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Dianne Morales’s ‘Beautiful Mess’

Issue 264

The former non-profit CEO's mayoral campaign excited the left with its promise to defund the police before imploding in late May amid staff allegations of a toxic workplace and union-busting.

Julia Thomas Jun 9

On a Saturday afternoon in early May, dozens of people milled about Sunset Park’s namesake green space during a block party for New York City mayoral candidate Dianne Morales. It was a chilly, slightly overcast day, and a spirited crowd had gathered to support Morales on a hilltop near the center of the park. Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers could be seen glistening in the distance.

And yet, Morales was on the ground in the heart of Sunset Park, a historically working-class Latinx neighborhood that is also home to Brooklyn’s first Chinatown. In a speech to the crowd, she shared her vision for a New York City centered around “dignity, care, and solidarity,” the values her campaign has claimed to uphold.

“This is not about me,” Morales said. “This is about the movement that we are building together.”

“The core sort of premise of my platform is co-governance and the co-creation of a future city for New Yorkers,” she told The Indypendent over a phone call that same week.

Throughout her campaign, Morales has managed to deflect questions about her role for the past decade as CEO and executive director at Phipps Neighborhoods.

After significant upheaval within Morales’s campaign, these words are now ringing hollow for many New Yorkers who saw Morales, a 53-year-old BedStuy native and former nonprofit executive with a background in social services and education, as the candidate with the most progressive values in the crowded mayoral race. In a shocking turn of events, Morales’s once-promising campaign unraveled in late May amid accusations of a toxic workplace, union busting and a failure to pay campaign staffers their salaries.

The long-shot bid of Morales had excited the left and gained momentum in the weeks leading up to the June 22 mayoral primary, receiving prominent endorsements from left-wing groups inspired by her unapologetic support for progressive causes.

“There’s two good words for Dianne Morales: competent and cool,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Club, earlier that month at a press conference announcing that the Chelsea-based group of progressive LGBTQ Democrats had endorsed her. “Dianne Morales knows what empathy is.”

STAFF REVOLT

Many of her own staffers would beg to disagree. Employees for weeks had raised concerns about “a culture of manipulation, harassment and abuse” in the campaign office and described their grievances directly to Morales, according to a statement from the Dianne Morales for Mayor Union. However, staffers and involved supporters received “vague and unclear statements on what would be done to transform this toxic workspace,” in response.

And so commenced a flurry of resignations and firings: First, campaign manager Whitney Hu quit. Days later, Ifeoma Ike, a senior adviser, resigned. Then came the dismissal of staffers Ramses Duke and Amanda Van Kesell, whom a Morales campaign spokesperson confirmed were the employees accused of misconduct.

When some of the remaining staff decided to launch a unionization effort to address employee complaints, Morales fired four of the union leaders minutes before she was supposed to meet with her staff to discuss their collective demands.

A day later, on May 28, Morales staffers went out on strike and publicly protested at Bryant Park.

Staffers at the protest vowed to continue their strike until their core demands, including the immediate reinstatement of the four union leaders who were fired, revised equitable compensation, a leadership structure co-created with campaign staff and a grievance process for reporting misconduct, were met.

“It is deeply disappointing that a candidate who claims to support unions refused to engage in this conversation,” the Mayorales Union said in a statement. “Our team is ready to coordinate with Dianne as soon as she agrees to our demands and respects our workers, workers who devoted their lives and risked their livelihoods in order to build a dignified movement in New York City.”

Morales put an optimistic spin on the situation, calling it a “beautiful mess” that highlighted her ability to continue multitasking through a crisis. She said she refused to recognize the union because it only included some of her staffers and that it was engaged in a “coup” to take over her campaign.

So, how did we get to this tumultuous place, just weeks before the mayoral primary and after months of campaigning? It’s the lack of a strong candidate on the Left and the current tendency of progressives to give “reflexive deference towards people that deploy a certain kind of vocabulary around social justice,” said Matt Thomas, a Queens-based writer, researcher and democratic socialist who served as communications director for Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani (D-Astoria) in his upset victory last year over a five-term incumbent.

“The unfortunate thing about the mayor’s race,” Thomas added, “is that there was no option, nobody talking about what it would really take to implement a radical agenda.”

The late-breaking controversies that engulfed Morales’s campaign offer valuable lessons for leftists in New York and beyond.

Morales filled a void by running well to the left of other major candidates. She proposed to defund the NYPD’s annual budget by $3 billion, or about 50%, (compared to Maya Wiley’s proposal to defund by $1 billion and enact surface-level reforms, or Scott Stringer’s commitment to “improve police accountability and oversight”) and fundamentally transform the city’s approach to public safety.

“She really caught on because she’s the only candidate in the race who has supported fully defunding the police, and there’s no one else who has embraced it in any way except for her,” Ross Barkan, a journalist and columnist, told The Indy. “That’s why she has drawn attention and excited younger progressives, because she’s unapologetic on that particular issue.”

AVOIDING ACCOUNTABILITY

Throughout her campaign, Morales managed to deflect questions about her role for about the past 10 years as CEO and executive director at Phipps Neighborhoods, a social services branch of Phipps Houses, which is notorious for evicting low-income people and being one of New York City’s worst landlords.

“There’s no evidence that she ever spoke up against Phipps, or criticized Phipps or attempted to change the internal culture there,” Barkan said.

On May 17, Thomas re-shared a recording from a February 2020 podcast in which Morales described herself as “resistant to the label” of progressive or democratic socialist, and “a strong believer” in school choice, or parents’ ability to use public funds to send their children to privately-managed schools. She told the interviewers she couldn’t remember who she voted for in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, but that it “probably” was Gov. Andrew Cuomo instead of his left-wing challenger Cynthia Nixon.

“There’s just no universe in which there’s somebody that has this commitment to some kind of progressive change and is pro-Cuomo,” said Thomas, who subsequently released an in-depth report on Morales’s nearly two-decade-long immersion in the charter school movement, which has been lavishly funded by Wall Street and billionaires like Bill Gates and the Walton Family who are intent on privatizing public education. As The Indy goes to press, it remains to be seen whether Morales can revive her campaign. Regardless, Morales’s sudden appearance on the political scene as a “movement candidate” and the late-breaking controversies that engulfed her campaign offer valuable lessons for leftists in New York, including the need to scrutinize candidates more closely.

“I think that there is a lot to be considered about Morales that is unrelated to the staff blow-up,” Thomas said. “I’d encourage people to think more seriously about the substance of her platform, and whether or not it’s in accord with what she has demonstrated throughout her career.”

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