Behind every New York City mayoral candidate, there’s a woman: our next potential First Lady. But who are these partners, and what impact will they have on the race?
Amid the blur of constant campaigning and fundraising, Tamra Lhota, wife of Joe Lhota, the former MTA chief turned Republican candidate for mayor, maintains she has given little thought to the idea of possibly becoming New York City’s First Lady. Lately, though, she has been forced to give the subject quite a bit more consideration.
“It’s a question I get asked a lot,” she said with a laugh. “This city is in a different time and place—culture is, women are, spouses are—than it was the last time there was a family that lived full-time in Gracie Mansion. So for me, I think that it offers a remarkable platform. But how that looks, I feel like it’s too soon to say.”
Come this November, New Yorkers will be facing a major readjustment in their daily lives. Not only will they be waking up in a city governed by someone other than the bachelor mayor to whom they have grown accustomed (for better and worse) for the last three terms, they will experience for the first time in more than a decade what it means to have a spouse in Gracie Mansion.
New York has not had a bona fide First Lady in over 12 years. Diana Taylor, Mayor Bloomberg’s long-time live-in girlfriend, has had the luxury of playing the role of First Lady in many ways, fulfilling its ceremonial duties from time to time, while still retaining the ability to step out of it. She is not married to the mayor, and much like the current quasi-First Lady of the state, Sandra Lee, girlfriend of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Taylor enjoys her own separate and successful career. When she was asked recently by The Daily News what she plans to do once her boyfriend’s final term is up in January 2014, she said that she is definitely taking a vacation—with or without Mike.
If Taylor’s story is a modern one reflecting the liberal sensibilities of the New York City electorate, the tale of her predecessor is an all-too-familiarly sordid one. Donna Hanover enthusiastically embraced the mantle of First Lady when her husband Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994. A seasoned television reporter, she also became the first First Lady to work full-time outside of the home, drawing attention for her dual persona as a wife, mother and matron of Gracie Mansion, as well as a professional working journalist.
By 1996, however, her role had changed. Hanover stopped using the Giuliani name and was rarely seen in public with her husband. By 2000, Giuliani began making public appearances with his girlfriend, Judith Nathan, and filed for divorce from Hanover. (Giuliani and Nathan were married at Gracie Mansion by Mayor Bloomberg in 2003, following the conclusion of Giuliani’s messy and expensive divorce proceedings.) Hanover stopped being a First Lady long before her husband left office.
In many ways, Hanover’s retreat from the public eye brought about a return to the status quo for New Yorkers. Hanover’s predecessor, Joyce Dinkins, the city’s first and only African-American First Lady, was a private person who largely eschewed the limelight during her husband’s lone term in office. Over the 12 years prior, the closest the famously single Ed Koch came to having a public partner was through his association with former Miss America Bess Myerson.
Thus, for most of the last three and a half decades—since Mary Ingerman, who called her husband, Abe, “Mr. Beame”—there has been no woman to define the role of the First Lady of New York City in private policymaking and public ethos. Despite this long gap, the fact that the media have been so eager to anoint First Girlfriends Diana Taylor and Sandra Lee as nominal First Ladies reflects the public’s hunger for and fascination with someone to fill that traditional role.
Of course, times have changed. In 2013 when a woman is currently polling as the front-runner for the mayoralty, the questions arise: What does it mean to have a First Lady? Is it just about the pageantry, like our fixation with royalty? How important is the role? Is it still even relevant, or is the idea it represents passé?
One thing is certain: We no longer expect a First Lady to bake cookies, cut ribbons and kiss babies at hospital openings. But do we want a First Lady to be an activist partners to her chief executive—a co-president in the mode of Hillary Clinton—or do we prefer a highly qualified professional who subordinates her own talents and expertise to adhere to a conventional image and play second fiddle to her spouse, à la Michelle Obama? Or maybe even an unassuming, stand-by-your-man type of first spouse like Laura Bush?
Perhaps we look to First Ladies to get insights into their partners; possibly we expect them to influence their mates, to inspire them to reflect upon their convictions, as some believe Lee did in nudging Cuomo to his proactive stance on marriage equality.
