by Harris Davidson
On November 5, Bill de Blasio, New York City’s public advocate, was elected Mayor of New York City. De Blasio’s victory had been all but assured since he prevailed in the highly contested Democratic August primary. New York City voters, dissatisfied with the perceived shortcomings of the Bloomberg administration, voted into office the city’s first Democratic mayor in over 20 years.
From the time de Blasio won the hotly contested primary race up until his win on November 5, he held a commanding lead over his Republican opponent, Joseph Lhota. He defeated Lhota by an astounding margin of 49 percentage points. Though de Blasio cruised to an easy and expected victory, his rise to prominence has been unexpected and far from conventional.
De Blasio’s first foray into politics came as a grad student in the late 1980s when he traveled to Nicaragua as a liberal activist during that country’s revolution to help distribute food and medicine and to offer support to the Sandinista government. Following a brief stint at a non-profit dedicated to improving health care in Latin America, he wound up at City Hall as an aide to the newly elected Mayor, David Dinkins. It was there that he met his future wife, Chirlane McCray.
At the time, McCray was working in the Dinkins administration as a speechwriter. McCray’s West-African style clothing and nose ring stood out when neither would have been a common sight in City Hall. De Blasio, who is White, was immediately attracted to McCray, who is Black. Little did de Blasio know that at the time, McCray identified as a lesbian and was not mutually attracted to him.
McCray’s backstory is just as interesting, if not more interesting, than de Blasio’s. Her family was the only African American family in the small Massachusetts town where she grew up. At the age of seventeen McCray began identifying as a lesbian. When she was 24 she wrote an article for Essence entitled “I am a Lesbian,” in which she discussed her sexual orientation and lamented that there were no prominent African American women in the gay rights movement. She later joined the Combahee River Collective, a group of feminist African American intellectuals who were mostly lesbians, and became a poet. By the time she met Bill de Blasio, she was thirty-six and could not have imagined falling in love with someone who was a man, White, and six years younger than she. But that is exactly what happened.
De Blasio and McCray, who has kept her maiden name, style themselves as a newer, more liberal, version of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Their mixed-race marriage and their two mixed race children add to their image as an urban, new-age, “this-is-what-the future-of-America-looks-like” family. Surprisingly, the campaign coverage of their relationship and family was almost entirely positive, and rather than being forced to defend themselves, de Blasio and McCray used their mixed-race marriage to their political advantage.
The most prominent example of how de Blasio’s mixed race marriage helped his campaign was with the television ad that is credited with helping secure his primary win: “Dante.” In the ad, a light skinned Black teenager with a large afro discusses de Blasio’s agenda and extols the candidate. The ad seems at first to be a normal campaign ad. The kicker comes at the end when the teenager tells the viewers he would be supporting de Blasio even if the candidate wasn’t his father. The viewer, realizing the teenager isn’t a paid actor, then sees the de Blasio walking down the road with the teenager, who turns out to be de Blasio’s son, Dante.
What does the effectiveness of the ad and lack of criticism about de Blasio’s marriage and family say about Americans’ changing attitudes towards mixed race families? For one, it shows that the doors to higher office are now fully open to politicians in mixed race marriages. More importantly, it signifies how much Americans’ racial tolerance has progressed since 1967 when, in Loving v. Virginia, 338 U.S. 1 (U.S. 1967), Virginia fought to uphold as constitutional its anti-miscegenation laws.
The only major and widely reported attack on de Blasio’s mixed race marriage came from a reporter for the Washington Post, writing after de Blasio had already won the general election. He wrote that people with “conventional views” had to “repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.” The reporter’s words, while abhorrent to the extent that they condone bigotry, correctly identified a segment of society that has yet to accept that they are living in a post-Loving world. Though this segment exists, it’s clearly not welcomed in New York City, where de Blasio’s mixed race marriage helped, rather than hurt, his candidacy. As de Blasio starts his term in January and begins to govern on a national stage, as the mayor of New York City inevitably does, this segment will likely continue to get smaller than it already is once it realizes de Blasio and McCray are no different from a single-race couple.
For de Blasio and McCray they have little time to reflect on the historic nature of his win. They are too busy focusing on how to run New York City. De Blasio has said that his wife will play an integral role in crafting policy and making hiring decisions. Theirs is a marriage where a great woman doesn’t stand behind a great man, but rather, where she stands beside him.