Dianne Morales Faced a Campaign Uprising. Will It Matter to Voters?

Ms. Morales is running for New York City mayor on a platform of tackling inequality and shifting resources away from policing. But her campaign has been marred by defections and dysfunction.

The New York City mayoral race is one of the most consequential political contests in a generation, with immense challenges awaiting the winner. This is the eighth in a series of profiles of the major candidates.

By Jazmine Hughes

Dianne Morales arrived at a racial justice protest in April, as she had done many times before. This one, however, was different: she was still a Black woman, a mother, an activist — but now, she had become well-known as a mayoral candidate, too.

She was a familiar sight at the Barclays Center, hugging friends and greeting supporters, while a handful of aides flanked her. One speaker warned that the protest was not a “campaign stop.” So Ms. Morales asked a campaign staffer, outfitted in a loud purple T-shirt emblazoned with “DIANNE MORALES FOR N.Y.C. MAYOR,” to turn the shirt inside out.

“I don’t want this to be political — this isn’t just a moment for us,” she said that evening.

From the beginning of her campaign for mayor, Ms. Morales set out to establish herself as the activist-candidate-next-door, the person riding the bus instead of advertising on the side of it. Her long-shot candidacy sought to tap into the zeitgeist of last summer, when the pandemic and protests against police brutality shined a light on New York’s stark racial and economic inequities.

But in recent weeks, Ms. Morales’s campaign has been stalled by its own dysfunction. Two high-level staffers resigned following staff misconduct, six more were terminated and most remaining staff members, who have formed a union, are on strike. At least four political groups, including the Working Families Party, have rescinded their endorsements, donations slowed to a crawl and her senior adviser has joined a rival campaign.

Over the weekend, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Maya Wiley, Ms. Morales’s ideologically closest opponent. The endorsement was the most significant sign that progressive leaders see Ms. Wiley as their last, best hope to prevent a more centrist candidate from becoming mayor.

Ms. Morales, who staked a claim to the “inherently radical” nature of her campaign, is now struggling to explain why her own staff has abandoned her weeks before the June 22 primary and why one of the most prominent left-wing leaders in the country is not supporting her.

Still, she is marching on, holding campaign events and filming an ad in the wake of the walkout. She addressed the accusations last week during a mayoral debate, highlighting her decades of experience as a manager of the operations and staffs of large nonprofits and stressing that she had acted quickly to address personnel concerns.

“We responded, we addressed it and we are moving on, moving forward on this campaign, and I’m looking forward to that,” she said.

Her career path, largely in education and nonprofits, stands out in a field of lawyers, politicians and businessmen. Her background — working class, Afro-Latina, first-generation college graduate — has helped her appeal to traditionally underrepresented groups. And her campaign, with the most left-leaning platform in the race, has drawn in supporters who believed she would eschew politics as usual.

‘She may compromise, but she doesn’t lose’

A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Ms. Morales, 53, was raised by Puerto Rico-born parents. Her mother worked as an office manager for a union, and her father as a building manager. Finances were so tight that Ms. Morales shared a bed with her grandmother until she left for college.

She attended Stuyvesant High School, where one of her teachers was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt, and Dartmouth College. Ms. Morales has said that she was sexually assaulted during her first week on campus, and she left Dartmouth at the end of her freshman year, eventually graduating from Stony Brook University, on Long Island. After college, she worked as a waitress and a special-education teacher; she later received master’s degrees, in social administration and education administration, from Columbia and Harvard.

Ms. Morales then spent two years at the city’s Department of Education, under Michael Bloomberg, as chief of operations and implementation in the Office of Youth Development. She held leadership positions at various nonprofits like The Door, a youth development organization, and Phipps Neighborhoods, the social services arm of Phipps Houses, a housing development group, where she served as chief executive for a decade before filing to run for mayor.

She raised her two children in Brooklyn; both graduated from public schools. Ms. Morales has been transparent about struggles her family has faced: her son, 22, was punched by a police officer at a protest, her daughter, 20, was sexually assaulted, and Ms. Morales had to sue the D.O.E. for what she said was a lack of services provided for her daughter’s learning disability. The city provided the services Ms. Morales requested after six years. In the interim, she placed her daughter in a private school.