Do we define our own families by the families of our leaders? Do we want them to have lives that reflect something about ourselves? Is it that we associate monogamy with moral fiber? Do we consider the traditional view of marriage essential to defining the character of our elected officials? Are voters ready to translate that same traditional perspective to a same-sex partner? The importance of having the first African-American First Lady in the White House cannot be underestimated; what of the effect of having a lesbian First Lady of New York?
No matter what box we want to fit them in to, of course, there is no discounting the distinct and varied personalities of the women themselves. Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s wife, Kim Catullo, and City Comptroller John Liu’s wife, Jenny—both of whom declined to be interviewed for this article—have adamantly steered clear of public exposure, seeking to preserve their privacy even as their profiles become increasingly public. (Huma Abedin also declined to participate, though she is not yet technically a First Lady in the running.) Then there are women like Tamra Lhota and Chirlane McCray, who are central to their husbands’ bids for office, not just from an emotional standpoint but also from a political one by bringing their professional expertise in the arena to bear for the benefit of their spouse.
What model of First Lady the Big Apple will wind up with come January of next year remains to be seen, but what is clear is that for many New Yorkers the role still has significance, and that what it means in the immediate future will largely be defined by the woman who comes to fill the role next.
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Political spouses sometimes reinforce or double their husband’s or wife’s persona, offering voters more bang for their buck. They can also act as the counterweight, bringing attributes—sensitivity, accessibility or family-first sensibilities—that the candidate struggles to display. Chirlane McCray, the wife of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, accomplishes all of these ends.
Chirlane McCray, the wife of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, has a long history as a political activist.
McCray has a long history as a political activist. The fact that she is African-American and her husband is white has served as a talking point for the couple, a way for de Blasio to discuss racial issues with a greater legitimacy and build a bridge to minority voters. Both have written and spoken about the challenges they have faced as a biracial couple, and de Blasio has placed his family at the forefront of his public persona, prominently featuring them in his literature and presentation.
When de Blasio officially announced his candidacy for mayor, he passed on the traditional setting of the steps of City Hall and instead held a press conference outside the front door of his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He also did not roll out a political heavyweight to introduce him, instead giving that honor to his teenage son, Dante, whose oversize retro Afro became a story in and of itself.
The location was an obvious choice, said McCray: “Our neighborhood has been central to everything we’ve done. We worked from home when [Bill] ran for school board, when he ran for City Council; we’ve had a lot of meetings with pizza and bottled water in our living room with our kids and other people’s kids running around.”
The portrait of Bill de Blasio as a grounded family man is one the campaign has been eager to push, and McCray has been an important supporting character in conveying this persona. Late last year, when the Politicker blog unearthed a 1979 essay that McCray had authored 12 years before she met her future husband, entitled “I am a Lesbian,” the couple met the disclosure head on with a calm and unified front. McCray released a statement, saying simply, “In the 1970s, I identified as a lesbian, and wrote about it. In 1991, I met the love of my life, married him, and together we’ve raised two amazing kids.” After the initial hubbub, the story eventually died down, in part because the couple and the campaign made sure that even this seemingly taboo revelation instead contributed to the narrative of an unassailable, family-centric union.
McCray is no stranger to the political game, and she plays it well. She has been a speechwriter for former Mayor Dinkins, ex-State Comptroller Carl McCall and former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who also happens to be one of her husband’s leading opponents in the race. Aside from enthusiastically supporting de Blasio on the trail, McCray may be the only spouse who has the potential to impact the electorate in a meaningful way, some political insiders believe.
“De Blasio’s wife is really in the center of his campaign, and she’s the most interesting politically,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs and an authority on voting behavior and city politics. “She will have the most effect on the vote. The assumption is that Bill Thompson is going to get the black vote, but I don’t know about the idea that black women will vote for him. You don’t have another serious candidate who has been in a biracial relationship.”
Now on the short list for the job of First Lady, McCray deflects questions about what it would be like for her to assume the position, artfully bringing the subject back to her husband’s campaign whenever the subject arises.
“It’s pretty impossible to imagine at this stage in the game,” she said. “I don’t spend time thinking about that. I use every moment helping Bill get elected to the office.”
