After Stringer, is there any progressive with a chance of being NYC mayor?

Mayoral candidates Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley.
Mayoral candidates Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley.
Dimitri Rodriguez; lev radin/Shutterstock
Mayoral candidates Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley.

After Stringer, is there any progressive with a chance of being NYC mayor?

The two remaining options are Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales, but each may have limited appeal.
May 4, 2021

In the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City, the battle for the race’s left lane may come down to two first-time candidates: Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley.

If endorsements are any measure, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s campaign is sputtering in the wake of an accusation of sexual assault, which he denies. Most of his high-profile endorsers pulled away from his campaign, including Rep. Jamaal Bowman, the Working Families Party and a slew of young, progressive legislators who were supposed to lend Stringer, a career Democratic insider, credibility with the left wing of the party.

It’s possible, given the growing evidence that older Democrats are less moved by sexual harassment allegations than they used to be, that Stringer’s campaign will not entirely collapse, especially with the $7 million he still has in the bank. But Stringer was never at the front of the pack to begin with, typically placing third in recent polls behind Andrew Yang and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Stringer’s hope was a last-minute surge as progressive voters coalesced behind him to stop Yang and Adams, both of whom are running on centrist platforms.

If Stringer’s path to the Democratic nomination on June 22 is foreclosed, who among the left-leaning candidates can rise to the top? The two remaining options with progressive credentials are Wiley and Morales. Wiley has greater institutional ties and a potentially higher ceiling, but she has struggled to build grassroots excitement. Morales is far more charismatic, yet potentially limited in how she’s trying to appeal to an electorate in which 800,000 people of varying ideologies might vote.

Wiley, de Blasio’s former counsel in City Hall, has enjoyed far more media attention than Morales and may be, with Stringer’s scandal, the most likely recipient of a New York Times endorsement. The influential healthcare workers’ union that helped Bill de Blasio win the mayoralty in 2013, 1199 SEIU, is supporting her campaign. As a Black candidate, she is positioned, theoretically, to recreate de Blasio’s winning coalition, joining educated progressives of all races and across boroughs with working-class and middle-class Black voters.

In prestige press coverage, Wiley is presented as the alternative to Stringer, the beneficiary of his potential collapse and the place where all his endorsers may just flock. “Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, has been competing for some of the same deeply progressive voters Mr. Stringer has sought, and some political observers see an opening for her as well,” the Times reported on April 30.

That report, other than in the context of decisions endorsers have made already, doesn’t mention Morales as an alternative for these votes. It’s easy to see why: Wiley, who also gained fame as an MSNBC pundit, worked in the de Blasio administration and spent a longer time building up political relationships and making herself known.

But Wiley has a fundamental problem: she isn’t raising enough money and not many people seem excited by campaign. She has almost never polled ahead of Stringer, let alone Adams or Yang, or shown much upwards momentum for Wiley.

In one recent NY1/Ipsos poll, she clocked in at 7 percent, behind Stringer’s 11 and far off Yang’s 22 percent. As more voters tune in, they may be drawn to Wiley’s message of pragmatic, experienced progressivism and fall away from Yang, who can come off as a dilettante. She has released detailed policy platforms and she could begin to attract the upper middle-class liberal voters in neighborhoods like Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Brooklyn’s Park Slope and the Bronx’s Riverdale, who may have backed Stringer before the assault allegation.

But will she have the money to connect with these voters? Yang is sitting on $5 million and is raising more, with an outside PAC stepping in to assist him. Adams and Stringer crossed the $7 million threshold. Despite the early hype around her candidacy, Wiley has banked just $2.5 million in a mayoral race that will feature heavy TV and digital advertising. In the expensive New York media market, TV buys can run $1 million a week.

Wiley doesn’t seem to be connecting yet. Like a lot of candidates in this race, she has lacked an overarching theme or message. In 2013, de Blasio was the “tale of two cities'' candidate, with a message of combating inequality through reforming the NYPD and creating universal pre-K. His campaign understood the Democratic electorate was tired of the billionaire then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ran against him.