“There’s a fierceness about her, and you want that on your side,” said Lutonya Russell-Humes, a professor and longtime friend of Ms. Morales. “She just doesn’t lose. She may compromise, but she doesn’t lose.”

She has talked about how after a career in advocacy work, she wanted to tackle inequity in a bigger, broader way. So in 2019, she filed to run for mayor. Ms. Morales said she was moved to act in part by her disappointment over Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, and she pledged to run a campaign that would be heavy on ethics, respect and dignity.

She officially kicked off her campaign in November 2020, amid months of heavy involvement in a mutual aid group in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where she coordinated food distribution efforts, organized a community fund-raiser, and later arranged for vaccine appointments.

As a candidate, Ms. Morales has advocated for rent relief, hazard pay and the release of vulnerable people from Rikers Island. Her staff grew from about a dozen to nearly 100 aides this spring, as Ms. Morales continued to push her central proposal: cutting $3 billion from the police budget, which she says would ultimately lead to greater protection of New Yorkers, especially Black and Latino residents.

Facing the progressive paradox

Almost immediately, Ms. Morales faced the same paradox that has confronted politicians and activists in the progressive left at large: Members of the communities they say they speak for — especially Black and brown New Yorkers — do not always agree with the agendas they propose.

Last year, many Black and Latino council members were hesitant to vote yes on a proposal that included, among other things, a pledge to cut $1 billion from the N.Y.P.D., worried that shrinking the police force would adversely affect underserved neighborhoods already marred by violence. Several Black council members vehemently opposed the proposed cut, calling the movement “political gentrification” or likening it to “colonization.”

A recent NY1/Ipsos poll found that 72 percent of likely Democratic primary voters supported an increased police presence, following an uptick in high-profile incidents of violent crime. Ms. Morales said that many constituents she has spoken to wanted more access to resources and community programs, services she said could be funded by cuts to the police department’s budget.

Her plan for her first 100 days in office includes a citywide rent moratorium for individuals and small businesses, ending the N.Y.P.D.’s relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and providing immediate housing, through hotels and city-leased properties, for homeless people.

The funding for her policies is largely contingent on increasing taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, and reimagining the city’s budget, cutting bloat and overspending.

“I don’t think she identifies as a socialist, but a lot of socialists really like Dianne,” State Senator Jabari Brisport said in March, around the time he endorsed Ms. Morales.

Still, Ms. Morales has battled questions of ideological consistency among activists on the left. She supported charter schools, which many progressives believe exacerbate inequality, as recently as last year. And an old interview in which she admitted to voting for Governor Andrew M. Cuomo in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor instead of his progressive challenger, Cynthia Nixon, made waves.

“I’m one of those people that was at the point of feeling like the government wasn’t having an impact on my life on a day-to-day basis, and I went with the familiar,” she said in an interview with The New York Times. “It’s definitely not something I feel great about.”

She’s also faced plenty of scrutiny around her term as the chief executive of Phipps Neighborhoods: Tenant activists deemed its umbrella organization, Phipps Houses, one of the worst evictors in New York City in 2018 and 2019. (A Phipps spokesperson said the organization followed through with evictions on less than 1 percent of its tenants each year.)

She emphasized the separation between the development group and the organization she led. “I’m very deeply proud of the work I did,” she said in an interview. “But it’s also true that Phipps Houses is a serious evictor. Those two things are true at the same time.”

Understand the N.Y.C. Mayoral Race

    • Who’s Running for Mayor? There are more than a dozen people in the race to become New York City’s next mayor, and the primary will be held on June 22. Here’s a rundown of the candidates.
    • Get to Know the Candidates: We asked leading candidates for mayor questions about everything from police reform and climate change to their favorite bagel order and workout routine.
    • What is Ranked-Choice Voting? New York City began using ranked-choice voting for primary elections this year, and voters will be able to list up to five candidates in order of preference. Confused? We can help.

