Dianne Morales (photo via campaign)
Promising a “platform for radically shaping our future through policies centered around dignity, care and solidarity,” Dianne Morales is widely considered among the top eight Democratic mayoral candidates in this year’s race to succeed term-limited Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Morales’ professional background is in nonprofit work and education. For the past decade before leaving the position to run for mayor, she worked as CEO and Executive Director of Phipps Neighborhoods, a Bronx social services organization. Describing herself as a “a learner, a survivor and a working single mother of two trying to do her best,” Morales has sought to gain attention in the crowded 2021 field with her emphasis on centering “the needs of those disproportionately underserved” through the elimination of barriers and of oppressive systems.
Of the top eight Democratic candidates as judged by public attention, fundraising, and polling, Morales is running the campaign furthest to the left, with her view of where New York City needs to go under the next mayor in part influenced by the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and all it has wrought and further exposed about racial, ethnic, and economic inequality in the city.
During many candidate forums and individual interviews, Morales, who is Afro-Latina of Puerto-Rican descent, regularly argues that New York City needs nothing less than a complete overhaul, whereby marginalized communities are finally empowered, and that effort needs to be led from City Hall. This extends throughout housing, policing, education, and other topics where the mayor is responsible for setting policy and executing laws and mandates from all three levels of government.
Morales is a first-time candidate for any office who said of pursuing the mayoralty was a “go big or go home” moment, that to effect the kind of change she thinks the city needs, she could only put her executive and lived experiences to work running to become the city’s top government official.
Much of what Morales’ supporters appear to be responding to is both the candidate’s passion in describing the deep problems facing so many New Yorkers and her framework for what the future should look like, the kind of approach she would bring to City Hall if elected the city’s first woman, first Latino, and second person of color to be mayor.
She is pitching voters on a major defunding of the NYPD, on making CUNY once again tuition-free, allowing voting in municipal elections regardless of citizenship status, free municipal broadband and advocating for the public takeover of utilities, among other signature policy plans to establish a “care economy” and “city where all people can live in dignity.”
With under three months until primary day, June 22, Morales has recently fleshed out, to an extent, a number of policy principles and published outlines of her plans on a number of key issues. But her campaign website offers only sketches, at most, on many issues. Like some of the other leading candidates, Morales has not published detailed policy plans, opting for outlines that can offer key insights into what she plans to do if elected mayor but leave a lot of questions on how and when the goals would be achieved, what they might cost, and where the funding might come from.
Morales has not, for example, outlined how she would approach balancing the city budget or addressing NYCHA’s $40 billion in capital needs beyond saying she would pursue tax increases on the wealthy at the state level and massive federal funding for public housing. Morales turned a lot of heads when she said she would defund the NYPD by $3 billion, but did not immediately offer any details for how and what the plan to do so would look like, only offering some additional aspects of her thinking when pushed in interviews and forums.
Morales’ policy platform is organized under three principles — dignity, care, and solidarity — under which she organizes her various platform sketches. On her website, there is a link to her “100 Days Dignity Now Platform,” and links to 15 topics of her “intersectional agenda.” As of April 4, one third of the links to those 15 topics on her campaign website platform page led to pages only saying “Coming soon.” Those pages include “Small Business and Cooperative Economy,” “Wealth Tax,” and “Green Jobs, Green Food, Green Justice.” Some of the issues that do have policy plans, like “Defund the Police; Fund the People,” offer brief bulleted lists.
But Morales has released outlines of her policy priorities on an array of topics such as gender equity, healthcare, education, housing and land use, and immigration that help, along with the many stances she has taken at candidate forums and in interviews, provide a sense of her vision for the city. Most of her sketches are bullet-pointed sentences that are given little explanation, but contain statements of principle and brief promises, altogether making a platform that has been attracting large numbers of volunteers and donors and a campaign surprising many close watchers of the race.
