Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley are each seeking progressive support in the New York City mayoral race.
New York CNN  — 

The race to consolidate the progressive vote in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor has turned into a three-for-all, with a trio of candidates vying to unify the increasingly influential but often fractious movement as the campaign enters its final stretch.

In a stop-and-start campaign that has been overshadowed at turns by the coronavirus pandemic and a series of scandals enveloping Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the city’s ascendent left-wing coalition has so far failed to coalesce behind a single candidate. A failure to consolidate or hash out a strategic voting plan before June 22’s ranked-choice vote would likely spell doom for the campaigns and mark a disappointing missed opportunity for progressives in a city that has become a launching pad for some of the new left’s brightest stars.

Though democratic socialist-aligned candidates are expected to gain a new foothold in the city council this year, the liberals seeking City Hall’s top job are lagging behind moderates Andrew Yang, the businessman-turned-2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer and state legislator – both of whom have sought to keep the activist left at arm’s length.

The splintering of progressive support among City Comptroller Scott Stringer, civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales – along with a general lack of enthusiasm about the race – has pushed the movement’s energy down ballot, potentially clearing the way for Yang and Adams to wage a two-man contest. Before then, though, the campaign is expected to enter a bruising stretch where the field of eight could be whittled down and candidates begin to consider their posture as Election Day closes in.

“May is the test month for everyone. Everyone’s going to put millions of dollars on TV, on mail and I think, rightfully so, you’re going to see (campaigns say), ‘OK, we’re at this polling position at the end of April, let’s see what four weeks of paid media do,” progressive political strategist Luke Hayes told CNN. “And then I think the end of May is where you might start to see some of those coalitions where the progressive candidates might endorse each other.”

Stringer, a decades-long veteran of liberal New York politics, briefly appeared to emerging from the scrum, but his bid took a hit after a former political ally, Jean Kim, accused him of groping her and making other unwanted sexual advances during his 2001 campaign for public advocate. Stringer repeatedly denied the claims and dismissed calls for him to drop out of the race. Meanwhile, his campaign has highlighted inconsistencies – including a number described in an investigation by The Intercept – in the details of Kim’s allegations. But Kim, a lobbyist, is standing by her story and has filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office. In a recent New York Times interview, she rejected Stringer’s insistence that they engaged in a brief, but consensual relationship.

Kim’s allegations both unsettled Stringer’s rise and put some of his highest-profile backers under pressure. Many of them, including New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, state Sens. Alessandria Biaggi and Jessica Ramos, and the liberal Working Families Party rescinded their support. The New York chapter of the climate activist group Sunrise Movement also stood down after Kim went public, putting all their chips in with Morales.

The United Federation of Teachers, the 200,000-strong city teachers union, has stuck by Stringer, who has kept almost all of his labor support and recently added Teamsters Local 237, which represents more than 20,000 public sector employees. The WFP tossed its rankings after dropping Stringer – following a brief internal debate – and cross-endorsed Wiley and Morales with equal billing.

“At this moment in the race, we believe the best role for the party is to unite progressives around these two powerful progressive women and ensure the city is in the best hands possible to rebuild and reimagine a city that works for all of us,” WFP state director Sochie Nnaemeka said in a statement.

On the ‘comeback’ trail

Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, a WFP-aligned group that endorsed Stringer back in March but has since withdrawn its backing, said many progressive organizations were sent “reeling” by the accusations and are now considering their options in the midst of a quickly evolving race.

“Morales is building momentum, but I also see a lot of energy for Maya Wiley. People believe that she has the ability to build the coalition and take on Yang and Adams,” Westin said. “Stringer is still fighting and (there is a question of) whether he can convince voters that he can be trusted and, frankly, convince them on whether the allegations are true or not. He has a lot of money to spend and he still has a pretty big coalition of labor union folks. So I do think it’s a bit up in the air. And unfortunately, I think that favors Andrew Yang and Eric Adams.”

In an interview after a brief news conference in Queens last week, Stringer sought to draw a comparison between his hoped-for personal political “comeback” and the challenges facing the city. He also downplayed the disappearing endorsements while pointedly reminding voters that, before the accusations against him surfaced, “I got them all.”