Like many political spouses before her, McCray often invokes her own feelings about her husband as a family man and uses them to articulate why their relationship should make voters embrace him as a candidate. “I really trust him,” she said. “When you go through life together, you’re really confronted with a lot of difficult choices.”
McCray insists that her support of de Blasio isn’t just the obligatory endorsement from a wife—it’s the endorsement of a savvy, informed New Yorker—who also happens to be in love with the man.
“Because I have knowledge of this field of government and politics, I know a lot of the players, and I know who they are and how they perform,” McCray said. She laughed, adding, “Maybe I’m not completely objective.”
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That Kim Catullo is perhaps most likely to become New York’s next First Lady, according to the polls so far, makes it all the more striking that she has succeeded up until now in remaining largely out of the spotlight nearly a year into the campaign. Despite her wishes to remain in the background, it is unlikely that Catullo will be able to do so for long, since if her wife, Christine Quinn, makes history by becoming both the city’s first woman and first openly gay mayor, Catullo will too achieve a landmark as New York’s first lesbian First Lady.
Kim Catullo, who married Council Speaker Christine Quinn last year, could make history as New York City’s first lesbian First Lady.
In some ways it has been easy for Catullo to elude the media’s glare to date, since her wife bubbles over with enough personality for two. Aside from a few strategic press leaks, like the release of their wedding photos last May and a handful of quotes in a New York magazine profile of Quinn, the campaign has kept Catullo away from the press. She attends social functions and events with her high-profile spouse, but Catullo has for the most part avoided talking to the media.
According to Mariellen Dugan, who has known Catullo since they met in law school in 1988, Catullo is by nature simply unaccustomed to talking about herself. When the focus is on herself, Catullo is shy and quiet, but only then. “Kim is a lawyer; she’s a litigator. When she has her lawyer hat on, she is confident, and she’s not shy. She’s the type of person who doesn’t use a lot of extra words or feel the need to fill space with words. But when she says something, it’s always something worthwhile.”
Dugan said that Catullo has been extremely supportive of Quinn’s campaign. She is an important advisor and sounding board for Quinn, noted Dugan, and theirs is a mutually supportive relationship, with the two tackling their challenges and opportunities together.
“I think she’d make a wonderful First Lady,” Dugan said. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like Kim Catullo. People are drawn to her. She grew up in a very humble place with a very humble family, so in that way she connects with people.”
When Catullo and Quinn met they first bonded over having lost their mothers early in their lives, and both are extremely close to their fathers. When Quinn went to Albany to encourage the Legislature to pass the same-sex marriage bill, she invoked her desire to marry Catullo while both of their fathers would still be alive to see it.
Moments like those—and the photos of their wedding ceremony—help to soften Quinn, reminding voters that despite her loud and forceful reputation, the Speaker has another side, one that is reflected in her mate. As the campaign heats up, Catullo will likely feel the pressure to make public appearances and give interviews—not least of all because she can paint a portrait of Quinn that the campaign may find it needs to present.
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Another enigma as far as her public life is concerned is City Comptroller John Liu’s wife, Jenny. An engineer who according to her husband prefers to remain far away from politics, Jenny Liu rarely appears at campaign events and little beyond what her husband lets slip is known about her.
Similarly adamant about maintaining her privacy—within its own particular bounds—is Huma Abedin, wife of former Rep. Anthony Weiner. Abedin’s professional credentials are impeccable; she has spent her career working as one of the closest aides to Hillary Clinton—who understands what being a First Lady entails as well as anyone. In addition to Abedin’s keen intelligence and relentless work ethic, she also has in common with Clinton the unfortunate distinction of having to grapple with her mate’s very public sex scandal. While, of course, this predicament has forced her to endure extraordinary personal and public torment, it also has likely endeared her to the public and cast her potential assumption of the position of First Lady in a more essential and intriguing light.
If Weiner does end up entering the mayoral race, Abedin will also likely attract attention for her religion. Abedin would be the city’s first Muslim First Lady, a fact that is likely to make her an instant role model for some New Yorkers, and a lighting rod for others.
