How Dianne Morales Would Run New York

For more interviews in this series, click here.

Howard Wolfson: For our readers who are not familiar with you — tell us a little bit about yourself and your story.

Dianne Morales: So I am the youngest daughter of a working-class, blue-collar, Puerto Rican family. I was born and raised in Bed-Stuy. I’m a first-generation college graduate and also have been a single mom of two now-college students who attended and graduated from the public schools. I’m a former educator myself but have spent the last decade or so as the CEO of an antipoverty organization in the South Bronx, helping others like me overcome barriers to education and economic opportunity.

HW: You also taught in the New York City public schools. And you worked at least for a time in New York City government. Correct?

DM: I did. I spent the first two years of the [Mike] Bloomberg administration working in the New York City Department of Education. I came in as part of Joel Klein’s transition team and then ended up staying on to help establish the Office of Youth Development and School-Community Services.

HW: You’ve seen education up close as a parent, as an educator, as someone who worked in government. What’s the Morales plan for education, were you to be elected mayor?

DM: I’m also the mom of two public-school graduates, both of whom had [an Individualized Educational Program]. And I was also a special education teacher. I’ve had a front-row seat from a couple of different angles to some of the dysfunctions in our system. From a content perspective, our kids don’t see each other; our 1.3 million students, the majority of whom are Black and Brown, don’t really see themselves reflected in the curriculum. They don’t see their history reflected in the curriculum. They don’t see as much of their context. And I think that’s something that we need to address in terms of being culturally responsive.

[There’s also] the need to focus on the three main pillars of education — financial literacy, digital and technological literacy, and civic and democratic literacy. Anything that we think of as nonnegotiable in terms of what our students need to learn could be taught under any one of those pillars.

I also have said our classrooms look a lot like they did — and I’m going to date myself here — in “Little House on the Prairie.” It’s kids lined up in rows and one teacher in the front, and we should actually be incorporating the city as a classroom, getting our kids out into the community, introducing them to all sorts of sectors and careers and industries and businesses and gradually allowing them to explore their own interests. You begin to explore where they want to go with their careers, right? So the idea of “job shadows” and “bring your student to the office” internships that are paid or credit-bearing — those things help students make informed decisions about their future. That’s the direction that we need to move in to claim and maintain a position as the best education system in the country.

HW: You mentioned that you taught special education. My mom was a special education teacher in the South Bronx in the ’70s and ’80s. She was very invested in her kids but it was a very challenging assignment, both in terms of the work in the classroom and the work out of the classroom to stay in touch with parents. I’m wondering, when you left teaching and the Department of Education, what were you thinking at that point? What drove that decision?

DM: I felt like we were just continuing to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. I was hopeful when I started there that we were going to do something transformative, but I felt like we actually were doing some harm and not really moving forward. [When] I was a doctoral student in the school of education at Harvard, my focus was looking at low-income Black and Brown communities, how people who don’t have access to quality schools actually gained a political activism. Communities that have been failed by educational institutions for so long — how do they manage to acquire an education? Like real education. After the DOE, I wanted to go back to that. Many Black and Brown communities actually get their education through alternative means and alternative mechanisms. I could make the change that I thought was needed through the system by going outside the system.

HW: Some would say that a lot of the energy around activism and political involvement from the education sector is coming in the charter space. I’m wondering how you see the charter movement in the context of the advocacy that you are talking about.

DM: I’m not sure I agree with that premise, quite frankly, coming out of the community-based-organization world for the last decade. I think there’s a lot of movement from the ground that is focused on preserving, protecting and improving our public schools. And that’s where I’ve been aligned most. I recognize and appreciate that for many families, our public schools continue to fail them. They’ve turned to charter schools, and I have total respect for that as a parent. But the movement that I’ve been involved in is largely driven by parents of public-school students who are invested in transforming our public schools.

HW: You’re an activist, you’ve been an educator, a social services provider — you’re somebody who is focused on issues around equity. And at some point, you decide that you’re going to run for mayor. Talk to me a little bit about that decision — knowing obviously that most of our mayors come from a somewhat different background, which doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be. I’m curious, did you have an epiphany or was this something that gradually came upon you?

DM: There was definitely not an epiphany. I would say I came down this path initially kicking and screaming. I had friends who for about a decade had been telling me that I should run for office. And my standard response was like, “Have you met me?” I’m not diplomatic. I can’t be a politician. That’s just not my lane.

