2021 NYC Mayoral Candidates

Maya Wiley’s long crusade

The veteran civil rights activist and attorney has always centered racial equity, but hasn’t always produced tangible results.

Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley with Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014.

Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley with Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office

At a recent New York City mayoral forum on policing and community safety, candidates were asked for two things they would do as mayor to ensure that police who kill, brutalize or harass people are fired. Maya Wiley, the first to answer, began as if reading off her own resume. “As someone who has been a civil rights lawyer my whole career, and racial justice advocate, and has worked on a criminal justice initiative in post-apartheid South Africa and chaired the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board – including getting the Daniel Pantaleo case over to the police department with charges, and fighting to hold on to civilian prosecution of that case – we have to do a couple of things,” Wiley said, in not quite one breath but certainly one run-on sentence. 

Absent from that long list of professional achievements are elected positions, but she’s proud of that. “I’m not a conventional candidate,” Wiley declared in her announcement video. But with 30 years in a variety of positions in activism and government, she is unquestionably experienced, especially in the realm of civil rights. Some of that experience, though, especially in the de Blasio administration, hasn’t always led to positive impressions on the progressive base she is now courting in the Democratic primary.

The work Wiley mentioned in post-apartheid South Africa has its roots in her ungraduate days at Dartmouth College in the 1980s, when she was one of a group of student activists working on divestment. A psychology major at the time, she cited apartheid and divestment for inspiring her to go to law school and become a civil rights lawyer, she told the magazine Diverse Issues in Higher Education in 2018.

Wiley chose to go to Columbia Law School, where she was mentored by the renowned civil rights lawyer Jack Greenberg, who took over as director-counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund from Thurgood Marshall and served as vice dean of the law school. After becoming a lawyer, Wiley followed in Greenberg’s footsteps, joining the group’s poverty and justice program in 1992, where she remained until 1994. She left the NAACP to become a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, working in the civil division. She would later join the Open Society Institute, where she helped develop the criminal justice initiative in South Africa.

“Just because a case is dismissed doesn’t mean you have failed. When you’re working on these matters, a lot of times, it’s the person that opens the door that leads to further action down the line.” – former Assembly Member Michael Blake

One could say she also followed in the footsteps of her parents, George and Wretha Wiley – George was a civil rights activist who worked with Congress of Racial Equality in the 1960s and founded the National Welfare Rights Organization, while Wretha fought for school integration – and her stepfather Dr. Bruce Hanson, who was also a civil rights activist. 

While with the NAACP, Wiley lobbied Congress on health care reform and worked on a lawsuit against St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, which was made up of two facilities in Manhattan, in an attempt to keep the hospital from removing services from its facility closest to Harlem. Wiley didn’t win the case: A judge dismissed it. But former Assembly Member Michael Blake, a friend and supporter of Wiley’s, still considers that lawsuit one of her success stories. “Just because a case is dismissed doesn't mean you have failed,” said Blake. “When you're working on these matters, a lot of times, it's the person that opens the door that leads to further action down the line.” 

Wiley went on to co-found her own nonprofit, the Center for Social Inclusion, a national policy strategy organization focused on racial inequality that has since been wrapped into the nonprofit Race Forward. Co-founder Jocelyn Sargent described the goal of the Center for Social Inclusion as connecting grassroots organizers with policymakers and national groups. “Maya’s always been committed to ... being of service to justice and democracy,” Sargent said.

Those who have worked with her have described Wiley as a strong and supportive leader. “I always found that no matter where we were, if you just came up and said to Maya, ‘I want to be able to do this,’ she would help you kind of figure out how to best do that,” said Anthony Giancatarino, who joined the Center for Social Inclusion as a researcher in 2010. “And I found her someone who's willing to listen, to challenge you.”

“Visionary” was a word used to describe Wiley by multiple people who worked with her at the nonprofit, including Sargent. Although its roots are in New York City, the Center for Social Inclusion began work on racial inequality in the South and on issues including broadband access, transportation, food inequity and energy as its national work ramped up and Wiley expanded its reach. 

One police reform advocate said some of Wiley’s talking points are too reminiscent of de Blasio, who let down many reform advocates.

It’s hard to point to concrete victories that the Center for Social Inclusion achieved, or even a specific policy it helped to implement, but those who have worked for the organization have credited it with helping to shift policy conversations to be more explicitly race-centered under Wiley’s leadership. “Advocacy groups and policy groups all wanted to be race neutral – they just wanted to talk about class at that time,” said Dennis Chin, who joined the Center for Social Inclusion in 2011 and and still works for Race Forward. “Because of Maya’s visionary and principled leadership … and the partners that we’ve worked with across the country, it played a huge part in making sure that racial equity was central to policymaking.”

