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Mayoral candidate Dianne Morales endorses Jimmy Van Bramer in Jackson Heights in his run for Queens borough president, May 13, 2021.
Mayoral candidate Dianne Morales endorses Jimmy Van Bramer in Jackson Heights in his run for Queens borough president, May 13, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Morales’ Mayoral Campaign Turmoil is ‘Déjà Vu’ for Some of Her Former Non-Profit Staff

The progressive Democrat’s current woes reflect past management issues, some ex-employees said, while others defended her as a strong leader. Morales charges she’s being undermined, but is “managing the disruption.”

For more than a week, Dianne Morales’ mayoral campaign has been steeped in turmoil, with multiple staff departures, a unionization movement and a work stoppage amid complaints of poor pay and a toxic work environment.

Morales, in an interview with NY1 last week, called the situation “a beautiful mess.”

But a former staff member at Phipps Neighborhoods, a social service nonprofit Morales ran for a decade, used another phrase: “It’s déjà vu.”

Although Morales, her campaign staff and union members have provided scant details about the internal strife, reports have resonated with some of her ex-colleagues, especially those who worked at Phipps when she took over as CEO in 2010.

THE CITY spoke to more than a dozen of Morales’ former staffers about their experiences at Phipps under her. Most wished to remain anonymous so they could speak freely without professional consequences.

The people broadly fell into two camps: those who had been working at Phipps before Morales took over and detailed how she fostered a work environment rife with anxiety and mistrust, and those who praised what they called her inspiring, visionary leadership. The latter camp was made up overwhelmingly of employees she hired.

Overall, all the former employees agreed: Morales was charismatic, extremely smart and fiercely loyal to her people.

But, as one former staff member put it: “It’s obvious. I’m not one of her people…. [It was] like the cult of Dianne.”

Another said: “If you were in, you were really in and if you were out, you were really out.”

In an interview Tuesday with THE CITY, Morales suggested that some rogue staffers have tried to undermine her mayoral campaign. Addressing mixed reviews about her tenure at Phipps and how she’s handled the campaign shake-ups, Morales defended her leadership style.

“This is also a reflection of what every seasoned manager and executive has had to deal with, in at least one point in their career: managing the disruption of a group of staff, while managing staff that continue to do the work, while also focusing on the overall mission, which is to run this campaign,” Morales said.

Change-Making Challenges

Some former Phipps employees said they experienced a dynamic similar to the upheaval buffeting the mayoral campaign, which promised a radical, more equitable transformation of New York City and has been set off course by conflicts with Morales’ own workers.

“I realized how a person can undermine their goals by how they interact with people,” a former Phipps staffer said of Morales, referring to when she took over the nonprofit’s helm. “No matter how much you may need those changes and how good those changes may be, if you’re pissing off the people that you’re expecting to make those changes, it’ll be a slower change process, and you’ll get people bucking.”

Morales spent the longest stretch of her career, according to her LinkedIn, leading nearly 600 employees at Phipps Neighborhoods, the social services arm of affordable housing developer Phipps Housing that administers offerings like afterschool programs and job training.

According to tax filings, she brought home over $270,000 in annual compensation by the end of her time at Phipps — more than the $245,000 her campaign spent on staff wages through May 17.

A relative political unknown until recently, Morales has gained recognition as the furthest left mayoral candidate with stances that include shifting $3 billion from the NYPD to social services, eliminating public schools admissions screens and offering free tuition at CUNY schools.

She’s notched endorsements from the Working Families Party, Sunrise Movement and Citizen Action of New York, among others.

But her momentum slowed with the emergence of her campaign staff’s allegations of harassment, mistreatment based on race, lack of field support and inadequate compensation. Some staff launched a unionizing effort, saying they “felt there was no other path forward to protect our staff and to continue the campaign in dignity.”

Morales dismissed two campaign staffers accused of misconduct — including Amanda Van Kessel, who had worked as her special assistant for two years at Phipps Neighborhoods. Van Kessel did not respond to a request for comment.

Workers Unite to Fight

But that wasn’t the end: A group of campaign workers involved in the so-called Mayorales Union subsequently began a strike and protested what they say was the retaliatory firing mid last week of four additional staffers who had taken on union leadership roles. They demanded Morales re-hire the four staffers, among other provisions.

Morales said she supports the union effort and that when she fired the four, she didn’t know they were union leaders.

“There have been allegations of political union busting as a result of the terminations that happened last week. Just to be clear, one thing had nothing to do with the other,” Morales said. She added that the workers were let go because of “pretty serious infractions,” but declined to elaborate.

