Making Government Happen
In retrospect, it’s as though the seed for Emma Wolfe’s career in community organizing and politics was planted at birth. Her mother, an avid Democrat, had “fervent beliefs about what was fair and right, and a real belief in the value of public service,” Wolfe says. Wolfe couldn’t have known then that she would eventually help run Bill de Blasio’s astoundingly successful mayoral campaign, then serve as his director of intergovernmental affairs, working with officials to garner support for the New York City mayor’s progressive agenda.
She didn’t know it at Barnard, either, but it was there that Wolfe’s interest in activism and public service started to take a firm foothold. She’d decided to attend the College with the help of her mother, who found a flier advertising the school. A Massachusetts native, Wolfe knew she wanted to go to college in a city, and Barnard was one of just a couple of schools she visited. “Like a lot of folks, I don’t think I approached how to pick college with the most comprehensive mindset,” she says now, laughing.
At Barnard, Wolfe’s interest in cities drove her curriculum, and she majored in urban studies and sociology. “I was totally interested in cities and how they ran,” she says. “I think a lot of the most pressing challenges that face folks anywhere can really be encapsulated in an urban center.” As part of the urban studies major, she was required to venture off campus for field experience. “For me, the world we were studying was New York City—how great is that?” she says. She also had professors with a great deal of experience working outside of academia, impacting public life through government or otherwise. “I had a tendency to get in a bubble. You can’t do that when it comes to a field like urban studies, and Barnard was really good about making sure that didn’t happen,” she says.
It was also while she was at Barnard that Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was murdered. Wolfe and many other students rallied in protest, a formative moment in her involvement in activism. “The death of Matthew Shepard, for me, sort of came out of nowhere,” Wolfe says. “It sort of blew up into my consciousness.”
After she graduated, Wolfe worked with ACORN, organizing in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant before working with other ACORN staff on the mayoral campaign 10 years later. “We were all foot soldiers, happy to be doing the groundlevel organizing, and many of us in that cohort really caught the political bug,” she says. “I know I did.” The experience opened her eyes to “how a big, impactful member-based community organization can play a role in not only government, but also political campaigns, which can have a direct impact on governing afterwards.”
Wolfe subsequently worked in southwest Ohio for about a year, getting out the vote for John Kerry in 2004. When she returned to New York, she did nursing-home-worker organizing, and worked briefly for the New York state senate. Wolfe also spent several years at the Working Families Party before moving on to de Blasio’s campaign for public advocate, which he won in 2009, naming Wolfe as his chief of staff. When de Blasio announced his plan to run for mayor, Wolfe became his deputy campaign manager and political director.
It was a remarkable campaign. Until a few weeks before de Blasio won, it seemed pretty certain that he wouldn’t. Then, his popularity surged. “The whole lead-up for those final three or four weeks was pretty surreal,” Wolfe admits. “We had spent so long as the not-likely candidate to win. And then suddenly, in August and September, the dynamics of the race totally changed.” The team believed fervently in de Blasio’s campaign platform of addressing inequality aggressively in New York City, so their success didn’t register as a shock, but the sense of being underdogs in the race never evaporated. “What was surprising, I’m not going to lie, was outright winning as opposed to having a runoff,” Wolfe says. “That was pretty stunning. So it was a pretty amazing night.”
On a day-to-day level, the experience of working on de Blasio’s campaign was particularly rewarding in the clarity of its mission. His platform, addressing socioeconomic inequality in New York City, was integral to his personhood and belief system. Wolfe says, “It wasn’t like there was any sitting in a room somewhere, throwing a bunch of core message frames up against the wall and seeing what sticks, which actually does happen on some campaigns,” she says. “It was totally liberating, even when we were way down in the polls and very few people were expecting us to succeed. There was the sort of day-in, dayout, core understanding of who we were. And if we were going to win, it was going to be because of who we were.”
In Wolfe’s role as director of intergovernmental affairs, she connects the dots, soliciting support for the administration’s agenda both inside and outside of City Hall. That can mean helping get legislation over the finish line, drumming up funding, or mobilizing stakeholders in the community. “There’s just no typical day,” Wolfe says. The only constant is her 8:00 a.m. phone call with her team. From there, the day can take many different forms: a senior cabinet meeting, a meeting with the mayor, talking to legislators or advocates or experts or people at City Hall. “The pace and variation is extreme,” Wolfe says, “but also pretty thrilling.”
Implementing universal, free prekindergarten throughout New York City was a centerpiece of the mayor’s campaign, and this September, more than 50,000 4-year-olds—more than twice last year’s number—flooded classrooms as the program took hold. Wolfe was instrumental in the legislative campaign for this piece of the administration’s agenda, which involved convincing Albany that universal pre-kindergarten “was a game-changer, not only for the education of those kids and for their lives, but also a tremendous accomplishment for parents, to know that at progressively younger ages they were going to be able to take their kids to a full-day classroom.” Wolfe cites the success of this undertaking as one of her most fulfilling moments on the job so far. “The first day of school, I sort of pinched myself,” she says. “I had the utmost pride and admiration for what folks had done.” She felt similarly rewarded by the successful push for municipal ID cards and paid sick days for New York City residents. “Those were another couple of big moments,” she says. “It took working together with our allies both across the hall and folks invested in communities across the city to do it, and we did it.”
Although Wolfe has been working in this field for well over a decade by now, she still finds aspects of her current role surprising. “I don’t think I could have predicted the sheer pace and intensity of it,” she says. “Also, I always knew that there were smart people in government, but there are a lot of smart folks here who are incredibly dedicated to their day jobs.” As is Emma Wolfe herself.