NYC’s unconventional first lady on the city’s future by Mehboob Jeelani @FortuneMagazine October 1, 2014, 7:15 AM EST E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons Bill de Blasio may be the mayor of New York City, but his wife is carving out a place for herself, too. Chirlane McCray got her first taste of politics in the late ‘70s. As a gay activist, she challenged the notion that there weren’t gay black people; she wrote an essay, “I am a Lesbian,” for Essence in 1979 that discussed her relationship with another woman. By the early 1990s, McCray was writing speeches for NYC stalwarts like then-mayor David Dinkins. The gig introduced her to de Blasio, who also worked for Dinkins—and the two have been together ever since. McCray has always played a major role in de Blasio’s career—and he refers to her as his most trusted advisor. She helped him frame crucial speeches during the mayoral campaign and, after he was sworn in as NYC mayor in January, McCray advised him while he assessed candidates for top administrative posts. The loyalty and hard work paid off: In February, de Blasio named NYC’s first lady the head of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. McCray talked to Fortune about her new role, New York’s future, and what life’s like as an unconventional first lady. Fortune: You have been an ardent supporter of progressive politics. Has becoming the First Lady changed your views at all? McCray: Becoming First Lady has deepened my commitment to working toward a more progressive and inclusive New York City. Since Bill became Mayor, I have engaged a variety of New Yorkers in discussions about their lives. Many of them grapple with serious hardships, which can often be traced back to systemic inequality. The good news is I’ve also met so many people – teachers, parents, social workers, business leaders – who are working every day to help those who are suffering. This Administration is committed to helping people help themselves, and helping the helpers, too. You’ve previously said that you grew up as an “outsider.” Can you explain that a bit? For much of my life, I have felt outside of the mainstream, due to some combination of my race, skin color, class and gender. While growing up in Springfield and Longmeadow, Mass., I was always the only black student in my class, and there were times when I was the only black student in the entire school. It was tough, but spending time with kids at the YMCA and Girls Club helped me understand that I was also privileged. How does that outsider perspective affect your politics? Because of my life’s journey, I know what it’s like to be an “only,” whether that is as the only woman, the only dark-skinned woman, or the only working-class woman. So when I’m talking to people living on the margins of our economy, people who have never experienced the sense of limitless possibility that defines New York for many of us, I feel a deep empathy for what they’re going through. I also feel a profound obligation to use whatever influence I now have to help those people reach their potential. You seem to have had a good stint as a speechwriter for some significant politicians. What led to that career path? Writing has been my passion since high school, when I first started writing poetry. By the time I graduated college, I knew that writing was also my vocation, although I wasn’t sure exactly how I would apply it. After many years in publishing and not-for-profits, I learned about a position in city government. The opportunity to play a more direct role in the issues shaping my life captured my imagination, which eventually led me to speechwriting. You were very involved in picking top administration officials. What did you look for in candidates? The de Blasio administration is committed to making sure that the leadership – the people working in City Hall and heading City agencies – reflect the population of New York City. We are also committed to hiring the very best and brightest people who have a progressive sensibility. I’m pleased to report that we are well on our way to achieving those objectives. To cite just one example, a majority of our senior level officials are women – a significant achievement. Now you’re heading the Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC. The mission of the Mayor’s Fund is to bring private funders and the public sector together to support Mayor de Blasio’s progressive agenda. We want to make sure all New Yorkers have access to the programs and resources they need to achieve their full potential. What areas are you prioritizing? We are currently focusing on three priority areas. First is education. We want to build on the city’s historic pre-kindergarten expansion by investing in innovative early childhood development programs. We also want to provide more support to teachers and parents. Second is health, both physical and general wellness. We are building partnerships focused on healthy eating, asthma care, and promoting physical activity across the generations. Third is social justice and community empowerment. So many New Yorkers – too many New Yorkers – are in danger of being left behind for good. The Mayor’s Fund is working to provide real and meaningful support to victims of domestic violence, immigrants to our city, and young men and women of color. And that’s just a start. Those sorts of initiatives require serious cash. How difficult is fundraising? Raising money is hard work, but I have found New Yorkers to be both generous and energized at the prospect of making a real difference in the lives of their less fortunate neighbors. New York City has an unacceptable 46% poverty rate, and people from all walks of life are working to change that. Many people compare you with Hillary Clinton. Should we expect to see you running for office in the near future? I am flattered to be compared with Hillary, my Wellesley sister. I am quite active, and focused on my work as Chair of the Mayor’s Fund, as First Lady of New York City, and as mother of Dante and Chiara. All of that keeps me plenty busy!