May 31, 2021 - I posted Part 1 on Morales yesterday
The Dianne Morales Mayoral Dramedy - an Ed Notes never ending serial - Part 1 - the NYT Take - Attacks on Progressives
Apparently there are some people - some white people - who feel I have
no right to post critical pieces about a woman of color. The same kind
of attitude that allowed Neo-liberal in Chief Obama to skate by. With every passing day as I hear more stories -- like his labor cabinet member Tom Perez, taking a legal job with a major anti-union firm focused on stopping unions from being established. Or press spokesman Jay Carney running PR for Bezos.
Whereas a progressive candidate like Morales would expect to take hits from the right, she seems to be getting them from the left not just for not being a true leftist, but for not being involved in any of the major struggles over the past 20 years, even going back to two years ago.
But given the state of the candidates I will still put her as one of my choices.
Here are two Ross Barkan articles a month or so apart, with the latest from today coming first but read the older one for context since it predates the events of the past week but may have been the first real shot. Part 3 will delve into more details on the current crisis.
Since 2016, the American Left has been on a pronounced upswing.
Once peripheral ideas, like enacting universal healthcare or raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, have been mainstreamed, and everywhere you look another leftist seems to be winning a local office. In Democratic cities and states, legislatures have swung decidedly left, and progressive prosecutors are safeguarding their gains even as crime rises. A decade ago, when Occupy Wall Street took bloom, espousing left demands—an end to income inequality, higher taxes on the rich—could feel futile and fringe, like howling at a closed window of a darkened home. The Left, particularly the socialist left, does not wield significant power in America, but the fact that such a debate exists and Democrats need to reckon with these ideas demonstrates how much has changed over a decade.
As movements mature and become popular, many people seek to be a part of them. This is important—successful protests and successful campaigns must engage many thousands of people, and build alliances across racial and class lines. When unlikely champions emerge, like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Cori Bush, many more dreamers laboring in the shadows hope to join their ranks. Ambition is the fuel. Without it—without people willing to take risks and imagine themselves with far greater influence than they possess today—nothing else will happen.
Decentralized movements have a vulnerability that becomes more apparent as they grow. As more people seek to join them and lead them, opportunists lie in wait, hunting for their own taste of capital and fame. Since the gatekeepers, for the worse and for the better, have melted away, charismatic outsiders—or career insiders posing as them—can enter the firmament and rise, mastering the lexicon of the new movement. With social media as an amplifier, the charismatic striver no longer needs to stump from street corners and subway stations and clubhouses, rousing ever-larger crowds as they go along. Twitter will do.
In the rise and fall of Dianne Morales, mayoral candidate, the Left has lessons to learn. Of late, Morales is in the news for a bizarre staff revolt that has led to multiple firings, protests, and resignations. Instead of focusing on this unraveling, it is better to examine the Morales phenomenon as a whole and what it may have represented. The problem goes far beyond one candidate, her approach to staff unionization, and whether gradients need to be changed in Twitter headshots.
Morales sensed an opportunity and took it. In that way, she was like any red-blooded American capitalist. “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” said the old Democratic boss George Washington Plunkitt. Plunkitt was a Tammany man talking about the practice of taking bribes and getting rich buying up land on speculation. His politics, of course, were nothing like Morales’: a white man born well before the outbreak of the Civil War will have nothing to say about intersectionality. But the new Left, abound with young progressives and socialists ever hungry for the next AOC, brings with it its own opportunities for speculation. In this new political game, Morales became her own version of a political boss gobbling up parcels of land right next to where the new trolley line would eventually reach.
In 2019, Morales apparently failed a Department of Education background check, losing out on an opportunity to chair Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Equal Employment Practices Commission, an entity that acts as a watchdog over the diversity of hiring at city agencies. She couldn’t pass the background check because she had facilitated, in 2002, a $300 bribe to a crooked inspector who promised to get rid of an expensive water bill for her new, four-unit townhouse. Morales lied twice to the Department of Investigation before confessing to the truth of what happened. The scandal, ultimately, was minor, but it spoke to a troubling reality: Morales was willing to lie to protect herself in an official context and had committed the kind of infraction that would block her from future public sector work.
