How Rachel Noerdlinger bounced back after a right-wing media blitz targeted her family
For the general public, a scandal ends as soon as the newspapers and websites stop making stories about it. Headlines shift to the next big controversy, heady Facebook debates find fresher topics. But for the human beings at the center of those juicy stories, the repercussions echo long after their names disappear from print.
Rachel Noerdlinger is lucky in that sense. Her “Where is she now?” story has a silver lining. She has a brand new job in the private sector, and her teenage son is enrolled in college and has an enviable internship.
Noerdlinger, who worked with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network for over 15 years before becoming the chief of staff to New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, was at the center of a volatile media storm in the fall of 2014. Between September 25th and November 18th, the New York Post alone published over 40 articles about Noerdlinger, all of them negative.
This round of criticism began when sources told media outlets that Noerdlinger lived with her boyfriend of six years Hassaun McFarlan and did not disclose that information during her Department of Investigation background check for her then-new post with the Bill de Blasio administration. Such an alleged action by a staffer of the mayor’s wife would normally not make the news. But this time it did, and the public learned that at 15 years old, McFarlan shot and killed another teenager and served six years for the crime. Years prior to Noerdlinger’s appointment as McCray’s chief of staff, McFarlan referred to police officers as “pigs” in since-deleted social media postings. Patrolmen Benevolent Association head Pat Lynch and others issued statements calling for Noerdlinger to be fired.
Ultimately, Noerdlinger faced no repercussions for the alleged failure to disclose who lived in her home, and the mayor’s office firmly defended her and her work in the press. From there, certain media outlets (with the New York Post leading the charge) continued to dig, and they published every bit of information they could about Noerdlinger. There were headlines about tax liens, unpaid parking tickets, outstanding E-Z Pass fees and questions about the waiver granted to her to live outside of New York City. (Noerdlinger says her son was in two car accidents and requires the care of his New Jersey-based medical team that has been helping him in his on-going recovery.) The media even went after Noerdlinger’s son, publishing now-deleted tweets he posted expressing negative views about cops and white people.
Many of the anti-Noerdlinger articles also noted the six-figure salary she earned while working with McCray. This highlighting of Noerdlinger’s income rubbed some of her supporters the wrong way. “There’s this connotation that a black woman could not have honestly or deservedly earned six figures. Although I’m sure that is the standard for the position before and since. That is telling not only about our respect for black women, but the bias of the media. I didn’t see its relevance. Here’s a woman who has an elite liberal arts education, and who has worked in her field for nearly 20 years. Why is there constant mention of her salary? It’s offensive frankly,” said Angela Bronner-Helm a journalist who has encountered Noerdlinger in social and professional settings over the years.
Noerdlinger stayed the course and continued doing her job throughout the media blitz, but she stepped down in November of 2014 once her teenage son was arrested in a Manhattan apartment building. He was collared for trespassing but did not have identification on him, so he spent one night in jail. He has since successfully completed his community service.
In an exclusive interview with theGrio, Noerdlinger talked about her life post-scandal. “I am fantastic. I am reinvigorated in the new year,” said Noerdlinger, who just started her new job as managing director at Mercury Public Affairs in their New York office. She’ll be heading up initiatives on a variety of topics, including public relations and crisis management, subjects she knows very well.
“When you work in public relations, it’s very different to all of sudden be your own client in a way. All of what was being printed about me was not about me, it was about a larger target. When I was in the 24-hour news cycle, it was impossible to avoid the headlines. I was cognizant of all that was said, but I was also cognizant of what was true and not true. Fortunately, I had a great team at City Hall who had my back,” said Noerdlinger.
The de Blasio team still has nothing but praise for Noerdlinger. “Rachel made important contributions to many of this administration’s early accomplishments, and we wish her the very best as she continues her lifelong effort to create a more fair and equal world,” said de Blasio spokesperson Rebecca Katz in a statement to theGrio.
Of course, this happy place Noerdlinger has reached did not come without work. “It was painful for my son to see me going through that in the media. It was a difficult time. Here he was a teenager just trying to leave the house and catch a bus and he was surrounded by cameras and journalists,” said Noerdlinger.
Today, Noerdlinger’s son Khari is enrolled at a community college in New Jersey and is interning at the Russell Simmons owned entity Global Grind. In an interview with theGrio, Khari’s boss and Noerdlinger’s friend Michael Skolnik talked about what he called the mother and son’s unfair depiction in the media. “I think the portrayal of Rachel and Khari as bad people is just lazy journalism. The words and actions of one’s partner are the responsibility of one’s partner. She was an incredible servant for the city of New York, and Khari is a great young man who is trying to do right and stay focused. He’s doing a great job here,“ said Skolnik, who has worked with Noerdlinger in various capacities over the years and considers her family.
Skolnik also added that he does not think Noerdlinger was the ultimate target in the media storm. “If you’re looking to attack the mayor, attack the mayor. Don’t attack a staffer and her kid,” said Skolnik.
Noerdlinger’s former boss, Rev. Al Sharpton, agrees that she was not the ultimate target. “They were not after a job; they were trying to destabilize a movement. They whipped Rachel, but the beating was for me, de Blasio and to a lesser extent Obama. Even with her gone, they still beat up on us. They underestimated her strength, dignity and perseverance. I’m very proud of her,” said Rev Sharpton.
Civil rights activist Tamika Mallory worked with Noerdlinger for 15 years at the National Action Network and shares Rev Sharpton’s opinion that the media attacks were about more than trying to get Noerdlinger fired.
“I think much of it was an attempt to discredit the mayor and particularly his relationship with police. This is has been the goal of many who are anti-reform. They saw an opportunity to use Rachel to hurt the mayor’s administration. It is ultimately about being anti-reform and anti-accountability. Just look at what’s playing out now with the mayor and Pat Lynch with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association,” said Mallory.
Mayor de Blasio and the PBA have been in a tense stand-off as of late. Lynch has accused the mayor of being “anti-police.” The tension came to a head during funeral services for two slain officers when some uniformed NYPD cops literally turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio.
Being portrayed as anti-police bothers Noerdlinger. “I have spent 20 years trying to heal the divide between communities and police through my work with NAN and Rev. Sharpton. Depicting me as anything other than that is false,” said Noerdlinger.
But such matters are no longer directly on Noerdlinger’s plate. In her new post with Mercury, she will not be working with the City. “We have worked with Rachel in the past, and she is a skilled professional who knows the NYC media scene, and has contacts that go well beyond the City. Her reputation as a PR professional among reporters who we vetted her with is excellent,” said Michael McKeon, a partner at Mercury.
“She’s doing well. Not having her in City Hall is a loss for the City. It is a gain for Mercury, and she has great ties in the community that will help them serve their clients,” said Mallory.
Some of her old life has remained the same, though. Noerdlinger still has pre-dawn calls with Rev. Sharpton. “She is one of the most energetic people who I have ever worked with. I get up around 5 a.m. everyday and Rachel was the only one I could call in the morning for thoughts at that hour. We would be on the phone strategizing before sunrise every morning. We still talk at 5:30 in the morning. Her energy is boundless,” said Rev. Sharpton.
As for Noerdlinger, she expressed her gratitude for her supporters in her theGrio interview and shared the lessons she’s learned from this ordeal. “There are second and third chances. I had been written off by some of the mainstream media and portrayed as being permanently embattled. But at the end of the day, hard work, authenticity and belief in your core values will ultimately guide you. It’s made me stronger and thankful for those who have supported me for decades,” said Noerdlinger.