Few would dispute that Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) got the raw end of New York’s messy redistricting process.
Faced with the prospect of running against either Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, House Democrats’ deep-pocketed campaign chief, or fellow progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman in a seat into which Jones’ home had been drawn, Jones chose a third option: leaving the suburbs to run in an entirely new New York City district. In that congressional district ― New York’s 10th ― Jones would end up coming in third place in the Democratic primary on Aug. 23, cutting short a celebrated career in Congress after just one term.
Now, some in Jones’ inner circle are accusing the Working Families Party, a key progressive institution in New York, of leading Jones on about the support it was willing, or able, to deliver for him in the race.
Someone familiar with Jones’ conversations in late May when he was rolling out his campaign told HuffPost that Sochie Nnaemeka, New York state director of the Working Families Party, spoke with Jones directly, telling him that she would help him secure an endorsement from the WFP.
The person familiar with Jones’ discussions made clear that Nnaemeka never promised anything concrete. The person also could not recall whether that conversation took place immediately before or immediately after Jones’ May 21 announcement of his candidacy.
Shortly before Jones announced his run, Nnaemeka also told a person close to Jones that she would call state Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou and discourage her from running, the person who spoke to Nnaemeka told HuffPost.
With that in mind, Jones’ decision to announce his run in New York’s 10th in the wee hours of the morning after the final maps were announced on May 21 was designed to preempt an announcement by Niou later that day.
As it turned out, Nnaemeka’s help was not forthcoming, according to the two Jones allies.
“The WFP wrote a check they couldn’t cash,” the Jones ally who spoke to Nnaemeka told HuffPost.
An unaligned progressive New York strategist, who was in touch with Nnaemeka and the campaigns of several left-leaning candidates in New York’s 10th at the time, also confirmed that Nnaemeka was telling Jones, his allies, and other progressives that she was supportive of his bid.
“I told Mondaire he would get a fair hearing in the WFP process, and walked him through how the process would go, and told him the best pitch I thought he could make to our members, just as I did with Yuh-Line and allies of Carlina’s.”
Given his status as a WFP champion in Congress and an early endorsee in the 2020 election cycle, Jones and his allies would have preferred for the WFP to at least remain neutral in the race if the WFP did not endorse him, the two Jones allies told HuffPost.
Jones has a close working relationship with the WFP dating to his 2020 bid for a seat in the northern suburbs of New York City. The WFP endorsed his run there in February 2020 — four months before a primary win in which he received 42% of the vote against seven other Democrats.
And Jones remained a visible ally of the WFP in Washington. As Jones noted in his endorsement interview with the New York Times editorial board, he wore a WFP T-shirt while participating in Rep. Cori Bush’s (D-Mo.) U.S. Capitol demonstration in favor of extending the federal eviction moratorium in July and August 2021.
“What’s the point of being a WFP champion if they won’t have your back when it matters?” the Jones ally who spoke to Nnaemeka told HuffPost.
Nnaemeka denied that she told Jones that she would offer him help securing the WFP’s endorsement or that she told someone close to him that she would try to nudge Niou out of the race.
“When Mondaire decided to run in the new 10th district, he called me asking for support in this new bid,” Nnaemeka told HuffPost in a statement. “I told him there were several progressive and WFP-aligned candidates considering a run there and he should not rush a decision without knowing the field and having conversations with leaders on the ground.”
“Once again I urged him to reconsider” running against Maloney in New York’s 17th Congressional District, she added. (When New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D) decided to run against Maloney in New York’s 17th, the WFP indeed backed her.)
To the extent that Nnaemeka might have offered anything that could be interpreted as “help” to Jones or his allies, she told HuffPost, she extended the same thing to the campaigns of Niou and New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera — another onetime WFP ally who ran in New York’s 10th.
“I told Mondaire he would get a fair hearing in the WFP process, and walked him through how the process would go, and told him the best pitch I thought he could make to our members, just as I did with Yuh-Line and allies of Carlina’s,” Nnaemeka said.
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, a long-standing WFP ally who worked closely with Nnaemeka on efforts to corral progressives in New York’s 10th, confirmed Nnaemeka’s account to HuffPost. He said he approached Jones with a similar message, albeit not as a representative of the WFP.
In addition, Nnaemeka recalls instructing the campaigns of Jones, Niou and Rivera to talk among themselves in the hopes that “they could agree not to run against one another.”
“WFP publicly communicated our process and timeline which I also walked candidates through individually,” Nnaemeka said. “I continued to reach out to all the progressive elected officials and asked them to hold off pledging support to anyone, so we could try to rally around a single progressive candidate, precisely to avoid the situation we’re now in.”
Jones’ allies’ claims against the WFP follow signs of cooperation between Jones and the progressive group.
