Candidates for mayor of New York City have made their cases this year in Zoom forums and delivered impassioned stump speeches, but there may be no pitch as effortlessly engaging as a candidate joyfully dancing toward a camera, telling New Yorkers she’s “on her way to replace Bill de Blasio as NYC’s first afro latina mayor.” That’s what former nonprofit leader Dianne Morales did in one of her TikTok videos last fall, amassing over half a million views.
Morales has combined effective online communication and organizing with the farthest-left platform in the race to amass a progressive, young fan base that has propelled her from a relatively unknown nonprofit leader to a champion of the left. Morales supporters congregate on online platforms such as TikTok, Twitter and even the audio chatroom Clubhouse. On Twitter especially, fans of the candidate can be spotted easily by their profile photos set against purple, pink and orange gradient backgrounds. This sunset-colored corner of the internet is known among supporters as the “Dianneverse.” Some of her young supporters started out volunteering for the campaign and are now staffers on it, a fact they say demonstrates Morales’ reliance on young people not just for their boundless energy to knock on doors, but for their insights on policy too.
Alice Volfson, a 20-year-old college sophomore who lives in Manhattan, started off volunteering for Morales in January. She’s now a staffer on the campaign’s field team. Like other Morales supporters, she said she first discovered the candidate on TikTok. “I remember being so shocked that she was on trend, like the music choice, the way that the video itself was so accessible,” Volfson said. Early videos she remembers watching laid out the headlines of Morales’ policies or mentioned the fact that she’s a single mother – while the candidate danced along to Lizzo’s “Exactly How I Feel” or NIKI’s “Indigo.” “TikTok, in the last political cycle, has definitely been used by a lot of politicians, which I appreciate,” Volfson added. “But a lot of the time, I see TikToks that very clearly look like they’re not made by the youth.”
Morales, 53, doesn’t have that problem because her 20-year-old daughter is at the helm of her TikTok page, directing the first video in April 2020, in which the two are dancing in unison and plain text announces that Morales is running for mayor. That video also also garnered over half a million views. “It was just she and I kind of messing around in the house, you know, pandemic madness. And she was trying to teach me this dance,” Morales recalled to City & State recently. “And it just sort of took off. And then all of the sudden, we had people reaching out wanting to volunteer for the campaign. It was really just organic.”
“I remember being so shocked that she was on trend, like the music choice, the way that the video itself was so accessible.” – Alice Volfson, 20, a Morales campaign staffer
While Morales is undoubtedly the candidate of cool, young progressives, a citywide campaign can’t be won on that kind of cachet alone. However, she has also won the backing of progressive kingmakers such as the Working Families Party, thanks to policies that surpass even staunchly progressive rivals such as New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley, the former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, in their ambition. (WFP ranked Morales second in their endorsement, below Stringer, but the organization has since pulled its endorsement of Stringer following an allegation of sexual assault against him, which he denies.) Her platform includes $3 billion in annual cuts to the New York City Police Department, a pledge to rebuild the city’s public housing complexes and move toward a model of European-style social housing, plus free tuition at the City University of New York system.
The excitement building around Morales is visible not just online, but on the ground. On a recent morning at Herbert Von King Park in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Morales’ own neighborhood, the parents of a young family with kids stopped to call out and promise her their vote – an occurrence the first-time political candidate is still getting used to. Later that day, supporters biked from Bed-Stuy to City Hall in a fundraiser-rally to support Morales’ transportation policies, including a publicly funded Citi Bike and expanded busways in low-income neighborhoods and transit deserts. “She has the energy that other people don’t,” said Nicole Murray, a 35-year-old project manager who participated in the event. “There are other candidates that I’m OK on, because I think they have OK ideas to run a city well, but it’s not that same energy to really inspire people and to challenge the way things are.”
Morales, who is currently polling around sixth place in the Democratic primary, doesn’t have the name recognition or high-powered consultants of Andrew Yang, the institutional support of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, or even the years of government experience that Wiley, Stringer, or former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan can cite. But the Bed-Stuy native argues that her lack of establishment ties and entrenchment in government make her more likely to deliver bold change. “The folks that have those connections and the folks that have that history have been complicit in the creation of, kind of, the dysfunction that we're in today,” Morales said.
Morales’ early career was spent in education. She helped launch the Department of Education’s Office of Youth Development and School Community Services under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, serving as its chief of operations from 2002 to 2004. She later served as executive director of The Door, a youth development organization that offers services including college advisement, nutrition education and outreach for homeless LGBTQ youth. In her latest role, she served as executive director and CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods, a South Bronx-based social services nonprofit for low-income families – an arm of the affordable housing developer Phipps Houses. “There's some value to not just having somebody from the outside, but having someone who has firsthand experience, both personally and professionally, in terms of taking on some of our greatest challenges in the city,” Morales said. Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas said she endorsed Morales in part because Morales’ nonprofit experience is directly applicable to the job. “While a nonprofit is not a government entity as big as New York City … she's really touched on the kind of the biggest issues that we face in New York City,” González-Rojas said.
