Since the moment New York Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, his wife Chirlane McCray has been the object of fascination, controversy, praise, and hundreds of weird tabloid stories. This week, she talked with Jezebel about her ambitious plan to revamp New York City’s mental health services, her support for Hillary Clinton, and why closing Rikers Island is “a great idea.”
A poet, activist, and writer with a long history in progressive politics—she was a member in the 1970s of the Combahee River Collective, a legendary black feminist group, for one—McCray has attracted notice for having written about being a lesbian prior to marrying de Blasio. She’s sparred with the New York Post, who twisted a New York Magazine piece she wrote to call her a bad mom, and which frequently accuses both her and de Blasio of hating cops. (Members of the NYPD wrongly accused her of wearing jeans to an officer’s funeral, indicative of the ongoing tensions between Gracie Mansion and the cops.) The couple’s daughter Chiara has also been in the news for speaking openly about her struggles with both depression and addiction.
McCray is back in the papers this week after a New York Times Magazine profile explored her projects—a roadmap for fundamentally revamping the city’s mental health resources over the next four years to the tune of $850 million—and what the story called “the limits of first ladyship.” She spoke to Jezebel about her mental health plans, closing Riker’s Island, and what sounds like an ongoing disagreement in her house about the best presidential candidate.
Jezebel: When did mental health become your project as first lady?
McCray: I’m going to say towards the end of 2013, beginning of 2014.
Do you think people are aware this is your initiative? Is the mayor getting the credit for your work?
I think people are becoming more aware, but yes, it is a challenge. He’s a big guy and gets a lot of attention.
You’ve been criticized over the idea that the First Lady is an unelected position and thus, as a result, you shouldn’t be setting policy, including for things like mental health. Did that criticism surprise you? How would you respond to that?
I haven’t heard that [with the mental health initiative]. I’ve gotten such a tremendous response. People did criticize the role of the first lady at the beginning and did make those kinds of comments. But once I took up mental health, I’ve had nothing but positive responses. People are so hungry for someone to pay attention to this issue in a very ambitious way that really addresses every family, every community. Because it does touch every family and every community. I think people are appreciative that this is what I’ve chosen to work on.
This is a big project. Is there one element of reform to the city’s mental health policy that stands out as a place to start?
You’re right, it is quite ambitious. I think it’s all important, but we have six principles. One is changing the culture, because we have to change the way we think about mental health to be able to do something about it, and acting early. Because so many of the problems we see, everywhere we turn —whether it’s in our schools, where our children are being disciplined for bad conduct, or in our jails, where people are arriving because they’re sick and we’re punishing them because of it, or in hospitals, where people are in and out of the emergency room—there’s so much of that we can prevent by acting early. By making interventions.
That to me is really the most important part, to prevent mental illnesses from becoming serious and becoming real destructive forces in our families and our communities.
You and the mayor are obviously big Hillary Clinton supporters and have been campaigning for her. I’m sure you’re aware there’s a large divide between young and older voters, and consequently, an argument between feminists of different generations about what’s important and who’s the best candidate. Why do you think Clinton is having trouble reaching young women?
I think she’s actually—I don’t know that there’s such a great divide, first of all. I think there’s a lot of attention being paid to that. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story.
I would also say that, for women of a certain age—I don’t want to use the word older [laughs] we’ve known Hillary Clinton for years and years. I remember—and this will date me—I remember reading about Marian Wright Edelman in 1978 and the home visiting nurse program. Those are things Hillary’s been involved in for so long. Younger women just don’t know that history. I think, once they learn more about her values and how long she’s been doing the work that women like me, people like me, find so critical, in terms of children and families and civil rights, once they understand the full breadth and range of her involvement and how prepared she is to make change, that’s going to change. We’re just getting started. This election’s not until November. [Laughs]
It feels like it’s been going on forever.
We have a powerful woman running for her husband’s old job. Would you ever run for office?
I’m not thinking about that, no. [Laughs]
That’s pretty definitive. To circle back: I do still see criticisms of you popping up in place like the New York Post, that you’re too powerful. I wonder if you see a racist element in that, or a sexist element?
If you read the New York Post, you know their take on pretty much everything, right? There’s no secret. They have a very—let’s just say this. Their job is not to promote or empower women of color. That’s not their job. That’s not what they do. Or people of color in general. They just have a very negative, regressive view of where this part of humanity should be.
Will Chiara be more involved in the mental health initiative? She’s spoken so publicly about her own struggles.
You know, I don’t know. She graduates in June. She’s 21. She’s going to be making her own decisions about what direction she wants to move in. She’s very interested in becoming a social worker. I’m curious to know too. [Laughs]
Are there discussions going on between you and your children about the presidential election?
Oh yes. The discussions are...ongoing. [Laughs] That’s all I’m going to say about that.
Sounds like they [Chiara and her brother Dante] are Sanders supporters.
[Laughs] Uh, well, it’s possible.
What’s next for you, after being First Lady? I know that’s a ways in the future. Mental health has become a big project, but do you have other things you have your eye on?
Mental health is a very big project. I don’t see ever being finished with it. There’s so much to do. And I hope that the people choose that we’ll be here for another six years total. So I’m not thinking about what comes after this administration is over. I have my hands full with what I’m doing now, and I want to do it right. I always tell my husband, serve with distinction and everything else will follow. I’m trying to do the same thing. I want to focus on what I’m doing and make sure it’s successful before I even think about doing anything else.
One of the things that comes up repeatedly about Rikers is that it doesn’t serve mentally ill inmates particularly well. So many of the horrifying stories we’ve seen come out of Rikers are about mentally ill inmates not getting the treatment they need and in some cases dying. What do you think about calls to close the jail?
I think it’s a great idea. And of course the jail doesn’t serve mentally ill people well. There are mental health services within Rikers, but need to do more. We always need to do more. But the issue is, [mentally ill inmates] shouldn’t be in there to begin with. That’s why we’re creating two diversion centers, and training the police to know how to deal with people who are having an episode or are in crisis, so that they can actually get the treatment that they need instead of ending up in jail where they don’t belong.
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McCray in 2014. Photo via AP Images