New York’s Working Families Party Came Back From the Brink. Its Departing Leader Recalls the Battle.

New York’s Working Families Party Came Back From the Brink. Its Departing Leader Recalls the Battle.

New York’s Working Families Party Came Back From the Brink. Its Departing Leader Recalls the Battle.

Andrew Cuomo declared war. Sochie Nnaemeka and allies fought back. She shares her thoughts on his successor and the state of the New York left.


New York’s progressive Working Families Party celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, but it almost didn’t live to see a 21st. That was the year a long-simmering feud with former Governor Andrew Cuomo boiled over, after the WFP endorsed Cynthia Nixon in her primary against Cuomo, and the outraged governor continued pulling public employees’ unions and others away from the party, which had always represented an alliance between labor, and other social and racial justice activist groups.

The next year, Sochie Nnaemeka became New York state director at the WFP, having served as director of emerging organizing and leadership at the Center for Popular Democracy. The storied New York progressive engine badly needed organizing and leadership. Despite Cuomo’s attacks, the party still had successes in 2018, helping elect Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones to Congress, and forming a strong coalition among progressive New York state Assembly and Senate candidates—enough to break the hold of the Republican-allied, Cuomo-abetted Independent Democrat Conference in the state Senate.

But with Cuomo’s ongoing siege, the party seemed in danger of losing its ballot line in New York—where candidates can run on multiple party lines and smaller parties can play a role in larger coalitions, as long as they draw enough votes. “The governor was still trying to kill us,” says former Assembly member Yuh-line Niou, a stalwart WFP leader elected as a Democrat in 2016. “Sochie coming in, in that moment, helped usher in a new culture, in the party and in Albany.” Niou and other allies credit Nnaemeka with “creating a really clear vision of what we wanted to accomplish in the legislature,” says WFP-backed Senator Samra Brouk, elected in 2020 with the pandemic raging. With WFP backing, the legislature passed tax hikes on residents with income of more than $2.1 million, and enacted broad pandemic relief funding, as well as an eviction moratorium for renters whose income was hurt by Covid.

The party has occasionally faced criticism from the left, particularly when it chose to endorse three primary candidates—former comptroller Scott Stringer, Diane Morales, and civil rights attorney Maya Wiley, in that order—during the 2021 mayor’s race. The endorsements were said to reflect the opinion of membership, but the implosion of Stringer and Morales left Wiley as the only progressive standard-bearer, and she lost to Mayor Eric Adams. The loss of union partners like 1199, the Hotel Trades Council, and the American Federation of Teachers has left the group without the foot soldiers it used to have, Nation contributor Ross Barkan has argued. Still, he wrote in 2021 that the “WFP remains a potent force in New York…a nerve center for the activist left, a repository of political talent, and a professionalized body that can help certain campaigns pay for staff.”

Cuomo is gone. The WFP survived, and most would say thrived. Now Nnaemeka is departing the group. She and her husband are expecting their second child and she wants to switch gears, for at least a while. “It’s time to nestle,” she told me in an interview last week. Brouk, who gave birth to her first child last year, says the move shows a different kind of leadership from Nnaemeka. “Being Black mothers, we know how hard this can be,” Brouk says, referencing high and increasing maternal and infant mortality rates. “It’s beautiful that she’s taking this time for herself and her family.” Niou agreed. “I’m proud of her. “She put in place stronger systems, around endorsement and policy, and built a leadership team and amazing staff” that will survive this transition.

I talked to Nnaemeka on the eve of Governor Kathy Hochul’s finally hammering out a budget deal with the state legislature. From the WFP’s perspective, it wasn’t a very good one. Although Hochul had made building 800,000 new units of housing the centerpiece of her plans, she dropped her goal when she couldn’t build a coalition behind it. The WFP and others asked that good-cause evictions and rental housing be part of any solution to the state’s extreme housing crisis. The group pushed for a minimum wage of $21.25; instead, it will gradually increase from the current level of $15 to $17, and then be indexed for inflation. There will be no tax hike on New Yorkers making more than $5 million annually.

