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Zaino: A big opportunity for NYC's new first lady

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray walk to City Hall after he announced five new appointments to his administration. (Dec. 31, 2013) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

There is a good deal of excitement about NYC having a first lady again after more than a decade without one. Chirlane McCray also will be the second African-American first lady in city history.

Many feminists and progressives hope she doesn't follow in the footsteps of first lady Michelle Obama -- not that they dislike her but are disappointed in her. Many expected she would make the Clintons' 2-for-1 model a reality, but that hasn't happened.

Obama has opted to focus on uncontroversial issues like nutrition and wounded soldiers. Many feminists and progressives gave her a pass for the first four years largely because they attributed her decision to play it safe to a political calculation designed to help her husband's re-election chances. But after Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, their patience began to wane.

Will McCray chart a different path? She was fairly quiet during the campaign about what she might do. But she has noted she and Mayor Bill de Blasio are a 2-for-1 deal. Many observers suspect she will be active in one of his signature issues: universal prekindergarten.

Most recent first ladies -- both at the city and the federal level -- have followed the more traditional model. But at the city level in our era, McCray likely will be charting new territory if she follows a more activist path.

In an article in The Grio, the MSNBC site on African-American perspectives, writer Alexis Garrett Stodghill argued that "many are excited for what [McCray] may accomplish and how her experiences as a black woman will inform her decisions."

Few seem to acknowledge the difficulties McCray could encounter. If, for instance, she breaks out of the traditional first lady role and speaks out about controversial issues, she risks opening herself to criticism and high negatives, and upsetting her husband's re-election chances. Maybe she should just be herself and not care, but that is easier said than done -- particularly when your spouse's political future is on the line.

If McCray goes the politically safe route, she risks seeming calculating and upsetting the voters who supported her husband.

The post of first lady may be unofficial and largely undefined, but it is nevertheless a minefield that is difficult for even the most experienced pols to navigate.


Jeanne Zaino is an adjunct professor of campaign management at New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies and professor of political science at Iona College.


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