Gotham Gazette

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Dianne Morales' Strengths and Weaknesses as She Runs for Mayor

Dianne Morales rally

Dianne Morales (photo via Morales campaign)

[This article is part of a series on the leading Democratic mayoral candidates' strengths and weaknesses.]

Dianne Morales officially entered the mayoral race in November as a political neophyte, with no past campaign or governing experience. But in the year leading up to her campaign launch and in nearly five months since, she has built a political movement that has defied expectations and displayed the staying power to remain in the top tier of contenders seeking the Democratic nomination in the June primary election. In the limited available polling, she has run in the low single digits, but close to or nearly the same as several others with far more resources, name recognition, or records of government service.

Of the eight Democrats considered in that top tier, Morales likely entered the race with the steepest climb to victory. She is undoubtedly the candidate in that group running furthest to the left, winning a number of endorsements from elected officials and activist groups that have helped give her campaign momentum. She’s qualified for millions of dollars in public matching funds by appealing to thousands of small-dollar donors, showing grassroots support that some of the other, bigger-name candidates can only envy. Although at times short on specifics or showing limited familiarity with city government, Morales is offering a bold, uncompromising vision for upending power structures and reinventing how local government is run that has caught the eye of many who want something of a revolution that finally centers marginalized populations and scorn from others who see her as some combination of unrealistic, unready, and threatening.

What remains to be seen, though, is if her message as an outsider candidate with relatively radical ideas for city government, the economy, and society will resonate with more than a narrow slice of the primary electorate and be rewarded with votes, particularly enough to truly be in the mix as ballots are tallied with the new ranked-choice voting system being used citywide for the first time. Like her lack of ties to the city’s political establishment, Morales’ leftist platform is both a strength and a weakness as she attempts to accomplish the improbable. The degree to which one or the other proves to be more strength than weakness will depend on a number of factors including how well her campaign is run, the mood of the electorate, her performance in televised debates, and more. They are among a number of other strengths and weaknesses -- including her penchant for sweeping discourse supported by limited specifics -- that have helped her fight her way into the conversation and those debates, giving her longshot bid slightly better odds and making other candidates sweat more about earning support from progressive, young, and Latino voters.

Morales is running on the combination of her lived experience and vision for the future of the city, often outlining in personal terms the ways in which she knows the struggles of New Yorkers, especially in low-income communities of color, which is her backstory as an Afro-Latina, born to Puerto-Rican parents, and native of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Morales went to Stuyvesant High School, where she has said it really hit her that she had grown up poor and in a deeply under-resourced community, and, eventually, earned graduate degrees from Columbia University and Harvard. Throughout many online candidate forums and other campaign appearances, Morales has spoken about recognizing that the educational opportunities she had are the exception, and how that has in part motivated her run. She talks about her experiences as a single mother of two kids, both of whom needed Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in school, for which she had to fight with the Department of Education, and, while she is a homeowner, living in a multi-generational household where she provides for both her young adult children and aging parents. She has spoken about her daughter as a sexual assault survivor and her son as a victim of police brutality.

Morales may not have served in elected office before but she does have a record of service to New Yorkers. A former educator working in the public school system, Morales was raised in a union household living in public housing. She has spent the last 20 years working in the nonprofit sphere around education and human services for the city’s most vulnerable. Between 2000 and 2002, she served as executive director at East Harlem Block Schools, before joining the Department of Education in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. She served as chief of operations of the newly-created Office of Youth Development and School Community Services till 2004. She then spent one year as Director of State Implementation and Operations at the Teaching Commission. For the next four years, between 2005 and 2009, she was executive director at The Door, a youth development organization that serves at-risk young people including those involved in the court system, and homeless and foster care youth. Then, after a one-year stint as vice president of programs at Single Stop USA, she became executive director and CEO at Phipps Neighborhoods, a Bronx-based anti-poverty organization that provides education and workforce training services for low-income New Yorkers. After a decade at that job, she left and threw her hat into the mayoral race.

“When you think about what I’m talking about, what I’m wanting to do, the kind of change and impact and scale that I want to have on the city, it’s at the mayoral level,” Morales explained in a February 2020 appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast, not long after she had declared her intention to run for mayor, among the earliest candidates to do so. “Because I’m not someone who has aspired all my life to become an elected official and because I’m not mapping out the strategic pathway or the steps to that, it didn’t make sense to me to think about City Council or a local position. I’m not planning to spend the next 20 years of my life in elected office. This is one of those ‘go big or go home’ moments for me. This is the place where I think I can have the greatest impact and make the biggest difference in the largest number of people’s lives. This isn’t going to be a second career for me.”