Later in 2019, Morales announced her long-shot bid for mayor. Observing the timeline in retrospect, it seems that the mayoral campaign would have never been launched if she had just passed the background check. A former public school teacher and nonprofit executive with two Ivy League degrees, Morales was poised to continue her career in the upper levels of education. Denied the opportunity in the de Blasio administration, Morales hit on something else: a campaign that could readily fill a vacuum in the next Democratic primary for mayor of New York City.
Morales could see what most political insiders, in those early days, could not. There would be no leftist running a viable campaign for mayor in 2021. The standard bearer was a clubhouse Democrat, Scott Stringer, who had climbed the ladder of municipal politics as a cautious, center-left operator.. A quiet master of the inside game, Stringer sensed an opportunity too, reaching out to younger leftists for the first time in 2018 and endorsing their State Senate campaigns against the Independent Democratic Conference and another machine Democrat. For the candidates he supported who would eventually triumph, Stringer understood that the price for admission, here, was surprisingly low. The Democratic Socialists of America would never back Stringer for mayor, but their state senator, Julia Salazar, would easily do it because Stringer had showed up for her in her insurgent campaign. Collecting these endorsements—other popular young politicians like Jessica Ramos and Alessandra Biaggi backed Stringer, along with Jamaal Bowman—signaled to other insiders that Stringer would be the Left candidate in the race, a successor to de Blasio more attuned to certain activist currents.
Morales knew better. Politicians, especially those with larger-than-average social media followings, overrate their ability to move votes. Years ago, when I profiled Chuck Schumer, I learned one little secret behind his steady rise: as a young assemblyman with an uncanny knack for ending up in the New York Times, he never assumed he was very famous in his district. He kept showing up at subway stations, obsessed with becoming better known, understanding that most people in Brooklyn were not reading his press clips or following politics at all. In the age of politician as cultish micro-celebrity, it’s easy to forget this reality. None of the Stringer endorsers had the power, on their own, to drag along thousands of voters to his cause.
With Maya Wiley, who served as de Blasio’s counsel, failing also to excite progressive voters, there was clearly room for another candidate. Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, chasing moderate and older voters, were not going to do it. So Morales arrived, speaking of defunding the police by 50 percent and building an intersectional agenda based upon “dignity, care and solidarity.” Morales hit other notes of the young left too, including tuition-free CUNY and a vaguely defined universal right to housing, but it was the defund promise—$3 billion gone from the NYPD operating budget—that made hearts sing. The nonprofit left and their various NGO’s were smitten. The Working Families Party endorsed her second, right behind Stringer, and later co-endorsed her with Wiley when Stringer was thrown overboard over a sexual assault allegation with somewhat flimsy evidence. Many elected officials, including some former Stringer endorsers, became Morales backers.
Many members of DSA became Morales supporters, eschewing Wiley and Stringer, and certain leftists, online at least, bemoaned that DSA never issued a formal endorsement. Wisely, New York City’s DSA chapter decided a while ago to not support anyone for mayor, choosing to throw their large but still limited volunteer army into six City Council campaigns. Unlike labor unions, the WFP, and various political nonprofits, DSA only endorses in races where it can make a difference. Morales could go far, but she was never going to be elected mayor. Crucially, for DSA, she would never identify as a socialist, and early conversations between DSA and the Morales campaign about a formal endorsement never went very far.
Morales understood, though, she didn’t need DSA to brand-build. It’s here where her rise and fall offers a cautionary tale for a young, multifarious movement still too easily co-opted. It is not enough to speak like a millennial leftist, to wield the correct jargon in Slack chats and Twitter threads. It is not enough to have merely read the right tracts and manifestos or mastered the “inclusionary” newspeak of the corporate consultants and academicians. One cannot claim their movement is “inherently radical” merely because there is an ambitious, opportunistic political campaign that now exists. Ultimately, few campaigns are movements—they are limited exercises with one concrete goal, sometimes undertaken as a self-aggrandizing exercise for the principal. And the longer the Morales campaign went on, the more it became clear this was, at least partially, the mission. She couldn’t win, but she could position herself to rise further elsewhere.
