Maya Wiley, Kathryn Garcia, Dianne Morales
“A mom can just see it -- the potential, the promise, and the challenges to overcome -- so should a mayor,” said Maya Wiley, a Democratic candidate for mayor, in a campaign ad entitled Mom. It’s part of a slew of promotional material from Wiley promising to “save a generation of kids from the trauma of crime and injustice” and place her status as a mother central to the case she’s been making to voters.
A number of Wiley’s campaign ads show a subheading beneath her name that reads: Civil Rights Attorney & Mom.
Wiley is one of three women in the top tier of eight candidates in this year’s Democratic primary, with voting ending on Tuesday, June 22, though final results won’t be known for weeks given state laws around absentee ballots. It is also the first mayoral race with ranked-choice voting in place for party primaries.
Kathryn Garcia, the former city sanitation commissioner, and Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, are also on the ballot with Wiley, among the group of eight candidates who have qualified for the official televised debates. All three are mothers and if any wins the primary, she would be in a very strong position to become the first woman mayor of New York City -- breaking a streak of 109 male predecessors -- given that Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly eight to one.
Wiley and her campaign have clearly decided that presenting her as a mother has the power to sway the electorate -- an electorate that promises to be overwhelmingly female this primary cycle. In late May Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics released a poll that modeled the female share of likely Democratic primary voters at 61%. Some other pollsters have put it slightly lower, but in that neighborhood. But womanhood and motherhood are not inextricably bound. As with any aspect of female candidacy, there is no simple broad swath approach to connecting with and appealing to the electorate, even only the female electorate, and its many nuances.
Liuba Grechen Shirley, founder of Vote Mama, a PAC dedicated to electing Democratic moms, and a former candidate for Congress, said that a candidate who markets their motherhood has to have the policies to back it up.
“I think it can sway voters, depending on what policies you support,” she explained in a phone interview. “If you don't support things like universal childcare and equity in education and paid family leave, I don't think just talking about your role as a mother will make a difference.”
This may indicate why Wiley’s campaign seems to be making an intentional effort to emphasize motherhood as a key factor of her identity and candidacy, it’s central to who she is given her ongoing experience raising two daughters and she has the relevant policies toward the top of her agenda.
One of Wiley’s signature campaign agenda items is her “Universal Community Care Plan,” aimed at lifting up the nearly 1.3 million New Yorkers who work as caregivers, an overwhelming majority of whom are women of color. Wiley, who is Black, has also pledged to prioritize maternal health by creating birthing centers in every public hospital and expanding midwifery services within the system. The plan explicitly calls out the disproportionately high rate of maternal morbidity among women of color and outlines a targeted response involving a robust taskforce with activists and representatives from multiple city agencies. Wiley has also connected being a mother to her plans to prevent gun violence, desegregate and improve city schools, and make the city more affordable.
Both Garcia and Morales have also made the city’s drastically disparate maternal morbidity rates a focal point, and both have talked about their motherhood as important to who they are and what they would bring to the office of Mayor. While the two have made it less of a central campaign point than Wiley, Morales has repeatedly discussed her experiences as a single mother of two and head of household, and both have talked about being working moms and how that perspective would be important to their lens at City Hall.
“Years ago, this broke single mom decided I would never let anyone tell me who I could be in this world.” Morales tweeted after the second mayoral debate on June 2. Although a radical progressivism and grassroots foundation have been the defining characteristics of her run, Morales’ role as a mom has never been absent from her campaign. During countless candidate forums she has regularly discussed her lived experiences, including as the mom of a sexual assault survivor daughter who has struggled with mental health challenges and a son who has been profiled by police, as Morales has put it.
Morales' website describes her as a lifelong advocate for youth -- a former public school teacher, and the mother of two children with learning differences who sued the city school system for failing to provide adequate resources. Her platform includes a robust plan to establish equity in the education system with tactics like “culturally responsive” teaching and free after school programs, especially for those students in foster care. She supports the ongoing expansion of the city’s universal pre-K and 3-K programs, as well as paid family leave for gig workers and independent contractors.
"As a single mother, I know what it means not just to care and provide for my family but also what it is like to struggle to balance the budget and make ends meet,” Morales said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “New Yorkers would be served well by having a Mayor that understands their experiences and can prioritize leading in a way that addresses those challenges and focuses on opportunities to live in dignity."
Garcia has marketed herself as a crisis manager with more than a decade of high-level experience in government service, but she has also highlighted the importance of the city electing its first woman as mayor.