Then the 2016 election happened. And some of our worst nightmares come true; although truth be told, I had said I think he’s [Donald Trump] going to win long before. But that kind of makes everybody go, OK, what do I need to do differently? I’ve got lived experience and I’ve got professional experience that could — that should — be brought to bear at a larger scale; what do I do? And then the 2018 elections happen and there were a couple of breakthroughs. There were races — AOC, Ilhan Omar — where you see something different, like a sense of hope and possibility. There’s a crack in the ceiling in terms of what elected officials are supposed to look like or what viability means.

And I still, at that point, wasn’t really thinking about it. It wasn’t until a year later that the conversation came up again and I was like, “Oh, OK.” Let’s just have this exploratory convo. There was something in that conversation when I was like: “Why am I not considering this? Like, why not me?” And that then started to take on a life of its own. And the idea that I had kind of written myself off by virtue of what others defined as viable or right — I’m not going to keep letting other people define what kind of spaces I can be in or how I can be in those spaces.

Now it’s bigger than me. It’s not just about me now. It’s about all others who are like me and what it symbolizes for me to be in this race in terms of claiming space for people that have historically not been given a seat at the table.

HW: We’ve never elected a woman mayor in New York, and it was only fairly recently that we elected our first female senator in New York. There’s often a presumption about what a mayor might look like. I think that there’s a very good reason to try to change that. You’ve obviously been around politics, but you’ve never run for elected office. How are you liking it?

DM: These Zoom forums — I’m going to date myself here — it’s like “Hollywood Squares.” You only see the other candidates. We are becoming familiar in a really interesting kind of way, but those are not the people that I’m trying to speak to. It’s hard to not see the people that I’m trying to reach or talk to. As an organizer, as an advocate, I’m so used to co-creating things with community and co-leading, and co-facilitating; it’s hard to feel like yours is the only voice because it’s totally counterintuitive to what I’m trying to represent with my campaign and what I’m trying to do.

That being said, getting outside with the weather getting nicer, and even just the petitioning that’s happening now for the signatures, it’s been a stark contrast. I love connecting with people and seeing the look on their faces when they hear that I’m running for mayor. There’s an initial kind of shock and then you see the smile and the appreciation, and that’s pretty incredible, but the Zoom thing has kind of worn itself out, I think.

HW: What’s your view of the city at this moment? What’s your state of the city?

DM: I would say right now that we’re down for sure. And also we’ve been stripped to what I consider the core of the city and the strength of the city, which are basically the low-income Black and Brown working class, female-led households, the LGBT community, the folks who are the heart and soul of the city, who keep the city running. What to me has been laid bare is that those people are our greatest strength in so many ways. And I think we’re at an interesting crossroads with a unique opportunity to recognize that and to prioritize those folks in our recovery: bringing them to the center and ensuring that whatever plan we have builds a new New York City that centers those folks in all our policy priorities.

Whether I’m talking about housing — and how we do housing differently so that everybody has access to housing and we adopt a model of permanent housing for everyone, as opposed to this shelter-driven system — or whether I’m talking about the idea of creating a solidarity economy that prioritizes caring, making sure that everybody has the economic resources to live in dignity … I think there’s tremendous hope and possibility in this moment. The last year has been a rupture of things that weren’t serving us well. Now we get to decide to do things different.

HW: You talk about trying to institute a care economy. Can you talk about what a care economy is?

DM: A care economy is when you think about who the people are that have made it possible for so many to thrive. It’s our health-care workers, it’s our child-care workers. It’s the home health aides. It’s all of those people who care for others in their work. My child-care provider made it possible for me to go work at the DOE, and the elder-care provider makes it possible that elders, children do their thing.

It’s a question of recognizing how much those folks are a critical part of our society, of our economy, of our infrastructure and making sure that we are caring for those people and taking care of them because the dignity of the rest of us is tied to that, and therefore providing fair wages, worker protections, benefits and leave.

HW: If you talk about bringing uplift and helping to provide dignity, what specifically does that look like when we have a Morales administration?

DM: I want to emphasize that these workers, by the way, are mostly women. And many of us, a significant percentage of them, are immigrants. There’s something to be said about naming and acknowledging that. Historically, those people, those functions, those jobs have been part of trickle-down economics, right? The people who are caring for my children, let’s say: I’m the one that’s “making a living,” and they’re making less than that. They’re relying on whatever I can do. So addressing the wage gap for those workers, because they often make so much less than others, ensuring that they have access to unemployment benefits, that they are protected.

Now, many of those workers were not eligible for unemployment or recovery packages, right? All of those things that the “normal” worker has access to should be things that are available to folks as part of this care economy. I think about it as raising the floor. When we do that, everybody gets a boost.

HW: One of the ways that you pay for some of that is by proposing a tax increase on the highest earners. And I’m wondering, given the ease with which some people can now work remotely, and the extent to which some upper-income New Yorkers have left and are working outside of the city, have you rethought any of those plans given those realities?

