When Sochie Nnaemeka met me at the Commons Café in central Brooklyn, she apologized. He was only five minutes late, but our midday meeting was clearly one of many he had lined up for the day. “I almost went to this completely different place, Brooklyn Commons. He’s nowhere near here, “he said, smoothing his blue suit. He would have messed up his busy schedule. The bartender, intrigued by our request for” a quiet place “- someone had started playing the piano out loud, in the back room – he led us to a sunny conference room on the top floor. “You can talk about your important things here,” he said.
In December, Nnaemeka became the director of the Working Families Party (WFP) in New York, making her the new face of a group with a crucial role in the progressive movement of the state, supporting political reforms and left-wing candidates. Now, she’s in charge of maintaining this momentum, but she doesn’t seem worried. He spent his career taking advantage of this opportunity.
It started in Yale, where Nnaemeka was radicalized. She arrived as a star-eyed freshman in 2007, but was immediately disillusioned. “It was not the space to engage with real questions on how to make the country a more expansive, inclusive and safe place for immigrants and black people,” said Nnaemeka, who is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants due to the production of cold beer coffee on an unusually hot winter afternoon.
He said he had questions: “What does it mean that the university is the largest employer in a divided and deeply separated city?” How could Yale defend “the values of the Enlightenment and of the possibility, when the university practically kept at bay an almost entirely black workforce?”
So he started getting organized with the workers in the dining room. They were mostly black women and active members of their union. Nnaemeka attended their meetings and joined when they knocked on doors in low-income neighborhoods. “I thought, okay, I may not have a great sense of where my home is, but I feel more comfortable when I’m with people engaged in a fight based on solidarity,” he said, excitedly his voice. This is “when the organizational bug” bit her, she added.
Nnaemeka, now 31, has been organizing for a decade. She came to WFP from the Center for Popular Democracy, where she worked with grassroots groups across the country, including Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in Milwaukee and Detroit Action in Michigan. In that role, she cultivated new political leaders and empowered young black women. Nnaemeka took the reins of WFP in New York in a delicate moment for the small but powerful group. In New York, WFP helped fuel a progressive wave, working to reverse the state senate to democratic scrutiny and support cash bail reform, tighter lease rules, and driver’s licenses for undocumented migrants. documents. He was an important force in promoting Tiffany Caban’s offer to the Queens District Attorney. He lost with only 55 votes, but his candidacy drove the conversation on criminal justice reform to the left. “There is renewed interest and excitement left in electoral politics,” Nnaemeka told me. “People are really looking for a political house and a real left-wing party, and I remain convinced that WFP is the vehicle for that strategy and that movement.”
Yet WFP, in New York and nationally, has sometimes struggled to find its place, often straddling the progressive movement and establishment politics. After approving Elizabeth Warren in September, the party faced online harassment, often punctuated by racist and sexist threats. Jacobin declared that the group had “written out of history”, defining Bernie Sanders as “the national manifestation” of WFP politics. “The fact that WFP does not recognize him,” wrote the founder of the magazine, Bhaskar Sunkara, “reflects how far he has gone.” When I read those quotations to Nnaemeka – surely he had already heard them many times – he laughed, but did not address them directly. “We have a theory of change that we need to organize to conquer the world we want,” he said, in a firm and firm tone. “This does not mean rejecting people in moments of tactical rift, it means having a real open and clear conversation and fighting for people’s votes.”
At different times, WFP’s confirmations alienated those to its left and right. The group gave Governor Andrew Cuomo his party line in 2014, sowing internal division and angering progressive groups and candidates. In 2018, he supported Cynthia Nixon against Cuomo, infuriating union members closely aligned with the governor and his relationship with work remained weak. In that year’s state Democratic primary, WFP supported Joe Crowley, a longtime centrist who supported the invasion of Iraq, rather than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Although Nnaemeka was not present during these endorsements, it will have to manage their persistent effects. “We have to make difficult choices,” he said. “When it came to Cuomo, there was a political calculation and, at that time, it was a strategically valid decision.” It is clear that Nnaemeka often faces questions about WFP’s past and does not want to get bogged down. For her, the hostile response to this year’s approval – and the division between the camps of Warren and Sanders in the broad sense – undermines the long-term goals of the progressive movement. “We have two candidates for structural change vying for the country’s tallest office, talking about the elimination of student debt and access to healthcare, and we’re really fucking excited about this.”
In this context, Nnaemeka wants to trudge forward and to the left. WFP may have supported Cuomo in the past, but in 2020 it is positioning the party in opposition to its policies and style, although it will further alienate the powerful unions that were once fundamental to its survival. This means strengthening ties with the democratic socialists of America and jumping aboard loyal progressives whose politics may have avoided a previous WFP iteration. “We may not align on everything, but we must find places of profound alignment,” he said, and “getting rid of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is one of those places.” The WFP mentality “is finding out where we are trying to go and who is on our way. So the corporate wing of the Democratic Party was making it more difficult for normal people to live a good life in New York.”
His first fight is Cuomo’s budget. “We are falling into this right-wing framework of political austerity. We don’t have what we need and are balancing our budget to support the most vulnerable,” he said, referring to the cuts proposed by the governor for $ 2.5 billion a New York Medicaid. “There is more than enough for what we need, but we don’t have a leader with progressive will and creativity to make it possible.” He listed potential sources of revenue that could fill the $ 6.1 billion state budget hole: taxes on luxury properties and cars or on “second yachts”, he explained, adding, sardonically, “the amount of wealth in our state is, you know, big enough. ” Nnaemeka called the state budget a “moral document”; Cuomo’s “fiscal sustainability”, as the governor calls his economic paradigm, has created a “moral crisis” in the state. “People are suffering from hunger, schools are underfunded and overcrowded and what we are focusing on is whether mega-millionaires feel comfortable in their daily lives.”
WFP’s embrace of a democratic socialist vision increases its ideological clarity and could consolidate its role as the “political house” that Nnaemeka said many leftists are seeking. But it also puts the party on precarious ground. Last summer, WFP filed a lawsuit against Cuomo, accused of having created a commission specifically to change electoral laws in order to crack down on third parties. In November, the commission voted that, in order to guarantee a line on the state vote, parties must draw 2 percent of the vote or 130,000 votes, compared to 50,000, a relatively low threshold that has allowed parties like WFP to remain on the ballot, giving New Yorkers the opportunity to “vote for their values”.
The new threshold may threaten the existence of WFP, but Nnaemeka doesn’t seem worried. “We approach this as organizers and turn lemons into lemonade. For us, the highest threshold is an organizational goal, an opportunity to speak with thousands of new voters.”
Nnaemeka sees Cuomo’s antics as a sign that WFP is right. “The backlash is real, and that’s what happens when people are afraid of a new balance of power,” he said. “For the first time, the left has a real chance to govern, not only to protest, but to govern, and so people are finding out how to cut it in the knee.” I asked how his disillusioned 18-year-old self would feel about the current climate. She smiled. “Progressive movements are no longer marginal,” he replied. “This is the moment I wanted.”