The Root: NYC Mayoral Candidate Maya Wiley Believes Political Leaders Need to Broaden Their Imaginations to Better Serve the Public

New York City’s skyline is arguably the most recognizable in the world, with the cinematic scenes of skyscraper clusters throughout much of Manhattan. Nestled in between those tall buildings are communities made up of small businesses and people who fuel the lifeline of the city. One could argue that they function like the human body, each organ dependent on the other to survive. If one goes, the rest of the body slowly shuts down.

The bloodlines that keep neighborhoods in New York City going is mobility and connectivity. The pandemic killed much of that activity over the past year. We’re in a pandemic, so, of course, the city had to shut down. But New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley said the city failed to engineer an economy for those bodegas, nail shops and other small businesses that could have at least kept them on life support. Instead, Wiley told The Root, the city left them to fend for themselves.

She highlighted several businesses that managed to survive during the pandemic and how they inspire her mayoral run.

“If you go up to Mott Haven, in the South Bronx, there’s a couple-block corridor where you’ve got Black and Latino-owned businesses,” she said. “During COVID when we were all desperate to be outside and have community and social space, that was happening in that corridor. A wonderful example of that is a bookstore in Mott Haven in this corridor is called The Lit. Bar. It’s founded by a sista who grew up in the South Bronx. The community helped create that bookstore and sustain it through COVID. She figured out how to sell more online to sustain her business. But I’m just saying that because she also talked about how all the businesses in the corridor also helped support her to stay in business. Those were the kinds of things that we could have happening in all communities.”

In a climate where large businesses are able to use expensive lawyers and accountants to take advantage of federal pandemic relief funds, Wiley said city officials spent too much time focusing on federal bailouts instead of using money from the city budget to accommodate micro-businesses comprised of four and five people. For small business owners who didn’t know how to seek help, she pulled together a volunteer group to help them seek some type of relief.

“It’s not that there are uncaring people in city government, but there is a lack of understanding and relationships with folks who understand how things work and what the actual barriers and experiences are of the people we need to serve well,” she said. “One small business owner said to me, ‘Nobody trying to help us has ever run a small business.’”

When she launched her campaign in October, she billed herself as an unconventional candidate who didn’t carry the baggage of traditional experience to weigh down her willingness to explore new forms of governance. When most candidates discuss what the government can’t do, she has devoted much of her time discussing everything politicians can do if they were unafraid of using their imaginations. The main issue she observes with the current city government is that it is not connected with the people.

She doesn’t call out New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio directly, but it is pretty clear she is criticizing his handling of city affairs. Her most recent critique has been the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which she blames on a lack of planning and relationship building with Black and Latinx communities. Under her rollout, Wiley said she would have ensured that community-based organizations would have had the ability to be sites for vaccination. “You have to do it with those partners because they’re also the folks that can get the news and information out to the people who, a), can’t get on the internet and sign up for an appointment and b), who might not trust the process,” she said. “So, you have to have those trusted partnerships. And that’s what I would have done.”

The former MSNBC legal analyst and civil rights attorney is leaning into being an outsider—relatively speaking, of course. Her government experience includes time as de Blasio’s top lawyer and leading the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which oversees the NYPD. That experience, along with her decades-long civil rights career, helps her see the city outside of the traditional frameworks of government. She believes that elected officials spend too much time thinking of their limitations instead of thinking about possibilities. Most importantly, Wiley thinks the city needs to truly engage in progressive policies that match its image as a liberal bastion.

Since the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, few in America believe that anymore (or, at least they shouldn’t). Home of the largest Black population in the country (there are more than 2 million Black people in New York City), those residents are victims to some of the most repressive policing in America and make up 57 percent of people in shelters. The city is facing a steep budget deficit, and while vaccines have been rolling out—albeit poorly—it will be a while before the city—or America, for that matter—is ready to fully reopen.

At a recent forum, some of the top mayoral candidates—more than 30 are running—proposed their budget plans. Wiley focused on affordable housing, child and healthcare. She also called for support of the Invest In Our New York Act, a package of six bills that proposes to raise $50 billion by ending tax breaks for the wealthiest New Yorkers. She doesn’t believe that resistance will come from taxing the rich because many of those people have told her they don’t object to paying their fair share.

“There are wealthy folks who say, ‘Maya, I’ll pay more. I just need to know what it’s going to do. I need the vision,’” Wiley recalled from the conversations. “And I was like, ‘That’s fair. That’s a fair request and I will be transparent about mine.’”

Wiley sees governance from the perspective of justice and equity. A feature in New York magazine outlines the genesis of her activist past. Her father, George Wiley, was a well-known civil rights lawyer and her mother was active in third-party politics, including fighting for school desegregation. Wiley attended Dartmouth for undergrad and completed her law degree at Columbia University. She got her first experience with civil rights law as a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she assumed she’d be for life. In 1993, she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York after a succession of female-first hires recruited her from the LDF. It was not the most pleasant experience, as she was the only Black lawyer in the civil division and felt overlooked for more high-profile cases. Three years was all she could take before bolting out. In 2002, she co-founded the Center for Social Inclusion, where she would stay for 12 years. Then came the invitation to work for de Blasio’s administration as his top counsel. He is largely criticized for being a disappointment for failing to reign in abusive police officers and poorly running the city in general.

Some have questioned whether her time in de Blasio’s administration taints her mayoral aspirations, but Wiley sees that as a double standard held against so many Black women running for office.