DM: No. I’m not sure how much I buy the “Oh, the wealthy New Yorkers have all left the city” fear-mongering. I also think that part of how we need to rebuild this economy is to focus on local people. There’s a lot of conversation about “Oh, we’re losing the big businesses.” And we’re losing those jobs and we’re losing what they contribute to the economy.

But the reality is that it’s small and mid-sized businesses that actually employ over 50% of New Yorkers. We could equally make the decision to prioritize the small and mid-sized businesses in our recovery. And in terms of starting from the “bottom” and growing up and out, as opposed to focusing on these large companies — what we know about the small and mid-sized businesses is that not only do they employ people locally, but they tend to be local.

If we’re doing that, and we saw over the last year what our investments, what the tax relief did for Wall Street and the wealthy, we should apply the same principles to the idea of investing and prioritizing tax-relief efforts to the small and mid-sized businesses and generating and regenerating the economy from that perspective instead. If you couple that with other initiatives, like a public banking system and incentivizing worker-owned cooperatives, then we’re actually rebuilding our economy in a way that prioritizes our communities and our people and keeps the “wealth” local as opposed to these large corporations that come into our communities, exploit our labor and extract our wealth. There is a different choice we can make here about how we move forward. To me, the right choice is to prioritize the local folks in the local communities.

HW: You’ve talked about defunding the police. You’ve called for a $3 billion cut to the police budget. And we know murders were up 40% last year; they continue to be up this year as well. Some people hearing this will think, “If crime is up, now’s not the time to cut the police budget so dramatically.” But you make the case that, in fact, it will keep us at least as safe, if not safer. Can you walk me through that?

DM: The first thing I'll say is that police don’t prevent crime, they respond to it. So in terms of whatever increase in crime, clearly having the police has not been a deterrent. If that’s the case and the increase in crime happens despite the fact that there actually has not been a substantive decrease in the police budget, it counters any notion that police and more police equate to or result in safer communities.

I’ve done this a couple of times in some forums — have people close their eyes and envision a safe community or talk about envisioning a safe community. Inevitably, when people go through that exercise, none of them opens their eyes and says, “Oh, what I saw in that community was police officers on every corner.” What people see when they think about a safe community is a community that’s rich in resources and opportunities and programs and services. The idea that we would try to get to safety by over-policing instead of providing the things that people need to be able to live in dignity is counterintuitive to me.

We have documentation that a significant percentage of the calls that the NYPD responds to are not crimes in progress. They’re often issues of mental health or substance abuse, and the idea of responding to those issues by sending a man with a gun feels counterintuitive to me. So I’ve called for the creation of a community-first responders department in lieu of NYPD — services that would provide people who are trained and skilled at intervention and de-escalation in these social situations and would serve as a part of a larger ecosystem of service providers. You know, community-based organizations, human-services organizations, clinics, mental-health specialists, so that we could actually, when they’re responding to a case of homelessness, that person’s being connected to a service to help them address the condition as opposed to having a man with a gun respond — where in the best-case scenario, that person gets locked up overnight and released the next day, right back onto the streets, or in the worst-case scenario, they get shot and killed.

We need to do that rather than throwing policing at every sort of social concern we have. For decades, we’ve been divesting in these services and we need to reinvest, and that’s the fundamental premise of my vision around the $3 billion.

HW: I think it’s fair to say that you are running the most progressive campaign in the field. Given that we have ranked-choice voting, who’s your second choice? If I’m a very progressive voter and I want to vote for the most progressive candidate and I put Morales at the top, who should my second choice be?

DM: It’s funny; that’s becoming an increasingly popular question as we get closer to the primary. My answer is it remains to be seen if I am in fact the most progressive in this race. I’m waiting to see which of the candidates will get closer to my positions. And I feel like it’s been happening over the last couple of months. There are candidates who are beginning to adopt some of my ideas or positions in different ways — or adopt some of the language. It’s been fascinating to watch. And I’m good with that. I think the more, the merrier, but none of them are close enough for me to feel — “Oh, that’s my second.” But I anticipate that that will continue to change as the primary approaches. And I’m looking forward to that.

HW: Bill de Blasio obviously ran as a progressive in 2013. How do you assess the de Blasio administration?

DM: I think it started off with a lot of hope and promise. And I think there was a significant gap or deficit between the vision and the execution. In some ways it felt like he couldn’t get out of his own way or he couldn’t defer to people to make things happen. The management stuff was sorely lacking and he didn’t have it, and he didn’t let the people that he had on his team have it, either. I think it fell short of what we aspire to and what we thought was possible because of that. It’s not enough to be able to articulate a vision that people buy into. You also have to know how to execute on it.

