The Democratic Primary election for the Mayor of New York is less than a year away, and it’s starting to get hard to keep track of all the people running or thinking of running. There are talented public servants, like Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, our Borough President Eric Adams, Dianne Morales, Alicia Glen. And there are impressive outsiders, like businesswoman Joycelyn Taylor, former Presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and Raymond McGuire of Citigroup, among the 16 or so contenders that have or are presumed to be running as of today.
But whoever wins is going to face an unprecedented moment: The city will be hard up for cash, and wrestling with questions about justice. We will need a new kind of leadership — and a smart, confident mayor who can explain and commit to making difficult choices, and who does not shy away from responsibility. We cannot afford to mess this up: Our future will be shaped significantly for better or worse by the people who will run the city for the next decade.
And so as you start to tune into this race, I hope you’ll take a hard look at one woman in particular, Maya Wiley. And I hope she chooses to run.
This isn’t an endorsement, and it isn’t an ordinary piece of journalism either. I’ve known Maya since our children were in preschool together at a neighbor’s one-room schoolhouse in Flatbush, and we squatted together on the floor in a space clearly too small to accommodate all of us. I got to know Maya’s personal history as the daughter of a civil rights leader, and her career as a civil rights lawyer and activist who found herself, suddenly, putting her ideas in 2014 as the mayor’s counsel.
Her preparation for the job is extraordinary. She’s a lifelong outsider with an insider’s grasp on the biggest issues of today, and a person of incredible character and empathy when it’s become clear how much those things matter in leadership.
Maya spent her life working on the central issue of this moment, the civil rights of black people in America – working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Open Society Institute. Since she left City Hall in 2016, she’s been deeply engaged in how these questions play out in the central policy areas: First as the chair of the CCRB from 2016 to 2017; then co-chairing the School Diversity Advisory Group.
Those paper qualifications themselves are enough to make her a very serious candidate, if she runs.
But I’m so excited at the prospect of her running for another reason, because I’ve found in her something that I’ve run into so rarely in America since I came here, from Latvia, in 2002. She is willing to listen, and engage with those she disagrees, and agrees to disagree. More than that, she’s one of the very rare people who follow the rule of loving your enemy, even in this horrible political moment — something that you can watch in action in an extraordinary moment on MSNBC back in 2018 when she stepped out of the cable news shouting match and tried to help a former Trump aide who was in obvious personal distress.
And it matches my broader experience of seeing Maya bridge divides. She and I come from very different backgrounds. Maya grew up in Washington, DC, in a poor neighborhood, going to an inner-city school, with conversations about race and poverty all around her, influenced by her father, civil rights icon George A. Wiley. She grew up with a black father and a white mother when that was not so common at all. I grew up in Latvia when it was part of the Soviet Union, and you could count people of color on one hand.
Conversations with Maya have influenced greatly how I see America, the good, and the bad in this city, its complicated race and social justice issues. They opened my eyes as only first-person accounts from people you care a lot about can – about racism, about the different experiences at schools as our children grew, about social justice, and policing. I sometimes wonder what she thought of my ignorance, but instead of politicizing our differences, she helped shape my whole understanding of why the city is the way it is, informing the way Bklyner grew and what kind of reporting we did as well.
I remember us discussing how different our kids’ experiences were at the two different public elementary schools they attended – one traditional, one progressive. How different the experiences of siblings at the same school could be. She wished there would be more progressive approaches, more creativity, imagination, flexibility in both teaching and administration of schools.
Now the city faces a new set of challenges. There is a very real hunger in the city, and despite the current Mayor’s efforts, inequality has just increased. The pandemic has made it so much worse, exposing the disparities in health, housing, education, access to public resources, heavily concentrated in the poorest parts, which are also the most segregated parts of the city. It disproportionately killed our black and brown neighbors. Homelessness is at a record high. The School system is barely holding itself together. Our communities have been unequally policed, and as any parent knows – a clear understanding of rules, consequences, and consistency is critical for there to be peace.
These are huge problems. And there will be no going back to the status quo before the pandemic. But the pandemic has also given us a fresh slate to rethink the city in a big way, to imagine what it could be for the next 100 or 200 years. The way we work will change, the way we educate kids will need to change, and the way we get around will need to change – with climate change not only is it more likely that there may be another pandemic, but the hurricanes and flooding and the heat waves will be more frequent too.
I haven’t told Maya I’m writing this, because I’m hoping she’ll take it as an encouragement to run — it’s not some kind of campaign statement, and I’m not breaching any private confidences. But what has blown me away in all our conversations is how deeply Maya thought about the issues at hand, and how she could detach her personal pain and emotions to look at the elements that made the situation what it was. She’d dissect it with her razor-sharp brain and explain with incredible clarity. As those that follow her on Twitter and watch her on MSNBC may have noticed, she gets to the point, and does not mince words.
She is also incredibly generous, including to total strangers, and eager to de-escalate a brewing situation, whether suggesting someone stop talking and get a lawyer while they are still on the air, or joining in and lifting a birthday celebration two tables over at a restaurant. Her house is always full – a safe place to stay for someone who needs it, a respite for a friend, a major source of Halloween candy.
Maya is the sort of person you want at your side in a crisis. And that’s where New York City will be on election day next year.