The fundamental problem of Morales’ candidacy is that almost nothing in her professional history suggested she cared about being any kind of radical leftist—or even an ordinary progressive, volunteering for worthy campaigns and causes. Before politics, Morales earned almost $350,000 a year in compensation from the social services nonprofit she headed, Phipps Neighborhoods. Phipps Neighborhoods belongs to Phipps Houses, a nonprofit real estate developer that is one of the worst evictors in the city and notoriously anti-union. She owns a townhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant she paid more than $400,000 for in the early 2000s and is now worth as much as $2 million. She reaps an additional $24,000 a year as a landlord, charging a tenant who lives there.
Wealth, on its own, is not disqualifying, and few of us can claim unsullied work histories. Morales was not merely a nonprofit executive and landlord, though. She has been steeped, for two decades, in the charter school movement, a reality she cleverly downplayed as she rose to fame on the Left. As Matt Thomas, the socialist writer and researcher, recently reported, Morales was once inducted into a network of the country’s leading charter advocates, funded by the industry’s top profiteers. Large donations from charter school executives have flowed to her campaign. Unlike other charter school supporting candidates in the race—Yang, Adams, and Kathryn Garcia—Morales actually founded a charter school, Broome Street Academy, which she merely refers to as a “public school” in her campaign biography. As recently as 2020, she called herself a strong supporter of “school choice” and admitted to voting for Andrew Cuomo, an aggressive backer of charters, over his left-wing challenger Cynthia Nixon in 2018. In the Donald Trump era, Democrats turned away from charters—privately-run, publicly-funded schools that do not need to recognize teachers’ unions—because they were a signature cause for the many Republican billionaires who backed his reactionary presidency. This did not dim Morales’ enthusiasm for charters, though. “We can’t abandon the families whose only choice is charter schools. Until all our public schools provide strong options and quality education, why should their options be limited?” Morales tweeted in 2019, commenting on a Times story about how Democrats were rejecting charters.
How did a charter school-founding landlord become, for a few months, the hero of the Left in New York City’s highest profile campaign? Morales exposed how easy it can be for anyone, no matter their work history, to reinvent themselves as champions of causes and movements they never cared for before campaign season. There were many important progressive fights over the last four years—for State Senate seats, for Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign, for DSA’s legislative slate—that Morales was entirely absent from. For the last year, none of this mattered. When Morales imploded, this scrutiny arrived, but it only came because of an unprecedented staff revolt that will not be a feature of savvier campaigns in the future. The next pretender will come with a bribery history or 20 years in the charter movement. The next pretender may not be a boss at all.
In Morales, the frailty of the new politics of the Left—at least those who are not outright socialists—was exposed. Morales had elevated identity so far beyond class that it became possible for a boss to pretend to be one of the oppressed workers, for a charter founder to pretend to care dearly about the public schools that charters, who often exclude students with disabilities, siphon resources from. When class is almost entirely absent in your ultimate analysis, the outcome is easy to see: the wealthy can appropriate the struggles of the working class and poor, especially those of color, and live a life of imaginary exploitation. Morales seemed confused, even taken aback, by her campaign’s unionization efforts. Bosses usually are. For leftists hoping for more out of this mayoral race, there are reasons to be hopeful for the future: many young left-wing lawmakers, now in their 20s and 30s and 40s, will be in a position to seek higher office soon. Perhaps 2029, when the next open Democratic primary will take place, will be a kind of golden age for the Left. Next year, with a host of new state legislative races in play, could bring its own rewards. Will Morales care about these future fights? Her history suggests she’ll be on to other things.