Up until now, however, Abedin is best known for how she has handled her husband’s scandal. After Weiner, then a congressman and promising Democratic mayoral candidate, got caught tweeting sexually explicit photos of himself to several women, Abedin stood by her husband as he initially denied culpability, then opted ultimately to forgive him after he admitted his actions and resigned from office. Amid the media maelstrom dragging down her husband, it soon came out that Abedin was pregnant with the couple’s first child, and the two retreated from the public eye save for a photo spread in People magazine when their son was born.
At the time of his resignation, pundits declared that Weiner’s political career was flatter than his abs—and many still do. But nearly two years later following a “redemptive” New York Times Magazine cover story, a barrage of television interviews, some moderately encouraging poll numbers, and a few million dollars sitting idly in a soon-to-expire campaign account, the prospect of Weiner’s return no longer appears like the longest of longshots.
Having publicly stated that he is considering a mayoral run, Weiner has made it clear that Abedin’s support is absolutely paramount if he decides to move forward, not just personally for Weiner but politically as well.
Of a possible Weiner campaign, Muzzio said, “You’ve got to shift the narrative. Back off, do something positive, play up your family. You don’t hide from [the scandal], but embrace it, which they’ve done—very honestly, I thought.”
More likely than not Abedin has taken a page from her boss and mentor, Hillary Clinton, who has played the roles of political spouse, wronged wife, and forgiving political spouse on the largest stage in the world.
“Huma’s key,” Muzzio said. “Their story seems to be, ‘My wife, who’s brilliant and smart and loving, forgave me. So can you. ’ ”
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Up until now, Elsie McCabe Thompson has also been largely out of the public eye, but she is looking to be more engaged. If anyone is taking a page from Michelle Obama’s playbook, it is Thompson. Her primary motivation, she says, is to support her husband and to be a great mom to her 15-year-old twins.
Elsie McCabe Thompson
Elsie McCabe Thompson, who is married to former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, has had a remarkable career of her own, working in the Dinkins administration and as a museum director.
She may downplay her own career, but Thompson also has a remarkable record of her own as a civil rights attorney, former chief counsel to Mayor Dinkins and, until last fall, the longtime executive director of the Museum of African Art, a position she held for 15 years. When she was working at the law firm Sherman & Sterling, which she calls a “term of servitude” to pay off her student loans, she sued The New York Times for fair housing discrimination after it ran a series of ads depicting picturesque suburban communities—with white people as residents and people of color only as servers and employees. She won.
In the Dinkins administration she led a delegation to South Africa and met Nelson Mandela; she proudly displays a photo on her iPhone of her kids flanking Mandela when she took them to meet him several years ago.
“Bill’s wife has been in the public arena,” said veteran political consultant George Arzt. “She had a powerful role in the Dinkins administration at City Hall, and she ran a museum. Then, she has a great personality. She will be very, very helpful for Bill. Elsie is more outgoing than Bill is, and so will be very appealing.”
Thompson is the only one of the wives of a top candidate who has been through the whirlwind of a mayoral race before. Her husband came within a few percentage points of ousting Mayor Bloomberg as the Democratic nominee in the 2009 election. And she really thought her husband would win, she said
“He thought long and hard about it. Should he just take the easy way out, and not stick to his highest principles, and run for comptroller again?” Thompson said of the 2009 race. “That would have been easy. He was unopposed before; he would be unopposed again.”
While Thompson kept a low profile during her husband’s last campaign, this time around she is more accustomed to being his wife, and the unique position that puts her in. In 2009, the couple had been married for only a month when Thompson jumped into the race.
Elsie’s first husband died shortly after her twins were born. She and her late husband had been good friends with the twice-divorced Thompson, and she had remained so for years before they started dating. “I never thought I would have fallen in love with a politician,” she said, laughing.
Having gone on a lot of first dates with high-powered, self-absorbed men, she was looking for a good father figure for her kids and for a man who cared more about the world around him than for himself. “There are other elected officials who are doing it for the right reasons; there aren’t enough,” Thompson said. “Bill is among a special few who are doing it not for self-aggrandizement.”