Morales indicated she may be open to reinstating the quartet if there’s an “agreement and understanding” they can work together towards shared goals.

But she charged that additional campaign staff “have actually engaged in illegal behavior that has been disruptive and essentially undermines the campaign” — including removing items from her calendar without her say, making documents inaccessible to her and using campaign data without consent.

Those staff, she said, “are not going to be welcomed back no matter what happens as a result of this organizing process.”

Pressed on whether that meant the campaign can expect more firings, she said: “People are free to sort of separate of their own accord, which I think would probably be the best case scenario.”

She emphasized that the union effort didn’t include everyone on the campaign, and some were still working rather than participating in the work stoppage.

Culture Shift at Phipps

Employees interviewed by THE CITY who worked at Phipps when Morales took over in 2010 described the new executive coming in with a vision — one, they said, that was not informed by discussions with staff who had worked there for years.

Three former Phipps staff said Morales entered Phipps distrustful of and threatened by those whom she didn’t hire.

“All of these changes and getting rid of people was so abrupt and so quick that it couldn’t possibly have been based on an assessment of the actual quality of the person’s work because there wasn’t even enough time to assess that,” one former longtime employee said.

Morales called the claims “absurd” and said she did not walk into a “friendly” environment.

“You try to rally people around a shared vision…but at some point when folks are unwilling to do that, they have to make a decision and the leader has to make a decision about how much more do you continue to try to convince people versus coaching them out,” she said.

Morales said she began investing in on-the-ground positions and tried to rectify what she saw as a “very top-heavy” organization.

One former colleague praised her for streamlining and integrating departments for better efficiency and incorporating data-driven accountability measures into programs.

“When you’re by the watercooler and you’re talking with your other colleagues...a lot of what people were pointing to was not her intelligence, or her work ethic, or what she was trying to do,” that person said. “I think mostly it was just the way that she was doing it.”

People said they feared they’d get fired if they did or said anything Morales didn’t like. Multiple staffers described the environment as “scary” and “anxious.”

“When she said jump, you had to jump,” one former employee said.

In one case, when staff attended a mandatory meeting with a city agency that issued a contract, instead of a meeting with Morales, she was “furious,” suggesting the staff wasn’t committed to her, some former employees recalled.

Referring generally to criticism from former employees, Morales told THE CITY, This is just a reflection of management and leadership. There’s nothing about these sort of actions that are problematic, and it makes sense for people to have been unhappy about it. You don’t overcome poor performance by consensus.”

‘Lift As You Climb’

As time went on, Morales built a reputation among remaining Phipps staff as a strong and empathetic leader. A once-skeptical employee came to admire that goals discussed in meetings, for example, came to fruition.

Morales’ “vision was unshakable,” said Nancy Reidl, formerly Phipps’ director of development and communications, who started working at the nonprofit about two years into her tenure.

“She was always open to pushback, but was always very clear: ‘I’m the executive director so we can discuss it, and you can disagree with me, and you might convince me, but if you don’t convince me, I’m still the executive director,’” Reidl said.

Kate Ford, Morales’ chief of staff in the final two years she’d worked at Phipps, brought up the image of a cult leader in contrast to her boss’s style: “They just want to focus on their goals and have people who want to hear the cool story that they’re telling, but Dianne has lofty goals, and she wants to surround herself with people who will challenge her.”

Elizabeth Clay Roy, who worked at Phipps for five years as Morales’ chief of staff and chief strategy officer, said Morales recognized that healthy teams do good work: “Holding your team to high expectations, but also giving them the support to succeed is a part of how you get results consistently.’

An aphorism Morales became known for around the office in her later years at Phipps was “lift as you climb.”

Derison Puntier, for instance, who worked as a financial counselor at Phipps for about eight years under Morales, recalled how she helped him overcome his feelings of inadequacy and intimidation as he helped lead a financial literacy pilot program in partnership with a group of employees from a major investment banking company.

“She put faith in me, and that really helped me grow as a person, and it gave me more confidence,” he said.

Learning the Ropes

At regular intervals, to “lift as you climb” was literal. Morales took staff on retreats at a ropes course, where they did team-building exercises, navigated physical challenges and, in the words of one former employee, learned to have “healthy conflicts.”

With three weeks to go before the primary election, Morales’ campaign staff imbroglio presents a test of her ability as a manager as she relies on the same strategies employed in her previous jobs.

“My greatest legacy as an executive is actually strengthening the bench by building other people’s leadership skills,” Morales said.

“Certainly I will continue to manage and to lead in the ways that have proven successful over the course of my career, and that includes making tough decisions that sometimes are unpopular in the moment, but that ultimately lead to a stronger and better outcome,” she added.

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