The issues she lists and solutions she offers connect toward “undoing normalized policies that destroy opportunity and reduce the quality of life for millions of New Yorkers,” the platform page says. “Dianne Morales, however, knows that our city is used to extracting from communities their art, labor and even their bondage, without acknowledging their human rights. While not exhaustive, the following outlines her intersectional agenda built upon dignity, care and solidarity.” Here are some highlights:
100 Days Framework
Morales touts her ‘Dignity Now’ platform to accomplish within her first 100 days as mayor, a mix of specific and vague promises. On the vague side, she commits to “[a]dvocate for basic income relief,” “[p]rovide mental health and grief support services,” and “ensure language justice.” She also commits to a citywide rent moratorium, though it isn’t clear what power she has to enact such an edict or where the funding would come from to make landlords whole. (It’s also unclear what the city’s situation will be come January 1, 2022 when the next mayor takes office. A massive rent relief allotment was included in the recently-passed federal American Rescue Plan.)
Morales pledges to issue an executive order on educational equity, in order to “desegregate schools, eliminate disparities and hold agencies accountable for inequitable educational outcomes.” She will also create a COVID-19 Equity & Data Response Unit and release NYC 5000, a health navigator program to “connect uninsured, housing unsecured, and other vulnerable populations to COVID-19 education, testing and vaccines.”
In order to confront what she calls “our city’s generational indifference to shrinking the gap in accessible healthcare and addressing the inequities that reduce the quality of life within communities,” Morales is offering a wide-ranging health-care platform.
In addition, a Morales administration would provide greater protections for domestic workers and access to healthcare for undocumented residents, though specifics are not offered. Morales says she would work to provide more financial support and career training opportunities for primary caregivers. She promises “universal access” to doulas and midwives, in addition to physicians, nurses, and prenatal care for expectant mothers.
She would also push to create paid sick leave, maternity leave, and family leave for gig workers and independent contractors, but does not identify through which government mechanisms. A Morales administration would create a citywide “network of integrated community health clinics” for preventative primary care, as well as “access to affordable and quality” child care, disability and long-term care, elder care, home care, and early childhood education. Morales would provide further support to the CUNY School of Medicine and the Center for Health Equity and Community Wellness, which is part of the city Health Department that seeks to “use a racial and social justice approach to eliminate health inequities for those most marginalized in New York City.”
Housing & Land Use
A Morales administration would “declare housing a right,” and focus its efforts on ending homelessness, reforming NYCHA, and providing “public oversight and democratic control” to community planning and development. In a February interview on the Max & Murphy podcast, Morales said on affordable housing, “I think we need to go to deeper afford lity. One of the flaws of the de Blasio plan is that it relied too heavily on developers whose priority is ultimately the bottom line.”
She has said she would dedicate city housing subsidy dollars toward that deeper affordability, pledged a focus on “social housing” and to fund efforts like community land trusts.
To end homelessness, Morales would convert hotels into housing and places to provide services for “families of our 100,000 unhoused school-aged youth.” Morales would appoint a deputy mayor responsible for “a citywide, cross-sector effort addressing housing, opportunity and social mobility.” In the same February Max & Murphy interview she said that her administration would make sure that “we’re moving people to permanent housing, not creating this industry…where we’re spending so much money and people don’t feel safe and people don’t want to be in shelters anyway.”
This deputy mayor would be responsible for seeing the shift of $3 billion from the shelter budget into preventative efforts. Morales would “repurpose” the city’s Economic Development Corporation to disrupt “poverty from a root cause lens” and prioritize the development of social housing, cooperative housing, and affordable housing.
For renters, Morales says she would streamline applications, ban criminal checks, “fight housing court evictions” by funding Right to Counsel services and advocating for the state-level Good Cause Eviction Act, and support the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase.
A Morales administration would seek a New York City where “our communities have livable neighborhoods and that the City has a vested interest in the well-being of our people over profit and luxury developments.” To that end, Morales as mayor would “[r]adically reimagine and re-center the Universal Land Use Review Process,” “[c]reate a data-informed, community-centered Comprehensive City Plan” and build more open spaces, particularly in “park-starved” neighborhoods.
