle finances properly. Educating our youngest citizens is key to New York City’s prosperity. That's why Bill and I will be fighting for universal prekindergarten and after-school [programs] for middle school students.”
Issues aside, voters and politicians alike expect her to be a Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama of sorts, standing at her husband’s side and steering him north when the waters of New York’s political landscape become murky. And although she has said that she won’t have an “official role” on the mayor-elect’s team, she agrees with her supporters.
“[Bill and I] have been sharing opinions and ideas for 22 years now,” she says. “I believe, going forward, that we’ll have even more to talk about!”
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.