While Morales might not have a long record in government to be picked apart, her association with Phipps Houses has been scrutinized. The developer has appeared on an annual list of “worst evictors” in the city and has been criticized for poor conditions in its developments. Her campaign previously told Politico New York that Morales had no involvement in the housing development side of Phipps.
Still, the fact that Morales’ career has been focused largely outside of politics means that she doesn’t have to answer to the political establishment, she said. “I think that gives me the freedom to be sort of unapologetic and unabashed about the positions that I think are most beneficial to the community, because that's who I feel accountable to,” Morales said.
High on the list of communities Morales said she feels accountable to is, “Working-class folks, low-income Black and brown folks, immigrants and women (who) have not been historically welcomed into the political space,” Morales said. If elected, Morales would be the city’s first female mayor, the first Latina mayor, and the second Black mayor. But, as was the case for other far-left candidates in New York City, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a large chunk of Morales’ support seems to come from gentrifiers and already politically engaged voters: In a Data for Progress poll of 1,007 likely Democratic primary voters conducted from March 21 to April 5 in which Morales polled at just 3%, she performed slightly better among white and college-educated voters. One smaller recent poll showed her doing better among Hispanics than whites, however. In a poll of 500 likely primary voters conducted by the Washington D.C.-based firm GQR in late April, Morales landed in seventh place, with 14% of Hispanic respondents, 6% of white respondents and 2% of Black respondents saying she’d be their first choice.Her recent bike ride fundraiser drew a racially diverse crowd, though several of the supporters City & State spoke to worked in fields such as government and public policy.
Earlier that day, the young family who stopped Morales in Herbert Von King Park to share their support looked like a typical example of the white yuppies who have recently arrived in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, pushing up housing prices and making it increasingly unaffordable for working-class people of color.
Of course, a candidate’s base doesn’t need to be made up of only low-income people and immigrants for the candidate to be deeply concerned with their priorities. Those are also some of the populations on whom the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an outsized toll. As New York City enters a new phase of the pandemic, with vaccinations climbing but a true end still out of reach, Morales has promised to use this time as a turning point for radical change – a term those in the mainstream tend to shy away from. “Given the multiple crises and pandemics at this period in time, who do we want to be in history?” Morales asked. “Do we want to be known as the people who let people die of hunger, or be homeless, or lack health care? Or do we want to sort of be the society that looked out for each other?”
For her supporters, several platform issues in particular have been galvanizing, and are easily summed up in rallying cries like “Defund the police!” and “Free CUNY!” that may have a particular appeal to younger people. “I think there’s a recognition among young people about sort of the collective good and prioritizing the collective good over individual benefit,” Morales said.
Gabriel Hawkins, a 15-year-old volunteer for Morales’ campaign, put it more simply. “I think young people on average are more progressive than their older counterparts,” said Hawkins, who did not learn about Morales on TikTok or Twitter, but from a friend in real life. Hawkins’ hunch is supported by research showing that Generation Z largely aligns with millennials in having more liberal views than older generations.
“I’d like to see Dianne build coalitions with other groups. You don’t need to prove yourself to the left. We know.” – Assembly Member Khaleel Anderson
While Hawkins himself can’t vote, he’s among Morales’ supporters who was particularly attracted to her promise to defund the NYPD by $3 billion. While other progressives in the race, including Stringer and Wiley, have proposed police budget cuts, they’ve shied away from using the “defund” language.
That’s not to say that other Democratic primary candidates don’t have their own plans for police reform, protecting tenants and investing in transit and bike infrastructure. And while practically the whole field also uses the rhetoric of protecting those most impacted by the pandemic, a number of progressive lawmakers and political organizations believe that Morales is the candidate who will actually follow through on the change she promises. Her endorsements include González-Rojas, Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes and state Sen. Jabari Brisport.
Samelys López, a housing activist who ran for Congress in the Bronx last year, cited Morales’ social housing plan as another reason she stands out. As part of her plan, Morales would rebuild New York City Housing Authority buildings and move toward resident-managed public housing, as well as commit all city-owned land to building affordable housing. “I lived in the shelter system for a while, so housing is always something that's been very, very important. And she's talking about social housing, investing in NYCHA, food justice,” López said. “Coming from the Bronx, you see a lot of bread lines in the community. And people are hungry, people are starving.