Chin’s assessment is difficult to prove or quantify, but it’s clear that Wiley’s profile began to rise in the later years of her time as president and executive director of the nonprofit. She began appearing on MSNBC as a guest expert in the field of racial justice in the 2010s, long before she became a paid contributor to the cable network. 

Echoing both Chin and Sargent, Giancatarino considered Wiley “ahead of her time” when he worked with her in the way she centered racial equity in policy analysis. Wiley brought that mindset with her into New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration when she joined in 2014 as the mayor’s counsel. “The influence that she had was really sort of bringing that social justice dimension to everything,” said Andrea Hagelgans, de Blasio’s former communications director and senior adviser for strategic planning. “She was always looking for opportunities to drive policy as well, and to think through the mayor's agenda and how to use her role to reduce inequality in the city,” Hagelgans added, crediting Wiley for work to ensure that the administration enacted progressive policies including mandatory paid parental leave.

While Wiley’s policy work has only been criticized for sometimes slow execution, according to Gotham Gazette, her role as the mayor’s lawyer has been more controversial. She offered advice on how to avoid conflicts of interest issues when fundraising for the nonprofit Campaign for One New York, defended de Blasio amid scrutiny of the nonprofit that led to multiple investigations and reportedly played a fairly significant role in vetting donors to that and another fund the mayor controlled.

In a 2015 video, Wiley said her job as counsel to de Blasio is to “keep him out of jail.” And she succeeded, after multiple investigations into the mayor’s fundraising practices did not result in criminal charges against him – although Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said de Blasio was not following “the intent and spirit” of the law. Wiley was even the first to coin the now-infamous phrase “agents of the city” to refer to a group of informal outside advisers to the mayor as the administration fought for years to keep communications with them private. 

For her part, Wiley has said that she offered advice to de Blasio as his lawyer, but he didn’t always follow it. Wiley was not available for an interview for this piece and her campaign did not respond to a detailed list of questions, but supporters and colleagues defended her. “We all have bosses we disagree with,” Blake said, pointing to the Department of Investigation probe that found that her advice was not always followed and that de Blasio had broken ethics rules. “The framing of ‘well she was there’ and therefore let’s hold that on her, that’s wrong.” Hagelgans also said she’s not concerned something similar would happen should Wiley become mayor. “In that position, she would be the one that would be taking the advice and making the judgment call,” Hagelgans said. “And I think she's got tremendous judgment.” 

Wiley left the administration in 2016 and was appointed the chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight agency for the New York City Police Department. She often touts her role in this position when discussing police reform, and during her tenure the CCRB did investigate Pantaleo for Eric Garner’s death, substantiating the complaints and recommending his firing just days after she left the agency. But the one year that she was there was marked by complaints from police reform advocates over a lack of transparency and what some saw as a reluctance to confront the police department. “Over the last year, the CCRB has been disturbingly absent from the public debate about police misconduct and accountability,” Christopher Dunn, then the associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said when she left

To some in the civil rights and criminal justice reform community, Wiley has a solid track record as an activist, but isn’t the candidate that truly meets the moment. One police reform advocate, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly before their group makes an endorsement, said that some of Wiley’s talking points are too reminiscent of de Blasio, who let down many reform advocates during his time in office after failing to live up to his campaign promises on policing. This is despite attempts from Wiley to distance herself from her old boss throughout the campaign. “I think she's got some good politics, and she's got a good resume, generally, overall, when you talk about racial equity,” the advocate said. “But I’m not sure exactly what she can point to that came out of the CCRB, under her tenure, that radically improved the lives of New Yorkers.”

Most of Wiley’s work until then had been with the Center for Social Inclusion, which was nationally focused and often did work on equity in other parts of the country. The advocate couldn’t think of any work from Wiley’s time at the Center for Social Inclusion that involved reforming the NYPD, the civil rights and racial justice issue at the heart of this year’s mayoral race. “I think she comes to the police reform work from a very grasstops place, as opposed to grassroots,” they said. One could presumably make the same argument about Wiley’s post-administration work as a professional pundit for MSNBC and a professor at The New School. 

But Sargent, who worked with Wiley in advocacy, disagreed with that assessment. “I’ve witnessed her work with grassroots organizing groups, community groups, to really raise their voices in, you know, traditional policymaking spaces,” Sargent said. “When I look back at her career, I see it all consistently building to what I think would be a really wonderful opportunity for the city of New York. It makes so much sense to me that she would be running for office.”

This article is part of our For The Record series, examining the leading mayoral contenders’ professional records. You can read the rest of the series here.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.