“On the one hand, it’s like, ‘You’re a de Blasio person.’ And on the other hand, it’s like, ‘You don’t have any managing and city government.’ I was like, ‘Which is it?’ So I will not run away from any of my experience,” she said. “I will not run from my experience as a Black woman in America. I will not run from my experience having been a racial justice advocate on everything from education to healthcare and economic development for 30 years. I will say to anybody who asks that I am grateful for that opportunity to be the first Black woman mayor council to a mayor of the City of New York.”

Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a political consultant and former de Blasio staffer, said no matter how poorly people believe de Blasio’s tenure as mayor has been, anyone who worked in his administration has lessons to build on—especially on how to better improve how the city is governed.

“I think that her time in the de Blasio administration, less so working for him but more so that she got to see how City Hall works, is really helpful because she got to see how the sausage is made,” Lapeyrolerie said. “So her being his lead council, is less of an issue to me because she’s worked behind the scenes as a staffer. She knows what it takes to achieve these things.”

Polling shows Wiley trailing in the middle of the pack at 8 percent, but the mayoral race is still relatively new and Yang’s commanding first-place lead may not hold. There are at least four Black women running in this race, including Wiley. Calls for Democratic Party leadership to support Black women running for office have buoyed their numbers in local and national races. Glynda Carr, co-founder and president of Higher Heights, said Wiley could benefit from decades of Black female voter turnout and demands from those voters that women who look like them are supported when they run for office.

“She’s jumped in the race and has fastly been able to be perceived as a front runner,” Carr said. “There are four other Black women running in this race. Certainly the work of Higher Heights, as we enter into our tenth year of the vision of this work, we’re going to continue to see Black women running for races. From mayors of major cities to governors across the country, you will see that these black women are stepping in early and being perceived as viable candidates. And I think Maya certainly stepped into the mayoral scene in a time that has positioned her ability to build name recognition.”

After working in the de Blasio administration, Wiley served as chair of the New York City CCRB. Reviews of her time there are mixed. Her proponents say she helped open the board to the public for residents to file complaints, though her critics say little was done to punish bad cops. The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to the murders of Black people for the past six years, but George Floyd’s killing last year renewed an even more intense focus on lawmakers’ capacity to fight police brutality. Activists have raised legitimate concerns about the effectiveness of the CCRB, but some political consultants say the board’s failures during Wiley’s time can’t be placed at her feet. Yvette Buckner, a political consultant at Tusk Strategies, told City and State that Wiley has the impossible task of being a Black woman running for office without the benefit of the doubt often assigned to white men.

When asked about her time at CCRB, Wiley said the board was left with correcting problems on the backend that the NYPD refused to manage before their officers killed or assaulted people. She acknowledged some critiques of the CCRB are valid, but defended her tenure on the board.

“I’m not a person who’s not going to serve because things aren’t perfect because then we never get anything,” she said. “I spent a little over a year chairing the board. I’m grateful for all my experiences because I had an opportunity to do something I thought was important. At the same time, I had an opportunity to deepen my knowledge and experience on what can be better.

“What we did when I chaired was sent the Daniel Pantaleo case, the officer who killed Eric Garner, over to the police department with our recommendation of charges. Is that enough? No, we need to do much more. But that’s ultimately what got him off the force. So if it weren’t for CCRB and what I was able to marshal there, I don’t know where we would have been on Daniel Pantaleo.”

Few people running for mayor use the words “defund the police,” but many do propose plans to reallocate money from the NYPD. Shaun Donovan proposed exclusively to The Root that he would reallocate funds from the NYPD to address public safety and Dianne Morales, who supports the “defund the police” movement, used the language “we will unburden them” when speaking with The Root. Wiley doesn’t use the words “defund the police,” instead saying money needs to be reallocated. She was especially taken aback by a New York Times article suggesting that she was flip flopping on her stance addressing police accountability.

“I didn’t understand the confusion there, Wiley said. “I’ve consistently said that we have to invest in what communities and what demonstrators were asking for. We have to take functions out of policing that are not appropriate policing functions. We have to invest in mental health services so that when you pick up the phone and call 911, you’re getting a mental health responder, not a police officer. We should take out school-safety officers. None of that should be in the police department. We should be right-sizing the police department. That does mean we should be cutting back their budgets. Absolutely we should be cutting it. We end up having a fight about the word rather than talking about the policy prescriptions that are underneath it. I want to talk about what we need to do and not talk about a word.”

One thing she is very clear on is the need to decriminalize sex work and how targeting people in the profession does more harm than good.

“I do not believe we should be criminalizing sex workers,” Wiley said. “It’s the wrong approach. It absolutely was completely abusive that we had the anti-loitering laws that were resulting in over 90 percent of the folks who were arrested being Black and brown, and we know disproportionately, people who are transgender. It was just another example of a law that wasn’t really helping us stay safer but was doing a lot of penalizing of people for the way they looked and for the stereotypes around who they were.”

Part of her job as mayor would be to help people overcome their fears of an uncertain future. She knows that residents reflexively call on more police to help them address crime, even though she knows that isn’t going to address violent crime in the long run. She also knows the city’s wealthiest residents have to pay their fair share and the next mayor can’t be afraid to push for legislation that heads in that direction. Most importantly, the next mayor cannot think like mayors prior. They have to be unafraid to dream big and undeterred when those dreams fall short. She knows that people are looking for someone who fits the often-used buzzword: experience. When asked what she would say to people who worried about her not having any electoral experience, Wiley flipped the question back to the voter.