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(Frontpage 073)

Maya Wiley Is the Intergenerational Activist Fighting Through NYC’s Wild Mayor Race

  • Words: Chris Thomas

  • Photography: Charles Caesar

For this week's FRONTPAGE, we caught up with Maya Wiley, a lawyer/professor/activist extraordinaire who is running in the closely-watched NYC mayoral race. She was also recently endorsed by Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez to ensure a "city for and by working people." Our NYC-based readers can vote in the Democratic primary on June 22.

Seconds after delivering an impassioned explanation of intergenerational social justice movements, Maya Wiley darts off camera to check on the oven. It’s a busy morning for Wiley but, then again, every day is busy when you’re trying to become the next mayor of New York City. Every moment is structured and planned by a team of staffers working to get Wiley elected, but on our morning Zoom call in early May, she’s still made time to bake a batch of high-protein peanut butter and chocolate chip muffins that provide her an easy, grab-and-go breakfast for the next three days.

It’s a life hack that serves the lawyer and civil rights activist well as she runs from event to event or, as is the way of campaigning in the Covid era, dials into Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. As term limits end Bill de Blasio’s run as mayor after seven uneven and controversial years, an inevitable power vacuum has been created, and with it, a crowded field of Democrats have emerged to fight for the top job in the city of 8.4 million people.

Wiley is campaigning against seven other candidates whose political future will largely be decided on June 22, when the candidates compete in the Democratic primary to choose who will be on the ballot in November’s mayoral election. And, naturally, this year’s primary won’t just be complicated by the number of people running — it will also introduce Ranked-Choice Voting to New Yorkers for the first time. As a cottage industry of guides have explained, instead of picking just one candidate, voters will be allowed to choose up to five and rank them by preference.

The system may sound like the voting equivalent of trying to plan a movie night with friends and hoping everyone else also wants to watch Shrek 2, but it could prove to be incredibly helpful in the crowded race. For much of the process thus far, the frontrunners have included Wiley, Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and, at the top of most polls, Andrew Yang. For those who’ve erased the 2020 presidential run from their mind, Yang was the tech entrepreneur-turned-political-hopeful who ran on a platform of giving everyone in America $1,000 per month. Now, as a mayoral candidate, he’s run a campaign that’s leaning into viral moments and optimistic vibes, while partnering behind-the-scenes with the wealthy lobbyist Bradley Tusk, who has called Yang an “empty vessel” because of his lack of concrete plans for the city.

Yang came under fire on Tuesday after tweeting about the ongoing attempt by Israel to forcibly remove Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The comment drew praise from people such as white nationalist Stephen Miller and condemnation from the likes of MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan and Crazy Rich Asian star Henry Golding. While Wiley has yet to make a comment on that situation, she has spoken out about another incident in the mayoral race: the sexual assault allegations against Stringer that rocked his campaign last week. His aggressive pushback prompted Wiley to call him out for running a “smear campaign” of intimidation against the alleged victim.

This circus show that clogs the headlines feels worlds away from the quieter, focused campaign Wiley is running, but she was never going to fall into that kind of bombastic, blunder-filled campaigning anyway. While drama erupts at the top of the pack, Wiley’s campaign has plodded ahead slowly and steadily. They’ve released a steady stream of policy proposals that include $5,000 grants for families in need, $30 million in grants for small businesses, and an expansive “New Deal New York” plan to revitalize the city and end the “crisis of unaffordability” that has impacted the city long before the pandemic began. She’s racked up endorsements from women’s groups like Amplify Her and Emily’s List; activist groups like the Working Families Party and New York Progressive Action Network; and Brooklyn congresswomen Yvette Clarke and Nydia Velázquez.

In a race full of so many different kinds of candidates, Wiley stands out. Speaking to her over Zoom from her home in Prospect Park South, every question asked is answered with emotional stories of loss that she never wants to see happen again or, more often, rousing calls to action molded on a lifetime of activism. Even in the seconds before running off-screen to make sure her muffins didn’t burn, Wiley has this wisdom to share: “I think it's important for all of us to recognize [that] we stand on shoulders that did the work before we came along, and we're actually building on that work and learning from those struggles and fixing some of the strategies. Folks are going to come up after this generation and do the same thing. That's how movement works — it keeps on moving.”