HW: You’re a former teacher. What grade do you give that, if you’re grading his tenure?

DM: Probably a C-minus.

HW: Well, that’s not so good. You’re a tough teacher.

DM: Well, yeah. I’ve been an executive for a long time. I know what it takes to get stuff done and how you move from vision to implementation. It’s not easy but you’ve got to be able to do it if you want to move past the rhetoric.

HW: You’ve offered a critique of the current mayor based in part on management; that’s certainly not an unfamiliar critique of his time in office. And you’ve run a social services agency. Can you talk about a management challenge that you confronted and how you dealt with it?

DM: This has happened more than once in my career. I’ve come into an organization where someone who is part of the senior team wanted my job and didn’t get it and is reporting to me. There is hostility internally because that person may or may not be beloved among the people who are there. And my task is to figure out how to get the buy-in of everybody from top to bottom throughout the organization and actually execute. That is not an uncommon leadership challenge, but what I’ve been successful at doing is making everyone in the organization, no matter what position they’re in, feel like they are part of co-creating the vision and the mission, understanding the value and the importance of their particular role in executing toward that mission, and feeling invested in the success of that.

That doesn’t happen overnight, but it is the hallmark of my leadership and my executive experience that has led to my being successful. It is the only way really to create large-scale change in organizations. I don’t think that anybody comes to work not caring about what they do or how they perform. Everybody wants to feel like they’re doing a good job. It’s important to figure out how you let people know that and feel part of something bigger than themselves. And that’s something that I’ve been very blessed to be good at.

I’m also good at finding talent and surrounding myself with people who are whip-smart and hardworking. I’ve done it for this campaign. I have the most incredible team. That is something that I am good at because I don’t need to feel like I’m the best or the smartest in the room. I’m very OK with having people who feel to me like they’re smarter than me because it ultimately, you know, makes us all look …

HW: You know who you sound like just then — Mike Bloomberg. He says, “I want to surround myself with people who are smarter than me. I never want to be the smartest person in the room.”

DM: Then so be it. I think that’s a critical aspect of being successful. If you need to surround yourself with “yes people” or people you think you’re smarter than, then you’re limited by your own abilities. I think this is one of those cases where it’s really true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

HW: We’ve got roughly three months until people vote [in the primaries], so there’s plenty of time. But there are people who started out this campaign with more money than you, with higher name recognition. What’s your path to victory?

DM: My path to victory is in everyday New Yorkers. When you look at our donation history, we have the largest number of small-dollar donors, and actually our most frequent donation amount is $10. We’ve got an average donation of $50 and we’ve got 30% of our donors who are unemployed. Insofar as we are connecting with New Yorkers on the ground who feel valued and reflected in this campaign, we’ll continue to defy expectations and build momentum that the pundits and chattering class think is not possible for us. They’ve been dismissing my candidacy for well over a year now.

And yet we keep defying those expectations. Because I think New Yorkers are done with the status quo and are ready for something different and to feel seen and heard. When I think about the unemployed folks, my first reaction to that, quite frankly, was to be really disturbed. Because I felt guilty — like, should we not be taking these people’s money? They’re unemployed. And so we did some outreach to check in, and this campaign was giving those people hope; they were investing in a race that was still a year away. They felt hope in the message. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of hope in creating change.

HW: You're campaigning in the shadow of Covid. You talk about your unemployed contributors; I’m sure Covid has accounted for some of their distress and unemployment. When you look back at the last year, how do you think the city administration has done? What would you have done differently and what do you think needs to be done now?

DM: Penny-wise, pound-foolish. I think that we should have on March 13, 2020, said, “Stay home. We will take care of you. We’ll make sure that you have the resources that you need to pay your rent or feed your family. Stay home, because this is a global pandemic, and we’ve got to get this under control before we send you back out there.” I think that that would have saved so many lives. It would have put us in a different position in terms of the economy and it would have gotten this pandemic under control. When you look around the world, you see places that have gotten this much better under control, much sooner. And they, by the way, happened to mostly be led by women. It was because they focused on the prevention on the front end, as opposed to dragging their feet on the front end and then rushing to reopen things.

That’s what I would have done. There are still some things to be said for providing people with the security they need so that we’re limiting people’s engagement outside and in groups until we expedite the vaccination process and do it in a much more effective way than we’re doing it now. We can keep people safe and begin to not build back, but we get to build anew in a way that prioritizes people’s lives over anything else.

For more interviews in this series, click here.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Howard Wolfson has worked in New York politics for nearly 30 years and served as a deputy mayor to Mike Bloomberg from 2010 to 2013. He is currently a senior adviser to Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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