Dianne Morales’ NYC mayoral campaign theme: 'power to the people'

Dianne Morales is running an optimistic campaign for mayor of New York City.
Dianne Morales is running an optimistic campaign for mayor of New York City.
Hallie Easey
Dianne Morales is running an optimistic campaign for mayor of New York City.

Dianne Morales’ NYC mayoral campaign theme: 'power to the people'

A Q&A with the nonprofit executive and New York City mayoral candidate.
December 1, 2020

Dianne Morales is running an optimistic campaign for mayor of New York City, even though the city is at its lowest point in her lifetime, the 53-year-old Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, native told City & State. “We have to think about this in terms of how we move forward in the best way possible, right? And that doesn't mean, ‘how do we get to a point where we're treading water again?’” Instead, she’s asking “how do we springboard from this moment to a future that actually is better for everybody?”

That means pitching big ideas like “community control” of the New York City Housing Authority and letting neighborhood residents have more of a role in developing affordable housing – even if she admits some of the proposals aren’t yet fully fleshed out.

Just the fact that she’s running for mayor at all, as a nonprofit executive with no direct experience in local politics before this, proves her optimism. Morales, who left her position as director and CEO of social services nonprofit Phipps Neighborhoods last year, has earned local media coverage by pushing the Democratic mayoral primary field leftward with innovative proposals such as government-supported worker collectives. 

City & State talked to Morales days after she held a formal campaign launch event online, and discussed what “the political chattering class” thinks about her, whether she’s the most progressive candidate in the race and how she fits in a national trend of Black female mayors. (Morales is Afro-Latina.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We first talked in August 2019, soon after you filed for the mayoral race, and you just had a campaign kickoff this month. What’s one thing you’ve learned in the past 15 months, and how has it changed your campaign?

The headline lesson learned here is that everything that this campaign is doing goes against the establishment and against what is expected and the rules of engagement, if you will. The barriers have been high for a campaign that is this focused on really, really centering communities. But we have been successful at defying expectations at every turn. So I’m really hopeful about what this moment in time reflects – and also just struck by the maze of barriers that are intended to preclude certain people from being able to participate in this part of the democratic process.

What kind of barriers? Is it just money, or is also who you’re invited to speak to?

The viability (question) refers to money, it refers to the folks who are part of the political chattering class – whether or not they know you or deem you as being worthy. That includes the people who participate in that either through holding office, influencing those in office or through reporting on those in office. I think I started speaking about it first in January when I talked about the erasure of my name and my candidacy from conversations about people of color or Latinos in the race. (After Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. announced he would not run.) There’s multiple layers to that. Money is definitely a big thing. And I think that’s one of the places where people have been most surprised by the campaign.

Money isn’t everything, but you are well behind many of your opponents. How has fundraising been going since July, and how do you plan to get your message out?

We’re going to qualify for the matching funds. And that won’t balance it, but it’ll help a little bit in terms of reach. The folks that my campaign is speaking to started hearing our message before the July filing. I think that was reflected in the number of donors we got from New York City in that filing. (Morales had 1,651 overall contributions from January to July, more than any other competitor.) Those are not people who necessarily can contribute $2,000, but they are contributing, and they are voters. We’re speaking to voters, we’re just speaking to potentially a different segment of voters and not the voters that are going to be able to sign over a $2,000 check.

You’ve been vocal in your support of issues like defunding the police. Do you consider yourself to be the most progressive candidate in the race?

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. I think my positions speak for themselves. If being someone who really believes that centering the safety and the well-being of communities that have been historically not represented, or reflected or prioritized in government and leadership means that I am the most left or the most progressive or a socialist, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with those things. I don’t lead with that. I believe in leading with my positions and my beliefs and who I am, because those things are inextricably linked.

Do you consider yourself a democratic socialist?

It's the same thing. I'm not a part of DSA or any of that. Do I see a lot of similarities between my beliefs and the things that they put out? Yes. Do I have some problems with some of the structures or machinations of that organization? Yeah. 

I say what I feel and feel what I say. That's what defines me, and I've been reluctant to pin myself down in that way, because I don't feel like any of those things are a monolith, or necessarily define me.

You've criticized the dominance of for-profit developers in building new affordable housing. But is there another economical way of building housing to meet the city's demand, without the partnership of for-profit developers?

Yeah, I think so. One of the things I've talked about is really having a community-led, community-driven process around what the needs are and what that looks like. I've also played with the idea of the city managing that process and hiring people from among the community to actually do that development work. I've played with the idea of affordable housing groups getting less of a tax incentive or break, and using that money to instead invest in the community. I think there are different models that we need to explore that first, center communities, and second, put some controls on the kind of upzoning that's happening and the displacement that ends up happening in a lot of even the most quote-unquote, "affordable housing developments" in the city. I think that's highly problematic. I think we need to fundamentally rethink how we do this, and what our approach is, and do that in partnership with community members.

