Dianne Morales Makes Her Move

A once unknown nonprofit executive is trying to lay claim to the progressive lane in the race for NYC mayor

New York City is a strange place. Enormous, multifarious, infuriating, lovely, and mythic, it is like nowhere else in America. There are cities within the city, towns within the neighborhoods, international outposts arrayed on street corners. Pandemic-ravaged, it is still a resilient place, and the comeback, when it arrives, will be glorious.

The political scene is trickier than meets the eye. The city, for various parts of the last century, has been a hotbed of socialist activity. The richest men in the world live here. New York is the city of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Vito Marcantonio. It is also the city of Donald J. Trump and Rudolph Giuliani. All kinds of currents course through here.

Are we a progressive city? With the decline of the outer borough white ethnics who furiously sloughed off the radicalism of their ancestors, we are much more than we used to be. Today’s Giulianis won’t get elected here. We’re also a city where Trump grew his vote total in 2020, particularly among Latinos. The Democratic electorate skews more left, of course, and that’s how mayoral races get decided. Bill de Blasio won in 2013 seizing the progressive lane in the Democratic primary, Bloomberg-bashing his way to a commanding victory. The progressive infrastructure in New York has only grown stronger since then, with the remarkable rise of the DSA, Justice Democrats, and the relative durability of the Working Families Party and other left-wing nonprofit actors.

The debates of 2013 would seem alien to today’s left. John Liu, the city comptroller, was mocked for saying he’d support legalizing weed. De Blasio thought a $9 minimum wage was high enough; Liu was the radical for saying it should be $11.50. There was no such thing as defund or abolish the police. There was curtailing stop-and-frisk, and by what degree. Dov Hikind, an Obama-hating Islamophobe, was regarded as a kingmaker in the Democratic primary.

The 2021 Democratic primary for mayor sits far to the left of these debates. No one wants to lower the minimum wage from $15 an hour. No one is talking about ripping up bike lanes. No one, publicly at least, is against the current push in Albany to legalize marijuana.

But there are policy differences among the major candidates, and no one in the next tier has been able to excite the young, new left as much as Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive. For months, particularly after the entrance of Andrew Yang into the mayoral race, I argued that leftists had compromised choices among the top tier candidates who will likely become mayor. I still think this is true. Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, used to be a Republican and empowered a member of the Independent Democratic Conference. Scott Stringer, who has won endorsements from several leading leftist politicians, including Jamaal Bowman and Julia Salazar, has largely existed for most of his career on a conventional, center-left ideological continuum, occasionally falling to the right of de Blasio. Maya Wiley, who is courting leftists and upscale liberals like Stringer, made her name in city politics as de Blasio’s lawyer. And Yang is paying Bradley Tusk, a leftist-hating millionaire Uber investor who worked for Michael Bloomberg, to advise him.

This week, Morales announced she had finally qualified for public matching funds, which will entitle her campaign to an 8:1 match on small donations—if the City Campaign Finance Board approves her, as she has promised. With less than $300,000 in the bank, the matching funds payout could provide a significant lift, moving her into seven-figures territory. She will still have far less than Stringer, Yang, and Adams, who could each end up spending $10 million or so by the end of the race, but she will have enough to remain in the primary until its conclusion and garner a significant amount of media attention.

This by, itself, is an accomplishment. Morales fans may want more from me—how do you know she won’t just go out and win it?—and my rebuttal would be, plainly, that going on television in New York City can cost $1 million a week, and only a few campaigns can afford that sort of rate. There is no winning campaign, in the Covid era especially, without heavy TV expenditures. This recent tweet from Nate Silver, which argued New York’s primary electorate isn’t as liberal as it appears, unintentionally underscored my point. Silver argued Andrew Cuomo’s drubbing of Cynthia Nixon in 2018 proved New York wasn’t ready for a leftist governor, particularly in the five boroughs, where Cuomo did quite well. My rejoinder to Silver was that Cuomo blew $27 million on his race and Nixon spent around $2 million. The summer of 2018 was nothing but Cuomo for governor ads repeating on the TV and radio. Nixon never had a shot.

So yes, without many millions, Morales cannot break into the first tier. But her candidacy is already starting to remind me of another from not too long ago: Andrew Yang’s. Morales fans, at this point, will recoil. Leftists have grown to loathe Yang, the front-runner, in this race, though he’s occasionally been open to their ideas, like decriminalizing sex work, opening a public bank, and embracing community land trusts. Astute readers may figure out I’m referring here to Yang’s presidential campaign, not the current one, when he rose from obscurity to excite a large number of people and build a formidable social media following while polling unexpectedly well but winning few votes. In a field with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and a slew of other U.S. senators, Yang could never be taken seriously by enough Democrats as a viable opponent for Trump. But his upbeat campaigning, savvy messaging, and ability to connect with young voters made him more of a contender than the current vice president of the United States, and politicians like Beto O’ Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker.

