the city politic

‘If Somebody Can Master the Rhetoric of the Left, They Can Be Very Effective’

The making and unmaking of the online left’s mayoral candidate.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Dianne Morales Campaign
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Dianne Morales Campaign

One of the stranger features of the Dianne Morales mayoral campaign was its Brooklyn headquarters. Situated in Bedford-Stuyvesant, not far from where Morales owned a townhouse, the campaign office was tucked into a bar that had been temporarily shuttered as a result of the pandemic. Staffers and volunteers clustered in a dimly lit backroom, next to a mini-bar and the bathroom. They sat on uncomfortable wooden benches and barstools, struggling to find outlets for their laptops.

Local residents didn’t always know the bar hadn’t technically reopened. Men would wander in looking for a drink, and young female staff said they were catcalled and verbally harassed. “Who in their right mind thinks this is a good set-up?” asked a former Morales staffer. “You had folks wanting to come in who thought the bar was open again.”

Morales, a former nonprofit executive, may end up a footnote of this chaotic campaign season, which will likely produce Mayor Eric Adams. Morales ended up with less than 3 percent of the first-place vote, according to unofficial returns, losing in the sixth round. She won more first-place votes than ludicrously heavy spenders like Shaun Donovan and Ray McGuire but finished distantly behind Maya Wiley, the AOC-endorsed former de Blasio counsel who became the progressive left’s pick after Morales’s campaign fell apart.

But there was a time when Morales polled almost evenly with Wiley, and at least one poll commissioned by a labor union tied to Adams — the very first poll to show the borough president gaining significant ground in the mayoral race — showed Morales in the top tier. Left-leaning voters in the city’s increasingly ascendant gentrifying belt appeared to be flocking to her campaign.

It was a sign, it seemed, of what was possible. AOC had ascended, but she was running in one district. Morales was building a multi-borough coalition. The teens enraptured by her, online and off, had been too young for the progressive wars of the 2010s, but they would be here now. They would build the movement they wanted, in their own image, and wait for it to take the city.

For a moment it seemed as though the Brooklyn native, running to become the city’s first Afro-Latina mayor, could have burst from the pack and been, at the minimum, the kind of overperforming outsider who left the race with a much larger following than anyone ever imagined. She was very charismatic and, briefly, quite popular. Imagine, for a moment, a Boricua Bernie Sanders.

“What I saw was that Latinos did not have a candidate they were coalescing around at all at the time,” said Neal Kwatra, a veteran Democratic operative who consults for the Hotel Trades Council, the union that commissioned the poll showing Morales’s potential strength. “She was doing that very well, talking as a single mom, an Afro-Latina woman, someone who has run organizations but has also been on public assistance and had to navigate those kinds of bureaucracies. That’s a compelling potential message for a candidate.”

Instead, in the final weeks, it all crashed and burned, her own staff picketing outside of her campaign’s Manhattan office.

From afar, the Morales implosion could almost seem like a parody of the young left. Overeager Zoomers join a mayoral campaign of an opportunistic nonprofit executive who seeks to reinvent herself as the warrior of the Woke. With no history in the movement, she becomes their champion through a few rhetorical flourishes, chanting about intersectionality and defunding the police.

“If somebody can really master the rhetoric of the identity left, they can be very effective,” said Matthew Thomas, a socialist writer and researcher active in New York politics. “People are afraid to push back.”

Morales on June 16. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

Morales, 54, was never an obvious mayoral contender. In the earliest days of the campaign, in 2019 and 2020, most of the media attention honed in on two of the top contenders: Adams and Scott Stringer, the city comptroller. Morales, who had never run for office before, quietly launched her campaign in the summer of 2019, struggling to attract attention.

Since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in 2018, leftists everywhere have dreamed of repeating such a trajectory. The AOC era unleashed an unprecedented wave of primary challenges, and many young progressives and socialists joined the state legislature and even Congress.

The 2021 mayoral race could have been a coming-out party for the left, which had made villains out of New York mainstays like developers, landlords, and police officers. Many newer voters had registered as Democrats since 2016 and the gentrifying neighborhoods of the city like Astoria, Long Island City, and Prospect Heights were evolving into voting powerhouses. The city, of course, is far bigger than any congressional district, and more than 900,000 people would come to the polls in the June primary.

