When Dianne Morales launched her campaign for mayor of New York City last November, she was trapped behind a computer screen. “We’ve had 109 mayors in New York. One was Black. None were women. None were Latino. None were indigenous. None were Asian,” she said then. “I know I’m not a traditional candidate. I’m not a traditional candidate because I’ve not spent a lifetime jockeying for the job.”
At the time, Covid-19 cases were ticking upward again in New York, which had lost more lives to the pandemic than any other city in America. Morales, 53, was entering the crowded Democratic primary with little money and only a bit more hope. Mostly unknown across the five boroughs, she would have the daunting task of introducing herself to hundreds of thousands of voters.
But as the pandemic wanes and spring takes hold, Morales is on the move. The former nonprofit executive, running an unabashedly leftist campaign for one of America’s most influential offices, recently received more than $2.2 million from the city’s public matching funds system. The Working Families Party announced that she was the second of three recommended candidates, and an internal survey showed she nearly won the endorsement outright.
And while polls indicate she is not yet close to Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate and consistent front-runner, she is on par with Democrats who have already unloaded millions from their war chests. (One recent poll put Yang at 22 percent, while no other candidate was higher than 13 percent. Morales polled at 5 percent, only two points behind Maya Wiley, Bill de Blasio’s former counsel—and one point behind Ray McGuire and Shaun Donovan, who are both backed by super PACs.)
“We’re starting to get the nod from what I refer to as the chattering class,” Morales told The Nation in an interview. “But we’ve been building power on the ground for a really long time.”
In a city where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman have won dramatic elections, Morales is starting to seize the zeitgeist. Her unapologetically progressive positions have won many converts, particularly among millennials, who are growing into a force in local primaries. Democratic Socialists of America keep sending new members to the state legislature, and could elect as many as six new City Council members in the primary on June 22.
Unlike every other serious candidate in the race, Morales is fully supportive of the movement to defund the police, calling for a $3 billion cut that would slash the NYPD’s operating budget in half. She wants to bring Vienna-style social housing to New York City. She plans to make the city’s public university system tuition-free.
As an Afro-Latina, she would be the first female and Latina mayor of a city that has been led by men—all but one of them white—since the five boroughs were incorporated in 1898.
“I feel like she’s the candidate that meets the moment,” said Jabari Brisport, a Brooklyn state senator and DSA member who decided to back Morales. “It’s really beautiful to see what she’s built.”
This mayoral race is unlike any other because the pandemic lingers. Indoor campaign events can’t happen, parades are on hiatus, and the subways are still partially emptied out, preventing candidates from stumping in front of a sweating mass of commuters. In April, Morales held her first of many outdoor neighborhood block parties, a sign that the campaign may finally begin to resemble the crowded, raucous contests of years past.
Though the municipal coffers are temporarily flush with federal stimulus cash, New York faces monumental challenges. As workers stay home and corporations contemplate a future of remote work, Midtown and Downtown are still sparsely populated; the commercial real estate industry in free fall. Old sources of tax revenue will have to be replaced. Like cities elsewhere, shootings and murders are on the rise.
Bill de Blasio, the outgoing mayor, was once a progressive darling, but, apart from cementing free universal prekindergarten for every New Yorker who wants it, his tenure has been a disappointment. De Blasio’s NYPD is not reformed; during the George Floyd marches last year, police savagely beat and corralled protesters. In January, the state attorney general announced that she was suing the NYPD and demanding that a court-appointed monitor oversee the department’s policing tactics.
If Morales does manage to win, she would represent a much more profound break with the past than any of her predecessors. Just about every modern mayor, Republican and Democrat, carefully aligned himself with the real estate industry and the police department, believing such a deep relationship was vital for keeping peace and maintaining power. Both Manhattan billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Brooklyn progressive Bill de Blasio pursued developer-friendly policies and deferred, whenever under pressure, to their bulldog police commissioners.
A Morales administration would look nothing like that. “I think there’s a lot of decision-making right now that is happening based on fear rather than on possibility,” she said.
Standing in her way is not just Yang—who is being advised by Bloomberg’s former campaign manager the millionaire investor Bradley Tusk—but another moderate, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Not to mention the two other candidates competing in the progressive lane: Scott Stringer, the current city comptroller, and Maya Wiley, de Blasio’s former counsel—who is also seeking to become the city’s first Black female mayor.