In that interview, Morales rejected ideological labels, insisting that she did not fit “neatly into one box” as a candidate, citing, for instance, her support for school choice. She has since emerged as more unequivocally progressive, almost always staking out the most leftward positions among the leading candidates, after having lived through the pandemic. “I think that there is an increased sense of urgency, I think, and sort of, I believe, a moral urgency around addressing some of the issues that informed the foundation of my platform to begin with, around equity and justice, around communities that have been historically marginalized and left behind him and sort of not prioritized in city policy,” she said in a return to the Max & Murphy podcast in February of this year.

Last week, at the first official debate ahead of the primary, Morales succinctly defined her campaign in her opening remarks. “My platform centers three pillars: dignity, care and solidarity,” she said. “Together we can redefine safety, invest in housing for all, and finally treat all essential workers as essential. We can rebuild our small businesses, advance a Green New Deal and make CUNY free.”

In the crowded and diverse primary field, Morales doesn’t have the same level of name recognition as other candidates. She doesn’t have the star power of, say, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has been leading in most of the polling in the race, or Maya Wiley, former counsel to the mayor who built a large audience as an MSNBC contributor. Morales hasn’t spent years as part of the political establishment like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams or Comptroller Scott Stringer. She doesn’t have a rolodex of wealthy donors like former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire. And she doesn’t have a long list of allies from working in government like former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia or former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan. She’s offering a different type of candidacy, with a limited list of high-profile leadership roles or big-ticket accomplishments but decades in the trenches providing services to at-risk New Yorkers. 

Morales has nonetheless managed to remain at least somewhat competitive. A new poll released Monday evening from WPIX-11 and Emerson College had her in fifth place behind Adams, Stringer, Yang, and Garcia, with 5.5% of the vote, though the other top tier candidates were all very close to her and within the margin of error. In a recent poll commissioned by consulting firm Metropolitan Public Strategies that is an outlier for her, Morales came in third place with 12% of the vote, behind Adams (16%) and Yang (15%), according to a Politico New York report – though Latinos and Asians were deliberately overrepresented in the sample and “undecided” yet again had the highest total. These figures may indicate some momentum that Morales just over five weeks from primary day, but the race has continued to lack surveys from the most reputable New York pollsters and many voters are just starting to tune in, if at all yet, and it is challenging to really assess the race beyond the fact that a large percentage of voters are undecided and there is something of a top tier of Yang, Adams, and Stringer within the leading eight.

Morales’ progressive vision and professed values have enamored her to younger voters who reject the political status quo and who are disillusioned by incremental progress and hollow promises from career politicians. It’s an inclusive message of raising the floor for the city’s most vulnerable, fighting for equitable access to city resources, housing homeless people, and reenvisioning public safety as a responsibility for communities and not the police. That last point in particular is the centerpiece of her campaign platform, as she has repeatedly promised to cut $3 billion from the NYPD’s budget and to reinvest it in underserved communities while launching a new Community First Responders Department made up of trained professionals that would respond to mental health, wellness, and social issues separately from the significantly scaled back police department. Perhaps key to her chances will be explaining that vision to voters, the majority of whom, polls show, does not favor ‘defunding the police.’ A television and digital ad focused on this plan could be the type of attention-grabber Morales’ campaign would need to catapult, though leaning further into removing police resources at a time of spiking gun violence could also hurt her chances of establishing a broader base of support.

Morales’ platform includes a slew of other ideas that progressives have hailed including a basic income relief program, a citywide rent moratorium, a municipal green jobs agenda, a social housing initiative, a push for higher taxes on the wealthy, decriminalizing sex work, advocating for single-payer health care at the state level, and closing the Rikers Island jails without building new ones, just to name a few. She is pledging to take aggressive, immediate action to integrate the city's deeply segregated schools.

That platform and vision has won over several prominent progressive elected officials including City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, State Senators Gustavo Rivera and Jabari Brisport, Assemblymembers Harvey Epstein, Marcela Mitaynes, and Jessica González-Rojas, and a good portion of the city’s activist left and progressive political clubs and organizations that have become increasingly influential in local politics. Morales has been endorsed by the likes of Citizen Action of New York, Empire State Indivisible, and the Working Families Party (which chose her as its second choice after Stringer but recently rescinded its endorsement of him after he faced accusations of sexual harassment and assault from a 2001 campaign volunteer. He has denied the allegations). After dropping Stringer, the WFP said it was co-endorsing Morales and Wiley, encouraging New Yorkers to rank them as their top two on the ranked-choice ballot. Empire State Indivisible also co-endorsed Wiley. Senator Rivera had endorsed Stringer as his first choice and Morales as second, but has since rescinded his Stringer support.

González-Rojas has known Morales for 26 years and said she “has consistently exemplified a commitment to communities that have been left behind and a deep sense of values that really seek to uplift all communities.”

