NEW YORK—The eyes of the world will follow the Duchess of Cambridge on her first visit to New York when she tours a children’s development center in Harlem next week.
And for much of that global audience, that moment will be their introduction to the duchess’ companion: Chirlane McCray, New York City’s most powerful and divisive first lady in generations.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly said that his wife is his closest adviser, one who influences him on staffing and policy and who “is the person with whom I’ve built everything I’ve done.”
“You could say that I am Bill’s conscience, confidant, or adviser—but none of those words are exactly right,” McCray told The Associated Press in an email interview. “We are partners in love and work. There is only one Mayor, but when he needs help I’m there for him, and vice versa.”
She runs the Mayor’s Fund, which raises private money for the mayor’s agenda. She shares her views on a website modeled after Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” newspaper column. She was one of the lead figures of City Hall’s massive universal pre-kindergarten expansion, which she calls the administration’s “crowning achievement.”
And McCray, who is black, is a beloved figure in New York’s communities of color. On a pre-Thanksgiving Day campaign trip to a Brooklyn hair salon, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand went virtually unrecognized while the first lady was greeted like a rock star.
“She doesn’t carry herself like royalty. She carries herself like a regular person,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “A lot of New Yorkers think: ‘If anyone in politics can really understand me, it’s her.'”
McCray’s role has been the center of some debate. She, and the couple’s two children, played a big part in de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, and her husband has not discouraged comparisons to a “vote for one, get two” mantra like the one that surrounded Bill and Hillary Clinton.
But a Quinnipiac University poll released last month suggested New Yorkers were not so sure. It found that 34 percent of respondents thought a mayor’s wife shouldn’t be involved at all with shaping public policy, while 37 percent said she should only have a minor role.
Administration officials said McCray’s position is misunderstood. They suggested that she is not often in nitty-gritty policy meetings but rather helps shape the administration’s big-picture priorities and liberal spirit. The mayor frequently seeks her counsel, whether over the phone, at home, or during quiet moments at City Hall.
McCray is now focused on mental health initiatives. Her stop Monday with the former Kate Middleton is at a clinic that provides mental health services for impoverished children. And the administration just launched a $130 million effort to steer those suffering from mental illness away from the criminal justice system.
For McCray, the issue is personal. The couple’s daughter, Chiara, opened up about her depression and substance abuse problems last Christmas Eve.
“I don’t know anyone who has not been affected personally or by a family member, friend, colleague, or neighbor,” McCray said in the interview. “And yet society still portrays mental illness as a rare and shocking secret. As a result, far too many of our neighbors are suffering in silence.”
McCray’s visibility has drawn some critics, particularly in the city’s tabloids.
A recent flashpoint was over McCray’s chief-of-staff, Rachel Noerdlinger. A city investigation found Noerdlinger omitted on her background check that she was living with her boyfriend, who had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and insulted police on his Facebook page. That drew the ire of the police unions, already no fans of de Blasio, who then criticized McCray and Noerdlinger’s attendance at a high-level New York Police Department meeting. Noerdlinger eventually took a leave of absence.
“McCray has become a target of sorts,” said George Arzt, a political consultant and former press secretary to Mayor Ed Koch. “Some people are uneasy about a person who was not elected appearing to have so much power.”
McCray, a former activist poet, was working as a speechwriter for Mayor David Dinkins and identified as a lesbian until she met de Blasio, seven years her junior. They raised their two children in a middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood, but she said the move to Gracie Mansion hasn’t changed her or her family: They still dress up for Halloween (this year as Greek gods), they still play sports (she suffered finger and wrist injuries last week playing Wiffle ball and soccer to celebrate her 60th birthday), and she remains a little wide-eyed as to the new company they keep.
“Never in my wildest, most far-out dreams did I ever think I’d be spending time with the Duchess of Cambridge,” she said.