When I profiled Hochul a year ago, Nnaemeka was a voice in favor of giving the new governor a chance to prove that she could work in coalition with progressives. “We’ve all been traumatized by Cuomo. She moves very differently politically,” she told me then. “In a way, this is a very progressive moment in New York State, especially in the legislature. There’s a real willingness to meet with us—but what would it take for the governor to work in collaboration with the left?”

So far, Nnaemeka’s been disappointed on that front. Hochul’s nomination of Judge Hector LaSalle as chief judge of the state Supreme Court (the state Senate rejected the pick) drew a strong backlash from the progressive coalition, especially labor, that had just helped Hochul win reelection, much more narrowly than she should have. Likewise, her push in the budget for hundreds of new charter schools—she settled for only 14 in the budget deal forged last week—was a slap to labor and its WFP allies. “I’m struck by her inability to build a coalition behind her priorities,” Nnaemeka told me. We talked about the budget, the governor, and the WFP’s accomplishments in an interview last week. Our conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.

So let’s start with when you joined WFP…

The moment I took over was really after almost a decade of a long, tortured relationship between the [WFP] and the governor. I was interested in taking on this role with the party, coming out of labor, because it felt like a real boss fight. An opportunity to build and demonstrate a collective values-based power, in opposition to the most powerful governor since Nelson Rockefeller, who was dead set on using his power to squash anything that didn’t serve his legacy projects.

I didn’t know what was going to happen. Would the ways he was going to use to crush us work? Should we form under a different structure? Or should we fight and find the different leadership structure to prevail in this boss fight?

I remember when he founded the “Women’s Equality Party,” WEP, in 2014, to confuse people looking at New York ballots with WFP! And that was after WFP actually endorsed him over challenger Zephyr Teachout!

It was hilariously cynical. Another round of the governor using his power to remove the opposition. Two things struck me: The party must be on to something if this governor is trying to get rid of it, and two, there’s tremendous commitment and loyalty in the WFP, who really wanted to fight. They went into this pandemic year quite clear they were not going to lie down and allow their political party to be taken.

What also became clear to me was we had to toughen up our relationships. It was hard to see rounds and rounds of labor being pulled away because of the governor. How do we build something in which our relationships aren’t extractable? In which people are okay together staying together in hard times? And how do we stay open to our brothers and sisters in the labor movement—because there’s no viable progressive movement without the labor movement. So even if our formal relationship looks different, how do we ensure we’re as aligned with labor as we can be? Especially on big-issue fights.

Another response could have been, these unions are just in Cuomo’s pocket!

Well, the member organizations who stuck with the party—the teachers and the nurses and the United Auto Workers, organizations like [immigrant rights group] Make the Road, understood that to build toward the state we want, we have to build shared strategy. Not get thrown cycle to cycle, election to election, but have a long-arc view that recognizes that the real estate industry and private capital and the billionaire class are concentrated on co-opting our government. And we don’t have the power right now to set the agenda in Albany. So it would be un-strategic to dilute our power and separate ourselves [from unions that left the party] right now.

Who stepped up to help you guys deal with what seemed like a possibly party-ending breach?

The relationships that are fortifying? Our elected officials in this triple-blue state, they want to be sure we espouse our values. The new class who joined and defeated the IDC in 2018, the people who went into Congress that year like Jamaal Bowmann or Mondaire Jones…they needed a collective infrastructure to call their own. [Otherwise] you either get marginalized or get forced to assimilate! They were all willing to put their neck out and be in relationship with us despite the governor coming down on folks. There was a lot of bravery and solidarity that got us through.

I want to talk about the WFP’s work here in in the 2022 elections, which helped Democrats do well, even as our official New York state party leadership helped us lose the House. What are you proudest of, and what do you regret?