Dianne Morales, Under Fire
New scrutiny for the new standard bearer of the Left
One focused on the news itself: the bribe and the lying to an investigator, and the revelation that Morales had likely lost a job at the Department of Education over what had occurred.
The other, offered by Morales and her supporters, centered on a woman of color being taken advantage of, a system that punishes too many working class New Yorkers.
Ultimately, Team Morales “won” the exchange: the haters were dismissed and silenced, and she later said she had her best fundraising day when the story appeared. It was a lesson on where politics is and where it is headed, and how the new activist left approaches critical media coverage.
The City, a well-regarded nonprofit news outlet, reported on Sunday that Morales, in 2002, paid a bribe to a corrupt Department of Environmental Protection inspector to make a water bill for more than $12,000 go away. She subsequently lied twice to Department of Investigation inspectors who were probing the bribery scheme.
Morales was among nine New Yorkers targeted in this bribery scheme. Six chose not to pay the bribe. Three, including Morales, did.
We know this because the Department of Education’s Special Commissioner of Investigation produced a report in 2004, recommending in a letter to the schools chancellor summarizing the findings of the probe “that Morales’ employment with the DOE be terminated.” At the time, Morales was the chief of planning and operations in the Office of Youth Development and School Community Service. She resigned in 2004, shortly before the findings were finalized.
“Dianne Morales is a high level official in the DOE who directed her father to pay $300 cash to a DEP inspector in order to take care of a problem she was having with her water meter,” concluded the special commissioner, Richard Condon. “Moreover, when confronted by city investigators about the bribe, Morales lied twice before telling the true story.”
Morales ultimately admitted to investigators that she had directed her father to pay the city water inspector $300 in cash on October 23, 2002. She arranged for the payment after being pressed by a DEP inspector later prosecuted for targeting the nine home and business owners for cash to make bills or fines go away.
Morales rebounded and became an executive at Phipps Neighborhoods, the social services arm of Phipps Houses, a controversial nonprofit real estate developer. In 2019, shortly before her mayoral run, Morales had been poised to be appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio as chair of the city’s Equal Employment Practices Commission, an entity that acts as a watchdog over the diversity of hiring at city agencies.
“Given some of the issues that are on the table, I have every intention of raising the profile of these topics and taking them head on,” Morales told the City in May of that year. “These are serious things I’m not going to shy away from.”
The appointment never happened. Morales said publicly she had withdrawn to launch a new venture. By August 2019, she had declared her intention to run for mayor. A former City Hall official told the City that the appointment to the employment commission had fallen apart during the course of a standard background check.
In her statement to the City, and on Twitter later on, Morales said she was a young, first-time homeowner—she was 34 at the time—who was taken advantage of by the system. Many of her supporters said she was outright extorted. In her lengthy statement, she said she “didn’t feel like I had a choice.”
“I’ve always been transparent with you all and this time will be no different. After living in my home for ten months, I received my first water bill for $12,552.15. My first reaction was that I was in over my head, and like many New Yorkers, I was worried that I would not be able to afford to keep my home. I reached out to my real estate attorney who confirmed that this had to be inaccurate and advised me to reach out to the appropriate entities. In speaking with representatives of NYC DEP, they emphasized that I could request to have my water system inspected, and that the inspector’s findings would be final and binding. I agreed, hopeful that the bill was in error and eager to receive any assistance possible.
I was 34 years old, a new homeowner, and a single mom trying to provide for my children while going through a contentious divorce. I was the victim of a water billing scheme devised by a City employee who unbeknownst to me, was under investigation at the time and was later charged with bribery, intimidation and harassment. It would never have occurred to me that I could challenge this man and the bureaucratic systems he purported to represent. I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
There has been speculation that my decision to leave the DOE in the spring of 2004 was related to this investigation. For the record, I made that determination completely independently to pursue a different opportunity.
Since the story broke, there has been an outpouring of support from New Yorkers who have experienced similar challenges with the very agencies charged with serving the residents of our city. 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.
