The Morales Implosion: What’s a NYC Progressive Supposed To Do Now?

The apparent demise of the Dianne Morales campaign leaves progressives feeling blown up. Can Maya Wiley restore their hope?
The apparent demise of the Dianne Morales campaign leaves progressives feeling blown up. Can Maya Wiley restore their hope?

With just three weeks left until the mayoral primary, can New York progressives find anyone to beat an ex-cop who used to be a Republican, a lobbyist-led neophyte, or the center-left Sanitation commissioner with a Times and Daily News endorsement?

The meltdown and subsequent staff work stoppage at Dianne Morales’s campaign has exposed a disconcerting inability to lead (or “beautiful mess,” if you prefer), and given the other two candidates seen as the most plausible left-wing contenders — Maya Wiley and Scott Stringer — an opportunity to make their case (or re-make it, given their stagnant mid-pack poll numbers).

“I am the progressive, and the only progressive in this race that can win it,” Wiley told reporters on Friday, when asked to comment on Morales’s campaign collapse.

Some recent polls show how difficult this could be: one released on Friday showed Wiley and Stringer trailing Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams by double digits. Another from last week essentially depicted a three-way race among Adams, Kathryn Garcia, and Andrew Yang.

It’s tempting to see polls showing the progressives’ failure to connect with New Yorkers and conclude that what voters want right now is not an idealist, but a competent, pragmatic, pro-business executive who won’t get bogged down in fights over “defunding” the police.

But this temptation ignores history. Just a year ago, tens of thousands of New Yorkers violated a curfew to march in the streets against racist police violence. Centrists like Andrew Cuomo asserted that the slogan “defund the police” was costing Democrats seats in the legislature — until all the votes were counted and most of the “defund” candidates won, despite reactionary smear campaigns from billionaire donors. Then this newly elected Albany supermajority passed the most progressive marijuana legalization laws in the country, and a raft of new taxes on the rich.

And 77 percent of likely Democratic primary voters polled by the Manhattan Institute earlier this month agreed that New York would be “better off if it were more socialist, including taxing the wealthy more to pay for social programs, redistributing wealth, guaranteeing incomes for all New Yorkers, and providing free education from pre-K to college.”

So why did progressives take a nap on the mayor’s race?

“I think the left has spent a lot of time for the last two to three years, really laser-focused on the state legislature and Albany. We need to build out our capacity to do both,” said Cea Weaver, a tenant organizer for Housing Justice for All, a coalition that helped secure the historic state rent regulations in 2019.

“Is it something about this job in particular that we couldn’t recruit a good person for? Is it because Andrew Cuomo spent the last eight years dunking on Bill de Blasio, making him look like a moron?” Weaver mused. “Is it something about that role as an executive that the left is not used to, seeing themselves in that position?”

Some might argue that the relative powerlessness of the mayor’s office compared to the governor and the state legislature is a good reason to vote for Garcia, who has a proven track record in city government, even if she is perplexed by the idea of decommodifying housing and would lift the cap on charter schools.

But the issue that most distinguishes the progressives from the moderates in the mayoral campaign is how they would stand up to the NYPD, the city agency that has acted with near impunity for decades. 

Adams, Yang and Garcia have all pledged to tamp down on violent crime and run a fairer, more transparent NYPD — essentially the same promises Bill de Blasio made in 2013. Garcia got the New York Times’s endorsement by assuring voters that she’d keep the police budget the same and somehow rein in a department that has gleefully shrugged off the mayor, the city council, the state attorney general, and the federal government.

Recognizing that real reform cannot happen without a commensurate adjustment in power — i.e. dollars — Morales, Stringer, and Wiley have all made specific commitments to cut the NYPD’s budget and move that money elsewhere. Morales’s $3-billion pledge is the biggest, but with her campaign house burning from inside, it seems unrealistic that she’d be able to take on the NYPD in a fight of this magnitude. Last year’s hotly debated $1-billion “cut” to the police budget, fought over by a group of three-term councilmembers and a two-term mayor, ended up being a $282-million scrape.

This leaves Wiley and Stringer, who both have plans to cut at least $1 billion from the NYPD.