    In addition to concerns about Phipps’ reputation, Ms. Morales’s reported take-home pay, nearly $350,000 in 2018, was an eye-popping figure for a candidate who has strongly emphasized her working-class identity, though even as chief executive, Ms. Morales was not the highest paid employee at the organization — filings show that at least three men earned more than she did.

    “I’m not going to apologize for making a decent living and being able to provide for my family,” Ms. Morales said. Since she stepped down from that position in January 2020, she says, she has not collected a salary.

    A leftist candidate in a liberal town

    Running for major office as a leftist is no easy feat, even in a town as overwhelmingly Democratic as New York City. As last summer’s uproar over police brutality, social justice and inequality began to cool, polls mostly placed Ms. Morales in the single-digits, despite some indications that voters were looking for a progressive candidate.

    She became increasingly focused on capturing voters who felt either excluded by or disappointed with their current representation: people on the front lines of protests and the pandemic.

    “It’s surprising to me, given what the appetite felt like a year ago,” Ms. Morales said. “It felt like we were ready for a little bit more of rebel revolution. And now it feels kind of like, we’re like, ‘OK, that’s nice.’”

    Gabe Tobias, manager of Our City, a super PAC that supports progressive candidates, pointed to the recent elections of Mr. Brisport and Representative Jamaal Bowman as proof that left-leaning candidates can win. “People in New York are open to voting for people on the left if they like the candidate,” he said. “But the candidates aren’t rallying people.”

    Still, Ms. Morales had a devoted, even if small, following that she thought she could grow. Fervent supporters defended her when an investigation by The City last month revealed that in 2002, Ms. Morales paid a $300 bribe to a corrupt water inspector to erase a $12,000-plus water meter bill and then lied twice to city investigators.

    She was working as a senior employee at the Department of Education at the time, and investigators recommended that she be fired. Instead, Ms. Morales resigned. The water bill turned out to have been fraudulently inflated, and the inspector was later convicted of misconduct.

    Ms. Morales sought to turn the negative press into a moment that, once again, reinforced her theme of being an ordinary New Yorker. In a statement, she cast herself as a victim, and emphasized how many people were vulnerable to similar scams: “When I say I know what it means to be a New Yorker, I mean it.”

    The day after her statement appeared was her best fund-raising day on record: she received over $50,000 from 1,225 people.

    Then, later in May, Whitney Hu, Ms. Morales’s campaign manager, and Ifeoma Ike, her senior adviser, resigned to protest what they called weeks of inaction regarding two staff members accused of discrimination and sexual harassment. (Ms. Hu and Ms. Ike did not respond to requests for comment; Ms. Ike has since joined Ms. Wiley’s campaign.) The two accused staff members have since been terminated. Allegations of poor management, discrimination, lack of pay and health care and a hostile work environment had plagued the campaign for weeks.

    Some of her staff members said they felt she was not living up to the lofty ideals she espoused on the campaign trail: A candidate who immediately called for the resignations of Mr. Cuomo and Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller and mayoral candidate, over allegations of sexual misconduct, was now accused of not addressing it among her own staff.

    Many of the 90-plus members of the staff moved to unionize, striking after Ms. Morales fired four employees associated with the organizing effort and did not provide a reason. Less than two weeks before the mayoral primary, the strike is still underway, and union members have reported being locked out of work accounts.

    Ms. Morales recognized the union, but she said she could not agree to many of its demands, some of which — such as for workers to be paid severance after the campaign’s end — she contended violated campaign finance laws. (The Campaign Finance Board handbook disputes this.)

    “I’m supportive of the organizing, I’m supportive of folks making good trouble, but I can’t actually tolerate disruptive, undermining behavior, and I think that is an issue that we have to deal with,” she said.

    The fallout has been particularly damaging for Ms. Morales, whose progressive base of supporters may be less likely to forgive what they see as ethical transgressions.

    “Was there anything that could’ve been done differently? I guess so,” said Peter Ragone, a political adviser who has worked on more than two dozen campaigns. “No candidate or their advisers has ever had to manage their way through something like this, so of course it’s a mess,” he added.

    But Ms. Morales has embraced the tension within her campaign. In a recent interview with NY1 about the unionization effort, she said: “It’s a beautiful and messy thing.”

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