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. Anyone who attempts to use this for their political gain should not just be ashamed; they are also not prepared to lead a significant majority of our city who are vulnerable to exploitative and predatory practices. We’re still Choosing a Future that ensures that no New Yorker has to experience similar incidents. When I say I know what it means to be a New Yorker, I mean it. As Mayor, I will draw on my lived experience to fight for all New Yorkers, root out corruption, and build a government for the people.”
Two parts of the story, however, went unaddressed in her statement. She did not acknowledge that the report said she lied twice to inspectors, changing details before telling the apparent truth. And she did not address why she never went to work for the de Blasio administration in 2019. All available evidence points to a rather clear conclusion: the 2002 incident came up in a 2019 background check that she failed. Public sector employees are held to a particularly high standard. As of two years ago, she could not meet it.
This is a minor scandal, not a major one. A bribe paid in 2002 should not, on its own, be disqualifying. Morales has a right to learn from her errors and run for public office. Supporters should not suddenly abandon her if they believe, wholeheartedly, in electing the most progressive candidate. This incident does not suggest a Morales administration would be rife with corruption.
This is the second scandal, with origins in the early 2000s, that has dogged a mayoral campaign this year. In April, a former volunteer accused Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, of sexually assaulting her in 2001. Stringer furiously denied the allegation, but lost many of his endorsers. Since then, scant evidence has emerged to support the account of the woman Stringer allegedly assaulted, Jean Kim. Her account might be entirely truthful, but there is no new information to support the claim, including a contemporaneous account.
As Ginia Bellafante pointed out in the Times, progressive politicians and organizations take the issue of sexual harassment and assault far more seriously than ordinary corruption, though both are damaging, in very different ways, to the body politic. Morales paid a bribe she didn’t have to pay, attempting to game the system in ways others could not. The bribe was well-documented and she didn’t deny it happened. But her supporters on social media were defiant, sticking by her and dismissing the story outright. “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 Bronx state senator supporting Morales. “It’s actually a story about how systems try to take advantage of vulnerable New Yorkers and many times succeed.”
But it is a story when you can no longer pass a background check to work in the Department of Education—or potentially any city agency. Luckily, a mayor does not need to pass such a check, and if someone like Andrew Yang wins, it’s not hard to imagine him waiving the requirements to appoint Morales to a higher post in a bid to appease the activist left. We’re still a long way from that, though. Why not acknowledge and apologize for lying twice to Department of Investigation inspectors? Should a 34-year-old with two advanced degrees who held, at the time, a high-level job with DOE be so readily excused? Again, the majority (six out of nine people) did not pay the bribe. When confronted with a corrupt city inspector, a scam telemarketer, or anyone attempting a ruse, the best thing to do is to report it to the proper authorities. Morales was a public sector employee. She could have lodged a complaint with DEP and moved on with her life.
The Morales campaign is intriguing in many ways. A first-time candidate with no prior experience in politics, Morales has managed to win significant endorsements, like the Working Families Party, and qualify for millions of dollars in matching funds. She is a charismatic, welcoming presence, and is very good at speaking to voters and articulating her unapologetically progressive vision for the city. The odds of her being elected the next mayor are incredibly remote—she has never polled beyond the single digits—but she has established herself enough to be a significant voice in municipal politics if she chooses to stick around. She has outflanked candidates with much deeper ties to institutions and activated a segment of the young left that will go to the barricades for her on June 22. She is a talented candidate.
But Morales is a canny operator too, deploying tactics that any bright politician wise to the contemporary game of left-liberal discourse would deploy, and wielding them in increasingly disingenuous ways.
Morales was a well-compensated city employee with two advanced Ivy League degrees. She was buying a large four-unit townhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant that today is worth about $2 million, and would not have been terribly cheap in the early 2000s. Records from Phipps show she could earn close to $350,000 a year in compensation, far more than any city or state elected official, including the mayor of New York City. Tax records show she is also a landlord, reaping $24,000 a year in passive income from a tenant.
