WFP’s new leader for a new age

Sochie Nnaemeka with Jamaal Bowman and Jumaane Williams.
Sochie Nnaemeka with Jamaal Bowman and Jumaane Williams.
WFP
Sochie Nnaemeka with Jamaal Bowman and Jumaane Williams.

WFP’s new leader for a new age

Sochie Nnaemeka brings an activist edge at the most perilous moment for the Working Families Party.
June 1, 2020

There are few things that political candidates love more than announcing endorsements. It’s validating to know that somebody wants you to win! But candidates often get a bit overzealous, like when they publicly treat a private wish of good luck as an official endorsement. And voters might be less impressed by an endorsement from the National Association for Progressive Politics, North Brooklyn Chapter, if they knew it was just one person with a Facebook page.

Endorsements from some organizations really matter in New York, however, and for the past 22 years, one of those has been the Working Families Party. But the past few years have presented major challenges for the party that has long served as a progressive check on the Democratic Party. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the Democratic Party’s right, may finally succeed in starving the WFP out of existence. And the Democratic Socialists of America, on the party’s left, has grown in size and power, causing the WFP to form an often uneasy alliance. In the middle of it all is the WFP’s brand new New York state director, Sochie Nnaemeka, who needs to make sure the party’s self-proclaimed “progressive seal of approval” remains an endorsement that matters. 

For two decades, the WFP’s endorsement came with a nice validating quote from the party’s New York state director, Bill Lipton. But now, those quotes are coming from 32-year-old Nnaemeka, who took over for Lipton in December. Nnaemeka came from outside the party – she was previously a director at the progressive advocacy group the Center for Popular Democracy. As a younger black woman, she represents a demographic shift from Lipton, who like most party leaders now and throughout history, is an older white man.

Nnaemeka was raised in Westchester County, in New Rochelle and Mount Vernon. She was the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who always felt like outsiders in the United States. Politics and organizing soon became a role Nnaemeka herself could play in the country, she said in an interview with City & State, and a way to reshape the United States into “a place in which my parents felt wanted.” 

Her career started as an undergraduate at Yale, where she got involved with labor organizing with the school’s cafeteria workers. After college and some months on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, she joined the national labor union Unite Here! Nnaemeka then got a law degree from Georgetown, but never practiced, instead working for the Center for Popular Democracy for two years before joining the WFP. 

Nnaemeka is a political rarity in New York – an actual, registered member of the Working Families Party (and she has been since long before the party hired her). There are only 46,043 registered members in the whole state – a miniscule 0.37% of New York voters. But the party’s influence goes far beyond that, thanks in part to its active role in funding and consulting favored candidates. Plus, it makes Democratic primary endorsements that many registered Democrats follow. 

With ballots getting mailed out soon for the June 23 primary, now is one of the highest-pressure moments for the party – but even more so this year, because the WFP has made some strategic changes since the 2018 elections. 

As left-wing activists have grown in influence in New York, thanks in part to Bernie Sanders’ consecutive presidential campaigns, the party has adjusted. Two years ago, it endorsed a handful of incumbent members of Congress who were funded in part by corporate political action committees, even if they were facing more progressive challengers. Former Rep. Joe Crowley got the WFP’s endorsement in 2018, over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So did Reps. Tom Suozzi, Yvette Clarke, Carolyn Maloney and Eliot Engel. 

This year’s list looks different. Ocasio-Cortez, who beat Crowley two years ago, earned an early, full-throated endorsement. The party declined to endorse Suozzi, Clarke and Maloney, but did not endorse any of their more left-leaning opponents either. That can’t be said about Engel’s race, however, where the WFP endorsed one of his opponents, middle school principal Jamaal Bowman. But of the WFP’s 18 congressional endorsements in New York so far, Bowman is the only candidate challenging a Democratic incumbent the WFP previously backed.

Nonetheless, the WFP has made some changes to reflect the increasing influence of the DSA. If the Democratic Party is a big tent, and the WFP is a small tent connected to it, then DSA is the group of people outside picketing the tent. And more and more, Nnaemeka’s WFP is deciding to step outside and join the picket line. 

The two organizations worked closely together on Tiffany Cabán’s 2019 run for Queens district attorney, and she remains an official bond. A DSA member, Cabán now works for the WFP. The WFP and DSA are aligned again on some local campaigns this year – both organizations have endorsed Samelys López for the open South Bronx House seat, plus left-wing state Sen. Julia Salazar. The WFP also joined DSA in endorsing Jabari Brisport for an open state Senate seat in Brooklyn, and the insurgent Marcela Mitaynes over the incumbent Assemblyman Félix Ortiz, also in Brooklyn. While the WFP didn’t endorse the DSA-backed Zohran Mamdani’s Assembly campaign in Queens, the party also declined to endorse the incumbent he’s challenging, Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, who had the WFP’s endorsement in 2018. The only real point of disagreement between the groups this year in local contests is in a Brooklyn Assembly race. The WFP has endorsed the incumbent, Assemblyman Walter Mosley, while DSA has endorsed Phara Souffrant Forrest.

The WFP’s endorsements this year aren’t Nnaemeka’s alone – they come out of an internal process with questionnaires and interviews with WFP stakeholders. The party’s aim, as Nnaemeka put it, is to “build a state, a country, a world that works for the many, and not for the few.” In more concrete terms, they’re looking for candidates who support higher wages and universal health care that isn’t tied to employment, and candidates who take a “clear stance against corporate money and the growth of the billionaire class.”

That message has been more or less consistent since the party’s founding, but the campaigns the party supports have shifted. The WFP is no longer the party that supported Republican state Sen. Nicholas Spano’s 2004 reelection campaign over his Democratic challenger – future Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins – because of Spano’s support for raising the minimum wage.

But the more recent changes came courtesy of Cuomo. The WFP declined to endorse the governor’s 2018 reelection campaign, and instead backed his more progressive opponent, the actress Cynthia Nixon. Much has been written about the governor’s response, but the WFP snubbing the most powerful politician in the state led labor unions to leave the party in droves. Unions had been founding members of the WFP, but they’d also historically been a moderating force for the party, compared to the grassroots activists who made up another segment of its membership. 

Some more progressive unions, like the New York State Nurses Association and the New York State United Teachers, still officially remain part of the party. And while the departure of some unions has hurt the WFP’s numbers, that loss hasn’t proven to be a death blow – unlike what may be coming next. For the last year, Cuomo has been supporting a measure to raise the standards for third parties’ ballot access in the state. Though the original measure was struck down by a court, the new standards got passed into law in this year’s state budget. The WFP has seen this as Cuomo’s attempt to kill the party, because it means the party will need to earn a higher percentage of the vote than it has in years in order to maintain automatic access to the ballot in the state and the benefits that come with it. 

It’s easy to get lost in the politics of it all – the dealmaking and the strategy and the promotional campaign that will be necessary to get New Yorkers to vote on the WFP line on the presidential ballot in November. But Nnaemeka insisted that the WFP wasn’t just fighting for the sake of its own survival, but because the party can do good things.

“We’ll fight to preserve our party function, but because of what it can do,” she said. “Not because of the entity it is, but because we know that it can help move us closer to a New York where all of us can thrive.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described why the WFP supported state Sen. Nicholas Spano's 2004 reelection campaign.

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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