Throughout his career, New York mayor Bill de Blasio has been accused of using his family as a political prop. During his 2009 campaign for public advocate, then-council member Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, called de Blasio’s frequent use of his black wife and biracial children in campaign literature “disgraceful” and “an insult to the black community.” Barron’s criticism didn’t keep de Blasio from winning—or from redeploying the strategy in his 2013 mayoral campaign. In that race, television and print ads presented the happy, mixed-race de Blasios doing their signature “slap dance.” Teenage Dante de Blasio’s giant Afro was credited with helping his father win 42 percent of the critical black vote in the Democratic primary and sparing him a runoff. De Blasio sailed to a 50-point victory in the general election.
Since then, the mayor’s family has remained in the spotlight. Modeling themselves after Bill and Hillary Clinton, de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray sold themselves to New Yorkers as a package deal. “Given the way our lives have worked it’s very natural for us to do all kinds of political, governmental things together,” McCray said shortly after the election, promising to be deeply involved in her husband’s governance. Aside from huddling with image consultants, however, it wasn’t clear what role the unelected McCray, a writer, would play. Her choice of longtime Al Sharpton associate Rachel Noerdlinger as her chief of staff, at a yearly salary of $170,000, raised eyebrows, especially when it emerged that Noerdlinger lived in New Jersey with a man with an extensive criminal history.
Why would the mayor’s wife need a staff so large as to require such a highly paid managerial position? To answer this question, McCray seized on her 20-year-old daughter Chiara’s mental-health and addiction issues. Chiara’s problems only became public knowledge after de Blasio’s victory, when the family released a professionally produced video in which the then-teenager “tells her story.”
Addiction and recovery are part of the American vernacular now, and it’s well understood that the children of celebrities and politicians are just as susceptible to chemical dependency as anyone else. Publicists typically deal with high-profile addicts or alcoholics by allowing them to recover quietly (or “anonymously,” as the universe of 12-step programs would have it). This subdued approach is less a measure of the stigma of addiction than it is the most compassionate and sensible way to allow someone to resume a normal life, without the added pressure of becoming a poster child for successful recovery.
Unfortunately for Chiara de Blasio, her parents and handlers pushed her to the foreground, perhaps to provide her mother a platform from which to discuss mental health. In January, McCray unveiled a city-wide initiative to explore providing New Yorkers with broader access to mental-health resources. She spotlighted her daughter—“a young woman who has become an edgy biracial activist,” and who is “kicking butt at recovery”—as an inspiration and model for all.
McCray has also begun opining on mental-health issues in the media. Recently, she published a letter in the New York Times referencing the apparently intentional crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 by its deranged co-pilot. “We must do everything in our power to prevent this from happening again,” McCray said, by changing “the culture so that people realize that seeking treatment for mental illness is an act of strength, not weakness.” She urged us to move “from stigma to parity” as we make mental health care as mundane as dental check-ups. The case of the Germanwings plane, however, offers almost exactly the opposite lesson. The copilot, Andreas Lubitz, received extensive treatment. Both the airline and his doctors were aware that he was mentally unstable. There may have been a failure of communication between the doctors and the airline, or perhaps the airline allowed Lubitz to continue flying so as not to stigmatize his mental illness. Either way, McCray is abusing reality for the sake of a good narrative.
The Times recently ran a piece admiringly headlined, CHIRLANE MCCRAY, IN EVOLVING ROLE AND IN SONG, FINDS HER VOICE. The article detailed a meeting of dozens of commissioners and assorted experts on the question of child development. McCray interrupted the gathering to ask if she could sing a lullaby. According to the Times, the roomful of seasoned analysts melted as they were reminded, in the words of Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, of “the potential to create magical moments for children.” McCray’s song, which will apparently be recorded for distribution on a city website, went as follows:
My name is Mommy and what is yours?
I want to know who are you?
Chiara! Chiara! That’s a nice name
And that’s the way we play our game.
It’s difficult to find a parallel among American politicians for such open, cynical use of their own children—essentially inviting the public to gawk at them and then using them as a shield against criticism. One imagines President Obama’s daughters have issues, too—they’re teenagers, after all—but we don’t see him trotting out Sasha or Malia as poster children for the First Lady’s pet causes. The de Blasios are setting a new standard for shamelessness. It’s the way they play their game.