“I think she's the candidate who I've seen the most energy around, I think she's ignited a generation of activists who really feel hopeful about her candidacy,” she added.

Her climate justice platform, in particular, earned her support from the youth-led Sunrise Movement NYC, which has been hitting the ground to boost her campaign and which also withdrew its endorsement of Stringer after co-endorsing the pair of candidates.

“She centers justice at the forefront of her campaign in a way that is uniquely impressive to us as a climate justice organization,” said Veekas Ashoka, a councilor on Sunrise Movement’s NYC Hub, in a Zoom interview. Sunrise Movement’s Grace Cuddihy and Judah Klingsberg, co-political leads of the Hub, echoed the sentiment. “Young people all across the city are mobilizing around Dianne, because they know that Dianne is the candidate that will fight for a Green, Just recovery from the pandemic while in City Hall,” Cuddihy said in part in a text message. Klingsberg added, “I’m in high school, and my arms are currently sore from carrying 2,500 flyers from their office that Sunrise will be handing out to voters. Our youth-led org and other youth volunteers are ready to throw down for a candidate who will bring us with her into City Hall.”

But the Democratic primary electorate is an unpredictable beast and it skews older and moderate, and heavily Black and Latino. After the devastating year that the city has been through because of the coronavirus pandemic, many New Yorkers are looking for a return to stability, to whatever degree they had it before the outbreak, and competent management of city affairs but also a bold vision for the future. For some, that means a more aggressive approach to the deeply unequal “tale of two cities” that Bill de Blasio successfully ran against in 2013. But city primary voters don’t tend to be as progressive as broader Democratic voters. Yang and Adams, among the more moderate candidates in the field, have consistently held leads but they have also been at the top of name recognition in the early going, something an onslaught of campaigning and advertising will at least partially shift.

Political observers say Morales has a clarity of vision but doesn’t have a political base like some of the other candidates, while also competing in the progressive lane with the likes of Stringer and Wiley. Morales would have to cobble together a lion’s share of the progressive vote, which is roughly a third of primary voters, as well as successfully court Hispanic voters, who make up a fifth of the primary electorate and tend to be far more ideologically diverse, said Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic strategist with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP.

“Morales has passion, she has a clear-cut agenda. She's done very well in terms of generating social network coverage of her race,” Gyory said in a phone interview, referring especially to Morales’ digital following on platforms like Twitter. “But the question is, can she put together an effective progressive and Hispanic coalition?”

“She has no clear political constituency,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant. “She's a woman. So gender helps. She has the last name, Latino, so that helps. Can't hurt. But she has no discerning qualifications that would make her more desirable than any of the others.”

A Morales victory would be nothing short of historic. She would become the first woman and first Latina to occupy City Hall, and the second Black mayor after former Mayor David Dinkins. Even if she does not win, the fact that she is still a contender offers modeling and credibility to all future candidates of color, said Jasmine Robinson, a Staten Island activist and a member of the steering committee and endorsements team at Progressive Women of NY, which has backed Morales. “I’m Afro-Latina and for her to come this far in the race, whether she wins or loses, speaks volumes,” said Robinson. “Women of color, and especially Black women, Afro-Latinas, are changing the narrative, the political narrative and the political landscape of what it means to be a candidate.”

“We could always run...but the possibility of winning is within her realm, it’s monumental. We are cerating herstory, not history, her-story,” she added.

Morales’ appeal to younger voters may be her strongest advantage. According to the Campaign Finance Board’s latest Voter Analysis Report, turnout among voters between the age of 18 and 29 saw the greatest increase among all age groups in the 2020 presidential election compared with 2016. If that trend continues in the Democratic primary, nowhere near a given based on how turnout drops for local elections, Morales may be among the candidates to reap its benefits.

“She has been like one of the most progressive candidates in the race and I think that kind of clarity and purity on issues is really helpful, especially for folks who are undecided,” said Stanley Fritz, political director of Citizen Action of New York, “because whereas some candidates are kind of like wishy washy or won’t get clear on issues, Dianne has consistently been like, ‘No, defund the police, house the poor.’...Whatever the issue is, she's very definitive and clear.”

Though her promises are unambiguous, her approach to them isn’t as specific. Over the last few months, she has continued to release more policy outlines, opting for broad pledges and proposals that help portray her overall governing philosophy, but with little accompanying detail about execution. For instance, she has repeatedly failed to delineate how she would redistribute $3 billion from the policing budget or what the reconstituted police department would really look like, what kind of department personnel shift she would expect. She hasn’t explained how she would balance the city budget if she were to fund many of the larger programs she wants to implement, save for arguing for higher taxes on high-income New Yorkers, a measure that requires state approval. She has railed against current plans to help raise revenue for NYCHA, but has not offered a plan for how to save the crumbling public housing home to about half-a-million New Yorkers.