Morales proudly stated she wanted to slash the NYPD’s operating budget in half, gaining many fans on the left. Everywhere she went, from Zoom forums to block parties, Morales assailed “racist policing” and promised dramatic reform. Activists cheered when she announced she would, as mayor, create a new agency of nonviolent first responders to answer distress calls. She was the Instagram social-justice candidate and something of a social-media phenomenon; at one point, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer was sliding into her DMs. Her Twitter following ballooned, and endorsements from progressive organizations and political clubs began to pour in. It didn’t hurt that she was a naturally compelling and forceful speaker, charismatic where others were lawyerly.

From the outside, the Morales effort looked like a classic left campaign on the upswing: glowing profiles in online media, brand-new stans (cheeky accounts like “millennials4morales” and “bagels4dianne”), and an eye-catching gradient logo (purple, magenta, orange, and yellow) splashed across the avatars of all the cool kids on Twitter. “Welcome to the Dianneverse,” City and State announced.

On the inside, it was both exciting and strange, former staffers recalled. Two former candidates for office, Whitney Hu and Ifeoma Ike, came on to lead the campaign, and Morales elevated other former candidates into senior-level positions. However, critics of Morales said that, like a CEO, she did not delegate much to staff at all — even though she herself lacked experience.

Hu and Ike had run themselves but had never overseen large campaigns. Junior staffers worried, early on, about a lack of direction. It was an odd, sometimes dysfunctional mix of general and soldiers each unsure how to fight a war: The unwieldy campaign structure disempowered senior members at the expense of Morales herself, who had to sign off on virtually every large decision. In major, successful campaigns, such an approach is unsustainable. Delegation must happen because a candidate, out meeting voters, can’t possibly oversee everyone and know what’s going on.

There was a growing divide between those who believed the campaign needed to do everything it could to win a Democratic primary and those invested in the more nebulous work of community-organizing. Morales’s team had a penchant for hiring volunteers in their teens and early 20s who had never worked on campaigns before. There were few people overseeing them to tell them exactly what they should be doing with their time.

“Often very young people who had never worked on campaigns before were hired and told stuff like, ‘Oh, we are centering marginalized people, bringing in new voters’ and then they were hired and that sounds great but how the fuck do you do that?” asked a former Morales staffer with prior campaign experience. “They didn’t know who their boss was; they didn’t know what their day-to-day should look like.”

The teens themselves, according to those with knowledge of their situation, have been spooked out of talking to the media. Like most of the staffers who worked for Morales, they signed NDAs and still fear legal reprisal. “NDAs are scary, and they fear she’ll sue,” one person who was active in the Morales union explained.

The field operation lacked rigor. Data was not regularly recorded. One of the major Morales models of outreach was block parties, with musicians, food, and various entertainments. “People are not on their game trying to reach out to voters,” a seasoned former organizer explained. “It’s creative in the sense that we are here in this community, but it felt hollow. Maybe 20 people stop by, and that doesn’t get us very far.”

In March, the campaign reached a pivotal milestone: At last, it had qualified for matching funds, unlocking more than $2 million from the city. The team dramatically expanded, with dozens of new hires, and organizers who had been earning $2,800 a month would end up making at least $4,000. At the time, Morales had banked roughly the same amount of cash as Wiley, and morale was incredibly high.

This all mattered because matching funds meant the campaign had graduated to the big leagues. No mayoral candidate can survive a five-borough race without millions to spend. The media won’t take candidates seriously who can’t meet this threshold. With real cash on hand, Morales could enter into the feedback loop all insurgents dream of: money begetting more media coverage, and media coverage begetting more money.

With more than $2 million at her disposal, Morales was no longer a curiosity, another Paperboy Prince. She could start to argue that she could win this thing.

Complaints from below began to surface. One former staffer said too many white people were hired for senior-level positions in the office, while lower-paid staffers of color worked out in the field. Sexual-harassment and misconduct complaints were leveled against two high-ranking staffers, including one who had previously worked with Morales when she was a leading a social-services nonprofit, Phipps Neighborhood. Though the harassment and misconduct complaints were mentioned in media reports, including in this magazine, no one could provide details of the allegations. Eventually, both staffers were dismissed.

