Maya Wiley’s long crusade

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

Maya Wiley’s long crusade

The veteran civil rights activist and attorney has always prioritized racial equity, but hasn’t always produced tangible results.
April 29, 2021

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.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.