This redistributional energy would also manifest itself in a Housing & Reparations Taskforce, which would identify “affirmative policies and programs” for communities negatively impacted by “discriminatory and predatory” practices.
On zoning, Morales wrote that she would work towards “a fairshare frame, ensuring equity goals and making sure that marginalized communities are brought to the table beyond the Community Board.” On the Max & Murphy show she said that “The zoning process and conversation in and of itself needs to be restructured from top to bottom. Zoning and rezoning should really be driven by communities…giving them a leading voice at the table.” During that same interview, she said that she would want to move away from the practice of deference to City Council members about rezonings in their districts, saying, “we all have to put some skin in the game.”
She would support a moratorium on all luxury rezonings and developments, ban the City from selling or leasing city-owned land to private developers and end tax breaks for developers and “[r]equire Department of City Planning to provide staffing support with planners and lawyers to local community boards during any rezoning planning process.”
Morales said city housing subsidies need to be targeted to provide deeper affordability and that she would create a city land bank to “acquire and repurpose distressed property,” pursue social housing and “[p]urchase vacant apartments, hotels, commercial and office spaces facing foreclosures to turn them into housing.” Social housing is rental housing that may be owned and managed by the city or non-profit organizations.
She would advocate for the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), implement a citywide Basement Apartment Safe for Everyone (BASE) to “legalize and protect basement apartments” and “work alongside Albany” to end the much-derided 421-a tax break. COPA, sponsored by Carlina Rivera, the Councilwoman of Manhattan’s 2nd district, would give nonprofits a right of first refusal on property. The state 421-a tax break seeks to reward developers who create affordable housing in the most expensive areas of the city, which critics have labelled as ineffective.
Morales would also support the use of “Racial Impact Studies” to obtain “real data around how rezonings will affect gentrification and displacement, especially in low-income communities.” A bill to add Racial Impact Studies was introduced to the City Council by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in 2019.
While Morales has provided few specifics on how she would carry out her housing and land use vision, with no cost estimates or timelines, it is another area she is promising sweeping change. She said on the Max & Murphy podcast in February that housing would be an area she aims to make “a big difference in the first year” in shifting resources.
Morales would appoint a NYCHA resident to be the chair of the public housing’s Board, to appoint a NYCHA Board with a majority of NYCHA residents, and to “Pilot a resident management corporation (RMC) in a NYCHA complex in each borough.” Morales would “Prioritize connecting NYCHA residents with career readiness strategies” and “end the criminalization, over-policing and surveillance of NYCHA communities.”
Unlike several other candidates, Morales would not use the rental assistance demonstration (RAD) federal voucher program to help alleviate cash-strapped NYCHA’s financial woes. RAD is an Obama-era program that allows private entities to operate public housing buildings. Morales instead would advance “an aggressive state and federal campaign calling for $35 billion in funding from [sic] the authority.”
She also pledges to align NYCHA with the federal Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, sponsored and championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Queens.
Policing and Criminal Justice
Writing that “it is imperative that we finally address the root causes of violence and move from the myth that we will police our way to safety,” Morales reiterates her pledge for a $3 billion reallocation from the NYPD’s overall budget, which in sum is over $10 billion annually, including operating, capital, and pension costs. She would also seek cuts to District Attorney budgets.
Morales has given limited explanation for how she would cut the $3 billion from the NYPD budget, but has indicated she would not fire officers, instead offering those whose positions she would cut from the force the opportunity to be retrained and deployed in other agencies doing different types of social service work to make investments in her vision for creating greater public safety. During her interview with Max & Murphy, she said that “I don’t think of it as layoffs…we’re just creating jobs that are much more connected to the care economy” and that “we could repurpose and retrain people…we’re not eliminating jobs, we’re just shifting them from one function to another.”
Morales would create the Community First Responders Department, which would “act as part of a larger ecosystem to connect New Yorkers with program and services to address their needs.” It would be separate from the NYPD, and would respond to mental health and wellness calls that have been handled by the NYPD in the past.