Staffers critical of Morales argued she was too slow to respond. Hu, they said, first came to her in March with complaints about one of the staffers, a field director, and no action was taken. Another Morales organizer recalled telling her about the catcalls female staff and volunteers endured at the bar headquarters. “She cried, I rubbed her back and got her tissues,” the organizer said, adding that the location of the office was never moved.

A campaign spokesperson for Morales who refused to be identified on the record said the campaign wanted to support a local business impacted by COVID-19. “Local businesses in Brooklyn were hit hard during COVID, and the local bar, The Corners, temporarily closed during the pandemic. When the campaign needed a Brooklyn location to support field operations, they wanted to help the owners out of this small business by renting out their space in the interim.”

A 15-year-old volunteer field captain Amira Ismail, posted a lengthy statement on Twitter about the alleged exploitation of young people on the campaign. She said she worked 40-hour weeks, unpaid, and was assigned late-evening shifts that would “jeopardize my safety.” Ismail claimed she faced unspecified “overwhelming abuse” from Morales staffers. (Ismail declined to elaborate.)

The campaign spokesperson responded that “any volunteers under the age of 18 who participated in canvassing did so voluntarily. All campaign volunteers were free to determine their own levels of involvement, including the number of hours they wanted to dedicate to the campaign. There were no requirements.”

There were two sides to Morales, staffers said. She could be compassionate, the kind of candidate who did seem to genuinely tear up when complaints were brought to her. But she was also easily angered. Staffers recalled hearing Morales berate her bodyman loudly enough to be heard through a closed door in the Manhattan office, and one said shewas known for sending voice notes to staff, lacerating them for mistakes.

“She had a hell of a temper,” an ex-Morales staffer said. “She got frustrated with people easily.”

Morales fought with her scheduler and believed, eventually, she was being intentionally undermined from within, with staff deleting events from the calendar. They, in turn, argued this wasn’t true — Morales just wasn’t paying enough attention to the calendar.

Managing the growing media crush was another problem. Unlike a lot of underdog campaigns, Morales did not relish talking to reporters. Staff had to vet journalists to ensure interviews were “safe” for her.

“She was very anti-press, very anti-media,” the former staffer said. “She didn’t seem like she knew what the expectations of being a candidate were.”

Morales’s relationship with the larger left organizations of New York City was never straightforward. While certain professional left organizations, like the Working Families Party, had warmed to Morales, DSA was more wary, declining to back her campaign. Socialist organizers wanted to focus on the City Council campaigns and an early meeting between DSA and Morales had not gone well, according to those involved, with Morales refusing to identify as a socialist.

“It’s the reason you need organizations with politics and an endorsement process rather than Twitter,” said one longtime leftist organizer. “A lot of people don’t know what’s what.”

There had been, on the part of the many groups and politicians who did decide to back Morales, little vetting of her background. Unlike AOC and other rising left politicians, she had not spent much time volunteering for campaigns or various movement groups. She said she voted for Andrew Cuomo over Cynthia Nixon in 2018. And her deep work history was with a sector of education reviled on the left: charter schools.

Morales founded a privately run, publicly funded charter school in Manhattan, Broome Street Academy, in 2011. In 2016, Morales was a recipient of the Aspen-Pahara Education Fellowship. According to researcher Matthew Thomas, the Pahara Institute is one of the leading actors in the charter school industry, and its fellowship program is a training camp to equip pro-charter professionals with research and talking points to fight for the movement, which amounts to a privatization of public schools. Charter schools are popular with centrist Democrats and wealthy Republicans because they do not have to recognize teachers’ unions and can selectively decide who goes to their schools.

As the campaign gained momentum, Morales downplayed her involvement in the charter industry. Her campaign website mentioned Broome Street Academy but did not call it a charter school. In an early 2020 interview, Morales said she was a supporter of “school-choice” but eschewed the rhetoric as other more conservative campaigns came out in favor of charters.

There was also Phipps, the social-services nonprofit where she worked as an executive director for a decade and could earn nearly $350,000 a year in compensation, more than the mayor of New York City. Tax records would show she reaped $24,000 a year as a landlord, charging rent in her townhouse. Left candidates are allowed to make a living — Bernie Sanders wrote a best-seller, AOC lives in a D.C. condo and drives a Tesla — but Morales’s association with Phipps raised eyebrows among housing activists. Phipps Neighborhoods is an arm of Phipps Houses, a nonprofit real estate developer rated among the worst evictors in the city by tenants’ rights groups and criticized for its anti-union practices by 32BJ SEIU and others.