Stringer is hoping to consolidate left support, though the new ranked-choice voting system allows voters to pick up to five candidates, theoretically allowing multiple progressives to flourish. But if polling is any indication, so far the system appears to be aiding only Yang.
Morales hopes to be the one, against all odds, to break through.
“She’s done a really good job of branding her candidacy,” said Neal Kwatra, a veteran Democratic consultant unaligned with any of the campaigns. “It’s a very deep and competitive and tough field, and given that clearly she’s done some good organizing, we’ll see how much it translates into actual votes.”
Stringer is a white man trying to represent a majority-minority city, but he’s also the WFP’s first choice for mayor. Many other progressive politicians, including Bowman, have endorsed him already, seeing him as the most viable candidate running a left-of-center campaign, with more than $7 million banked for television ads and almost 30 consecutive years in elected office.
Regarding the WFP’s decision to not rank her first, Morales said it was “disappointing” that the organization had chosen to “support a white man as the sort of person to move the city forward in the best interests of Black and brown low-income, working-class families. This is an unfortunate thing.”
“With all due respect to Scott, he’s been aspiring to become mayor for many, many years, so I think there’s something to be said about this moment being time for folks who have a fresh perspective and are not entrenched in the system.”
One potential stumbling block for Morales is that the ascendant DSA is not supporting her or anyone else for mayor, preferring to focus on City Council campaigns. Morales herself does not identity as a socialist— “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,” she said earlier this year—and some leftists remain wary of her professional background.
Before running for office, Morales was the well-compensated executive of Phipps Neighborhoods, the social services arm of a controversial nonprofit real estate developer, Phipps Houses. Phipps Houses is annually listed among the worst evictors in the city and has clashed with labor unions at their developments. According to sources familiar with the WFP’s endorsement process, Morales’s history with Phipps may have cost her the top ranking.
After prodding from reporters, Morales recently denounced Phipps’s real estate record, telling Politico she agreed with tenant activists that Phipps is a “bad landlord.” In her interview with The Nation, she said the social services and real estate arms were separate, though activists have questioned why she didn’t do more to challenge their behavior in the past.
“I’m not entirely sure what that would look like,” she said. “Should I have done a press release about it? Should I have called any of you and said, great, this is happening? I think the community was doing that already and I was actually addressing this internally as best as I could and advocating for clients and residents.”
If Morales is going to win, she’ll need to both draw from the bulk of left-leaning voters showing up for the primary and capitalize on her presence as the lone Latina in a race where as much as a quarter of the electorate might be Spanish-speaking. Morales, who is Puerto Rican, has leaned more into her ideology than a specific ethnic appeal, but that might have to change for her to move into the top tier, said Eli Valentin, a political analyst and lecturer who studies Latino voting patterns in New York.
“I think that the Latino vote is more of a natural base for her, and I believe she can appeal to that as she remains faithful to her own progressive values,” said Valentin.
The Latino vote, though, is no monolith in New York City, Valentin explained, with Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican voters not always backing the same candidates. Puerto Ricans, from Herman Badillo to Fernando Ferrer, have run competitively for mayor before—but none has ever won.
The biggest challenge of all for Morales—and any leftist who attempts to get to City Hall without holding prior office, being famous already, or possessing Bloomberg’s billions—is the sheer size of the electorate. More than 800,000 people might cast their ballots in June, vastly more than the fewer than 30,000 who showed up for Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in 2018. Citywide constituencies are vast and heterodox, ranging from young socialists to Hasidic Jews to churchgoing Afro-Caribbeans.
Susan Kang, a political science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a leading organizer in DSA, said she has been telling voters to rank Morales first and Stringer second to help build a coalition against the more moderate Yang. “If Morales doesn’t get enough traction, it’s very important for people to put Stringer second,” she said. “They’re a natural combination.”
On Thursday, Morales and Stringer made a surprise appearance together in Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Both candidates were receiving an endorsement from Sunrise Movement’s city chapter, winning praise for their commitment to combating climate change.
Was the “natural combination” ready to form a popular front at last?
“We are at a crossroads in our history,” Morales said, wind whipping off the Hudson River. “This is not the time for any kind of moderation or tinkering.”