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Which Dianne Morales Will New York City Get?

Diane Morales has managed to secure the endorsements of groups like the Working Families Party behind progressive campaign promises. But she’s also a landlord, a supporter of “school choice,” and someone who “probably” supported Andrew Cuomo in 2018. How should we understand her contradictions?

Dianne Morales is running for mayor of New York City. (Wikimedia Commons)

There were two very different reactions to a recent story about a strange episode in the history of Dianne Morales.

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 and 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 last week 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, “I 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.

Return of the Aughts

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 thirty-four-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.

A Canny Operator

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 that of 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-thirties, 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’s 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.

Where Was Morales?

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 and the successful drive to destroy the Independent Democratic Conference (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 the Democratic Socialist of America’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.