The first major scandal of the Morales campaign, ironically, only buoyed her further. In May, The City reported that Morales, in 2002, had her father pay a bribe to a corrupt Department of Environmental Protection inspector to make a water bill for more than $12,000 go away. (Most of the people targeted in the scheme never paid the bribe.) According to a report from the DOE’s Special Commissioner of Investigation, Morales subsequently lied twice to City investigators who were probing the bribery scheme. The revelation was damning enough to cost Morales a gig with the de Blasio administration in 2019: Poised to chair a watchdog entity that oversees the city’s diversity efforts in hiring practices, she reportedly failed a background check and never joined the administration. Later that year, she kicked off her mayoral run.

“The unfortunate reality is that these incidents are everyday occurrences for the city’s most vulnerable communities — poor people, single mothers, Black and brown people, and immigrants,” Morales said in a statement at the time. “But that’s why I’m in this race, and if you haven’t noticed: We’re winning. While this may have been an attempt, however misinformed, to derail my candidacy and get us off track  — I won’t let it.”

Within the campaign, dread turned into excitement. Morales enjoyed a massive fund-raising haul and supporters on the outside were only further emboldened. “Folks: this ain’t a story. At least not the one whomever did this weak ass oppo dump meant it to be,” tweeted Gustavo Rivera, a state senator supported Morales. “It’s actually a story about how systems try to take advantage of vulnerable New Yorkers and many times succeed.”

Indeed, Morales had proved herself the canniest of operators. A story of municipal malfeasance had been weaved into one of victimization, where a then-35-year-old with two advanced Ivy League degrees bribing a city inspector to get out of a hefty water bill could be portrayed as another vulnerable New Yorker being taken advantage of.

Those close to Morales were still unsure what to make of her: was she an earnest true-believer or a savvy operator who saw her opportunity and took it? Some progressives who weren’t in Morales’s camp — but sympathetic to her cause — began to view her with skepticism after the episode, even though she appeared to be gaining ground.

“The art of politics is knowing when to push and when not to. Very few people do it effectively. Most are just hacks and don’t care about advancing the movement at all,” said a prominent progressive politician. “Personally, I think the Morales movement would never have succeeded, even without the implosion. What was the goal? Get 10 percent and declare victory while a cop is elected mayor?”

Internally, tensions were rising in the campaign. On May 13, staffers were livid that a Queens organizer — a Black homeless youth — was reportedly fired over his social-media conduct. Fellow organizers threatened to resign if he wasn’t reinstated. He eventually was. (A spokesperson for the Morales campaign refuted this version of events, saying that the organizer was never actually fired, but that Morales had halted the termination before it could be carried out.) Around that same time, talks began over forming a union, which is increasingly commonplace on progressive campaigns. One issue the inexperienced Morales staffers had was timing: campaign unions are typically formed several months, at least, before election day in concert with organizations like the Campaign Workers Guild. One month out, with the race entering its final and most hectic phase, getting out the vote becomes the primary focus, not solidifying labor protections.

Among some Morales staffers, this was a reason to feel ambivalent about the union. They were concerned about mismanagement and dubious labor practices, but campaigns aren’t exactly factories or corporations. They have a definitive end point, and volunteers and staffers know that they will probably work very long hours in the last month.

“When people started talking of forming a union in the last week of May, me and a few people said, what do you mean, you want to form a union? We do not have time to form a union,” one former staffer recalled. “Negotiations kept going back and forth. The organizers were a little irresponsible, trying to convince younger people certain things were possible, like getting backpay for volunteers who felt they worked too much.”

The former staffer called this particular demand “insane.”

“You are a volunteer, and if you get hired, you’re not going to get paid for what you did as a volunteer.”

Even those sympathetic to Morales lambaste her for her management skills. Communication was limited and confusing. Meetings about “culture resets” went nowhere, and could be drowned in the nonprofit, academic jargon she was most comfortable with.