“People knew that I was the best qualified candidate for mayor or they wouldn’t have endorsed me in the first place,” Stringer said. “It is personally hurtful to see what’s happening and I have to live with that hurt.”

With the debate over Kim’s allegations seemingly at a stalemate, Stringer is hoping to recapture any wavering progressive support and layer it with moderates who contributed to his winning citywide coalitions in 2013 and 2017 with a coming surge of paid media.

“I was 20 points behind Eliot Spitzer in the (2013) race for comptroller, which everybody said was a lost cause,” Stringer recalled. “And with three weeks to go, I got my message out, told my story, even though I was outspent two-to-one. Today, I have $10 million and a lot of support from labor. And that’s the money I need to get the message out – and we’re already getting the message out.”

While Stringer, his allies and fence-sitting progressives await the next round of public polling – the most recent numbers showed him climbing, but that polling was conducted mostly before Kim came forward – the Wiley and Morales campaigns are positioning themselves to seize on the upheaval.

A former counsel to the term-limited, outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, Wiley, who left her most recent job as popular liberal commentator on MSNBC to run for mayor, has been lingering in the outer ring of the top tier of candidates. Though she has been one of the leading collectors of individual contributions, Wiley’s modest fundraising totals have created some doubt that she has the firepower, even with a boost from the city’s generous matching funds program, to hang with the bigger spenders.

Speaking to CNN last week in Herald Square in midtown Manhattan, Wiley argued that political observers had written her off too soon. (If there is one near-unanimous sentiment among the campaigns, and across the ideological board, it is that the race itself has not yet won the attention of most voters.)

Wiley expressed confidence that her message was “breaking through,” but also nodded to the headwinds created by a pandemic that, though in retreat, still has many in the city dazed.

“People have been exhausted by the struggle to survive economically, exhausted by the struggle to help kids do online learning, exhausted by all the trauma and fear and anxiety. Exhausted by the presidential election and the four years that was Donald Trump – spiritually exhausted,” Wiley said.

But with Covid’s grip lightening, the Trump hangover beginning to subside and Yang’s early domination of the headlines evening out, she added, voters were beginning to put the candidates under a closer lens.

“That (focus) has been shifting,” she said, “which is exactly why, even though I haven’t bought any commercial time, I’m still a top tier candidate.”

A reality check for progressives

Hayes, who managed the insurgent campaigns of Bowman and Biaggi – both of whom unseated incumbent Democrats – and Tiffany Caban, the leftist political novice who came within a few dozen votes of defeating then-Queens borough president Melinda Katz in a primary to become the county’s top prosecutor in 2019, told CNN that the progressive mayoral candidates’ struggles should not have come as a surprise.

“Progressives made a lot of strides in New York in the previous two cycles, but there’s still work to be done in terms of building out a farm team. And also in asserting their ascending power,” Hayes said. “We’ve seen districts here and there with compelling candidates, but New York City is a beast.”

Plummeting Covid rates and a capital injection from President Joe Biden and Washington Democrats, he added, have taken the edge off the primary. With fears of a crippling city budget shortfall off the table for now, the race has not been captivated by a single defining issue.

The progressive candidates are also campaigning against the city’s complicated political history and the challenges posed by an ideologically idiosyncratic electorate.

“I wonder how many people in New York identify as progressive, because I can see people who consider themselves progressive going with Yang and (Kathryn) Garcia and some other folks running,” Hayes said last week. A few days later, on Monday evening, The New York Times delivered its prized endorsement to Garcia, who previously ran the Sanitation Department and has a reputation as a hyper-competent political “problem-solver.”

New York is also more conservative in certain neighborhoods and demographic groups than outside observers might assume. Before de Blasio won his first term in 2013, it had been more than two decades since a lifelong Democrat was elected mayor. The city’s post-war social democratic experiment, which used an economic boom to pay for a robust social safety net, a free college system and public works projects, crumbled in the 1970s as declines in manufacturing and White flight sapped the tax base, leading to a debt crisis that nearly put the city into bankruptcy.