An accomplished woman who could easily tout her own credentials on the campaign trail, Thompson instead sticks to championing her husband’s. “It’s more about me representing Bill,” she said. “Candidly, if through learning about me they learn something about the person I’ve chosen as a life mate, then that’s good, too.”
Were she to become First Lady, Thompson said her focus would be on her priorities: children, culture and animals. But for now she is spending her time “dialing for dollars,” and filling in for her husband at events.
“I wear the ‘Thompson for Mayor’ buttons, and I am stopped by so many, particularly black women, who say to me, ‘He came so close before! Things would have been different: The school system wouldn’t be the way it is, had I had faith back then.’ I’ll say, ‘Actually, you’re right. And it’s not too late to have faith now.’ ”
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Well along the road of being fully engaged in the mayoral race, Tamra Roberts Lhota is another top contender for the First Lady spot. And she acts like one, fighting fiercely for her husband’s chance to run City Hall. If current polling holds—a big if—Lhota’s husband, Joe, is in position to wind up in a head-to-head match-up with Christine Quinn in the general election.
Tamra Lhota, the wife of former MTA chief Joe Lhota, was already a top fundraiser before her husband entered the race.
Having worked in politics for many years, Lhota serves as one of her husband’s major fundraisers, raking in big bucks for him behind the scene. Juggling the public role is the only part of the process that is new to her.
The couple met while she was working in Washington, D.C. After marrying Lhota in 1988, she moved to New York, diving right into New York City politics. She volunteered for Rudy Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign in 1989, which he lost to Dinkins, then worked as chief fundraiser for Giuliani’s successful 1993 bid.
Her new role finds her in uncharted territory. “It’s very personal, in a good way,” she said. “As a staff person you can stand behind the candidate; you’re there to do your job, you’re asking on behalf of the candidate. When you’re a spouse, it’s much more personal, and so it’s different.”
Her husband, who recently resigned as chairman and CEO of the MTA, served in both Giuliani administrations in various capacities, including director of the office of management and budget and deputy mayor for operations. His experience in both the private and public sector make him a serious contender in the race.
Some wives might concentrate on their husbands’ personal attributes, but Lhota is finely attuned in her husband’s political qualifications. “I have friends who have known us for decades,” she said. “When I told them that Joe was thinking about [running for mayor], one of them said, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe it’s taken you so long. Don’t you know that he is made to do this?’ ”
Unlike other First Ladies-in-waiting whose pet issues would spill over into their new role—advocacy for the homeless, say, or children’s initiatives—Lhota is currently focusing solely on one thing: getting her husband elected. (Indeed, becoming First Lady would open up a giant hole in her schedule.)
For now, she’s bracing for the months ahead, and as a seasoned campaigner she knows the role a spouse can play. “People are electing a mayor, and the fact that there’s a spouse who will join them in Gracie Mansion is a plus across the board,” she said. “I guess I come to this with the benefit of having a number of citywide campaigns, and the lovely thing about New York is it has such a full and vibrant media market across the board. You never know what the stories are going to be.”
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Where Lhota is quite comfortable in the public eye, Lorraine Albanese would find herself returning to the spotlight after many years away. Albanese could in some ways be the reincarnation of one of New York’s last First Ladies: Joyce Dinkins. Dinkins was a retired grandmother when her husband took office in 1990. After 12 years of Koch rule with nary a lady (First or otherwise) in sight, the spotlight focused on Dinkins when she assumed the role was particularly strong.
Lorraine Albanese, a retired grandmother, might split time between Gracie Mansion and her Dyker Heights home if her husband, Sal Albanese, comes from behind to win.
Should Albanese’s husband, Sal, confound the pollsters and win the Democratic nomination, as well as the general election in November, Lorraine would find herself in a similar situation. At 62, she is retired from her job as a secretary at a public high school. Her focus since then has been largely on her family: caring for her mother-in-law, who lives with her and her husband in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and spending time with her married daughters and grandchildren.
The couple is accustomed to uphill battles. After serving in the City Council for four consecutive terms, Sal Albanese ran for mayor, for Congress and for the state Assembly, all unsuccessfully. His wife may be far removed from his days in office now, but she has had her share of working on political campaigns.