On Monday, May 24, a large meeting was scheduled for staff to vent about hostile work practices and make their labor demands clear, which would come to include a salary floor of $25 hour and severance pay for staffers who leave voluntarily or involuntarily. Two of the staffers accused of harassment and abuse, to the consternation of others, were present at the meeting. Morales, who had a medical appointment, was not there. She wasn’t heard from for the rest of the day

The next day, the 25th, four women were selected to represent the union, still in formation. Meanwhile, Hu, the campaign manager, resigned, citing a toxic work environment and the treatment of Black and brown employees. One Morales surrogate in close contact with the campaign argued it was suffused with “anti-Blackness.”

“What I would call the underlying issues had to do with staff being harmed, in particular Black women were the object of harmful acts,” explained a former Morales surrogate, referring to the ill-defined harassment allegations.  (A campaign spokesperson responded to allegation of anti-Blackness by noting that “The majority of senior staffers were women of color, as was most of the campaign staff.”)

That same day, the campaign voted to unionize and Morales voluntarily recognized the union. The campaign had grown tumultuous enough that Morales had to skip a well-attended mayoral forum with the Reverend Al Sharpton at his headquarters in Harlem.

On Wednesday, May 26, Morales called for a staff meeting, and the next day, shortly before the meeting was set to begin, she fired the four women who had been chosen by the new union to represent them. They were all dismissed over email. This, even for staffers who had been more wary of the union, was a breaking point. On group chats and Zoom, there were sudden talks of walk-outs and work-stoppages, unheard of in a campaign context. (A Morales spokesman said that “no one had been identified as union representatives” and that the “women in question” were fired “in relation to their performance in their roles.”)

By the day the women were fired — Thursday, May 27 — another top campaign adviser, Ifeoma Ike, had resigned as well. Staffers entered the campaign’s main office, in midtown, demanding that Morales reinstate the four women who had been fired. They were forced to congregate in a crowded hallway, blocked from entering. Eventually, they were allowed in, and Morales told them the fired women would not be brought back.

On Friday of that week, the new union members, still not formally recognized by any outside entity like the Campaign Workers Guild, rallied outside the office. Calling themselves the “Mayorales Union,” they held signs like “union busting is disgusting” and marched through Bryant Park, burning incense and sage.

A statement from the Morales campaign acknowledged that “mistakes have been made” in attempts to “intentionally center the voices of those who are excluded from politics.” But a work-stoppage loomed and further negotiations between the new union and Morales did not progress far. “She was lawyered up, and we had a hard time finding a labor lawyer to work with us,” said one union organizer.

Morales argued that many of the union demands — the backpay for volunteers, use of campaign funds for mutual-aid assistance like delivering groceries — violated New York’s stringent campaign-finance laws. Since public money is doled out to campaigns, an oversight body will rigorously audit them for years afterward, sometimes doling out tens of thousands of dollars in fines that candidates are personally liable for.

But the chief union demands —like a $4,000 a month salary floor, an independent HR-like entity to handle staff complaints, and the reinstatement of the four fired women — did not run afoul of CFB rules.

By early June, a work-stoppage had been called, but even those involved who were anticipating pushback from the Morales campaign found work requests were not coming in anymore. The campaign had entered a new, ghostly phase, where it was unclear who was in charge. No one was sure where Morales was day-to-day anymore.

Endorsers were fleeing. The WFP, which once ranked Morales their number-two choice for mayor, suspended their endorsements, as did many politicians and left organizations.

On June 9, about 40 staffers engaged in the work-stoppage were fired over email, contacted by a campaign lawyer named Leo Glickman. “The campaign has a fiduciary responsibility to its donors to singularly focus on bringing our progressive vision to as many people as possible and getting Dianne elected as the next Mayor,” Glickman wrote. “We are also restricted in how we spend our public funds, and we simply cannot spend public money on anything that is not directly related to the campaign.” Staffers were informed they’d be paid through the primary, June 22.

Morales herself is unbowed. “While Dianne accepted responsibility for the campaign’s challenges,” said her campaign spokesperson, “the media’s wholesale blame is reflective of much of the bias Dianne has encountered throughout this campaign.”

As a “woman of color,” the spokesperson said, Morales was “held to a higher standard of responsibility and accountability.”

On election night, she held a party at the same Brooklyn bar that doubled as her campaign HQ.

More on the NYC Mayoral Race

See All
How the Dianne Morales Campaign Flopped