When Maya Wiley announced her candidacy for New York major – known as the second hardest job in the US – it seemed like her résumé was tailored to the moment.
It was early October last year, and the city was reeling from trauma. In the spring, New York City had been the center of the coronavirus pandemic, the city rife with ambulance sirens and hospitals erecting tents to house patients outside their overflowing doors. In the summer, thousands of New Yorkers flooded the streets to protest against the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black Americans killed at the hands of police officers.
Then came Wiley – the daughter of civil rights activists who had spent time organizing residents to hold police accountable through the Citizen Complaint Review Board. A lawyer by trade, she had served as counsel to the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, and led urban policy and social justice at the New School. Like Joe Biden, who would be elected one month after she announced her bid, Wiley’s own history of trauma and loss – watching her father die on a boat ride – informs her ability to connect with aching communities.
But in a race full of strong and diverse contenders – from headline-making ex-presidential candidate Andrew Yang to steadfast city official Scott Stringer to progressive Dianne Morales – Wiley is up against stiff competition.
This combination of the pandemic and the George Floyd protests has influenced what New Yorkers want to see in their mayor. What part of the multiple crises that we’re facing do you feel the most equipped to tackle?
All of it. The reality of the historic crisis that we’re in is that it has laid bare once again – like all our crises that reveal racial inequity – our failure to invest in our people. It is our historic failure to really reckon with an affordability crisis that is pushing out far too many of our people from being able to live decent lives in the city. And Covid, like all crises, was traumatizing.
You know, 88% of New Yorkers who have died from Covid are people of color. We are not 80% of the New York City population. The highest rates of unemployment are in the same communities that had the highest rates of death due to Covid. And the highest infection rates, and are the same communities that are overpoliced, and are the same communities that are struggling to get the vaccine.
If we want to recover from Covid we have to pay attention to all our people. And what we love about the city and what we have the opportunity to hold on to in the city, is the fact that 800 languages are spoken here, and the fact that 40% of our people were born in another country, and the fact that we have descendants from North American slaves, and the fact that we have people who live in luxury housing and people who live in public housing, and that’s part of what makes us rich.
Is there a part of the city that you feel needs the most attention right now?
Well, I mean, the truth is, the body of the city has multiple bullet wounds, and in different parts of the body, but it’s the same neighborhoods that are always hard-hit. So it’s the South Bronx, it is south-east Queens, it is central Brooklyn, it is the North Shore of Staten Island, it is northern Manhattan. It is the same places, because it’s where we have failed to invest historically. And frankly, we could have predicted before Covid, if we were to have a pandemic, who would get hit hardest the most.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have other parts of the city suffering. I mean, everyone is suffering in some form from the emotional and spiritual exhaustion and trauma that has been Covid – of the struggle to help kids through online learning of, you know, the fear and stress of being fearful about getting the infection. It’s just where is there a cold and where is there a fever?
New York has a very long history of white men as mayors despite being a very diverse city. Why do you think this year feels different?
Yeah, almost an entire history: 109 men, 108 of them white men. You know, even before 2016 – and before the activism and organizing and the Black Lives Matter movement that started after Trayvon Martin was killed – we were seeing a real attack on Black and Latino voting rights and Asian voting rights in this country. And the affordability crisis has been growing in US cities, and in New York, again, for a very long time. So you get to a crisis point. Then when Donald Trump [comes along] … it creates a new kind of rallying cry, and gets more people engaged in the activism.
And some of the changes in local law have helped enable people like me – non-traditional candidates, people who don’t come from a political machine to run for office, because we have a very generous public match program that just went into effect. That’s huge, when you have folks who haven’t built up relationships with wealthy people, in order to pull in those big-dollar donations that it takes to win an election. So I think it’s all those things.
In terms of the post-Donald Trump vibe of New York, I think obviously, there was sort of a sigh of relief for a lot of people, but –
No, there was dancing in the streets, and I was dancing in the streets with everybody else.
I know that some of that civil rights work runs in your blood through, you know, your father and your family. How much of that do you feel yourself reflecting back on?
I reflect on it every day. And I always have, not just because I’m running for office. Because, you know, when you’re Black in America, and you come from a civil rights tradition – which really started as abolition of slavery, but certainly was very powerful in the 1950s and 60s. When you sit at the feet of that, and when you stand on those shoulders, you think about the lessons, the strategies, the steps, the lenses, the impacts, what didn’t happen, what gaps, you have to fill, how you create multiracial coalitions, which have always been a critical part of winning change. The lessons are rich and deep. But the biggest lesson of all is you fight, you just fight.