Morales says she would remove the NYPD from the “social services” they currently provide, including as school safety officers, traffic enforcement, drug intervention, and outreach to homeless populations.
Morales would also push for full elimination of the use of bail, and “[f]ind City-led ways to begin to eliminate pre-trial detention,” such as calling on district attorneys to vacate and decline to prosecute more offenses. She would also advocate for “reducing the number of people subjected to pretrial detention by 80% immediately.” In addition, Morales says she would push ahead the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex, but not build any new jails (four are planned, three of which would replace existing jails), and end civil asset forfeiture.
A Morales administration would “Advance a democratically-elected” Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) as well as “empower” it to discipline officers.
To fight crime, Morales would create more “gun-free” zones in partnership with communities, grow the Cure Violence program and “[i]nvest in restorative alternatives to disrupt violence within communities.”
In one of her more sweeping promises, Morales would “Decriminalize all drug use, as well as possession of limited amounts. End arrests and violation-level enforcement for drugs and decline to prosecute all drug charges,” though the mayor is not in charge of what district attorneys may prosecute.
Touting her background as a former New York City public school educator, Morales seeks a “community-centered governance focused on parents, educators and students that has not existed in New York City schools.” She has said she is interested in exploring an end to mayoral control of city schools, replacing it with some kind of new community-based model that she has not offered details on.
A Morales administration would put $450 million into “mental health services, student support positions and restorative and transformative practices,” as well as remove NYPD officers from schools. Morales pledges to “fully fund the school capital plan” (about $20 billion over five years, though there’s no indication it is not fully funded) in an effort to reduce class sizes and overcrowding, remove mold, asbestos and lead, and make schools better accessible to students with disabilities.
While Morales has called herself a big proponent of school choice, she says she would take or seek several steps to curb charter schools, such as ending their co-location in public school buildings, capping their expansion, preventing the sharing of recruitment data to charter schools without parental consent, and “advocating for the city’s ability” to shut down “non-functioning” charter schools.
As mayor, Morales would attempt to diversify teachers in city schools by creating a Peer Educator Summer Program for high-schoolers and offering “applicable CUNY college credits to pursue a career in teaching.”
Calling CUNY -- which is funded through tuition and fees and all three branches of government, particularly the state -- “the vehicle to our collective recovery and economic growth,” Morales seeks to “reduce any barrier to higher and continuous learning at CUNY.”
A Morales administration would seek to make tuition again free at every CUNY school, provide free or heavily subsidized childcare for CUNY students and increase salaries for CUNY faculty and staff, including the $7,000 per course demanded by the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing faculty in the CUNY system. In addition, she would “provide MetroCards, books and supplies stipends, and further support” for low-income students, “decentralize classes” throughout the city and employ a five-year strategy to recruit a more “culturally diverse trauma-informed workforce, including specialists in mental health, education, social work and the arts.”
The big question for Morales’ CUNY plan, as well as other pieces of her platform, is cost.
While she declines to provide a cost estimate or a timeline for her wide-reaching program, she attempts to answer the question that may be first on her critics’ minds by listing several potential sources of funding. Among the ways to fund her CUNY program would be the $3 billion she says she would reduce from the NYPD budget; funds through the Invest in New York Act, a package of six tax-increase bills that progressives are attempting to pass through the New York State Legislature; and unspecified cuts by eliminating “waste from our current budget in areas that aren’t serving our communities.”
In a video interview with Gotham Gazette, Morales said that she’d look to reclaim money dispensed to agencies for city jobs that are still vacant after six months, and to reduce the contracts given to consultants who make studies just to “sit on the shelves.”
Arguing that New York City’s public spaces have been “neglected, seized, politicized and controlled by a privileged few,” Morales says her administration would push for the public takeover of utilities such as electricity and provide free municipal broadband citywide.
She would also invest in Fair Share Planning, an idea in the City Charter that has historically been ignored that directs neighborhoods sited for undesirable or burdensome facilities to also receive an environmental benefit.