Fiercely supportive of her husband of 40 years, Albanese expresses ardent admiration for his progressive agenda. “He has such a breadth of life experience,” she said. “He wasn’t someone that hung out in clubhouses and was looking to run for office.”
Though she has given considerable thought to the great mayor her husband would make, she has not dwelled much on her own potential role. “I guess there’s a ceremonial hat you could wear,” she noted about the mantle of First Lady. “You could be more active in issues.”
Causes she speculates she might take an interest in include education, animal rights and public health initiatives. She isn’t sure how she would feel about living in Gracie Mansion. “I could see myself doing both,” she said, expressing a desire to continue living part time in Dyker Heights.
Albanese has no illusions about her husband’s chances. “I’m not rubbing my hands together waiting to get in there,” she said, before adding, “I do want him to win.”
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Equally low-profile, Harriet Karr-McDonald is another contender for the First Lady seat who would be almost entirely new to the vast majority of the public. If current fundraising dollars and poll numbers are to be believed, her husband, George, has a serious uphill battle in his quest to win the Republican primary, which is something of a shame, because Karr-McDonald is a fascinating figure in her own right.
Harriet Karr-McDonald was a Hollywood actress before marrying George McDonald and becoming an activist for the homeless.
Before marrying McDonald and becoming a prominent activist for the homeless, Karr-McDonald lived a whole other life in Hollywood. At the age of 15 she was “discovered” on the beach at Fire Island; within two years, she had moved to California and was married to Abby Mann, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the film Judgment at Nuremberg, who was 47 at the time.
In 1988 Karr-McDonald came to New York to write a screenplay about a real-life 19-year-old crack-addicted homeless girl living in Grand Central Terminal. Getting to know the subject of her piece, Karr-McDonald hoped to help her, but the girl committed suicide shortly after the first draft of the script was finished. The event would change Karr-McDonald’s life in more ways than one.
“I came to her funeral,” Karr-McDonald recalled. “I’m Jewish, but it was in a Catholic church. The man I thought was the priest gave this incredible eulogy about how she was ‘a shining star in the night sky.’ Afterwards we arranged to meet for a drink. And I’m thinking he’s a priest, but here he’s rubbing my leg—but of course he wasn’t a priest: He was a homeless advocate named George McDonald!”
At the time McDonald was spending his nights feeding homeless people outside Grand Central, on Vanderbilt and 43rd Street, something he famously did for 700 nights in a row.
“I decided to change my life, and I moved to New York and gave up the glamour to really work on homelessness,” said Karr-McDonald. Within six months the couple was married. Soon after they hatched the idea for the Doe Fund.
Taking 70 homeless men from the floor of Grand Central and giving them rooms and jobs in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the Doe Fund transformed itself into a company that today employs 700 people, many formerly incarcerated men of color. Karr-McDonald is executive vice president of the organization. Were her husband elected she would continue to do the work to which she has devoted her life, using the First Lady platform to advance solutions to the city’s homelessness problem, she said.
“I want to help disenfranchised youth, [including those who] are not even homeless,” she said. “I would like to be able to speak to my knowledge about that, and expand what we are doing and what other people are doing.”
Her husband’s involvement in addressing the issue of homelessness could help him get elected, but it is Karr-McDonald’s passion that would focus the issue for the administration. She knows, however, that the possibility is slim.
“I’m a realist,” Karr-McDonald said. “And George is in many ways a people’s candidate.”
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Another potential First Lady, Linda Baldwin, has little choice but to keep a relatively low profile in her husband’s campaign. The wife of former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, the Independence Party’s nominee for mayor, Baldwin said she plans to attend some events with him during the campaign, but her position as an appointee of President Obama’s in the Justice Department comes with restrictions on participating in partisan politics. As the director of the department’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking, she also spends much of the week away in Washington, D.C.
Linda Baldwin, the wife of former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, is an Obama appointee in the Justice Department.
The limits to her involvement are a change of pace for Baldwin, who has campaigned alongside Carrión since his first race for City Council in 1997, and even stood in for him in his first campaign for borough president when he was in jail for protesting the bombings in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Just don’t call here a “political spouse.”
