Dianne Morales had a cold. Not COVID, she’s fully vaccinated, but when she arrived at the Jackson Heights Greenmarket on Sunday, acutely aware that this was a pivotal moment in the mayor’s race and for her candidacy, she was battling congestion and a slight sore throat. So she did what we’ve all learned to do: she wore two masks and proceeded with caution.
Dressed in a white shirt, linen blazer, and black pants, she elbow-bumped and chatted with prospective voters and volunteers, posing for pictures and listening to the issues that mattered to them. Her stump speech, which she delivers at campaign events like this one, is as much about making a case for her own candidacy as it is about broader involvement.
“This pandemic made it crystal clear that now is the time for us to put a stake in the ground and exercise the political and moral courage to make the kind of changes that we all deserve. This is an opportunity for us to claim our place and our space in democracy, because, guess what, democracy belongs to each and every one of us,” Morales said.
While the self-described “Black-Boriccua, born and raised in Bed-Stuy” is often labeled the most progressive among the eight leading candidates for mayor, in the race for progressive endorsements, she’s found herself picked as the number two, behind New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a long-serving, white, male elected official from Washington Heights, whose campaign recently was imperiled by a sexual assault allegation.
Stringer has denied any wrong-doing but his handling of the allegation has come under fire and his campaign is undeniably wounded. Those seeking a progressive candidate are reassessing, in some cases rescinding their endorsements for him, and deciding if they can coalesce around another option.
The turmoil has created an opening.
“I just think that the way that the Stringer campaign, and Scott, have handled this has actually exacerbated the harm,” Morales told Gothamist/ WNYC, extending her sympathy to Jean Kim, the woman who went public with the allegation against Stringer. Morales has called for him to step down from his current post and drop out of the mayor’s race so the focus can return to how candidates would serve New Yorkers.
But her response is also deeply personal: “I always make the assumption that there are more of us than not from the survivors category,” said Morales, who is herself a survivor of sexual assault, and described taking care of members of her campaign team in the days after Kim went public, because they, too, were triggered by the revelation.
In the days since, she’s been out on the campaign trail, rallying with Teamsters who work for UPS in Southeast Queens, calling for the reinstatement of 10 fired workers including pregnant workers; cycling for safer streets from Bed Stuy to lower Manhattan; catching up with other elected officials including State Senator Jabari Brisport and Assemblymember Phara Soufrant Forrest, who are both prominent members of the Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA has not endorsed in the mayor’s race, but Brisport made Morales his number-one choice in March.
By the metrics of polling and fundraising, Morales, 53, is running near the back of the pack, drawing single-digit poll numbers while sitting on roughly $2.5 million in campaign dollars, enough to keep her in it but far less than the $7-to-$10 million some of her competitors are preparing to pour into the race.
Her appeal to certain left-leaning voters is clear. “Dianne Morales is kind of a purist,” said Ester Fuchs, a political science professor at Columbia University and director of the Urban and Social Policy Program. She likened her campaign to that of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who built a base of ardent, progressive supporters. Similarly, Fuchs said Morales supporters were deeply committed, regardless of whether or not her policy agenda can be implemented, “in a pragmatic way.”
While Fuchs has not endorsed a candidate in the race, she hosted a town hall meeting for Stringer on Monday night. Still she sees the race as a wide-open field, with ranked-choice voting as the ultimate curveball, making it all but certain that no one garners more than 50% of the vote on the first tally of the ballots.
According to Fuchs, the question for Morales is can she maintain her ideological purity and still build a big enough coalition to win the race, “It’s not going to be simply a progressive coalition that gets to the 50% mark. The candidate who wins will have to attract other people in this city who don’t hold that particular version of liberalism.”
Since launching her mayoral campaign in the summer of 2019, Morales has faced a cascade of doubts. Her career has been reduced to the shorthand, “former nonprofit executive,” in lieu of explaining her roles, first as the executive director of The Door, which serves young people including at-risk LGBT youth, and as the head of Phipps Neighborhoods, which provides social services to people in poverty in the South Bronx.
