How the Drowning Death of Maya Wiley's Dad - and Her Parents' Fight for Justice - Shaped Her Future

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Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Shutterstock Maya Wiley

Editor's note: This is one of a series of interviews with leading candidates in the New York City mayoral race. Click here to read more about Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang.

It's something a lot of politicians say, but Maya Wiley swears it's the truth: She never intended to run for office. Instead, she tells PEOPLE, she "felt called" to politics - largely because of the legacy left behind by both of her activist parents.

"It wasn't something that was part of a plan or I started plotting out intentionally to do," she says. "It was something that pulled me - and I think, honestly, my parents were role models in this."

Wiley, who is one of a handful of candidates leading the New York City mayoral race, was born in Washington, D.C., to civil rights activists Wretha Frances and Dr. George Wiley.

Her parents' fight helped inspire Wiley, 57, on her own career path as she became a civil rights attorney and served as Mayor Bill de Blasio's chief counsel before announcing in October that she was seeking to be the first woman elected mayor of New York City.

But the circumstances of her father's death in 1973, when he was just 43 years old and she was a child, have also shaped Wiley.

"I was 9 years old when I watched him die," she says now.

According to a The New York Times report at the time, "rough seas" caused George to fall off his boat while sailing in the Chesapeake Bay.

"The authorities said that Dr. Wiley, national coordinator for the Movement for Economic Justice, fell off his boat while sailing in the bay yesterday," the Times reported. "Dr. Wiley's two children, who were also aboard the 23‐foot pleasure craft, tried to throw him a line but tides and wind pulled him away, according to investigating officers."

Forty-eight years later, Wiley now lives in Brooklyn with her own family, including two daughters - Naja and Kai - with her partner of 11 years, investment fund CEO Harlan Mandel.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Gloria Steinem (left), Maya Wiley

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Wiley tells PEOPLE that she still thinks about the moment she lost her dad - but more than that, she remembers his unbridled spirit and the passion with which he lived his life.

"I think about him all the time," she says. "I think a lot about his laugh, I think a lot about his spirit, because he was unstoppable with joy. They used to call him 'Smiley Wiley' when he was in college, because he was the guy in battle, smiling and embracing people. My mother used to joke that he was the kind of person to have a Klansman slapping him on the back laughing. Just this very unique person."

But more than just being amiable, Wiley's father was strategic and "made an incredible difference in his very short time," she says.

As Wiley works for what would be a career-defining achievement, both of her late parents (her mom, who had Alzheimer's, died in 2013) are top of mind during her campaign.

"Warm memories carry me through," she says.

Andrew Schwartz/SIPA/Shutterstock Maya Wiley

Beyond the memories, Wiley's work as an activist and politician is inextricably linked to that of her parents, which often revolved around under-served communities and ensuring others had access to quality healthcare, affordable housing and compassionate leadership.

Wiley shares those lessons in the language of her campaign to be mayor.

"My parents were deeply compassionate people," she says. "One of the things we are seeing as a country and a city, is that we deeply need compassionate leadership. It matters. To have leadership that's absent compassion is to have a leadership that's absent competence."

Wiley says that seeing the divisions sown under the presidency of Donald Trump, in particular, prompted her to take a look at the kind of leader she wanted to be and the issues on which she most wanted to focus.

As she speaks, she barely takes a breath.

"Between seeing Donald Trump as a president who represented everything I want to change, to watching the country - and also my city - struggling with the same divides and divisions, issues of racial justice continuing to play out across the country despite all the work we've been doing, not seeing policing with sufficient reforms," Wiley says. "All those things started to make me feel the pull to public office."

Maya Wiley

"When you're an activist and an advocate and you want to make a difference in a meaningful way that lasts ... city government gives you an incredible perch from which you can touch people," she says.

Now in the critical last days before the June 22 Democratic primary that will likely decide the next mayor, Wiley has trailed in some recent polls, behind Andrew Yang and Eric Adams.

She recently landed a pair of critical endorsements, however. New York's top House Democrat, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, told the Times, "This is a change election, and Maya Wiley is a change candidate."

And New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive leader, likewise endorsed Wiley last weekend.

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Jeffries told the Times that Wiley's life experiences are "particularly compelling," and set her apart from the other candidates, particularly how she turned personal tragedy into triumph.

"An African-American woman who lost her father at a very young age but rallied back from that adversity to follow in her father's footsteps as a civil rights champion is a quintessential change candidate," he said.

Wiley says that, more than using her own story as a stump speech or a campaign line, she draws privately on her loss - and her father's life - as a way of navigating the many challenges that come with a campaign.

"I wonder all the time, 'What would dad do?' " she says. "When I feel beaten down: 'How would dad do it? What would he find to laugh about this? How can I find that connection to strength?' "