An already unsettled 2021 mayoral primary cracked open even wider on Friday, when SEIU 1199 — perhaps the city’s most powerful labor union — threw its support behind Maya Wiley, the former MSNBC legal analyst and chief counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The endorsement comes at a crucial moment for Wiley. This week, she failed to qualify for public matching funds and was at risk of being seen as a second-tier contender behind entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, and city comptroller Scott Stringer, all of whom she is polling behind and trailing in the money race.
Friday’s endorsement has the potential to change the trajectory of her candidacy and of the race. In 2013, SEIU 1199 got behind Bill de Blasio when he was polling in the single digits and trailing contenders like Anthony Weiner, Christine Quinn, and Bill Thompson. Then as now, the union’s endorsement came relatively early on and was designed in part to get other unions off the sidelines and behind its preferred candidate.
Wiley may be a more surprising choice. By 2013, de Blasio’s resume included stints as a city councilman and a public advocate, and he had deep ties to New York’s labor infrastructure. This campaign for mayor is Wiley’s first campaign, period.
1199 represents 200,000 mostly African American health-care workers. These are the New Yorkers whom the city paused to clap and cheer for at the height of the coronavirus crisis last spring, and the Wiley campaign has signaled that it will keep that image — the essential workers who were there for the city at its lowest moment — at the forefront of its messaging.
In 2015, the conservative City Journal called 1199 “the union that rules New York.” It boasts a sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation. “Our members are used to mobilizing around Election Day,” 1199 political director Gabby Seay told Intelligencer. “We are in every single council district, and our members know that voting isn’t enough, and it’s about mobilizing and volunteering.” She said the union was also putting together a $1 million outside-spending effort to reach former union members and retirees.
But it remains to be seen whether 1199 can retain its full power in the time of COVID, when members have been stationed on the front lines and not so focused on politics. (The same, of course, could be said for most big unions in the city.)
Wiley’s campaign is stocked with de Blasio veterans, and getting the 1199 endorsement was essential to her strategy. Had the endorsement gone to a different candidate, Wiley’s path to City Hall would have narrowed considerably. Wiley is almost certain now to remain in the race until the June primary.
In a city that has traditionally been balkanized by racial politics and ideology, Wiley is the rare candidate thought to appeal to both white liberals — thanks in part to her MSNBC appearances — and the Black base of the Democratic Party. But if Wiley elbows her way into the top tier of the race, it will come at someone else’s expense. 1199’s decision is most likely to hurt Adams and Stringer, especially if other unions follow suit. Both have long relationships with labor and were counting on unions to provide a crucial building block of their coalitions.
Beyond Wiley, the endorsement may end up benefiting Andrew Yang the most. Yang is running a campaign that is based on bringing out massive turnout from Asians and moderate voters across the city and boosting turnout in such a way that makes labor less crucial to creating a winning coalition. Polls now show Yang holding a double-digit lead over the rest of the field, and the other candidates are yet to figure out a way to slow his rise. Most surveys put Wiley in fourth place. Asked if that gave her union concern, Seay said, “Obviously not. We don’t put a lot of weight on the polls we have seen so far.”