How the Dianne Morales Campaign Fell Apart

How the Dianne Morales Campaign Fell Apart

How the Dianne Morales Campaign Fell Apart

At the last minute, the political newcomer’s once-promising bid for New York City mayor became a cautionary tale.

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For a moment, Dianne Morales seemed like the left’s best shot at stopping the more moderate front-runners in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary race, businessman Andrew Yang and ex-cop Eric Adams. Though she was always a long shot, consistently polling in the single digits, Morales began gaining traction among the city’s fragmented left after allegations of sexual harassment and abuse upended the campaign of city Comptroller Scott Stringer, who had hoped to consolidate progressive support. Morales, a former nonprofit executive, positioned herself as the most left-wing candidate in the crowded field and started bringing in impressive fundraising hauls, qualifying for millions of dollars in matching funds for the first time in March.

But less than four weeks before Election Day, the Morales campaign collapsed, and did so in an excruciatingly public way. On May 28, about 40 members of her staff gathered in Manhattan’s Bryant Park to protest working conditions at the office of the candidate they’d spent months campaigning for, carrying signs that read “Union Busting Is Disgusting” and “WTF Dianne?!” The organization, staffers said, was rife with sexual harassment and mistreatment, and fostered a “toxic environment” for young Black and brown workers. So they walked off the job, called a strike, and rallied in a park before marching to campaign headquarters to outline their demands.

By that time, Morales’s campaign was facing a leadership vacuum. Earlier that week, two high-level staffers were fired after being accused of harassment and toxic workplace behavior. Another senior staffer submitted a letter of resignation saying the campaign “no longer aligned” with her values. Then Morales fired four staffers who were involved in a last-minute unionization effort. Employees saw that as an act of retaliation—and the final straw. By the end of the day, individual aides had begun calling on their candidate to end her mayoral bid.

Farudh Emiel Majid, the senior Queens borough organizer for the campaign, released a statement asking Morales to step down, saying she had created “a hostile work environment towards Black and Brown staffers.” More than four dozen staffers, through a Twitter account called Mayorales Union, shared statements declaring demands, letters detailing negotiations with the candidate, and even a custom purple and orange gradient background that followers could use to make their own pro-union, anti-Morales profile picture.

As the drama unfolded, Morales struggled to explain why she fired the four union leaders and why her team had abandoned her. “It’s a beautiful and messy thing,” she told Spectrum News NY1. In a phone interview with The Nation, Morales said that staff were unwilling to negotiate and that she had found a way to pay those who were involved in the work stoppage, even through the end of their contracts. “I don’t know how much more pro-worker you can be than that,” she said.

Her supporters didn’t see it that way, and many quickly jumped ship. Groups like the New York Progressive Action Network and the Jewish Vote rescinded their endorsements and urged voters to rank Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney who had served as counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, in the No. 1 spot instead. The Working Families Party, a major progressive force in the state, shuffled its endorsements for the second time in the race, ending its support for Morales and ranking Wiley first, weeks after the Stringer allegations had led the party to co-endorse the two women. A number of notable progressives, including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also switched to Wiley, despite being ideologically closer to Morales. At least one top Morales aide went to work for a rival campaign. Then, three days before early voting began, Morales fired more than 40 staffers, roughly half of her team.

The work stoppage was unprecedented for a major political campaign. Of course, none of the tensions or labor disputes that led to the strike were unique. Campaign work is often grueling, and workers in the political sphere are increasingly turning to collective bargaining. But the turmoil is usually contained out of belief in a greater good. In 2020, Bernie Sanders’s staff came within minutes of blowing up his presidential campaign in Iowa with a work stoppage just weeks before the caucuses, as Ryan Grim recently revealed on The Hill’s Rising. They were already in a union, formed early on in the campaign, so there was a system in place to address their concerns. After some back and forth, and counter-organizing from a less-junior faction, the campaign narrowly averted a crisis—and kept it contained.

A progressive campaign eating itself alive, with its staffers and candidate publicly turning on each other during the final stretch of the race, poses uncomfortable questions for the left. The organizing and activist culture of the young staffers conflicted with the professional world of a campaign. It didn’t help that a unionization fight starting weeks before Election Day was bound to be a frenzied process; it was even worse that Morales took an adversarial stance. Her left-wing bona fides had already started to look dubious. An old interview in which she had refused to identify as progressive resurfaced, leading her supporters, and some staffers, to take another look at her background. After Morales skipped an “accountability meeting” to discuss harassment issues in the campaign, staff had had enough.