Against an onslaught of fearmongering right-wing attacks on progressives, on candidates of color, we were very proud to be able to defend and send back a lot of incumbents to the legislature. And most of them got reelected on the same messages. Also, in Congress, we had Pat Ryan, who represented the possibility of a Working Families Democrat running on both bread-and-butter issues and justice issues—abortion and minimum wage. In the Hudson Valley, he won by a healthy margin, and his votes on the WFP line, they were more than the margin of his win.

Talk about WFP’s role in reelecting Hochul.

It was a refutation that the left was unable to play big tent. Most of our people supported [Public Advocate] Jumaane [Williams] in the primary [the WFP endorsed him], but we also understood the deep threat of the possible [Republican Lee] Zeldin administration and the GOP making gains in this state. So people buckled up and knocked on doors and did what we do as movement folks. We gave life to a campaign [Hochul’s] that at that moment was not connecting with voters.

So I do think there are these moments that progressives and the left can plug in and raise the stakes of a contest. Whether we can maintain access to reproductive care in New York state, talk about a different approach to public safety, maintain access to public benefits, and push back on fascist-leaning electeds.

We have to recognize the power that we have. So people buckled up: [Democratic Socialists of America] types, the good-government types in our party, we have an infrastructure to mobilize people, and I feel proud about that.

Beating Zeldin was about using our infrastructure as harm reduction to protect our communities against a GOP extremist. This is a man who sought to gut Social Security and reproductive rights, and led a campaign full of fearmongering and dog whistles. We’re glad we did it.

Harm reduction! That’s great. I know Hochul got more than twice as many votes on the WFP line as Cuomo did in 2018. [Fact check: He got 114,000, she got more than 260,000.] When I interviewed you last year, you were modestly optimistic about Hochul working in coalition with progressives. After the last year—the nomination of Hector LaSalle as chief judge of the state Supreme Court, the budget disappointments—how are you feeling?

So I was thinking about style, in the aftermath of Cuomo. Is there a difference in leadership style? Should voters care how leaders lead? She expressed a desire to lead with transparency, with a collaborative spirit, with what she and others described as a quintessential female leadership style. I wasn’t convinced that substantively she was going to be a more progressive leader than Cuomo, based on her own description of herself as a moderate. But I was open to what a different leadership style could produce.

Cuomo was hell-bent on destroying anyone who dared organize against him. That’s not Hochul’s mission; however, she did promise a more transparent and inclusive style…and we’re still waiting to see it.

On the housing plan, we had a real opportunity to build affordably and increase housing stock in New York. But it was grounded in a developer-friendly approach.

For a while it seemed like progressives were saying, “We’re not gonna go along with that alone, but maybe we’ll support her higher-housing-density proposals, if she’d have supported good-cause eviction protections and rental vouchers for those who got evicted.”

Absolutely. There is a housing shortage pushing people out of our state. We must invest with enforceability policy and an affordability mindset. Our housing shortage is being fueled by an eviction crisis. Homeowners should not be pitted against tenants. So we put out that position. We had WFP electeds who were pushing bills on both these fronts! The governor, however, was willing to kill her own plan.

What are you proudest of in your time at WFP?

I’ve had such joy helping build this party. I’m an organizer, fundamentally. Building institutions that are sturdy, that continue to do the work cycle after cycle, and give people a sense of connection.… What’s exciting about this moment is I look out across New York and see all the women and women of color who are leading, in labor organizations, in the state Senate, The idea now is that I get to take a little bit of a pause and play a role in my family. We have many years and many fights ahead of us. We have to lift up other leadership. I have a fantastic team at the party and I am confident we will recruit a fantastic state director. I’m excited to continue to support that work. And to win big in New York State, which can and should be leading in progressive politics. Our party’s role is to make sure we have enough political will to deliver what we deserve.

Editor’s Note: Due to a transcribing error, this interview initially quoted Nnaemeka as saying that the New York WFP has a “fantastic state director.” In fact, the group is in the search process for a state director. The text has been updated accordingly.

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