A look back at every successful mayoral campaign finds something similar: a succinct message rooted in the moment. In 1977, Ed Koch ran on a law-and-order platform, emphasizing his support for the death penalty, even though that could only be decided at the state level, in an era of high crime. Pitching himself as a “liberal with sanity,” Koch positioned himself against his two predecessors, Abe Beame and John Lindsay, who were blamed for the city’s deteriorating finances.

In 1989, David Dinkins, the city’s first and only Black mayor, built a multiracial coalition, his “gorgeous mosaic” framed as a repudiation of the race-baiting Koch years. In 1993, the revanchist Rudy Giuliani ran on white resentment, narrowly driving Dinkins out of office. (At the time, though it’s hard to remember, Giuliani also sought to portray himself as an anti-machine, liberal Republican in the mode of Fiorello LaGuardia.)

So far, Wiley’s policy blueprints don’t add up to any particular message or vision. At times, it can seem like she is running a version of the Democratic presidential campaigns of 2020 that did not gain any traction with the electorate, like Beto O’Rourke’s or Kirsten Gillibrand’s.

For most voters, choosing a leader is a visceral experience, with a campaign’s message far outweighing whatever particular policy prescription is offered. This is a lesson her consultants have not seemed to have internalized.

Like Stringer, Wiley has been caught in no-man’s land – too moderate to please the rising left, which really wants the NYPD gutted, and too liberal to coalition-build with the large number of moderates in the outer boroughs. Firm lanes in the race do not exist, but branding does. Wiley’s has been muddled.

Morales, a former nonprofit executive, is more compelling for many on the left. She is Afro-Latina and would, like Wiley, make history in a city that has, with one exception, only elected white men. As the former executive of Phipps Neighborhoods, a social services nonprofit that belongs to the more controversial real estate developer, Phipps Housing, she can credibly claim experience running a large organization. Phipps Housing, however, is consistently ranked among the worst evictors in the city and Morales will have to keep answering for their record.

When the WFP backed Stringer, they ranked Morales second and Wiley third, since ranked-choice voting will be used in this primary. That shows just how far Morales, once an unknown, had come. Typically, outsider insurgent candidates like Morales’ can be discredited because they haven’t raised enough money to compete. Morales, though, has banked about $2.5 million, matching Wiley’s haul.

Morales has excited many of the young, hard-left voters who handed victories to Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, state Sen. Julia Salazar and other left-wing first-time candidates in New York. Other politicians, like state Sens. Jabari Brisport and Gustavo Rivera, endorsed both Stringer and Morales, meaning they are now just supporting her campaign.

Morales, though, has her own limitations – and they’re derived from the very policy that has injected great momentum into her campaign. Unlike every other candidate in the race, Morales wants to slash the NYPD’s operating budget in half, by $3 billion. She’d redirect the funds into social services and create a new, nonviolent agency to respond to mental health and homelessness calls.

It’s an admirable idea. But many Democratic voters do not want to significantly defund the police, especially with gun violence on the rise. The issue polls dreadfully nationally. Locally, many Black and Latino voters, especially those who are middle-aged and older, do not want to see policing disappear in their neighborhoods. In the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Southeast Queens, one of the long-sought goals was an additional police precinct. De Blasio announced recently, to much local fanfare, he’d be delivering on that.

Given the challenge of gun violence, it’s hard to see Morales’ defund message connecting with the broad swath of the electorate beyond the gentrifying belts of Brooklyn and Queens. Wiley can argue that as someone who’s staked out a middle ground on the issue – she supports cutting $1 billion, not $3 billion – she can better appeal to moderates and grow her coalition. Lacking Morales’ charisma, she’ll have to find a way very soon.

The truth is that it may be getting much harder for any of the progressive candidates to overtake Adams and Yang.

Correction: Wiley has led Stringer in one poll. 

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Ross Barkan
is a writer, journalist, and former State Senate candidate
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