It's Not Enough to Talk Like the Left

On the perils of the Dianne Morales campaign

Since 2016, the American Left has been on a pronounced upswing.

Once peripheral ideas, like enacting universal healthcare or raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, have been mainstreamed, and everywhere you look another leftist seems to be winning a local office. In Democratic cities and states, legislatures have swung decidedly left, and progressive prosecutors are safeguarding their gains even as crime rises. A decade ago, when Occupy Wall Street took bloom, espousing left demands—an end to income inequality, higher taxes on the rich—could feel futile and fringe, like howling at a closed window of a darkened home. The Left, particularly the socialist left, does not wield significant power in America, but the fact that such a debate exists and Democrats need to reckon with these ideas demonstrates how much has changed over a decade.

As movements mature and become popular, many people seek to be a part of them. This is important—successful protests and successful campaigns must engage many thousands of people, and build alliances across racial and class lines. When unlikely champions emerge, like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Cori Bush, many more dreamers laboring in the shadows hope to join their ranks. Ambition is the fuel. Without it—without people willing to take risks and imagine themselves with far greater influence than they possess today—nothing else will happen.

Decentralized movements have a vulnerability that becomes more apparent as they grow. As more people seek to join them and lead them, opportunists lie in wait, hunting for their own taste of capital and fame. Since the gatekeepers, for the worse and for the better, have melted away, charismatic outsiders—or career insiders posing as them—can enter the firmament and rise, mastering the lexicon of the new movement. With social media as an amplifier, the charismatic striver no longer needs to stump from street corners and subway stations and clubhouses, rousing ever-larger crowds as they go along. Twitter will do.

In the rise and fall of Dianne Morales, mayoral candidate, the Left has lessons to learn. Of late, Morales is in the news for a bizarre staff revolt that has led to multiple firings, protests, and resignations. Instead of focusing on this unraveling, it is better to examine the Morales phenomenon as a whole and what it may have represented. The problem goes far beyond one candidate, her approach to staff unionization, and whether gradients need to be changed in Twitter headshots.

Morales sensed an opportunity and took it. In that way, she was like any red-blooded American capitalist. “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” said the old Democratic boss George Washington Plunkitt. Plunkitt was a Tammany man talking about the practice of taking bribes and getting rich buying up land on speculation. His politics, of course, were nothing like Morales’: a white man born well before the outbreak of the Civil War will have nothing to say about intersectionality. But the new Left, abound with young progressives and socialists ever hungry for the next AOC, brings with it its own opportunities for speculation. In this new political game, Morales became her own version of a political boss gobbling up parcels of land right next to where the new trolley line would eventually reach.

In 2019, Morales apparently failed a city background check, losing out on an opportunity to chair Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Equal Employment Practices Commission, an entity that acts as a watchdog over the diversity of hiring at city agencies. She couldn’t pass the background check because she had facilitated, in 2002, a $300 bribe to a crooked inspector who promised to get rid of an expensive water bill for her new, four-unit townhouse. Morales lied twice to the Department of Investigation before confessing to the truth of what happened. The scandal, ultimately, was minor, but it spoke to a troubling reality: Morales was willing to lie to protect herself in an official context and had committed the kind of infraction that would block her from future public sector work.

Later in 2019, Morales announced her long-shot bid for mayor. Observing the timeline in retrospect, it seems that the mayoral campaign would have never been launched if she had just passed the background check. A former public school teacher and nonprofit executive with two Ivy League degrees, Morales was poised to continue her career in the upper levels of education. Denied the opportunity in the de Blasio administration, Morales hit on something else: a campaign that could readily fill a vacuum in the next Democratic primary for mayor of New York City.

Morales could see what most political insiders, in those early days, could not. There would be no leftist running a viable campaign for mayor in 2021. The standard bearer was a clubhouse Democrat, Scott Stringer, who had climbed the ladder of municipal politics as a cautious, center-left operator.. A quiet master of the inside game, Stringer sensed an opportunity too, reaching out to younger leftists for the first time in 2018 and endorsing their State Senate campaigns against the Independent Democratic Conference and another machine Democrat. For the candidates he supported who would eventually triumph, Stringer understood that the price for admission, here, was surprisingly low. The Democratic Socialists of America would never back Stringer for mayor, but their state senator, Julia Salazar, would easily do it because Stringer had showed up for her in her insurgent campaign. Collecting these endorsements—other popular young politicians like Jessica Ramos and Alessandra Biaggi backed Stringer, along with Jamaal Bowman—signaled to other insiders that Stringer would be the Left candidate in the race, a successor to de Blasio more attuned to certain activist currents.

Morales knew better. Politicians, especially those with larger-than-average social media followings, overrate their ability to move votes. Years ago, when I profiled Chuck Schumer, I learned one little secret behind his steady rise: as a young assemblyman with an uncanny knack for ending up in the New York Times, he never assumed he was very famous in his district. He kept showing up at subway stations, obsessed with becoming better known, understanding that most people in Brooklyn were not reading his press clips or following politics at all. In the age of politician as cultish micro-celebrity, it’s easy to forget this reality. None of the Stringer endorsers had the power, on their own, to drag along thousands of voters to his cause.