When I asked Morales whether staffers revolted because they ultimately did not believe in her candidacy or that her politics were genuine, she replied, “I am running on a record of decades of successful experience as a manager, as an executive, as someone who has been effective at bringing about change for communities.” From her perspective, staffers who saw her as a progressive hope were mistaken; she claimed to have rejected the label from the beginning. “I am who I am, and my record speaks for itself,” she said.

Morales denied that she was anything less than fully supportive of the unionization effort, saying she comes from a union family and “organizing is in my blood.” According to the union, she voluntarily recognized it. But her refusal to meet the union’s demands, which included the reinstatement of the four union leaders and severance packages worth two weeks’ pay for those who exited “voluntarily or involuntarily,” left the campaign at an impasse.

“After our meeting and your voluntary recognition of our union on Tuesday, we sincerely believed that despite the numerous missteps on your part up till that point—missteps and delays that enabled weeks of continued abuse of Black and brown organizers, queer folks, women and literal children, and led to the resignation of your two most senior campaign staff—that despite all of it, we could somehow emerge from it stronger and more aligned in our purpose,” the staffers wrote in a letter. “Your escalation prevented that from happening.”

Several young women on the campaign came forward internally with allegations of sexual harassment on the job, including inappropriate touching, sexual remarks, and unwanted advances, according to staff. These allegations, along with complaints of racial insensitivity, were outlined in an internal letter to Morales in May.

Other aspects of the labor dispute were more complicated than either side’s portrayal. Morales told the union that their demands included “things that either violate state and local laws, and/or create a risk of fiscal liability for the campaign.” A former campaign treasurer who has worked on other New York City campaigns told City & State that this appears to be true. The city’s public campaign financing program imposes restrictions on how candidates can use the money, so the demand that Morales use funds for “community grocery giveaways” was probably off the table. The city’s campaign finance handbook doesn’t rule out paying staff in accordance with existing contracts or agreements made about postelection work. But the Morales campaign said that continuing to pay staff with public funds who are no longer doing work for the campaign would risk liability. “The campaign finance board approved a very limited time for sort of this limbo status, and the clock ran out, unfortunately,” Morales said.

As for the union vote itself, staffers I spoke with, under conditions of anonymity due to nondisclosure agreements, conceded that the decision was reached in haste. They supported the push for workplace protections but realized, in retrospect, that they should have maintained a certain level of organization. “There were some people who seemed to be more interested in getting Twitter activity and their branding as radical activists, and that kind of contributed to the sense of ‘We’re going to burn everything down,’” one staffer said.

Morales had the most ambitious platform in the race, as the 54-year-old political newcomer was the only candidate to embrace defunding the police department. She campaigned on a municipal green jobs plan, a citywide rent moratorium, a wealth tax, and a pledge to close the Rikers Island jail complex without opening any new ones. Her platform contrasted with candidates like Adams, a 22-year veteran of the NYPD who supports stop-and-frisk, and Yang, a corporate-minded politician with plans to drastically increase police presence in the city. As the first and only Afro-Latina to run for New York City mayor, Morales also checked the boxes as the exciting kind of insurgent from a diverse background that the city’s rising left has favored. There were, however, some glaring signs of what was to come.

It turned out that Morales had virtually no presence in activist circles before running for mayor and was not involved in many of the left’s biggest fights in New York politics, like the effort to break up the Republican-allied Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in the state legislature or to elect democratic socialists to office. She had spent most of her career in the nonprofit sphere, including at an organization that carries out mass evictions.

It wasn’t really a secret. In the same interview in which she had refused to identify as a progressive, Morales pointed to her strong support of charter schools and admitted that she thinks she voted for Governor Andrew Cuomo over Cynthia Nixon in 2018 but couldn’t remember for sure. (Even Yang voted for Nixon in the Democratic primary.) Local outlets and journalists like Ross Barkan reported on some of the emerging questions about Morales’s leftist credentials, including her involvement in a bribery scheme and how, as a landlord and a charter school founder, she wielded the jargon of the intersectional left to garner grassroots support.

“A big lesson here is, I was sort of swept up in the zealotry and the idea of a person like Dianne, so much that I had ignored all the other red flags,” one Morales staffer told me. “So I think if anybody does want to run as a true progressive or true leftist or true socialist, whatever you want it to be, they have to be vetted. People need to do their homework next time, and I think I’m one of those people. If you don’t want a catastrophe like this again, you’re just going to have to make sure it’s the right person, period.”

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