When asked by John Berman on CNN’s New Day about the possibility of becoming New York City’s first female mayor, she responded, “I am excited that I could be the first woman elected in New York City not only because I bring a wealth of experience of being a working mom, of having worked and lived here for my entire life, but also as a role model. I want young girls to see that we can hold the top chair.”
Garcia has also been a proponent of paid family leave and has presented a multi-step plan to address the racial disparity in maternal mortality rates. Her campaign has also promised free childcare for families with children under three years old making less than $70,000 a year. “As a working mom who raised two kids here, I want every parent to feel like their city has their back,” Garcia said in a press release. “That’s why I am in this race and that’s what I will strive for every day as mayor.”
Childcare policies do of course concern all parents, not just mothers, but child care does disproportionately fall on mothers and the pandemic has brought that fact into stark relief as so many women dropped out of the workforce. The five men who are in the top tier of leading Democratic candidates for mayor are all fathers, and some have made that fact central to their campaigns. Both Scott Stringer and Andrew Yang, for example, are fathers to young boys and have discussed the struggles of pandemic school closures and remote learning.
The decision to emphasize parenthood as a political strategy is a liberty not historically afforded to both mothers and fathers equally. Grechen Shirley explained that in politics women are often told that mentioning their children will hurt their chances of being taken seriously and can deter donors, voters, and the press. It's a double-edged sword, she said, because women are deemed irresponsible when they run with young children whereas men can hold up their children as an example of responsibility and be celebrated for it.
Grechen Shirley herself ran for office in 2018 when her children were only 1 and 3 years old and became the first woman in history to receive federal approval to spend campaign funds on childcare, winning a precedent-setting Federal Elections Commission sign-off. Since then 51 candidates have followed suit at the federal level, and nearly 70 at the state level. Grechen Shirley’s fight to make it easier for moms to run for office, and to run before their children are fully grown, isn’t about symbolism or even simply ensuring a broad range of representation, it’s also about what she sees as the unique experiences mothers can bring to governing.
“Our policies have been failing working families for generations -- we're 27th in education, we're 27th in healthcare, we're the only country other than Papua New Guinea without paid family leave. It's more expensive to send your infant to child care than it is to send your teenagers to college. We have the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world,” Grechen Shirley explained. “When you have people in office who understand these issues at a visceral level, because you have gone through childbirth, because you know what it's like not to be able to get off the childcare waitlist, because you have relied on the children's health insurance program for your kids healthcare; when you have people in office who are close to these issues because it's their everyday life you actually start to prioritize policies that help working families.”
It’s this belief that has driven Vote Mama to endorse six candidates in these New York City Council primaries -- all mothers and all women of color who Grechen Shirley says have the power to transform the Council’s landscape and be fierce advocates for working families across the city. A mayoral candidate has not been endorsed by the PAC.
A variety of other women’s and reproductive rights groups have come out in support of the female candidates. Wiley has secured endorsements from Amplify Her, Emily’s List, and the Progressive Women of New York as well as prominent activists like Gloria Steinem and Cecile Richards -- some of whom would surely again stress that womanhood and motherhood should not be equated.
“Wiley’s Universal Community Care plan is impressive because it acknowledges how critical care work is, and also how undervalued it is,” said Amplify Her’s executive director and co-founder Marti Speranza Wong, in a statement. “In our society, many mothers are often the primary or even sole caregiver for their children and sometimes their elders, and it makes sense that their lived experience would compel them to enact policies that support caregivers and give them the resources and respect they deserve.”
Wiley has also secured the endorsement of the National Organization for Women NYC chapter. “We want to make this the best city for mothers and we can do that with Maya Wiley as mayor,” executive director Sonio Ossorio said in remarks made at Wall Street’s “fearless girl” statue on June 6. Wiley herself later took the podium, acknowledging that as she spoke there was another mother in New York City whose ten year old son had died from a gunshot wound the night prior. “The thing about mothers is that they’re all our children. And that when we hear any mother or any father has lost a child we have all lost a child,” Wiley said before making a case for safer communities by way of gun regulation and police reform.
Garcia also took a personal approach when responding to being endorsed by Planned Parenthood of Greater New York Votes PAC saying in a June 3 press release, “As a mom of two, I take the fight for reproductive health and justice personally. As mayor, I pledge to fight every day for equal access to quality, affordable healthcare for all New Yorkers.”
Vote Pro Choice has chosen to endorse all three of Wiley, Garcia, and Morales, and The National Institute for Reproductive Health came out in support of both Garcia and Wiley.