By the early 1990s, when Republican Rudy Giuliani took office after ousting incumbent Democrat David Dinkins, the city, which had seen a decrease in crime but still wore the scars of the 1980s, was increasingly dependent on Wall Street and real estate developers to fund its day-to-day expenses, the capper on Big Business’ long push to cement its influence on municipal politics.

The last few years have seen a renaissance of progressivism and a backlash against tough-on-crime policies and the real estate lobby, but the new left – a younger, more diverse generation of political leaders – has so far focused more of its energy on pressuring executives, like Cuomo, by electing like-minded legislators than waging moonshot campaigns for mayor or governor.

A recent spike in gun violence has also created a more challenging environment for progressive candidates. After a shooting this past weekend in Times Square wounded three people, including a 4-year-old from Brooklyn, Yang and Adams held press conferences near the scene to talk up their policing plans. Yang condemned calls to “defund the police” – a position only Morales, of his primary rivals, has embraced – as he and Adams jockey for moderate votes.

In an interview with CNN days before the shootings, Morales acknowledged that there were “fair concerns” over her pledge to dramatically scale back the New York Police Department and create civilian first responder units to address nonviolent situations, but insisted that ramping up the police would not solve the problem.

“Violence has increased despite the fact that we have not, in fact, decreased our police force and actually added police officers to the subways a couple of months ago,” she said. “There has to be a reclaiming of the definition of public safety, which has for too long been equated with policing, despite the fact that the communities that are most heavily policed are actually often most harmed.”

In an email on Tuesday, Morales doubled down.

“We can’t decouple the recent violence that has taken place from the increased housing insecurity, increased food insecurity, increased lack of access to health care services,” she said. “We need solutions at the root here, solutions that are bigger than police.”

Leftist organizers sit out mayoral race

Despite being widely regarded as the furthest left in the field, Morales did not receive – nor did she seek – the support of the New York City’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. The group has proven itself a potent organizing force, but opted to stay out of the mayoral fray and focus on six council races.

NYC DSA co-chair Sumathy Kumar told CNN the decision stay on the sidelines of the mayor’s race boiled down to a combination of resource management and lack of excitement among DSA members over Stringer, Wiley and even Morales, who Kumar identified as the most progressive of the lot.

Kumar said the effectiveness of leftist lawmakers at the state level, where Democrats now hold supermajorities in both chambers, has shown that the organization’s “model” of going all-in on community organizers who openly embrace socialism was working.

And that none of the progressives running for mayor fit the bill.

“When we’re electing people through armies of volunteers, those candidates and those future city council members are going to represent a whole base of people that will be able to active as an opposition to a conservative mayor, if that’s what we ended up with,” Kumar said.

Morales, despite her popularity among young progressives, seemed uncomfortable with the widespread view and description of her campaign as being the furthest left of the lot.

“I’m not fighting in at this point,” she said. “It isn’t something that I set out to do. I am just consistent with what I believe in, and I really believe in centering and prioritizing communities and our most vulnerable.”

Still, her campaign has picked up steam, and some endorsements from liberal groups, as progressive voters begin to give her and Wiley a second look in the aftermath of the Stringer allegations. In Brooklyn last week, Zephyr Teachout, the anti-corruption champion who challenged Cuomo in a 2014 primary, announced her support.

“She has the confidence and the vision,” Teachout said of Morales after the event. “It’s a killer combination of all three: incredible joyful vision, incredible history of executive background, and a really strong anti-corruption (policy).”

Morales has also become something of a campaign TikTok sensation – the fruit, she said, of a “pandemic project” that began last spring with a suggestion by her then-19-year-old daughter. Supporters, including from the local Sunrise Movement chapter, crowded around as she spoke alongside Teachout, a handful wearing custom-designed Converse All-Stars in the campaign’s signature purple, orange and yellow colors, with “Mayorales” embroidered at the heel.

Morales has embraced the youthful energy around her campaign, even if she seemed to view it as a happy accident.

“So much of the electoral process has, to date, been based on what we’re afraid of losing or what we’re afraid of giving up,” she said. “And I think that people have lost so much and given up so much that they’re ready to really focus on something really hopeful and positive.”