Running each of nonprofits meant administering multimillion dollar budgets while leading a staff of several hundred employees. Both are a fraction of the size of the New York City budget and workforce, but Morales argues she’s the only one with executive leadership experience who has run programs that impact the lives of New Yorkers.
(Former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who also served as the city’s Covid-19 food czar, and Shaun Donovan, who ran the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be among the first to disagree.)
Still, Morales is building her case: “I think that very often the inclination, for whatever reason, is to sort of dismiss my candidacy,” she told Gothamist / WNYC. “I think when people really listen, it really gives them something to think about. I think if people were willing and able to suspend disbelief a little bit more and to let go of kind of the old rules that have in fact, resulted in the very conditions that we’re dealing with today, that we could get somewhere.”
Morales grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and is the youngest of three children. As the “proud daughter of Puerto Rican” parents, according to her website, she argues that her life experience has given her an intimate familiarity with the systems that so many New Yorkers rely on, whether it’s NYCHA or public schools.
She attended Stuyvesant High School, which she said made her realize for the first time that her family was poor. She graduated from Stony Brook University and has two Masters degrees in education, from Columbia and Harvard Universities.
In addition to her experience leading nonprofits, she’s worked as a public school teacher, created a national youth literacy program and worked as part of the leadership team for Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who served under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, where she launched the office of Youth Development and School Community Services.
Morales is also a single mother who advocated for her own children’s learning needs when they attended the city’s public schools, going so far as to sue the school system to ensure her daughter received the resources she needed.
This combination of professional and personal experience is what she brings to bear in the campaign. Among her policy goals, she wants to desegregate schools, make housing (not just shelter) a right, and address climate change by investing in green jobs at the municipal level.
One of her defining positions is a commitment to reduce the New York City Police Department’s budget by $3 billion next year. She uses the phrase, “defund the NYPD” without hesitation, for a variety of reasons.
Here’s one of them: Last summer, after attending protests against police brutality in late May following what has since been ruled the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Morales was among the more than 100 people who testified at a hearing on police interactions with protesters held in July by New York’s Attorney General Letitia James.
Morales went to the protests with her two young-adult children, then 21-year-old Benjamin and 19-year-old Gabriella. She described hanging back, to give them space, while also taking pride in seeing them express their First Amendment rights.
Then she saw them pepper-sprayed. “I watched in horror as they staggered back in pain. One moment they’d been standing and chanting, the next their eyes were burning and their arms were reaching out blindly to steady themselves as I made my way to them,” she said.
She goes on to detail a harrowing experience, snaking through a chaotic scene in downtown Brooklyn as officers wielded batons and barricades, grabbing her son away from an officer who she thought was provoking an altercation, staring him down and saying, “He is mine.”
When pressed on the word “defund”, Morales stresses the language choice is deliberate.
“You know, we need to recognize that for decades we’ve been defunding housing, we’ve been defunding education, we’ve been defunding health care. And those are actually the critical sort of foundational pillars of creating safe communities,” Morales said last week on The Brian Lehrer Show. “So we need to defund this over militarized bloated budget of the NYPD and actually invest in the kinds of things that are going to help create safer communities.”
As an alternative, she has proposed what she calls a Community First Responders Department, which would exist apart from the NYPD and would be comprised of people trained to respond to mental health crises with trauma-informed care and could also connect people to city services. She also wants to invest more in community-based programs that can interrupt and curb gun violence.
With that $3 billion from the NYPD, Morales has lots of ideas of how to spend the money. One is to use part of the funding to cover what her campaign estimates is the $784 million needed to make higher education tuition free at City University of New York institutions, as was the case until 1976 when the city faced a fiscal crisis.
The idea is not new, and while it is easy to find skeptics, there are signs federal policy makers including President Joe Biden are looking to make higher education more accessible.