You're talking about much more than just getting community board buy-in, but actually forming community development organizations?

I've talked about community land trusts. I've talked about worker-owned cooperatives that could contribute to that. I've talked about a Green New Deal for NYCHA that I think is important in terms of hiring residents and completely transforming and retrofitting public housing. We need to fundamentally flip the model that we use now for developing housing in the city. I think we need to flip it on its head. I think we need to increase and prioritize community ownership opportunities. The way we do zoning needs to be done differently as well, that centers and partners communities in terms of making decisions about what they want, what they need, and what they want that to look like.

You come from the nonprofit sector. On issues like housing and policing, is more partnership with nonprofits the answer, or should these programs be run directly by government employees?

There is definitely a role for nonprofits to play in this process. But even then, we have to develop mechanisms for strong community voice and control that even now don't exist across the board in the nonprofit sector. One of the things I say all the time is that those who are closest to the challenges are closest to the solution, and so they should be at the table in problem-solving.

You’ve said that NYCHA should be handed over to community ownership. Can you expand on that? Do you want to turn public housing into a co-op system?

My thinking on that is not fully fleshed out in terms of whether it’s a co-op specifically. But I do think that giving NYCHA residents greater decision-making and roles in the future of NYCHA is the key, and would help not just provide some economic stability to folks in NYCHA developments, but also help bring those developments into a fundamentally different state of being. What exists right now is inhumane and would not be tolerated on the Upper East Side, so I don’t see why NYCHA residents should have to tolerate the conditions that they’re dealing with right now.

It seems to be such an optimistic vision, that communities would make the right decision regarding development. We’ve seen so many times that communities have been divisive and exclusionary – recently, on the Upper West Side. What gives you faith this would be a better system than having the government lead it?

I think it is sort of patriarchal to believe that the answers for these things should come from outside of the community. That there's somebody who should be ordained as a leader, who knows better, and can come in to save the day and fix it. That's a problematic perspective. And yes, I think it's normal and natural for there to be some tension and some discord in the community. But I think there's a tremendous value to recognizing that the folks who were dissenting to that (housing the homeless in hotels on the Upper West Side) were not reflective of the majority. They were loud, certainly, and had access to resources, but I'm not sure that they are the majority.

I also think there's a tremendous amount of value to actually going through the process of getting to consensus. As someone who has led large-scale organizations for the last 25 years, I know that the product or the decision that comes about as a result of these more difficult processes where there isn't 100% agreement at the beginning, that the end result often itself is better. And people tend to be more bought into the outcome because they've been part of a process and because they've had an opportunity to be heard. And I think part of that is how you lead that process and how you facilitate that process. To continue with the example, I just don't think there's been leadership there, on the Upper West Side, around that shelter situation. There hasn't been someone trying to lead a process where there were honest conversations – difficult conversations – but honest conversations that would ultimately result in some sort of consensus.

Just as there was a trend of Black men leading big cities in the 1980s, we’re now seeing a trend of Black women being elected as mayors in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Do you see your candidacy as fitting into that national trend? And have you talked with any of these Black female mayors?

Yes, I have had some conversations with some other Black women city leaders across the country. I do see it as an awakening of the country as to the role that women of color, Black women in particular, have played historically, in literally preserving democracy for us, and a recognition that women lead differently. And that Black women have tremendous contributions to make to the effective leadership of cities.

If you look right now around the world in terms of just the COVID-19 pandemic, the countries that are dealing with it the best are countries that are led by women. So I think that speaks to differences in the way women lead. And then I think there's something to be said for women of color, Black women specifically, in terms of our history and our orientation to the community overall that is powerful. It would benefit us across the board to recognize that and to acknowledge that and to build upon that and expand it.

I saw some nice words shared between you and another Black female mayoral candidate, Maya Wiley, at each of your respective campaign launches.

There’s no reason for that not to be the case. And I think that’s true for all the women in this race. We are all making history in some way, in terms of stepping into this space that historically was not built for us and has certainly not been welcoming to us. It is also reflective of how I operate, that I seek to build others up, rather than to tear them down. I welcome the field as it is right now. I think New Yorkers deserve to have a lot of different choices. And they deserve to be able to see what’s available to them in terms of moving forward and be able to make those choices.

You couldn’t think of your favorite movie set in New York City at a recent mayoral forum, so I’ll give you a second chance.

It’s got to be “Do the Right Thing.” I totally had a brain fart. Five minutes after I got (off) the call, I was like, “Oh my God!”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.