Morales’ emphasis on New Yorkers with disabilities runs throughout her platform. She says she would increase Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance at bus stops, ferry stops, and green spaces, add curb cuts and Accessible Pedestrian Signals across the city, and require all public meetings to have open captions, sign language interpreters, and large-print format.
Like many other mayoral candidates, Morales supports the expansion of the pandemic-era Open Restaurants and Open Streets programs.
Morales’ transportation-related proposals include expanding the Fair Fares program to provide free public transportation for all New York City “students and low-income New Yorkers,” taking steps to make the whole public transportation system free for all, and attempting to make the Citi Bike program a free public utility for all city residents.
Morales has also said she would like to move toward city control of the subway system.
The Morales administration would support the 25x25 Plan, a plan to reduce car usage by 25% by 2025 put together by advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, and backed by over 80 organizations. The 25x25 plan would convert 25% of streetspace into non-car uses by 2025, meter 1/4 of all free parking in the city and add 500 lane miles of new protected bus-only lanes with the space created by the removed car space. She would strip new buildings of parking requirements, instead replacing that requirement with car-share or bike-share spaces instead.
Unlike the majority of the leading 2021 mayoral candidates, Morales has at least an outline of an immigration policy platform. She would expand the New York Immigrant Family Unit project, a public defender program for immigrants facing deportation run by the Vera Institute of Justice, which has been funded by the New York City Council since 2014. Morales would also increase funding to allow for legal services for non-detained immigrants, as well as for “trusted community-based organizations with proven records of providing free and accessible healthcare to immigrants.”
Most of Morales’ ideas on immigration in New York City pertain to limiting the power of the NYPD and ICE, the federal immigration enforcement agency. She would prohibit the NYPD from providing aid to ICE or “inviting ICE into the City,” and from “practices that target undocumented workers, including street vendors.” In addition, Morales would ban all city-level agencies from asking about immigration status other than in order to provide “resources and legal services” to undocumented New Yorkers.
As mayor, she would also “invest in real language access professional support” and “establish the right to vote in city elections regardless of citizenship,” which would need to be passed through the City Council.
A Morales administration would also take on the issue of workers’ rights. Morales says she would protect workers against wage theft, provide “affirmative human rights protections of undocumented, domestic and low-wage workers,” and “prevent citywide work layoffs and create solutions in collaboration with union leadership”
She would expand the Freelance Isn’t Free Act and “better enforce protections for independent contractors and freelancers,” trying to ensure those workers are paid and paid on time.
As mayor, Morales pledges to ban “waivers of workplace rests,” expand just cause workplace protections, and permit qui tam enforcement, lawsuits where whistleblowers sue an organization they know to be committing fraud against the government and reap financial rewards if successful.
Morales would provide “aggressive monitoring and enforcement” of pay equity laws and establish a “Pool Benefits Fund” for informal and domestic workers to provide healthcare, among other benefits.
A Morales administration would decriminalize sex work and advocate for the rights of sex workers, and expand free abortion and contraception in New York City. In addition, she would entrust NYC’s Health and Human Services, Center for Health Equity, and the Commission for Gender Equity to eliminate “preventable causes” of Black maternal and infant mortality by creating a “multi-agency and community expert task force” to work on the issue.
To expand resources for LGBTQ New Yorkers, Morales would “prioritize the funding of trusted healthcare providers,” and mandate diversity and inclusion curriculum in New York City schools, including for teachers and administrators. Morales also pledges to expand housing opportunities and safe spaces.
Writing that “New York State must also be a partner with the City of New York,” Morales says she would advocate for the State Legislature to pass the Hate Crimes Analysis and Review Act, which would require the state to release the demographic information of both perpetrators and victims of hate crimes; The Long-Term Care Facility Residents’ Bill of Rights, to ensure LGBTQ elderly people are protected from discrimination; and a bill that would “vacate sex trafficking-related convictions from people’s records.”
Ben Max contributed to this story.