Morales occupies that space now. Through her ebullience, charisma, and ability to connect online—essential for all modern campaigns, but even more necessary now with the pandemic limiting in-person events—she has grown a Twitter following that has surpassed Stringer’s campaign account and threatens to overtake Adams’. Her campaign is hawking cheeky t-shirts and crafting Morales-themed sneakers. It’s the sort of stuff you need to get attention in a sleepy race. So far, it’s working.

None of this should be undersold. Having run a race myself, I know how hard it is. Wiley, with her own formidable social media following grown from her days as an MSNBC analyst, has not captivated online progressives in the same way, though she’d like to. Stringer, with his array of endorsements, hasn’t either. Morales is, in some ways, outflanking them both, threatening to gobble up voters in the new class coalition, which may be as large as 20 percent of the primary electorate, in the estimation of veteran Democratic analyst Jerry Skurnik. (Skurnik defines new class as white progressive voters in Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn and Queens.)

Morales is certainly a favorite of DSA members, though the organization will not formally endorse in the mayoral race, preferring to focus on City Council contests. She is like Yang in another way too: she quietly resists ideological labels. “I’ve been really reluctant to label myself in any way, shape or form, or try to talk about, claiming a lane, or fitting in a box. I think my positions speak for themselves,” she told City and State earlier this year. “I'm not a part of DSA or any of that. Do I see a lot of similarities between my beliefs and the things that they put out? Yes. Do I have some problems with some of the structures or machinations of that organization? Yeah.”

Morales and Yang have never held elected office before or demonstrated a great involvement in local Democratic politics. Both were missing-in-action for the big progressive fights of the past few years, like the movement in 2018 to obliterate the Independent Democratic Conference. Yang, of course, hardly votes. Morales, as revealed recently in City Limits, voted more often, but managed to also skip the 2018 gubernatorial general election between Andrew Cuomo and Marc Molinaro.

Like Yang—and by the standards of New York City, at least—she is house-rich. She revealed to The Root she purchased a Bedford-Stuyesant brownstone “before real estate prices skyrocketed,” in the words of the journalist writing the piece. Her total compensation at Phipps Neighborhoods, the social services nonprofit she recently ran, was as high as $344,980 in 2018. Like some other candidates in this race, including the millionaire Ray McGuire and Yang, the $258,750 salary of the New York City mayor represents a pay cut. Morales talks often about her tough upbringing in working class Brooklyn. She’s earned, at times, a salary that far outstrips what the vast majority of New Yorkers will see in their lifetimes. Whether anyone running a nonprofit should be paid north of $300,000 is a discussion we can have another day. (Also, the real estate arm of Phipps is one of the city’s most notorious evictors.)

None of this, necessarily, should call into question her leftist credentials. Bernie Sanders is allowed to rake in a million bucks writing a book. People can grow up struggling, then make it big. Friedrich Engels bankrolled Karl Marx. The difference between Morales and Sanders, ultimately, lies in their rhetorical approach. Sanders hated talking about himself and his own working class Brooklyn upbringing, despite the urging of his aides. Morales, like a lot of the younger left, incorporates upbringing and identity into her elevator pitch.

Morales is now winning left endorsements. Jabari Brisport, the new democratic socialist state senator in Brooklyn, backed her, along with a pair of progressive assembly members, Harvey Epstein and Jessica González-Rojas. Endorsements don’t just happen because you are good or virtuous or true. If so, labor unions would always endorse the most pro-labor candidate. They happen because you’ve demonstrated some kind of momentum—you’ve raised money, gathered supporters, and shown your campaign should be taken seriously. Morales has surpassed this crucial threshold.

Her campaign has taken up the primary demands of the progressive vote—that new class. She is willing to confront Cuomo and supports the tax-the-rich bills advocated for by progressives in the State Senate and Assembly. She’s called for the cancellation of rent and mortgages, for the pandemic at least, in her ambitious housing agenda. She said she’d make CUNY tuition-free again. A proud Afro-Latina, she invokes her identity as an argument for why she should lead this diverse city. Here she departs from Yang too, who doesn’t often discuss his heritage and has spoken dismissively of identity politics in the past.

