Opinion: Dianne Morales on what went wrong in her mayoral campaign
The 2021 progressive candidate explains what was going on in her personal life when her run for New York City Hall began unraveling.
Just over a year ago, my campaign for mayor of New York City made history when we qualified for matching funds. The momentum of a candidate who wasn’t considered “viable” was undeniable. What would happen in the ensuing weeks would go on to become the focus of discussions about the race, quickly overshadowing any whiff of possibility of defeating political machines, or of even giving them a real run for their money.
The story of the campaign is as much about what has gone unsaid as it is about what made it into the headlines of the day. It is the story of imperfect people working to create a world they aspired to while operating within the constraints of the existing one. Of a candidate and her team doing their best to work together for the common good. Of difficult decisions and pivotal choices with unforeseen outcomes. But most of all, it is a story of hope and possibility. A story of a leap of faith in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, of getting knocked down and standing up again, of suspending disbelief and putting a stake in the ground around a shared purpose and commitment to the collective good.
This is not a tale that will interest the tabloids. It is not an attempt to relitigate the events of last year with a staff I still care deeply about. Nor is it a denial or a counter to what anyone claims to have experienced then. Instead, this is a sharing of my own perspective; an opportunity for critical reflection and growth as the anniversary of the 2021 mayoral primary has come and gone. Over the coming weeks, I will share in City & State my evolving analysis of some of the specific challenges that arose during my campaign. I’m not looking to address every critic’s take or do a deep dive into every allegation. But I believe there is value in sharing a different perspective, honing in on certain challenges, identifying lessons learned and considering how they might advance the work of building collective power in a city where wealth and political connections are prioritized over the public good.
There is a common thread woven throughout the story of my campaign: Candidates who look like me, with my background and experience, who speak like me and stay loud like me, are rarely expected to make history. We are tossed aside in the press and in the public consciousness. Our ideas are considered too radical, even when they enjoy broad public support. Black women, in particular, have to work endlessly to be treated with respect that is automatically afforded to our white peers. And we are held to a much higher standard as people examine our every move, waiting for an opportunity to pounce when they sense a weakness – or anything they’d like to convert into one. The expectation is that you will fail. And you get no second chances.
This played out in dramatic fashion in May 2021, when some of my staff aired grievances with the campaign to the public. But the real “story” of that time began two months earlier, on Friday, March 26, when the rug got pulled out from under me, the world began to spin and almost everyone else just disappeared. That morning, my daughter and I walked into the emergency room at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and requested her psychiatric admission for suicide ideation, substance use and (unbeknownst to me at the time) dangerous anorexia. I spoke openly throughout the campaign about her mental health challenges, our past negative experience with mental health care in New York and how it all informed my policy positions, so I share this now with her permission, once again.
In that moment, my only priority was protecting my daughter, who had made the extraordinarily difficult decision to ask for help. My initial instinct was to find some way to share this publicly, as I had so many other vulnerabilities throughout the race. But the only member of my team who was aware of the situation advised me not to, and my need to keep my daughter safe took precedence. The campaign had picked up significant steam – and scrutiny – over the month of March. I did not want speculation about her mental health weaponized in some terrible way.
I knew my silence would come with its own risks. This is not an excuse, but perhaps an explanation for my distraction in the following weeks. We celebrated qualifying for matching funds on April 15. Thereafter our team would swell from 13 to 90 staff members within just a few weeks. Many of those talented and passionate workers would be new to campaigns altogether, or to campaigns of this scale. Our feverish efforts to catch up and expand our field operations were not matched with the skills to establish the internal infrastructure needed to support our dramatic growth. The consequences of those shortcomings would escalate and become apparent rather quickly and explosively, played out loudly in social media and beyond.
The events of the five weeks that followed that growth were publicly – and extensively – documented, but weren’t examined thoroughly. What happens to the parts of the story we feel compelled to keep inside? The story of my campaign is as much about what’s been left unsaid as it is about what made it into the headlines. The story of a first-time candidate’s campaign – particularly that of a Black woman challenging the status quo – seeming to implode nearly overnight was easy to latch on to, though. It reinforced the stereotypical narrative that so many in the political chattering class – the media, established politicians and even self-proclaimed progressives – were all too ready to believe. And they were willing to overlook any nuance or critical examination in its telling.
Losing our narrative may be the part of this that is most harmful to any ongoing efforts to bring power to underrepresented communities. When we lose the narrative, we lose the telling of our victories: the people the campaign engaged; the policy conversations that moved more into the mainstream because we pressed them forward; and the grassroots momentum built by a scrappy team of people who fiercely believed in the possibility of creating meaningful change for New Yorkers who deserve to live in dignity.
A year later, we find ourselves at an even more perilous moment in the history of our city. The systemic problems we faced before the pandemic such as disinvestment in our communities, in education, in social services; an unaccountable, violent police force; a severe housing crisis; and the mental health crisis have been exacerbated by the lack of commitment to the public good over the past two years. Government officials have all but given up on guiding us through the ongoing pandemic, despite increasing evidence that even mild cases of COVID-19 can cause drastic and potentially long-term physical and mental health impacts. Traffic violence rages out of control and New Yorkers’ lives are taken simply for crossing the street.
New York City proudly claims to be the greatest city in the world. That aspiration cannot be realized while our neighbors struggle to remain housed, to feed their families or to find stable work that pays a living wage. As we move forward in our fight for progressive policies like “good cause” eviction protections and the New York Health Act, we must examine the strategies we use to create change through the same critical lens with which we view the failed policies that led us to this moment. We cannot expect to apply the methods of the establishment to disrupt the status quo and create the change we seek. In the words of the incomparable Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.”
We face an uphill battle to make New York into the city we aspire for it to be. This is not easy work, and these are not easy times. Like my daughter, we must continue to grapple with the demons we have inherited with hope and determination, fortified by the unwavering vision of what we aspire to be and the possibilities we create by envisioning it. We will continue to feel the full weight of centuries of violent, white supremacist patriarchy weighing down on us with every move we make toward a more just society. We will continue to make mistakes along the way, but we must resist the urge to allow them to divide us. Instead, we must move forward together, learning from our victories and defeats. We must encourage and invite one another to hold on to our hope, firm in the knowledge that despite our differences, we have a shared vision for a bright future for all New Yorkers. That future depends on us. I believe in us, and in the future of what this city can be for my daughter, for my children. New Yorkers are up to the challenge. We always have been.