How a black first lady will change New York

 

The Root

Bill de Blasio became the mayor-elect of New York City on Tuesday. But even more exciting for some of us New Yorkers, Chirlane McCray became the first lady-elect.

When history looks back at what led to de Blasio’s landslide, some will credit the missteps of his primary opponents, particularly sexting-prone Anthony Weiner, and Bloomberg clone Christine Quinn, but much of the credit will ultimately go to his family. Here was the groundbreaking ad starring de Blasio’s teenage son, Dante, and Dante’s Afro, which became so famous that Jon Stewart dedicated an homage to it on The Daily Show.

While some say behind every great man is a great woman, in de Blasio’s case, beside him has long been a great woman. De Blasio’s wife, McCray, who is African American, is a well-respected writer and political operative in her own right. A Wellesley graduate, she met de Blasio while both were working in City Hall during the Dinkins administration. People are already speculating about how de Blasio’s administration will transform New York, but a more interesting question may be how his wife will transform New York.

The Big Apple has been without an official first lady for more than a decade. Donna Hanover, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s wife, was the last first lady of the city. (The duo ended up in court over whether Giuliani’s then-mistress Judi Nathan would be permitted in the official mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion, where Hanover and some of Giuliani’s children were still residing.) The city’s next mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been divorced for a long time, and though he has been in a long-term relationship, he has never remarried.

And now there is McCray. Though she will not be the first black first lady (that honor goes to Joyce Dinkins, wife of former Mayor David Dinkins) McCray will be the first first lady like her. An outspoken feminist and progressive activist, she previously identified as a lesbian before meeting and beginning a love affair with de Blasio. In a previous interview, he described their early meeting as love at first sight, recalling he felt like he was jolted by a thunderbolt. He also recalled the level of hostility and harassment they occasionally faced as an interracial couple two decades before multiracial families would become an American norm. But the couple endured, and now they are set to become the first couple of America’s most famous city.

While many first ladies take pains to say they are not involved in their husband’s decision-making and will not be involved in the work of the administration, McCray has consistently been her husband’s most trusted advisor. It has long been reported aides make sure to copy her on speeches or other major campaign documents. This means that unlike first ladies who traditionally choose noncontroversial duties and issues, such as attending openings and reading to children, McCray is likely to roll up her sleeves and stake out a major policy issue or two. The most probable issues are education or economic inequality, the issues de Blasio made a hallmark of his campaign.

But there are other smaller but equally significant ways McCray can have an impact. Take an issue like diversity (or lack thereof) on fashion runways. New York Fashion Week is a major financial boon to the New York economy, meaning fashion is not a superficial subject but serious business. Yet it is hard to get those who do not follow fashion, or have never experienced the politics of being invisible, to appreciate why an issue like runway diversity matters. As far as priorities go, trying to convince a mayoral administration that thinks stop and frisk is fair to care about the color of fashion models is a tough sell. But trying to convince a black feminist first lady that it is an issue worth talking about and trying to address isn’t.

Just consider what would happen if the city’s first lady said she was encouraging her friends and supporters to rethink attending the shows of designers viewed as discriminatory?

But also consider the types of events that might become the norm at Gracie Mansion. The worldview and experiences of the McCray-de Blasio clan are so different from their predecessors’ that it is a given that more diverse artists, events and perspectives will be welcomed there.

Then of course there is the visual image. I have previously written about how Michelle Obama has fundamentally transformed the way we define the feminine ideal in this country thanks to her mere presence as first lady. (Not to mention her multiple Vogue covers.) For little girls who have grown up seeing Cinderella and Snow White, McCray will provide yet another image of what a queen looks like – dreds and all. But besides her image there are the many other attributes that make her an ideal role model. As her husband said of her on election night, “She is brilliant and every bit as compassionate as she is tough.”

He ended by calling her “the love of my life.”

Now we get to call her first lady.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent.

© 2013, The Root

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