In no way, by her mid-30s, was Morales living the life of a conventional working class New Yorker. Most New Yorkers—Black, Latino, Asian, and white—cannot afford to buy a home here, where the price of entry is deep into the six-figures. A vast majority of New Yorkers are renters. They are certainly not landlords. They did not, unlike Morales, attend a fine public university, Stony Brook, and then go on to earn degrees from Harvard and Columbia. They usually do not have the opportunity to work in advanced positions in city bureaucracies. They will die without equity.
Morales’ lived experience, as a woman of color, should never be discounted. But she is also appropriating, very effectively, the tangible struggles of working class people of color in this city when she herself, in 2021, no longer knows their struggles. She is a property-owner, a landlord, and a former nonprofit executive. She has transcended her old class and entered a new one. She can have empathy for those who have less than her, but the time has come to stop pretending to be one of them.
Her politics elevate race over class, and in the parlance of academicians, these both intersect. Yet there is a growing thinness to the class component of the Morales campaign. It can seem secondary, even tertiary. It can rely, at times, on projection: certain communities are “inherently radical” and therefore the campaign making appeals to them, in a mode of college-educated identitarianism, must be the most progressive. The votes on Election Day may not end up reflecting this.
As Morales goes deeper into the race, her leftist bona fides will get greater scrutiny. There is nothing wrong with left-wing Democrats who enjoy a degree of financial success. Bernie Sanders can write a best-seller. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can live in a condo building and drive a Tesla. No one should ask anyone to take symbolic vows of poverty. What we should ask, for those claiming the mantle of the Left, is where you were before you decided to run for office. If you are indeed a movement candidate committed to winning these progressive fights, shouldn’t voters know that you cared about them before seeking office?
In an interview clip from early 2020 that was recently shared anew, Morales said she wasn’t sure who she voted for in the 2018 primary for governor, but it was probably Andrew Cuomo rather than his progressive challenger, Cynthia Nixon. She wouldn’t identify herself as a progressive. And she called herself a supporter of “school choice,” which is how charter school advocates describe their position. Yang and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, are supporters of charter schools themselves, but they are also not claiming to be left-wing movement candidates. They are consciously chasing a moderate wing of the electorate that Morales has no use for.
Many Democrats voted for Cuomo, who is now under overlapping state and federal investigations and has enabled corruption in state government for a decade, but they can be forgiven: incumbents usually win, and Cuomo spent about $27 million to demolish Nixon, a prominent actress and education activist. Those who want to be true leftists cannot be excused, though. There is no voting for Cuomo while simultaneously claiming you care about marginalized New Yorkers, those who must endure predatory landlords and an unforgiving criminal justice system. Cuomo was the governor who allowed New York, for most of his tenure, to try children as adults and permitted prosecutors to withhold crucial evidence leading into a trial. He was the governor, backed by millions from the real estate industry, who repeatedly thwarted efforts to strengthen the state’s tenant laws and ward off the conversion of rent-stabilized units into luxury apartments. He forced city government to pay the rent of privately-run charter schools. He enabled Republican control of the State Senate. Voting for him in 2018, after eight years of witnessing this governance, is making a statement.
Perhaps Morales, a quiet supporter of school choice, admired Cuomo’s repeated attempts to raise the cap on charter schools. Perhaps she wasn’t really paying attention. Many hard fights, from the two campaigns against Cuomo to the election of Ocasio-Cortez to the successful drive to destroy the IDC, have been undertaken by progressive activists, organizations, and ordinary people over the last decade. Where, in any of these fights, was Morales? Did she stump for the anti-IDC candidates? Did she volunteer for Zephyr Teachout or Cynthia Nixon? Did she pass out leaflets for Ocasio-Cortez? Did she try to elect the transformative Tiffany Cabán to the office of Queens district attorney? Did she, in 2020, support DSA’s slate of candidates for the state legislature? The answer, to all of these questions, is apparently no. And it’s worth asking Morales, as she stumps across this hot city in the final month of the campaign, why she never did.