Dressed in a fire-engine red dress, standing in the sweltering sun at the base of the Harriet Tubman statue in Harlem this week, Maya Wiley wasn’t shy about drawing a parallel between her campaign for New York City mayor and the iconic abolitionist towering behind her.
“Harriet Tubman said, ‘I made it across to freedom and there was no one there to meet me on the other side,’” Wiley noted. “Black women step up to say, ‘We’re not crossing the border, and not making sure that there are others on the other side.’ We come with plans, we come with plans that talk about people.”
Wiley—who has been rolling out her “50 Ideas for NYC” since April—wants to hire 2,500 more teachers to decrease public school class sizes. She wants to create community care centers across the city where families can drop off children or elderly adults. She has a $10 billion dollar capital spending plan to build climate-resilient infrastructure, fix public housing, and create jobs in the process. But she’s struggled to get out front, often ranking third or fourth among the top eight candidates vying for the Democratic primary nomination for New York City mayor.
Her campaign is hoping to change that in these last four weeks before the polls open. And she’s riding a high with new endorsements from both Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and the Amsterdam News. She's also fresh off of a standout performance during the first mayoral debate, where she exchanged barbs with frontrunner Eric Adams over his position on stop and frisk. According to her campaign, this week she had her single biggest day of fundraising yet.
“That’s what I’m going to stay focused on; winning and earning the support from every single New Yorker, by telling them who I am, what I stand for and exactly what I’m gonna do in office,” Wiley told the crowd.
Surrounding Wiley at Tuesday's event were Black women organizers and stalwarts of New York City progressive politics. Among them, Sochie Nnaemeka, with the state’s branch of the Working Families Party as well as Afua Atta-Mesnsah, the executive director of Community Voices Heard Power, which advocates for and organizes low-income women, many of whom live in public housing. Atta-Mesnsah pledged the group’s members would go “door to door, floor to floor, building to building, and block to block.” in support of Wiley in the coming weeks.
“[She is] a woman, like so many of our members, has been underestimated, undervalued, talked over, and counted out,” said Atta-Mesnsah. “She is of us. She stands with us in our fight to ensure that the recovery of this city will not be leveraged off the backs of Black and brown women’s labor.”
Over her years as a civil rights lawyer, Wiley has worked for the NAACP and at the Open Society Foundation. She co-founded a small nonprofit, the Center for Social Inclusion, which merged with the nonprofit Race Forward in 2017. She joined Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration as legal counsel in 2014, offering advice in an ethics controversy that dogs Wiley still.
She left City Hall to chair the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) for just over a year, overseeing its more than 100 employees, the largest staff she has managed. As co-chair of the school diversity advisory group, she called for an end to the city’s gifted and talented program, among other recommendations. Despite her diverse resume, an informal poll of supporters at her recent rally found many of them knew Wiley from television, when she was a contributor at MSNBC.
“She’s always spoken the language that’s resonated for me,” said Felecia Pullen, a substance abuse counselor. “I also love the fact that she uses critical race theory in her approaches to policy. That is important to me as a social worker.”
While more moderate candidates have seized on the recent spike in shootings and random attacks in the subway to call for more policing, Wiley has continued to reiterate her pledge to decrease the NYPD budget by $1 billion dollars a year and to divert those funds to mental health and educational initiatives.
Wiley capped off her stump speech on Tuesday with a tacit dig at the New York Times editorial board, which recently raised concerns about her ability to manage the city’s complex web of departments, agencies, and more than 300,000 municipal employees.
“Yes, we are queens, and we are qualified,” Wiley said. “Today and tomorrow and the next day, you will not call us unqualified.”
That message resonated with Rasheida Alston, who lived nearby in Harlem and heard about the rally through a friend. She also was first introduced to Wiley on MSNBC.
“We’re always seen as: be cute, be smart, be sharp, be in service, but don’t lead,” said Alston, who works as a business consultant for minority and women-owned businesses. “She is debunking that, and rightfully so.”
Cedric Damon Jr., 28, had recently heard about Wiley on the news, and as he was passing by the rally, he stopped to listen.
“It’s a new womens’ suffrage era and I wanted to be part of history,” he said. Damon said he thought Wiley’s speech felt “motherly,” and liked how she talked about empowering Black women. After it had concluded, he said Wiley could count him a supporter. But, he admitted, he still planned to rank Eric Adams and Andrew Yang before her.
“Not my number one vote. Not yet, at least,” he said, adding with a smile, “There’s still time.”