When New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio met Chirlane McCray, he was instantly intrigued.
He was a popular mayoral aide. She was an older woman—36 to his 30—who was working as a speech writer in then-Mayor David Dinkins’ press office. She was also gay.
“The first time I met her, I remember it very vividly, and it was partly look, partly style, and partly just the vibe, de Blasio, a candidate for mayor, told the New York Daily News in an interview about their romance. “I was totally struck because she just presented herself entirely differently than everyone around us at City Hall. Especially wearing a nose ring 22 years ago in a place like City Hall, you had to be really different to do that!”
The same sense of self, character and uniqueness that drew de Blasio to McCray 22 years ago is winning over New Yorkers, helping to fuel voters’ overwhelming support for the Democratic candidate, political analysts said.
“Having a person like her will bring in a lot of people who were really not interested in the race,” said Jasmyne Cannick, a lesbian civil rights activist and political commentator. “A lot of times people get elected with a small majority of vote…But having a person like her involved in such a high-profile way, it peaks the interest of Black women, women in general, African Americans and probably the gay and lesbian community, as well.”
For Black voters, especially—90 percent of whom are supporting de Blasio, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll released Oct. 28—McCray is likely someone in whom they can believe and identify.
“She’s ‘authentically’ Black,” said David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on issues affecting people of color.
According to Times/Siena College poll, de Blasio holds an overwhelming 45-point lead over Republican Joe Lhota, meaning the de Blasios will likely become the next “first family” of New York City.
“This is would be the first time a White mayor of a major city had a self-identified Black wife,” said Lester Spence, a political analyst who teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
During the mayoral contest, de Blasio’s opponents—notably, outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg—accused the Democrat of using his family’s race as a tool to draw voters. The candidate’s most famous ad features his 15-year-old son, Dante de Blasio sporting a large Afro.
At a September rally in Brooklyn, de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara, chided Bloomberg and others for the accusation, media outlets reported.
"Twenty years ago, my dad did not know he was running for mayor and did not seek to marry a Black woman to put on display," the 18-year-old said, according to Ebony magazine.
In fact, for someone with political aspirations to marry a darker-skinned woman—especially one who proudly flaunts dreadlocks—was a daring move, given America’s tendency to recognize and elevate Black women who are lighter in complexion and more “mainstream” in their appearance, Spence said.
In many ways, First Lady Michelle Obama began to break that mold and defy those expectations with her darker skin and unabashed “Blackness.”
“But Chirlane de Blasio further explodes that,” Spence added.
Despite the unique background of McCray, Cannick said she doubts New Yorkers will vote based solely on issues of race or even sexual orientation, but rather on pocketbook issues.
In fact, polls show that support for de Blasio is being impelled by disillusionment with the Republican Party and the belief that he can bring about necessary change. He has emphasized issues of income equality, promising to increase taxes on the rich. He vowed to improve public education and to increase the supply of affordable housing—themes that have resonated with voters.
And McCray probably helped to craft her husband’s message, Spence said. She is a published writer, poet and progressive activist, who has served as a speechwriter for several officials, including Dinkins, State Comptroller Carl McCall, and City Comptroller Bill Thompson. She also served as a political appointee during the Clinton Administration at the New York Foreign Press Center.
“She actually has politics [in her background]. She’s not just someone who is hanging on his arm,” Spence said.
But more than that, he added, McCray embodies what her husband’s campaign is about.
“Given the theme de Blasio is running on—that there are two New Yorks, the Bloomberg New York for the wealthy and the ‘other’ New York for the working man—she and their [children] serve as powerful symbolic images of what a government would look like if it were led by someone from the ‘other’ New York.”