If elected, Morales would still face an uphill battle in pushing through her progressive policies – some of which, as outlets like Gotham Gazette have reported, remain short on details, especially when it comes to how she would balance the budget while increasing spending. Her affordable housing reforms and plans to move toward social housing would rely in part on state funding, and her call for rent cancellation during the pandemic requires state action. And while her proposed $3 billion cut to the NYPD has pleased police reform advocates, getting the City Council to pass it is a different story. Last year, the de Blasio administration and City Council approved less than $1 billion in nominal budget cuts to the NYPD, which critics complained were largely illusory, and even that – at the height of the grassroots “defund the police” activist movement – required a contentious fight. “A lot of people, including in communities impacted by policing, bristle at the term,” Barry Friedman, a professor and director of the Policing Project at New York University School of Law, told The New York Times, of the “defund” language.
The excitement around Morales is not unlike the energy that New York saw build around other left-of-left insurgent candidates, including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman. Each of those first-time candidates represented a break from the (largely white and male) political establishment and pushed the boundaries of what defines a progressive.
But the challenge facing Morales is more complicated than knocking off a single entrenched establishment lawmaker. In addition to the fact that polls show the primary’s current front-runners are Yang and Adams, two of the more moderate candidates in the race, Morales does not have sole ownership of the progressive lane in the Democratic primary, which is also occupied by Stringer and Wiley.
Morales argues that she is meaningfully to their left. “There's a lot of daylight between me and them,” Morales said. “There's a lot of differences in our policies, despite folks’ inclination to sort of lump us all together.”
“I think there’s a recognition among young people about the collective good, and prioritizing the collective good over individual benefit.” – New York City mayoral candidate Dianne Morales
Still, liberal lawmakers and organized labor have chosen Stringer and Wiley over Morales in many cases. Stringer still holds support from the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and United Federation of Teachers, while Wiley has been endorsed by 1199SEIU and Reps. Yvette Clarke and Nydia Velázquez, along with progressive local lawmakers, including state Sen. Michael Gianaris. Stringer has far outraised Morales, having amassed almost $3.5 million in private contributions, according to the latest campaign finance filings. With matching funds, he has roughly $7.4 million left in the coffers. Morales, by comparison, has raised slightly over half a million dollars in private contributions, but has qualified for $2.2 million in public funds.
But Morales says that her campaign stands out from the others for being one truly driven by grassroots support – or, as some like to chant at her rallies, “people power.” The campaign says it has the lowest average contribution of the top-performing candidates at $47, and that roughly 30% of contributors have described themselves as unemployed.
Although Stringer has consistently polled above Morales and Wiley, the allegation of sexual harassment made recently by a former volunteer for Stringer’s 2001 public advocate campaign has rocked the city comptroller’s mayoral bid, potentially creating an opportunity for Morales to break through. Although he denies the claims and no supporting evidence to corroborate them has yet emerged, Stringer lost endorsements from many of his key supporters, including the Working Families Party, which had initially ranked Stringer first, Morales second and Wiley third in their endorsement.
Though the energy around an anti-establishment candidate promising to upend the status quo is palpable on both social media and at in-person rallies, that’s no guarantee that the rest of the city is ready for such a candidate. While she has cemented her position as the candidate of the city’s most left-wing young voters, Morales will have to appeal to a much broader swath of the city to win, including older and more mainstream liberals and rank-and-file union members.
Assembly Member Khaleel Anderson, who hails from Southeast Queens and is 24, endorsed Wiley and has yet to choose who he will rank second. Though Anderson said he is aligned with Morales ideologically, he said Wiley has demonstrated an ability to build a diverse coalition of support, including from labor, middle-class and working-class people. “I’d like to see Dianne build coalitions with other groups,” Anderson said. “You don’t need to prove yourself to the left. We know.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is one of the groups that hasn’t rescinded its endorsement of Stringer, and its president, Stuart Appelbaum, said last week that their support of the embattled candidate still stands. “What Scott brings to the table is a comprehensive knowledge of the way city and state government work, and experience in dealing with government at every level,” Appelbaum said. “I think we need that experience at this moment in New York City’s history.”
The Freelancers Union, an organization representing independent workers, co-endorsed Wiley and Yang. Former New York City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who now serves as the organization’s executive director, said that Morales was viewed very positively in the endorsement process, but that there was a concern about her viability. “For our membership, Maya seemed like a more viable candidate, in both experience and her ability to manage and work within the systems of government, but also on the campaign trail,” Espinal said.
Morales and her supporters are used to the campaign’s viability being questioned. “The rhetoric of viability would have had me not be in this race, because I didn't fit,” said Morales. “I didn't check any of those boxes – and yet, here I am.”