NEW YORK (AP) — Chirlane McCray, who already wields more influence than any New York City first lady in recent memory, will further expand her role when she travels to Albany next week for some high-profile lobbying for her husband’s signature pre-kindergarten plan.
McCray, who spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday in her first extensive interview since Bill de Blasio took office, said access to universal pre-kindergarten was a “civil rights issue” that does more than level the playing field across the city’s economic classes — it provides the field in the first place.
“There is no playing field if you don’t get an early start,” said McCray, an activist poet and political speechwriter. “I think parents should unite to make this demand of government to give us the tools we need to make sure our children do the best they can.”
De Blasio aims to pay for the program by raising taxes on wealthy New Yorkers. But his proposal hasn’t received enough support in the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has instead proposed finding funds within the state budget. McCray, who will visit Albany Tuesday, said she was not upset by the roadblocks her husband’s plan has faced.
“I don’t think it’s frustrating — they’re negotiating,” she said as she sat for the interview in City Hall’s sun-soaked Governor’s Room. “Everyone’s in agreement: this is a good thing and the people want it. It’s just about how we pay for it.”
The tax hike’s uncertain future has added to a string of recent rough headlines for de Blasio, who has come under criticism for his administration’s handling of a pair of snow storms, a phone call he made to the NYPD to inquire about a political supporter’s arrest and a video that shows his SUV breaking several traffic laws just days after he announced a traffic safety plan.
McCray expressed little patience for some of the news coverage of her husband’s recent missteps.
“I do read the papers (but) I don’t pay much attention to those that I don’t have high regard for,” she said. “I pay more attention to that which is thoughtful and well-written and well-researched because that’s where you get information that you use to improve your game.”
“That which is sloppy, who cares?” she said.
McCray has long been her husband’s closest unofficial adviser and de Blasio has made no secret of her outsized influence at City Hall. She joined her husband at the top of the organizational flow chart of his mayoral campaign, often helps edit his speeches and has the final say on all appointments to his senior staff.
The mayor frequently gushes over his wife, calling her his “guiding light” and a “chief architect” of his approach.
Her prominent role was codified last month when de Blasio took the unusual step of appointing her to run The Mayor’s Fund for New York City, a charity that raises private donations to further the administration’s agenda. The fund, which often bankrolls initiatives like youth development, health, volunteerism and the arts, will start fundraising soon, McCray said. She is not being paid for her service.
Inevitably, de Blasio and McCray draw comparisons to another political partnership, Bill and Hillary Clinton. De Blasio and McCray — who have been nicknamed “POTUS and FLOTUS” by some staff after the acronyms for the President and first lady — have not discouraged the analogy. The Clintons — both of whom de Blasio has worked for — attended his inauguration and both de Blasio and McCray appeared with Hillary Rodham Clinton during an education event in Harlem last month.
McCray’s role is a marked change from recent first ladies. De Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, was divorced long before he took office and his longtime girlfriend, Diana Taylor, kept her career as a banker. Rudolph Giuliani’s wife, Donna Hanover, had a small staff and promoted health and education causes around the city, but she and Giuliani separated while he was in office.
De Blasio, who is White, and McCray, who is African-American, met while they both worked for former Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990s. They made their home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, though they plan to move to the mayor’s official residence, Gracie Mansion, in the coming months.
The couple has two children, each of whom played a significant role in the mayoral campaign, which highlighted de Blasio’s regular-guy persona, a stark contrast to his billionaire predecessor.
Dante, a 16-year-old Afro-sporting high school junior, appeared in a television ad discussing his father’s stance on relations between police and community. And 19-year-old Chiara, who is attending college on the West Coast, frequently appeared on the campaign trail and introduced her father for his primary night victory speech.
McCray said she clings to the rare private moments that she, her husband and their son still get to enjoy, a time they often fill with dinner, a movie on DVR or discussion about Dante’s debate team.
“We’re not home that much,” she said. “It’s very important. We don’t get it every night. It’s even more important to get it while we can.”