Of all of the candidates currently running for mayor of New York City, Dianne Morales is the most explicitly leftist. A Brooklyn native, single mother, and former public school teacher who ran multiple social service nonprofits in the city, Morales is running on a platform of housing for all, defunding the police, taxing the rich, and investing in public infrastructure. Last week, her campaign qualified for matching funds, which should propel her through the Democratic primary on June 22.
Morales spoke with In These Times about her candidacy, her opponents, and her disgust with the “smoke and mirrors” of the De Blasio administration. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Hamilton Nolan: You have a prestigious resume, but not an electoral politics resume. Why did you decide to run for mayor?
Dianne Morales: I just got tired of focusing on the symptoms, and the leaky bucket that it feels like exists when you’re trying to help people overcome obstacles and barriers to opportunity, but the opportunities and barriers are systemic and structural. I started to feel like it didn’t matter how successful I was on the back end – we really need to be courageous and committed to taking on the things that result in poverty, that disproportionately impacts some over others.
HN: Your platform calls for “Guaranteed Housing For All.” Take me through your pathway to affordable housing in NYC.
DM: The most important thing to recognize in having this conversation about housing is that the way housing happens or exists right now is something that was created. It’s not something that is a natural way of existing. And it was created in such a way that really centers and prioritizes developers and profits, and then, way at the bottom, people. So my basic housing platform is that we have created this and we can change this…if we start with the premise that housing is a human right, and we prioritize investing in making that possible. We must center people first, move away from this model of providing housing that gives tax subsidies and tax incentives to housing developers, and direct those dollars into the community to increase the availability of things like social housing and cooperative housing and supportive housing and community land trusts.
HN: Are those kinds of solutions adequate to provide the amount of new housing that experts say New York City needs to bring us into the realm of widespread affordable housing?
DM: Yes, because what this kind of solution does is to get to the structural problems of inequity in housing and access to housing. We’re at the point in time where we need to actually dismantle some of these structures that have perpetuated these inequities. So the idea that we have to continue feeding the beast in order to address the problem that the beast has in fact created, to me, is counterintuitive.
What do we do with existing vacant property and space, both in terms of repurposing those things, and of claiming them? What do we do in terms of exercising eminent domain over empty office buildings? Just really moving towards eliminating the speculative practices that exist in the city right now, that enable landlords to hold onto vacant space because they’re getting a tax write-off. Or people from other places, who are sitting on their pied-à-terre… These are moves that require us being willing to confront that power.
HN: Have you gotten a sense as a candidate of how powerful the real estate industry is in New York politics? How would you characterize that?
DM: It is not a small thing. Very early on in my candidacy I was approached by someone in the real estate field who basically suggested that they could make it rain for me, and make it possible for me to slide into home base in this race. I just needed to be open to their ideas. Needless to say, that conversation didn’t go much farther.
HN: Take me through your plan to defund the police – you talk about reallocating $3 billion from the NYPD budget. Where would that money go?
DM: The bulk of that $3 billion would go into the creation of a community first responders department. First of all, we need to stop criminalizing poverty, stop criminalizing being black or brown, stop divesting from the critical services that actually contribute to public safety, and recognize that communities that are safe are communities that have lots of resources and options and opportunities.
A community first responders department would be the first ones to show up on the scene. We know that the bulk of calls that the NYPD responds to are not, in fact, crimes in progress. They’re social issues — housing, mental health, substance abuse. So the community first responders department would be staffed with people who are trained and skilled in intervention and de-escalation in these situations, and who also serve as part of a larger ecosystem that is connected to human service providers, mental health providers, clinics, and all types of services. The person who’s in need in that moment is actually connected to the support they need to move forward, and potentially out of that situation.
HN: You advocate decriminalizing both sex work and drugs, things that people on the left have talked about for a long time. How close do you think we are to that becoming a real political possibility?
DM: To me, this is a critical part of getting to the root of things, and the structures of things. We’re talking about restoring justice for the harm that was done as a result of the war on drugs in our communities, where black and brown folks were criminalized for drug use. You see that when you talk about the comparisons of the crack epidemic with the opioid epidemic. When it was primarily black and brown people, it was a crime. When it’s suddenly impacting white people, it’s a national health crisis. And that approach is the right approach, it just needs to be applied equitably.
HN: When you think about the huge Black Lives Matter protests in NYC last year, and the calls for defunding the police, how much do you think City Hall took that to heart? What grade would you give City Hall on their response?
DM: A “D,” at best. It felt really performative — the whole back and forth about the police budget that ended up not being a reduction in budget at all. We see they’ve already exceeded the overtime line for this fiscal year. It was, I would say, a pretty ineffective attempt at smoke and mirrors that didn’t really fool anyone.
DM: My dad was a 32BJ worker, and I worked at DC37. So was I disappointed? Yeah, I was disappointed. Those people are like home and family to me in many ways. But I also understand that there’s a calculus that happens, and that I am an unknown quantity, and that as much as people want to go with their values, the whole viability thing is so deeply ingrained in anyone that operates in this space that it’s really hard to suspend disbelief vote your values alone.
HN: You were earlier than many people in calling for the impeachment of Andrew Cuomo. What do you think is going to happen with him?
DM: He ain’t gonna resign, that’s for sure. The idea that we would expect him to do the right thing after so many years of not doing the right thing is like the definition of insanity. But I am hoping that our state leaders will pursue an impeachment process and an investigation. We have to pull out the full arsenal to stop him from continuing to cause harm to people. I think New Yorkers deserve better. The curtain has been pulled back.
HN: Andrew Yang is leading the NYC mayoral polls at the moment. Why do you think he’s in the lead?
DM: Not really sure. I think the name recognition is definitely a factor. He’s got some really fervid supporters, and there’s an interesting tone and culture there. I also feel like it’s still really early. Most New Yorkers are only just beginning to pay attention, and it’s anyone’s race. People have continued to discount us and dismiss us, and part of me is like: You keep doing that.
HN: Do you consider yourself the most progressive candidate in the race?
DM: I consider myself the most people-oriented candidate in this race, by far. The one that’s willing to take the most risks in support of the best interests of the largest community of New Yorkers. If that makes me the progressive, then yes.
HN: What is the best New York sports team?
DM: Oh my god. I gotta say, I still enjoy watching the Knicks. But my dad’s gonna kill me, cause he’s a big Mets fan. I’ll leave it at that.
[Author’s Note: The correct answer is the Brooklyn Nets.]
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own. As a 501©3 nonprofit, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.