just asking questions

‘Adams Has Not Communicated Value for the Lives of Our Brothers and Sisters’

Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

When Sochie Nnaemeka came into the New York Working Families in 2019, the party had just beaten back a retaliatory challenge to its ballot line from Andrew Cuomo. During her four-year tenure as state director, the WFP has helped move the City Council and the State Legislature more to the left. But it did not enjoy the same success in the mayoral race, which saw its chosen candidate fall to the considerably more moderate Eric Adams.

In an exit interview earlier this week, Nnaemeka was unsparing about Adams’s handling of Jordan Neely’s killing, and she discussed her hopes for the future for progressives statewide. (Days later, the mayor would address Neely’s death further in a speech.)

Mayor Adams has largely tried to stay out of the debate over Jordan Neely’s killing, but he said that this speaks to why his administration is so focused on mental health and caring for the homeless. In your view, do you think that his administration has done enough to address the issues here?
Absolutely not. Not only do we have to invest real resources to ensure that our most vulnerable are taken care of, I get reminded all the time and I see all the time that the homeless, the unhoused, the mentally ill are more often victims of crime than perpetrators of crime. But then there is this language of othering, of demonization, of fear, whether through the campaign that was advanced by Mayor Adams, but also through this odd hedging around an issue that seems pretty clear. A jury might decide whether or not this man is guilty, but the circumstances in which a person can murder, in broad daylight, a man exhibiting symptoms that we’ve all seen in New York City, right? It is a common situation. The fact that the mayor and the governor cannot clearly communicate that that is not okay.

The governor and the mayor equivocating around whose life deserves protection and kind of gaslighting the public into thinking that we don’t have enough information to decide whether murder in broad daylight because one feels uncomfortable is a New York City value — I think that is a tremendous failure of moral leadership. Our society is divided in many ways, but it’s been heartening to see both the protests and the clarity — whether it’s from leaders of the Progressive Caucus, whether it is Public Advocate Jumaane Williams — that it’s not that complicated, actually, and we have to figure out what it is that we’re actually talking about here. But Mayor Adams has not communicated value for the lives of our brothers and sisters who got the rough end of the stick in life and whose communities and whose city has left them to fend for themselves.

In the past few election cycles, the WFP has backed several high-profile candidates that ultimately fell short in their races, such as Maya Wiley in the mayoral race and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in the governor’s race. What are some of your takeaways from those races? 
We’re clear in our analysis that, in a two-party system, our party comes less resourced, less understood in the political scheme of things. But it’s that much more important to take on urgent and clear ideological fights. That, in many ways, a third party’s role is to go against the norm, not to go on to get by, and to take big swings. We are a values-based party whose role is to ensure that working people’s voices and agenda actually reaches the halls of power, and we do that in many ways. We do that by running ideologically grounded campaigns. If you think about someone like Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for DA — though she lost, barely, but lost at the polls, she won a national case that prosecutors can and must play a role in ending mass incarceration. That still carried through to Alvin Bragg’s campaign. That is still a source of massive tension in our political conversation.

So we look to make interventions. Yes, electorally, we want to win. We want to send more Khaleel Andersons and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Samra Brouks and winning WFP candidates into the halls of power. But we also want to make sure that whatever campaigns we run, whether the candidates win or lose, there has been a shift that sets up for a shift in the power structure. A different conversation, a policy priority that then gets co-opted by those in power, a more agitated or engaged electoral base. We win some on Election Day, we lose some on Election Day, but fundamentally, if we’re not trying to take big swings and also give voters real choice at the polls every day, I think that we’re not doing our jobs.

I think it’s hard as we’re seeing this, as we’re grieving over Jordan Neely and seeing the migrant crisis play out in New York City. Absolutely, I think about the New York City mayor’s race a lot because we’re living with the spoils, right? We’re living with the real pain that came from a missed alternative opportunity. So we always have to do better.

A lot of Democratic and left-leaning candidates lost in 2022, including the flipping of four House seats here in New York. But in that same year, the WFP managed to keep its ballot line while also organizing for Kathy Hochul in the city. What was your strategy?
Our Vote WFP campaign, our campaign for our ballot line, in some ways, it is a complicated concept. We’re asking you to vote on a specific line but for a candidate. It requires real conversation, vision, and messaging and that has to happen through real people talking to each other. Not through a snazzy ad campaign for many reasons. So I think we really invested in organization infrastructure and ensured that whether people were in the North Country or in Manhattan, they had a way to plug into the campaign and they understood what it was for.

With the Kathy Hochul campaign similarly, it was a clear decision that Lee Zeldin posed an existential threat to our communities and to the progress we’ve all been fighting for. We had to beat the right and we had to push Democrats to be running for something in order for us to have a fighting chance in the state. We often talk about the terrain that you want to fight on. Do you want to be in a terrifyingly oppositional relationship with a fascist, fear-mongering party that is the GOP in this moment? Or do we want to be in an aggressive but healthy struggle with the Democratic leadership about what we think our people deserve? And we knew what terrain we preferred. So even as we have serious political policy differences with the governor, politics is about winners and losers and we knew that, in that situation, we need her to be the winner if we wanted a fighting chance for a New York in which we can all live with dignity.

Looking ahead, what does the future look like for progressives in the state and citywide? 
I’m excited for the party to continue to kind of translate the support for our positions into a robust political organization that can actually do battle with Big Money in our state. The people who came out and voted for Kathy Hochul for governor do not want her standing in the way of protections for renters or of taxing the rich or of expanding health care to all New Yorkers, regardless of their documentation status. Those issues are tremendously popular, like all over 70 percent, the three that I’ve mentioned, in New York State. There’s no reason why our executive should be the reason to block it.

I think that where I feel responsibility and urgency is that we as progressives, as women of color leading the movement, we have this crisis around racial violence and the kind of shallow way in which racial justice is being thrown around as a value, especially a value of the Democratic Party. Yet we see the tremendous deterioration of value of Black bodies through our carceral system, through police-led violence, through a lack of a housing agenda, through the dissolution of youth jobs. Whether we’re in a movement moment, like a post–George Floyd moment or not, we have to ensure that racial justice and racial dignity is centered in our work. Whether it is our organization’s explicit purpose or not, I think that we are in a terrifying time where Democratic leadership in particular in our state is leading a rollback on dignity, whether it’s through bail reform, whether it’s through an abdication of responsibility in the face of vigilante violence, whether it is the spike in eviction rates. These are all part of the same disease, and we have a huge responsibility on the left to lead with clarity and to ensure that our organizations are going to battle every day to solve this crisis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WFP Leader on the Party’s Future and Adams’s Neely Response