Emma Wolfe on being an organizer

Emma Wolfe with the de Blasio team on election night. (Rob Bennett for the de Blasio Transition Committee)
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When Emma Wolfe reflects on her ascent from college student activist to City Hall's incoming director of intergovernmental affairs, she points to the emotionally charged rallies she attended in protest of the murder Matthew Shepard.

Wolfe was a Barnard College urban studies major in 1998 when Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was killed in an anti-gay attack.

"That moment in college was sort of searing in my mind," Wolfe told Capital in a 30-minute interview after Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio named her to her new post, which she will assume Jan. 1.

"For me just personally, and I don't know how to go into more detail on it, there are certain times when you're doing that kind of activism and you're become more politically aware and socially aware and at the same time going through your own kind of journey," said Wolfe, who is a lesbian. "There are moments when those kind of things converge and obviously, for me, that was one."

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After dipping her toe in student activism, she set out on an early path as an organizer, working for ACORN, America Coming Together and the health care workers union 1199SEIU before joining the Working Families Party, when she ran campaigns across the city and state.

She helped Bill de Blasio get elected as public advocate in 2009 and served as deputy campaign manager for his mayoral race this year. He counts her among one of his most trusted aides.

Standing just over 5'3", slight in build and younger in appearance than her 34 years, with an almost crippling discomfort with self-promotion, Wolfe hardly looks or acts the part of a tough political operative ready to do combat with the state Legislature, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the City Council and Congress. Yet she is, apparently, one of the toughest in the business.

Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras recalled Wolfe's dramatic role in her first bid for office.

On a December morning in 2008, amid standard campaign chaos, Ferreras learned that her former boss, departing councilman Hiram Monserrate, had been charged with slashing his girlfriend's face.

Ferreras panicked: Only two months remained until the special election to fill the seat Monserrate had vacated, and now his actions gave her opponents an easy attack line.

Into her Corona campaign office walked Wolfe, then the Working Families Party's director of elections and campaigns.

"She just looked at me and said, 'Do you want it?' And I said yes, and she said, 'Well we're going to get it,'" Ferreras recalled. "Emma doesn't make lemonade out of lemons. She made a mojito in my case. Wow. In total crisis she was able to keep me focused."

She said Wolfe called her twice a day to make sure she was on track with interviews for labor endorsements, visits to senior centers and subway stations and staying on message.

"She brings calm in a storm like no one has ever known," Ferreras said.

Politicians, labor leaders and operatives offer nearly identical descriptions and anecdotes about her.

Actress Cynthia Nixon, a leading surrogate for de Blasio, called Wolfe "a portrait in self-effacement.

"One of the striking things about her is she's so unassuming, she's so quiet and soft-spoken but it's all about her knowledge and all about her skills. It's not about her swagger and broad shoulders," Nixon said.

"I have been saying for years that Emma is by far the best organizer in the city, if not the state," said fellow political strategist Nathan Smith, who works at Red Horse Strategies and has teamed up with Wolfe on many elections.

He noted her ability to intuit strengths and weaknesses in staff and surrogates to maximize their productivity on a campaign.

"There are hourly goals, there are nightly goals, there are weekly goals," Smith said. "It's very much science and a little bit of magic, and Emma has a great ability to start from week one and understand where you need to be in week 16, and understand all the little steps you need to get there."

He and Wolfe worked together on two state Senate races--for Democrats Craig Johnson and Darrel Aubertine--whose victories helped briefly return the Senate to Democratic control.

Now Wolfe is charged with getting Albany to approve de Blasio's income-tax hike on city residents making more than $500,000 annually to fund universal pre-kindergarten and expanded middle-school programs.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has reacted negatively to the revenue portion of the proposal, which would require him to raise taxes in an election year, and the Senate Republicans have said they are against raising taxes.

She also must push de Blasio's agenda in Congress and in the City Council.

Unlike her immediate predecessor in the Bloomberg administration, Howard Wolfson, Wolfe has not worked on the national stage. And unlike Kevin Sheekey, a deputy mayor who advanced Bloomberg's political agenda in his first two terms, she is not a slick, smooth-talker. (One of Bloomberg's biggest failings was his relationship with Albany, where he failed to get approval for many of his proposals.)

What Wolfe brings to the job are deep roots with unions and strong relationships with a broad array of New York politicians.

"Whereas [Bloomberg] went up to Albany and tried to use a sledgehammer, which was never successful, de Blasio and his team are going to have to go up and use a grassroots strategy, to build consensus and build compromise," Smith said.

Wolfe said her approach to fighting for the tax hike next year will "not shock anybody."

She said she will use her data-driven, detail-oriented background as an organizer to push all de Blasio's plans.

"After doing a real thorough analysis of the issue and understanding the priorities for the administration, understanding who the stakeholders are in the issue ... we really have to be able to hear where they're at and what their needs are," she said. 

Then she will "mobilize and create real public energy around (the issue)," she added. "You're going to want a real public coalition around it."

On a personal note, Wolfe recalled an early interest in politics inspired by her mother, whom she called "an avid kind of Massachusetts Democrat."

"I remember her taking us to watch the convention speeches at the nearby restaurant and watch the presidential elections," said Wolfe.

Wolfe's own voting record is spotty, according to records on file with the Board of Elections. (Her full name, for the record, is Emelia Maguire Wolfe.)

She skipped several critical races, including the mayoral in 2009, the same year de Blasio was elected as public advocate. (She worked on his campaign that year.) She sat out the watershed 2008 presidential race, as well as the 2004 presidential and 2005 mayoral.

This too, she indicates, is a function of how busy she is on election days.

"Unfortunately a lot of times I'm tasked over the years to do absentee [voting] or I'm working 24-7 to do Get Out The Vote. ... There's probably been regrettably one or two times in the past few years when that hasn't happened."

She voted in the primary and general this year.

In summing up Wolfe's style, de Blasio's 2013 campaign manager Bill Hyers shared a story about a prank he played on her several days after the Sept. 10 primary.

He called de Blasio, who was in a car heading to a Queens event with Wolfe, and told him they were going to trick Wolfe into thinking there would be a recount with second-place finisher Bill Thompson.

De Blasio played along, sounding somber on his end of the phone call, which she was privy to. 

They rushed back to the campaign headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn, where the entire staff, Wolfe's longtime girlfriend and de Blasio's family were on hand to surprise her for her birthday that day.

"First thing she doesthis is what I think is hystericalshe turns to Bill and says, 'We're not in a recount?'" Hyers said, laughing. "That's the only thing she was thinking about."