Jones, who held the Working Families Party ballot line after securing it for a run in his previous district, ceded the ballot line to Niou on Wednesday. Niou and the WFP are in the process of deciding whether Niou should mount a general-election bid against former Donald Trump impeachment attorney Dan Goldman, the Democratic nominee in New York’s 10th, on the WFP ballot line.
But the WFP, which fashions itself the elder statesman of New York’s rejuvenated activist left, is also enduring new scrutiny following progressive setbacks in several high-profile Empire State primaries.
The New York WFP has a history of marshaling disparate forces on the left against common enemies, such as when it executed a two-year plan to force the dissolution of a rogue Democratic state Senate faction, the Independent Democratic Conference, and punish the Democrats who had participated in it. The WFP succeeded in ousting six of the IDC’s eight former members in primaries in September 2018.
The following election cycle, the New York WFP — now under Nnaemeka’s leadership — convinced a weaker candidate to withdraw from a primary in which Jamaal Bowman was taking on then-Rep. Eliot Engel. With progressives united behind him, Bowman went on to defeat Engel by a wide margin.
Some critics question whether the WFP’s New York branch has, more recently, prioritized the views of its membership — a mix of rank-and-file activists and the leaders of nonprofits like Make the Road Action — over exercising leadership and rallying its own members behind smarter decisions.
“It’s the role of candidates to put themselves out there,” said the unaligned New York progressive strategist who requested anonymity to protect their relationship with the WFP. “It’s the role of political organizers and leaders in the parties to shape the field and weigh things together and organize in a way that puts the people who are principals in the best places to serve.”
“There’s a through-line between how WFP managed to lose the mayoral, gubernatorial and the highest-profile congressional race within one year: cowardly indecisiveness and leadership that’s too afraid to lead.”
Prior to Goldman’s victory in New York’s 10th, New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary in June 2021 was arguably the New York left’s greatest disappointment. In that race, a ranked-choice contest, the WFP originally endorsed three candidates in April. The group, which has a rank-and-file membership but also acts as a signal transmitter for all progressives, instructed left-leaning New Yorkers to rank then-NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer first, nonprofit executive Dianne Morales second, and attorney Maya Wiley third.
The WFP withdrew its endorsement of Stringer within weeks of the announcement, following an accusation of sexual harassment against the comptroller that he vehemently denied (and the credibility of which subsequently came into question).
Three weeks before primary day, as Morales’ campaign imploded under the weight of its own personnel scandal, the WFP announced that it was calling for progressive voters to rank Wiley first on their ranked-choice ballots. Ultimately, Eric Adams, a moderate, narrowly prevailed against former city sanitation chief Kathryn Garcia. Wiley, however, had come in a respectable second place on the first round of ranked-choice votes, prompting some critics to wonder whether a clearer and earlier consolidation behind Wiley would have clinched the race for her.
The WFP’s pattern of relative weakness continued during New York’s Democratic gubernatorial primary earlier this year.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, currently the highest-ranking elected official in the state to win on both the Democratic Party’s and the Working Families Party’s ballot lines, announced a primary challenge against New York Gov. Kathy Hochul in late October.
James, however, did not have the progressive lane to herself. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams jumped in the race in November. And in December, James, who never obtained the WFP’s endorsement, dropped out.
The WFP ended up endorsing Williams in February. With a shoestring budget, Williams lost to Hochul in a blowout — getting just 19% of the vote compared with Hochul’s 68%. (Rep. Tom Suozzi, who ran to the right of Hochul, received 13% of the vote.)
Finally, in New York’s 10th, the WFP again failed to either clear the field for a single progressive candidate or consolidate the candidates behind one another once Goldman took the lead and it became clear that the divided field would help him clinch the win. He ended up besting Niou by about 2 percentage points, supporting progressives’ view that he would have lost against fewer candidates.
“There’s a through-line between how WFP managed to lose the mayoral, gubernatorial and the highest-profile congressional race within one year: cowardly indecisiveness and leadership that’s too afraid to lead,” the unaligned New York progressive strategist said.
The moderate Democratic establishment does not suffer from analogous barriers to rapid action, the progressive strategist noted. The speed with which top Democrats have lined up behind Goldman ahead of a potential Niou challenge is a case in point.
Lander, the NYC comptroller, agreed that the failure to consolidate in New York’s 10th speaks to gaps in the New York left’s capacity, but disputes the notion that the WFP failed to do its utmost to try.
“We believed that if we could stick together, avoid a divided progressive field, and unify around one candidate, we could send a movement candidate to Congress. And I think the results show that was very likely true,” he said. “That consolidation did not happen, of course, but it definitely was not for want of effort on the part of WFP and Sochie.”
Lander, a resident of New York’s 10th, declined to publicly endorse in the primary, but revealed to HuffPost whom he selected.
“Out of respect for Mondaire, Yuh-Line and Carlina, all of whom I admire tremendously, I didn’t end up endorsing at all,” he said. “Though, by Election Day, it was pretty clear to me Yuh-Line was the strongest candidate, and I voted for her.”