New York City has lost tens of thousands of people, and billions in revenue. How do you plan to attract people back to New York?
Well, first, let me say that we have to acknowledge and celebrate that most New Yorkers have gone nowhere. We’re still here. My whole family and I were together, we listened to the sirens. Every night and all through the day you know, at 7pm we’re cheering our essential workers. We have a huge wealth of talent, and the commitment of problem solvers – people who stepped up in the crisis, restaurant owners whose restaurants were shuttered, who were feeding people, even when they didn’t know whether they would have a meal. That’s who New Yorkers are.
And in terms of bringing more people back, because it’s not just bringing people back, it’s also bringing more people in, right? It is fundamentally about building and investing in what we’ve got, and the people we’ve got. I’m going to spend $10bn, increase our capital construction budget to create 100,000 new jobs for the people who are here right now, who need to work to put food on the table. But it’s not just about creating the jobs. It’s about how we have community care centers, drop-off centers for folks for childcare, we build it. For so many people in New York City, childcare and eldercare is a top-three cost of living. In addition to housing, we’ll build more affordable housing so that people have more options, even if they are on $25,000 a year, not just if they earn $125,000 a year.
The other thing I will say is mental health, mental health, mental health. We’ve seen a rise in gun violence and people get worried. We have an opportunity to do the right thing to address gun violence and street homelessness, which will also help bring us back. But that is investing in trauma; informed care for communities that have high rates of gun violence. But also helping people be able to live whole lives, do better in school, stay in school. We have the opportunity, rather than spending $3bn a year on congregate shelters … to actually get them into housing with support services.
Part of your plan is redirecting police funds and allowing communities to help create their own tailored violence prevention programs. With the uptick in violence can this happen soon enough?
We absolutely can start doing this right now today. I was just going to the store with my friend Nequan McLean today. His nephew was 22 years old, shot and killed in October. And in BedStuy [the Brooklyn neighborhood] we were stopping at all these spots where a kid has been shot or killed. They do not have a violence interruption [group]. There is one nearby, but the boundary of their geographic area ends and leaves this whole swath where there’s all this gun violence. That’s just a money problem.
Most of these violence interruption groups understand they have to solve multiple problems. We have folks coming back from prison into communities who’ve engaged in violence, but they get jobs becoming violence interrupters, using their knowledge of the community, their knowledge of the people and the players, their credibility, because they’ve been there. These programs exist in the city, and we talked to these leaders about what would make it more effective. It’s everything from fixing how we pay them, so that they can do the work more effectively. So those things are in place, we just have to expand them.
This is another example. We can put social workers in the schools now, we just have to hire them. It’s not that there aren’t any – New York City’s rich with social workers. We just don’t fund social workers in every school. And the services that we need, like trauma-informed care, exist, we have to create partnerships so that the services are delivered in the schools. A lot of this can happen quickly.
Some communities, including Black and brown ones, are opposed to the idea of redirecting police funds. How do you respond to that?
When people are scared and traumatized, it’s important to listen to them. What they’re saying is “I think there is a role and a need for policing. And we also recognize it is not fair. It’s not right. Because we’re also victimized by it.” And they also want investments in their community.
This is a good example: when I was in BedStuy today with Nequan McLean, we stopped at the store where his nephew was killed. In October, there was a police truck out in front of the store [when he was killed]. It’s like, has this solved the problem? And he said, no. Two other people were shot right down the block from the police officers. The presence didn’t solve the problem.
We have some of the strongest gun control laws in the country, we have got to keep guns from coming into our city – we need police doing that. But we need violence interruption, we need more jobs and employment opportunities, we need more resources and trauma-informed care to deal with actually the things that are causing the increase in gun violence. But we’ve never become safer because of an increase in police.
The delays in the city’s Covid response was partly due to the fractured relationship between our mayor and our governor. Given what’s happening with Governor Cuomo at the moment, how would you manage that relationship?
I would manage the relationship with the governor the way I manage all relationships: open communication, starting with principles and purpose that meets the needs of people. We have a shared constituency. There are many partnerships, we need to get what we need from the state government. And if you want partnerships that focus on hard problems and real solutions, then pick a Black woman. Because that’s what we do every single day and in every single way.