In Wiley’s world, the passion that has fueled her career as a civil rights activist and lawyer didn’t emerge from nowhere. It is a direct result of standing on the shoulders of the activists who paved the way before her, and there may be no two activists as important to Wiley’s story as her parents, George and Wretha. Born in Syracuse, NY, on January 2, 1964, Wiley was ushered into a family at the forefront of the racial and economic justice movements. Before her birth, George helped found a Syracuse chapter of the civil rights group, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and subsequently served as the group’s associate national director in the first years of Wiley’s life. But it wasn’t until she was a few years old, and the family had relocated to the neighborhood of Adams Morgan in Washington, DC, that the experiences happening around Wiley began to shape her own path towards activism.

It was here that George founded the National Welfare Rights Organization, at one point collaborating with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his planning of Resurrection City, which would become the final movement King organized before his assassination in 1968. It was a fertile environment for Wiley, one that exposed her to both the triumphs of the civil rights movements and the harsh realities of America’s systemic racism. By day, Wiley attended a segregated, underfunded public school, and at night, her house was a meeting ground for economic justice advocates. Picket signs leaned against the walls and activists from all socioeconomic backgrounds streamed in and out of the house, including the likes of Johnnie Tillmon and Beulah Sanders.

“In my world as a little kid, there was no distinction between someone being on welfare and someone having a graduate degree,” she explains. “Everybody was the same and everybody was organizing together.”

On most nights, Wiley and her brother, Dan, would attempt to sneak downstairs to join the meetings. As she puts it: “Even if you didn't understand what was going on, you didn't want to miss the action. All these folks were like family, so it was like missing a party.” Unfortunately for her, she was still a kid, and her attempts to join the party tended to end with her mother ordering her back to bed. One night, though, she wasn’t sent back up the stairs, and what happened when she was allowed to join the adults downstairs helped shape the trajectory of her life.

It began with a peaceful demonstration at the local welfare office. A group of women had been charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct after demanding the dignity of being given enough welfare money to feed their families and pay the rent. Hearing of activists being arrested was not unusual; in Wiley’s life, “folks getting arrested, getting arraigned, [and] getting released was normal.” What made this incident different was that, at their court appearance, the white judge didn’t just order them to pay a fine and release them; he humiliated them.

“It was very clear that here was this white man using his power, his public conferred power, to humiliate and abuse these Black women because he didn't agree with them,” Wiley says. It was a formative, life-altering moment for her, one that planted the seed that would eventually send her to law school. “You could feel the emotion of it, and it was devastating, because when you're a kid and revere an adult and see them laid low like that, it's really jarring. It was suddenly very clear to me [that] someone different has to sit in that seat who won't do that to Black women.”

Before law school came Dartmouth College, where Wiley stepped out of the shadow of the activists she’d grown up around and began to establish herself. As she studied for a psychology degree, she balanced her time with student activism, eventually helping to lead a campaign that pushed the Ivy League college to divest funds away from apartheid-era South Africa. It was the dual issues of divestment and apartheid that would push Wiley back to New York at the age of 22 when she attended Columbia Law School. It was there, as she worked towards a Master's degree to become a civil rights attorney, that the seed that had been planted so many years ago amongst the welfare activists began to sprout.

It was also during this period that Wiley bore witness to the dividing lines of Manhattan. In those days, when Harlem was still a haven for communities of color and the slow creep of gentrification hadn’t hit, Wiley remembers having to let white commuters on the two and three trains uptown know it was their stop once they’d hit 96th Street. “They’d look at you all confused like, ‘How did you know?’ And then they hop off the train and all the people of color are sitting there going, ‘Because you're white, you don't live up above 96th Street.’”

After graduating, Wiley moved across the river into Brooklyn and spent the next several decades honing her activist credentials. She worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and as an assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York. In 2002, she co-founded the Center for Social Inclusion — a group devoted to ending structural racism — with political scientist Jocelyn Sargent from her living room. For over a decade, Wiley worked to create policies and solutions that promoted economic justice, carrying on the legacy of her father for a new generation of activists. In 2014, Wiley’s path began to shift once again, this time leading her on a collision course with the city’s political sphere as she served as counsel and chief legal advisor to Mayor de Blasio.

For over two years, Wiley used her position to try to address the city’s rampant inequality. She spearheaded an effort to bring broadband internet access to 21,000 people across seven public housing projects and helped increase spending on women and minority-owned business contracts to $1.6 billion 2015, but her time in the de Blasio administration soured. According to reporting on her exit from 2016, Wiley “became discouraged over not being part of Mr. de Blasio’s inner circle and felt cut out of both legal questions and advocacy.”