Among her most prominent supporters is Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law professor and former candidate for governor and attorney general who is beloved by many New York progressives. Teachout cited Morales’ executive experience running nonprofits and her “unapologetic” positions. She also pointed to her anti-corruption platform, which Morales unveiled at the same press conference where Teachout announced her endorsement.

“I am less interested in what a mayor would do if they had billions of dollars because we would all like $10 billion,” she said. “I’m more interested in how a mayor thinks about providing direct services, and dealing with procurement and conflicts and subsidies in a world of limited resources.”

Morales’ vision, she said, is one that centers communities from the bottom up. “She's got a vision of the city, and it's a vision of the city which I think a lot of people share, which is we want to have a lot more community retail...It's like the deep anti-Bloomberg; like less CVS, more community pharmacies.”

Along with Teachout and others previously mentioned, Morales also has in her corner The Jewish Vote, Jim Owles Democratic Club, the Stonewall Democrats, the New York Progressive Action Network, LAMBDA Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, Bay Ridge Democrats, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, Downtown Independent Democrats, Muslim Democratic Club of New York, Indivisible Nation BK, Students for Gun Legislation, Parents Supporting Parents, Ten Demands for Justice, Future Steps US, NASW-PACE, Rockaway Revolution and CODA LES. She is the second choice candidate for the United Auto Workers, PSC CUNY, and Higher Heights PAC.

Morales has achieved more support from elected officials and groups and individual donors than most would have predicted a year ago, but she clearly still faces several major challenges. She must continue to raise money while running a campaign focused on the most marginalized. There’s no discounting that as a woman, and an Afro-Latina at that, she faces harsher judgements around ‘qualifications’ and ‘viability.’ Her supporters have rubbished those claims as remnants of the old school politics that New York voters have rejected in recent election cycles, chiefly when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Democratic stalwart Joe Crowley to claim New York’s 14th congressional seat in 2018. That same year, a slate of younger progressive candidates of color, including several women, deposed members of the State Senate’s erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, a moderate breakaway faction that caucused with Republicans and thwarted progressive legislation for years.

“There's been sort of a reawakening that I think has happened post-Trump, and I think the viability formula is no longer relevant to the old standards,” said González-Rojas. “It's definitely more about your ground game, about your base and about exciting people and giving people hope in a moment where there's been so much despair.” And Morales’ campaign has indeed excited many New Yorkers -- more than 3,000 people signed up to volunteer with her campaign, according to an NY1 report.

Morales, like other more progressive candidates, has been criticized for offering policies that critics say would make the city less safe by cutting police funding or more financially unstable by increasing taxes on the wealthy and spending on social services. “Wanting people to have access, that's far left? Wanting there to be more accountability to law enforcement? That's far left?,” said Robinson. “We need to see that because we're tired of the status quo. We’re tired of seeing the same message, the same rhetoric over and over and over again.”

As she’s gained some momentum, Morales is also facing greater scrutiny, including a news article from The City that details her acquiescence to a shakedown for a bribe by a corrupt Department of Environmental Protection inspector who visited her newly-purchased Brooklyn brownstone over a $12,500-plus water bill that Morales was disputing back in 2002. Not only was Morales, then a high-ranking Department of Education employee, found to have given the inspector a bribe, but to have lied about it multiple times during the subsequent investigation.

The incident coming to light led to criticism but also a rallying of support behind her, as it did show her to have been preyed upon. Still, she made the decision to offer the $300 bribe and to lie to city investigators, while some of the others who were extorted did neither. The incident may have cost her a high-profile job with the city in 2019, as The City reported.

“Since the story broke, there has been an outpouring of support from New Yorkers who have experienced similar challenges with the very agencies charged with serving the residents of our city,” Morales said in part in a Monday statement, which did not address the reported lies to investigators. “The unfortunate reality is that these incidents are everyday occurrences for the city’s most vulnerable communities — poor people, single mothers, Black and Brown people, and immigrants.”

“But that’s why I’m in this race, and if you haven’t noticed: We’re winning. While this may have been an attempt, however misinformed, to derail my candidacy and get us off track —I won’t let it. Anyone who attempts to use this for their political gain should not just be ashamed; they are also not prepared to lead a significant majority of our city who are vulnerable to exploitative and predatory practices. We’re still Choosing a Future that ensures that no New Yorker has to experience similar incidents. When I say I know what it means to be a New Yorker, I mean it. As Mayor, I will draw on my lived experience to fight for all New Yorkers, root out corruption, and build a government for the people.”

[This article is part of a series on the leading Democratic mayoral candidates' strengths and weaknesses.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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