“Adolfo and I have each maintained full-time careers throughout our marriage,” said Baldwin, who met Carrión when they were both working as city planners in the Bronx. “We managed to do so by supporting each other and, like other working couples, by having the good fortune of having an excellent child care provider for our children when they were younger. Now that the kids are older, I am fortunate that my family has continued to be supportive of my work, even though it takes me away from home a good part of the week each week.”
If her husband were to win, Baldwin said she would be “thrilled” to play a role as the First Lady, perhaps focusing on empowerment of women and girls, educational reforms or other areas in which she can draw from her own experience and expertise to make a difference.
“Although I have not yet put much thought into the role I would play,” she explained, “I can say that I would look forward to participating in as many activities that my work and family schedules permit, particularly in areas that I know something about, such as urban and waterfront planning, community health and wellness, and criminal justice reform.”
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If Albanese and Karr-McDonald are modest potential candidates for the First Lady mantle, and Baldwin prohibited from taking on a more active role, Margo Catsimatidis is far from reticent about throwing her hat into the ring.
John Catsimatidis has argued that New York City has gone too long without a First Lady— and that his wife, Margo Catsimatidis, “would make a great First Lady.”
Based solely on her appearance, Catsimatidis might be mistaken for a trophy wife. In press photos with her husband, billionaire supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis, she stands in slim, blond, elegant, even glamorous contrast to his frumpy figure. Appearances notwithstanding, the couple has been together for the past 39 years, by all accounts quite happily, belying any easy narrative explaining their pairing.
To the press, Margo gushes about the wonderful man to whom she is married and the terrific mayor she is certain he would be. Her husband enthusiastically proclaims that she would be the First Lady New Yorkers deserve.
“He believes in family; he understands people,” Margo said. “He understands day in and day out the aggravation that everybody has—the big businessman, the small business guy, the shoeshine guy—he cares about everyone.”
The Catsimatidis family has worked hard to cultivate this “Everyman” persona since the campaign started. At the press conference announcing his candidacy, Catsimatidis bragged that he was wearing a cheap suit. “I think my wife paid $100 for this jacket,” he pointed out.
It’s a tough sell. This year Catsimatidis ranked No. 132 on the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America; his estimated net worth coming in at $3 billion. Furthermore, the family is now part political royalty. In 2011 the Catsimatidis’ daughter, Andrea, then just 21, married Christopher Cox, grandson of Richard Nixon and son of state GOP chairman Ed Cox, in a ceremony that cost a reported $2 million.
Margo insists her husband’s wealth doesn’t matter to her—and shouldn’t matter to voters. Asked to contrast him with the billionaire mayor currently in office, she said, “I’m with my husband 40 years, and I never wake up one day to even think that he’s a billionaire. To me he’s the man who’s trying to make a difference.”
Catsimatidis has done a great deal of significant charity work over the years. She sits on the steering committee of the Alzheimer’s Association and the board of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. She has also raised millions for children’s diabetes research.
In addition, she runs her own publishing and printing firm—which produces all the ads for her family’s companies—but these days she spends much of her time supporting her husband and concentrating on her philanthropic work.
What would she do as First Lady? “I never thought about it,” she said. “I kind of joke around and say, ‘Well, maybe I’ll have a little staff so I can do more charity work and help more people with my time,’ because there’s only so many hours in the day.”
Admirable, but vague—much like her husband’s platform. Yet the Catsimatidis strategy is to beat Republican front-runner Joe Lhota by rising above the wonkish mundane policy details the former MTA CEO has mastered, countering Lhota’s government experience with Catsimatidis’ “real life” experience. According to the narrative of his campaign, Catsimatidis is just an average guy (with a couple of billion in the bank) and his wife is just an average supportive political spouse. Unlike the billionaire currently in office, the Catsimatidises would even move from their Fifth Avenue home to Gracie Mansion if elected. That, Margo says, would be for the people of New York.
The only change she’d make at Gracie Mansion? “To have a flower garden for everyone to enjoy.”