Her next move brought her to both the New School as a professor of urban policy, but also — and most importantly — to the city’s independent oversight agency for the Police Department, the Civilian Complaint Review Board. It was a particularly fraught time in the city. Less than two years before she joined the CCRB, officer Daniel Pantaleo had killed Eric Garner on Staten Island, prompting activists across the city, including myself, to take to the streets to protest against police brutality. In her brief time on the CCRB, Wiley recommended the city bring charges against Pantaleo, which eventually led to his firing. If her stint in de Blasio’s administration and on the CCRB helped to introduce her to a wider circle of New Yorkers, it was her time as a political and legal analyst on MSNBC during the Trump presidency that helped her breakthrough at a national level. In her most viral moment (which genuinely feels like five lifetimes ago), Wiley convinced ex-Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg to testify in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on the Trump administration, methodically tearing apart Nunberg’ defensive, erratic rationale with a calm ease.

It was a made-for-TV moment that guaranteed her a steady stream of network appearances, but Wiley was never the type to settle into the talking head TV circuit and call it a day. She was raised with a determination to fight for economic equality, and as the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged New York last year, exposing the city’s deep socioeconomic rifts, the only fitting path forward was the mayor’s office.

The pandemic exposed the true spirit of New York, and of New Yorkers. While many rich Manhattanites (like fellow mayoral candidate Yang) fled the city for their second homes, Wiley buckled down in Brooklyn. Amidst the near-constant cry of ambulances, she traveled through eerily empty streets to food pantries to volunteer. It was here that the brutal economic toll of the pandemic was most visible, but also served as a reminder that things had been bad long before the first Covid-19 cases. The halls were full of people thrown out of work, and many had already not been getting enough food to eat.

“Even though they were working, they weren't earning enough because the rent was too high,” she explains. “50 percent of their income was going to rent so they didn't have enough money for food.” Volunteering at the food pantries, Wiley recalls her conflicting emotions: “It was both horrible to see how long the lines were and how many people needed it, but it was also amazing to see how many people were showing up at food pantries to help all these people.”

The spirit of New York may not have been fully broken by the pandemic, but it has been badly damaged — and exposed the deep issues the city has failed to address. “We have to recognize that the reason we lost so many people to Covid in terms of deaths, was because we had so many people in overcrowded housing, who also didn't have healthcare, who were essential workers, and had no way to protect themselves.” New York City is no stranger to crises. It faced bankruptcy in 1975, reared back after September 11, 2001, crawled out of the Great Recession of 2008, and weathered the storm of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It is a tough city, but for Wiley, it's also a city in dire need of a new strategy. “We always recover. We just never fix what was actually broken before the crisis hit.”

As Wiley helped out in her community, it became clear that after the city pulls itself out of the Covid-19 crisis, it will need to face another crisis that threatens to accelerate the city’s decline: affordability. It’s an issue that pushed me and so many of my friends out, and has even impacted Wiley’s own children, who wonder how they’ll afford to live in the city and pay rent. The narrative of gentrification and economic exclusion isn’t new to Wiley; it directly mirrors her own childhood. Since announcing her mayoral run in October 2020, Wiley has told the story of her childhood best friend, Charlene, and her “little boyfriend,” Carlos. Both disappeared from her life suddenly as their families were forced out of her neighborhood; victims of rent hikes that left them unable to afford to stay in their homes.

With the end of the Covid-19 crisis in sight, it’s clear that the next mayor will be integral in steering New York into a new era. The city is at a crossroads, and while some candidates dream of building casinos on Governor’s Island and take their advice from lobbying firms, Wiley is imagining a future for New York that extends past Manhattan’s business class. One that is guided by the deeply rooted ideals she experienced as a child in a house swirling with activists, and by the experiences she’s had in the city she loves.

“Everyone says, ‘We love New York because it's so diverse,’ and yet no one's willing to fight to hold on to it,” Wiley says. “Well, we're going to fight to hold onto it.” With an influx of billions in federal aid, and a chance to confront the deep issues facing the city, whoever wins the mayoral race will have a massive amount of freedom to mold the city into something different — or build it back on the same broken foundations.

As Zoom call comes to an end and Wiley prepares to grab a muffin and go off to a day’s worth of campaign events, I ask her about an anecdote I had read about her father that has stuck with me. A friend once asked him, “When do you stop, George?” To which he replied, “When no one else is hungry.” His friend replied with indignance, saying “That’s never going to be the case,” and George said simply: “Well, then you never stop.” Bringing this up with Wiley in our final few minutes, she smiles and nods at the memory of her late father, and says something that I can only hope will push her towards the mayor’s office: “You just do not stop, because the only way people keep suffering is because people stop fighting. So I'm not going to stop.”

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