With Maya Wiley, who served as de Blasio’s counsel, failing also to excite progressive voters, there was clearly room for another candidate. Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, chasing moderate and older voters, were not going to do it. So Morales arrived, speaking of defunding the police by 50 percent and building an intersectional agenda based upon “dignity, care and solidarity.” Morales hit other notes of the young left too, including tuition-free CUNY and a vaguely defined universal right to housing, but it was the defund promise—$3 billion gone from the NYPD operating budget—that made hearts sing. The nonprofit left and their various NGO’s were smitten. The Working Families Party endorsed her second, right behind Stringer, and later co-endorsed her with Wiley when Stringer was thrown overboard over a sexual assault allegation with somewhat flimsy evidence. Many elected officials, including some former Stringer endorsers, became Morales backers.

Many members of DSA became Morales supporters, eschewing Wiley and Stringer, and certain leftists, online at least, bemoaned that DSA never issued a formal endorsement. Wisely, New York City’s DSA chapter decided a while ago to not support anyone for mayor, choosing to throw their large but still limited volunteer army into six City Council campaigns. Unlike labor unions, the WFP, and various political nonprofits, DSA only endorses in races where it can make a difference. Morales could go far, but she was never going to be elected mayor. Crucially, for DSA, she would never identify as a socialist, and early conversations between DSA and the Morales campaign about a formal endorsement never went very far.

Morales understood, though, she didn’t need DSA to brand-build. It’s here where her rise and fall offers a cautionary tale for a young, multifarious movement still too easily co-opted. It is not enough to speak like a millennial leftist, to wield the correct jargon in Slack chats and Twitter threads. It is not enough to have merely read the right tracts and manifestos or mastered the “inclusionary” newspeak of the corporate consultants and academicians. One cannot claim their movement is “inherently radical” merely because there is an ambitious, opportunistic political campaign that now exists. Ultimately, few campaigns are movements—they are limited exercises with one concrete goal, sometimes undertaken as a self-aggrandizing exercise for the principal. And the longer the Morales campaign went on, the more it became clear this was, at least partially, the mission. She couldn’t win, but she could position herself to rise further elsewhere.

The fundamental problem of Morales’ candidacy is that almost nothing in her professional history suggested she cared about being any kind of radical leftist—or even an ordinary progressive, volunteering for worthy campaigns and causes. Before politics, Morales earned almost $350,000 a year in compensation from the social services nonprofit she headed, Phipps Neighborhoods. Phipps Neighborhoods belongs to Phipps Houses, a nonprofit real estate developer that is one of the worst evictors in the city and notoriously anti-union. She owns a townhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant she paid more than $400,000 for in the early 2000s and is now worth as much as $2 million. She reaps an additional $24,000 a year as a landlord, charging a tenant who lives there.

Wealth, on its own, is not disqualifying, and few of us can claim unsullied work histories. Morales was not merely a nonprofit executive and landlord, though. She has been steeped, for two decades, in the charter school movement, a reality she cleverly downplayed as she rose to fame on the Left. As Matt Thomas, the socialist writer and researcher, recently reported, Morales was once inducted into a network of the country’s leading charter advocates, funded by the industry’s top profiteers. Large donations from charter school executives have flowed to her campaign. Unlike other charter school supporting candidates in the race—Yang, Adams, and Kathryn Garcia—Morales actually founded a charter school, Broome Street Academy, which she merely refers to as a “public school” in her campaign biography. As recently as 2020, she called herself a strong supporter of “school choice” and admitted to voting for Andrew Cuomo, an aggressive backer of charters, over his left-wing challenger Cynthia Nixon in 2018. In the Donald Trump era, Democrats turned away from charters—privately-run, publicly-funded schools that do not need to recognize teachers’ unions—because they were a signature cause for the many Republican billionaires who backed his reactionary presidency. This did not dim Morales’ enthusiasm for charters, though. “We can’t abandon the families whose only choice is charter schools. Until all our public schools provide strong options and quality education, why should their options be limited?” Morales tweeted in 2019, commenting on a Times story about how Democrats were rejecting charters.

How did a charter school-founding landlord become, for a few months, the hero of the Left in New York City’s highest profile campaign?  Morales exposed how easy it can be for anyone, no matter their work history, to reinvent themselves as champions of causes and movements they never cared for before campaign season. There were many important progressive fights over the last four years—for State Senate seats, for Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign, for DSA’s legislative slate—that Morales was entirely absent from. For the last year, none of this mattered. When Morales imploded, this scrutiny arrived, but it only came because of an unprecedented staff revolt that will not be a feature of savvier campaigns in the future. The next pretender will not come with a bribery history or 20 years in the charter movement. The next pretender may not be a boss at all.

In Morales, the frailty of the new politics of the Left—at least those who are not outright socialists—was exposed. Morales had elevated identity so far beyond class that it became possible for a boss to pretend to be one of the oppressed workers, for a charter founder to pretend to care dearly about the public schools that charters, who often exclude students with disabilities, siphon resources from. When class is almost entirely absent in your ultimate analysis, the outcome is easy to see: the wealthy can appropriate the struggles of the working class and poor, especially those of color, and live a life of imaginary exploitation. Morales seemed confused, even taken aback, by her campaign’s unionization efforts. Bosses usually are. For leftists hoping for more out of this mayoral race, there are reasons to be hopeful for the future: many young left-wing lawmakers, now in their 20s and 30s and 40s, will be in a position to seek higher office soon. Perhaps 2029, when the next open Democratic primary will take place, will be a kind of golden age for the Left. Next year, with a host of new state legislative races in play, could bring its own rewards. Will Morales care about these future fights? Her history suggests she’ll be on to other things.