The mayoral campaign of former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales is descending into disarray, with staff announcing a work stoppage while others call on her to suspend her campaign and drop out of the race entirely, all with just over two weeks before the start of early voting.
Since Tuesday, at least 8 members of her team have departed. They include her campaign manager and a senior policy advisor, who resigned, and four women involved with an effort to unionize the remaining staff—because of allegations of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and employee abuse—who have been fired.
During an interview on Thursday night, Morales told Gothamist / WNYC that she took action as soon as she was alerted to the problems — parting with staff, reorganizing her campaign, and standing in support of those who wanted to unionize. She appointed Juan Antigua as her acting campaign manager. She also played down the unraveling of the campaign happening in the public sphere of social media.
“I said, a couple months ago when I stepped back from Zoom, that this campaign wouldn’t be won on Zoom,” said Morales. “It’s also not gonna be won on Twitter.”
The sudden shakeup within the campaign comes as mayoral candidates are presenting their closing arguments to voters, trying to show that they are best equipped to manage the city’s $97 billion budget and more than 300,000 member workforce.
A first-time candidate who entered the race as a political unknown, Morales defied expectations by building a loyal core of support among far-left Democrats. She now faces a serious challenge: how to persuade voters she can deliver on promises of elevating the needs of marginalized communities while leading a campaign hobbled by charges of a toxic culture.
During our interview on Thursday, Morales said she was informed of issues involving two senior campaign supervisors—Ramses Dukes and Amanda van Kessel—on May 8th, and within 17 days both individuals were removed from the campaign. Specifically, she said she was told about “an issue of a white woman who folks claimed was… manipulative and coercive. And the other was of a Black man who had sexually harassed someone.”
Morales said when she became aware of these particular issues she realized that there were other problems with how the campaign was organized and brought in the consulting firm Think Rubix to come up with some new strategies. She said she also converted certain part-time hourly field staff into salaried positions.
Asked specifically about the sexual harassment allegation within her own campaign, given her calls for mayoral candidate Scott Stringer to resign from his position as the New York City comptroller and suspend his campaign over a 20-year-old allegation, Morales said there was a distinct difference.
“When someone is in a citywide leadership role, I think the standard is different than when someone is a staffer on a campaign,” Morales said. “My staffer was not seeking to represent the city, or try to be in a position where he could impact the lives of millions of people. So I think that’s different.”
She also pointed to failures among her leadership team that allowed the problems to percolate. “I had a leadership team that I was counting on to handle the operations of the campaign,” she said, acknowledging that the lapses may have also stemmed from the campaign growing quickly in a short time. (Morales estimated that she currently had about 50 staffers. Her campaign did not provide an official number.)
Among the women who left the campaign under what Morales called a “mutual agreement” were Whitney Hu, the former campaign manager, and Ifeoma Ike, a senior policy adviser. Both women issued their own statements.
Hu said she resigned Tuesday after Morales failed to remove two other staffers who Hu said were creating a toxic work environment, particularly for team members of color. “I am proud of the team, especially the Black women, who are holding this movement accountable,” Hu wrote.
“I am formally resigning from the campaign as it no longer aligns with my values,” Ike’s statement said.
I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I’m proud of the work we’ve done.
I am formally resigning from the campaign as it no longer aligns with my values.
— Ifeoma Ike (she/her) ☀️ (@IfyWorks) May 27, 2021
Despite the senior departures, several members of the Morales campaign team were still working to form a union to represent the remaining staff members. They initially issued a statement early Thursday morning that laid out their concerns.
“Many staff have experienced racial aggressions, sexual harassment, exploitation, and manipulation — grave violations that contradict the very equity our campaign promotes,” the staffers wrote in a statement.
“Though Dianne has taken a zero-tolerance stance against sexual abuse and harassment on the campaign trail, that same standard of conduct was never formalized or adhered to within the campaign itself,” they continued, noting that Black women on the campaign team were among the first to raise the issues with Morales.
At that point, they credited Morales with voluntarily recognizing their staff union and described plans for how the team would begin “co-creating an environment that is safe for everyone to move forward.”
That same afternoon, the organizers announced a work stoppage after the four women leading the unionization efforts were fired over email just prior to a staff meeting. Asked about the firings, Morales said she did not know who was leading the unionization efforts. “Those decisions were made independent of anything else,” she said.
Morales also stressed that only a portion of the staff was participating in the work stoppage and said that others were working with her in the office. At the same time, she insisted she supported the unionization. She understood the union has three goals: 1) forming the union, 2) being paid through July 31st and 3) instituting retroactive pay for certain volunteers.
Morales did not comment directly on the question of whether her staff was underpaid. “I was not directly overseeing salaries or the staff pattern. But when things were brought to my attention, I responded to them immediately.”
She also said she did not think the campaign could afford to provide health benefits, “You know, we got our matching funds a month ago. So that wasn’t something that we could afford to do, “ she said.
The CITY reported that the campaigns of mayoral candidates Maya Wiley, Shaun Donovan, Ray McGuire, Kathryn Garcia and Eric Adams all provide health benefits. Garcia and Donovan received matching funds at the same time as the Morales campaign. (Wiley and Adams received them earlier; McGuire is not getting public funds).
Morales said despite the current upheaval within her campaign she planned to push forward reaching out to voters, “The reality of it is that the mayor has to handle a lot of different things at the same time.”
She said her handling of this situation showed what she would be like in City Hall.
“Handling the staff that are unhappy and looking to move forward in a different kind of way, handling the staff that are in the office trying to get their work done, and also being the candidate,” she said.
In an appearance earlier in the night on NY1, she called it all a “beautiful mess.”