Her website describes her policies as part of an “intersectional agenda.” While there are dozens of ideas listed, a handful still say “coming soon,” including plans for a small business and cooperative economy, public banking, a wealth tax and people-centered technology.
Morales said those gaps will be filled in the next week or so, noting that many of the ideas are the direct result of community forums she’s held over the past year and represent ideas that have been “co-created” with the community, which is why some have taken more time to finalize. She also said her campaign has been largely volunteer-driven until recently, when she finally hit the threshold to secure more than $2 million in public-matching dollars.
That money will also go towards paid advertisements, which the campaign has not spent any money on yet, unlike several of the other mayoral campaigns including Ray McGuire, former Citigroup executive, and Shaun Donovan, a former Obama cabinet official, both of whom are polling at or around the same level as Morales after having spent millions on television ads.
“We haven’t done any of that. And we’re nipping at their heels,” said Morales, who said she will be investing in a strategic ad campaign that’s targeted and tells a compelling story at the right time.
While polls show nearly a quarter of voters are still undecided, others are making their calculations now.
“Dianne Morales is definitely a more radical candidate than any of the others. She’s going to be my first choice,” said Steven Bodzin, 50, a financial journalist who lives in Jackson Heights and was also at the Farmer’s Market on Sunday. “I think it’s highly unlikely she wins, but if she wins, great,” he added.
He said she locked in his vote after the Teens Take Charge candidate forum last month, where the moderators turned on the Macrarena and asked all the candidates to get up and dance. (Skip to 41-minutes in.)
Bodzin said Morales was the only one who “danced freely” and didn’t look like she was hiding something. He said that actually gave him insight into her leadership, and her willingness to do something despite what others may say about her.
“I actually found out about Dianne on TikTok,” said 19-year-old Lia Guzman who helped set up the campaign’s Brooklyn block party held earlier this month, “and I thought that was, first of all, like extremely cool,” she added. As a student at John Jay College, she said she’s drawn to Morales’ plan for free-CUNY. But she also appreciates seeing someone who comes from an experience like her own run for office.
Morales has made a concerted effort to welcome young supporters and volunteers to her campaign, tapping into their community organizing and digital media savvy to elevate her brand and signature ombre sunset logo across various platforms.
The campaign plans to step up grassroots efforts in the final six-week stretch and is actively recruiting and training volunteers.
At the same time, progressive leaders and organizations remain cautious. The Working Families Party initially issued a ranked-choice endorsement with Morales as their number two and Maya Wiley as their number three behind Stringer. When the WFP rescinded support for Stringer, it left Morales and Wiley as a dual endorsement.
Wiley remains a formidable challenger, with higher poll numbers, more money, and the backing of labor union 1199 SEIU which has a history of being able to turn out the vote. Still Fuchs, the Columbia University political scientist, said Wiley has baggage because of her time working as legal counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio. She also said Wiley has no track record delivering services.
“Dianne Morales did run the not-for-profits, which is better experience for running the city,” said Fuchs, who doesn’t believe anyone, including Stringer, should be counted out of this race.
“I would really caution against any kind of infighting among the progressives over who we need to coalesce around or why this progressive candidate versus that one,” said Brooklyn State Senator Jabari Brisport, an unequivocal Morales supporter.
He said all three of the leading progressives candidates , Stringer, Wiley and Morales, face a bigger challenge: none of them is polling in the top two. That space has been consistently occupied by Andrew Yang and Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams.
“We need to, as progressives, figure out why are candidates not doing better in these polls?” Brisport added saying progressives need to fine tune their messaging fast, with less than six weeks before early voting begins ahead of the June 22nd primary.
For Morales, she said she felt her momentum rising and she’s ready to exceed people’s expectations in this race.
“On the one hand, there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘OK, you know, feel free to keep underestimating us,” she said. Then, with a flicker of fight in her eye, she added, “And then there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘don’t sleep on this campaign.’”