Stringer and Wiley would probably agree with a majority of what’s in her policy platform and seek to implement some of it themselves if they win. Where Morales has differentiated herself from the field—and excited left activists the most—is in her call to cut the NYPD’s $6 billion budget in half. “We know that communities that are heavily policed are not safer,” she said in an interview with Marie Clare. “We know that police do not prevent crime. They’re called to respond to crime, and we know that a large percentage of the calls that police respond to are not, in fact, even crimes in progress. They're issues of homelessness, of mental health challenges, of substance abuse, or even traffic violations.”

The defund movement gained remarkable traction after police killed George Floyd last May. Mass protests rocked America in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. Though police killings had galvanized the public before—Eric Garner and Michael Brown were household names—this did seem to be different, making a tangible impact on local policy. The state legislature finally repealed the notorious 50-a law. Real attention was paid to the bullying tactics of police unions. The NYPD, for too long, has functioned like a rogue fiefdom, unaccountable to Democratic and Republican mayors alike. Mainstream politicians can now state this openly.

Slashing the NYPD budget in half was an entirely new demand. DSA and various left activists quickly championed the cause, and City Council members who a few years earlier had voted to hire 1,200 new police were now refusing to vote for a municipal budget that didn’t make deep cuts to the NYPD. As recently as 2019, even ardent socialists weren’t centering a $3 billion reduction to the police. The argument is simple and compelling—you take that money and reinvest it in social services, where the root causes of violence can be solved. Police aren’t social workers or mental health professionals. They are men and women with guns, some with questionable temperaments.

But it’s here I’ve grown a bit skeptical of this particular activist demand that Morales has built her campaign around. Of course, it’s good politics. Yang wants to put more cops on the subway, alienating the young left. Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley won’t call for $3 billion cut or utter “defund”; Morales can stand up and say she’s the real leftist in the race, with the guts to stick it to the police. Maybe she is. What’s interesting is that the prime left demand of 2021—or the thing that’s really going to make you stand out, like taxing the rich to fund pre-K was for de Blasio in 2013—is gutting a taxpayer-funded service.

There is great bloat and waste in the NYPD, and it’s far too militarized. What profound difference, though, will $3 billion in social services spending make in a city where a municipal budget can top $90 billion? Why not invest $6 billion or $10 billion and really up the ante, so a sizable impact can be made? Consider the Department of Education budget: about $27 billion, more than four times what’s pumped into the NYPD. Should DOE shrink? I’d argue no. Teachers don’t carry guns, of course, and they aren’t killing people and throwing them into cages. But how would a $3 billion NYPD will be a better NYPD? Walk the streets of the working class Black and Latino neighborhoods of Manhattan and outer borough New York, and you hear few demands for the total abolition of police, or even the shrinking of their footprint. What a lot families want, particularly those who are victims of gun violence, is better police. They want cops to care, to actually do their jobs, to solve crimes, and to be held accountable when they beat up or kill a civilian. One of the great tragedies of the poorest neighborhoods in America, as the journalist Jill Leovy has written, is how few murders get solved. A son, a father, a mother, or a daughter gets killed by a stray bullet or a gang member and the police never close the case.

This is not an argument for broken windows policing, which I’ve been a critic of—petty harassment of people of color must end. Many on the activist left may say that means the police should simply go away. Fewer interactions can be life-saving. Yet a truly reformed police department—remember, even Morales doesn’t want the NYPD literally abolished—is not going to magically appear when $3 billion vanishes from the budget. It will be the same police, the same training, the same weapons. There will merely be less of them, stretched out over an enormous city. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Black residents of Southeast Queens made it one of their long-running demands to bring a new police precinct to their community. This reality can’t be easily shrugged off.

A more compelling future may lie in what is happening in countries like Germany, where police are highly-trained and extremely well-educated. They are not militarized. Scarred by their experience with a fascist police state, Germans live in a country where police are required to pass a rigorous multiyear curriculum with history and the country’s liberal democratic constitution at its core. They are taught strategies of communication and de-escalation. Policing in New York will need to change along these lines, and doing this doesn’t mean automatically shaving billions away. Better human beings need to be recruited to the department and not all of them, perhaps, should be permitted to carry firearms. Twenty-three year-olds new to the city should probably not be out on patrol and police, first and foremost, should be local residents. And social workers and mental health professionals should embed with police precincts and respond to calls with police. Just as the best prison systems in the world are funded lavishly to serve as proper rehabilitation facilities, not dens of endless punishment, a humane approach to law enforcement won’t necessarily be a cheaper one.

None of this is going to galvanize young leftists in a Democratic primary and Morales knows it. She’s proved herself more adept than many of her rivals, staking out a clear position and communicating it fluidly. As a first-time candidate, she’s already internalized lessons that veteran politicians hungering for higher office never do. You have to be about something. Equivocation won’t do. Morales, quietly surging, knows this well.