Tap Into: Maya Wiley Seeks Strong Government Action

New York, NY—Maya Wiley knows first-hand the weight that city government can lend in solving seemingly intractable problems. When she was counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio in his first term, she led the initiative to identify the funding necessary to bring free broadband access to public housing in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. In running for mayor, she wants to leverage local government’s strength to bring about additional transformational change.

During a recent virtual mayoral forum hosted by the West Side Democrats, she talked about how her early life experiences instilled in her the belief that municipal government can alter structural issues of gentrification, racism and income inequality.

As a young girl, after moving from the Lower East Side to Washington, D.C. she said she watched her neighborhood gentrify, leading to long-time residents being displaced.

“I did watch my neighborhood disappear from before my eyes, including my best friend Charlene who one day, one day I could not find, and found out from my mother that the rent had been increased and that her mother, who was a cashier at the neighborhood grocery store, could not pay it,” said Wiley.

When she came back to New York to attend Columbia Law School she was committed to pursuing a career in the civil rights and economic justice realms.

“For me I was fortunate enough to spend literally 25 years working on these issues as a civil rights attorney, as someone who founded a national organization called the Center for National Inclusion where we named these things and called it structural racism; working on everything from education to food systems, to the digital divide,” Wiley said.

On the matter of the digital divide, Wiley penned an opinion piece for The Nation, the country’s leading progressive publication, back on January 8, 2014. Soon after, Mayor Bill de Blasio summoned her to his office to offer her the position as his counsel; she would also be tasked with, among other things, to figure out how to deploy free broadband access to low-income New Yorkers.

“When Mayor de Blasio became Mayor on a platform on ending income inequality, I for one, was completely on board with that mission. I didn’t know the man, but I did agree with the mission, and I was privileged to become and to be named the first black woman to serve as counsel to New York City’s Mayor,” noted Wiley.

Wiley was grateful for the opportunity to lead the broadband effort because it provided a window into the role government can play to solve problems.

But she didn’t know where to begin. Very few cities had tried to do it, so there was no blueprint. But, eventually, she figured it out and was able to build a revenue stream of $70 million that allowed for the installation of broadband in every single apartment in the Queens Bridge Houses public housing complex.

That’s the type of leadership she wants to bring as mayor.

“I’ve also seen where government falls down and where it gets broken and, yes, it does require leadership, and we don’t always get it. [We need] a leadership that brings partnership, a leadership that recognizes possibility and all the resources that government has to bear to bring to its problems,” said Wiley.

The online audience was eager to ask the civil rights attorney a few questions.

Recently, the NYPD made changes to its internal disciplinary system at the recommendation of an independent panel. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea will still have the final say in imposing penalties for misconduct.

Wiley was asked would she support removing the Commissioner’s ability to downgrade disciplinary recommendations from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, of which she is the former board chair. 

She said she’s in favor.

“I believe we actually have to put the public back in public safety and ensure strong civilian oversight of police misconduct. That means we have to look at a complete restructure, including making sure we have the public, the civilian side, and a strong mayor say what the policies and priorities of policing are,” declared Wiley.

“At the same time that we ensure we have a fair, disciplinary process, the commissioner cannot, cannot, determine solely what that discipline is.”