“Stringer got some traction earlier on, but he had some very damaging accusations against him, and also the damaging way he handled them,” said Art Chang, a long-shot mayoral candidate who has also pledged to trim the police budget by more than $1 billion. 

“And Maya, she’s so closely associated with de Blasio, with de Blasio’s failed efforts on police reform, and with the nonprofit that got him mired in ethical trouble.”

Wiley, de Blasio’s former attorney who has several former de Blasio staffers working on her campaign, has insisted that the mayor didn’t always take her legal advice when it came to soliciting the nonprofit donations that would eventually lead to state and federal investigations.

As for her time at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, Wiley ensured that the procedural case against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who killed Eric Garner, was successfully transferred to the NYPD. But this process took well over a year. A low-level employee who leaked Pantaleo’s disciplinary record to the press — a practice that the de Blasio administration had previously determined was legal before inexplicably changing course — was pressured to resign. Wiley’s CCRB was ultimately criticized by the NYCLU as being “passive and silent.”

At a recent canvassing event, Streetsblog asked Wiley if there was anything she regretted during her time as CCRB chair.

“I took that volunteer position because the CCRB was roiling, roiling,” Wiley said. “It was an agency whose morale was, frankly, in the toilet.” (Morale among CCRB investigators may still be at porcelain levels in 2021.)

Wiley disputed that the staffer was forced to quit, said she “did battle behind the scenes,” and that she laid the foundations for recent reforms

“I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to live out my values by straightening that agency up, strengthening it, and getting [the Pantaleo] case done,” Wiley said.

Mike Perles, a current staffer at the city’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (and vocal de Blasio critic) said that he’s leaning towards ranking Wiley first.

“She hasn’t really been very exciting but I think she’s experienced, and I think she would do a good job,” Perles explained. “Her biggest criticism from what I can tell is the fact that she worked in the de Blasio administration, but that’s so much less terrifying than everything else that’s happened.”

Perles said many of his politically active friends initially looked past Morales’s obvious red flags — her employer being on the “worst evictors” list, her support for charter schools — because she was otherwise pushing the envelope and assuming the far left spot that no one else seemed to want to claim.

“No one else was saying we needed to defund the NYPD by $3 billion, that we needed a transformational approach in terms of housing people,” said Perles, who is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has sat out the mayor’s race in favor of key Council races.

Perles noted that the speedy evaporation of support for Morales — and for Stringer, after he was accused by a former campaign staffer of sexual assault — underscored the essential weakness of the candidates.

“There’s no one that has excited me that was part of a movement, really in any significant way, off paper, in real life,” Perles said.

Helen Ho, an organizer and co-founder of the Biking Public Project, who also spent two years working for the de Blasio administration, said she feels compelled to “vote my conscience,” which means a shorter ballot without more moderate candidates. 

“I think Kathryn Garcia is a moderate candidate. I think she’s appealing to White voters who read the New York Times, who want to sound progressive in the way that New Yorkers want to sound progressive, but don’t really want to be challenged in any way,” said Ho. “To actually be a progressive and to make change means being uncomfortable for a lot of people who have more privilege. Kathryn Garcia doesn’t challenge anyone.”

Ho said she is still strongly considering putting Morales first on her ballot, but noted that the campaign staff’s walkout deeply concerned her: “There’s no perfect candidate. There’s no Santa Claus in the race.”

Chang thinks voters want “someone with the heart of a progressive and the life experiences of a progressive, but they want someone who can get things done.” That has been Comptroller Stringer’s pitch all along, and before his deep and diverse bench of supporters abandoned him, it seemed plausible. The NY Post gave us a preview of a Stringer mayoralty over the weekend, with a two-bylined look at his “tangled romantic history,” which the Post helped tangle further with some baseless innuendo.

“I feel like I change my mind every day about who the better opponent for the organized left is, Adams or Yang,” said Weaver, the tenant organizer who is also a DSA member. “Not just the bigger threat but like, who are we easier or in a better position to organize against?”

Weaver said that whenever she is tempted to feel despair, she reminds herself that the City Council is about to be remade, and that DSA, which declined to endorse in the mayor’s race, is backing a strong slate of six candidates. And with “undecided” still polling relatively high, “anything could happen.”