Julie Won with the People

Her team explains how an independent, left-wing campaign beat New York's liberal establishment.

A few days after Julie Won’s shocking upset in her race for City Council, I met her campaign manager, Eugene Noh, at the coffee shop that just opened across the street from our apartment complex. Noh moved into the building next to mine toward the end of 2020 along with his new bride, Julie Won. Only a few months after becoming her husband, he agreed to be her campaign manager too. For the first year of their marriage, the newlyweds’ apartment would double as their campaign headquarters. It’s true what they say: the personal is political.

Though the cafe had opened its doors a few months prior, I’m not really a coffee drinker, so this was my first time experiencing its deliberately calibrated rustic charm. The picture of professionalism, Noh had arrived ten minutes early for our meeting. I was ten minutes late because I was blow-drying my hair. He graciously declined to make fun of me for that, and even sprang for my iced tea. He was sipping his third Arnold Palmer of the day. Without a real office, he’d been receiving callers here earlier that morning as they came to offer their congratulations to the councilwoman-elect.

Noh’s aesthetic was a perfect fit for the cafe’s atmosphere. Tall, tatted, and stylishly appointed, I couldn’t help but remark on the element of his appearance that did seem a bit out of place: a large “Max Rose for Congress” campaign logo tattooed on his inside forearm. He was Rose’s field director in 2018 and 2020, he explained, and while he had been reasonably confident in his boss’s chances on the first go-round, he was sure that most Democratic House candidates that year were doomed.

“I had access to VAN and so I was seeing data coming in from all over the country, and [Democrats] were way behind their goals on all the metrics - volunteers, voter contact, everything. And I was like, there’s no way they’re winning back the majority.” He felt so certain in this prediction that he bet one of his coworkers that if by some miracle Democrats did pull it off, he’d get the Max Rose campaign logo permanently carved into his skin. Little did he realize just how desperate white suburbanites were to renew their anti-Trump credentials. But Noh is a man of his word, and so now his forearm is the one place in New York City where the Max Rose legacy persists.

Uphill battles on Staten Island weren’t the only experiences that prepared Noh to lead his wife’s campaign. Even before taking the gig with Rose, he was already a veteran of more than a decade of bitter clashes between a rising faction of progressive insurgents and a conservative establishment in Flushing politics. He got his start as an intern in the office of John Liu back in 2007, when Noh was in high school and Liu was serving on the City Council as its first ever Asian member. He later worked on Liu’s successful bid for city comptroller, as well as his less successful campaign for mayor. He helped Ron Kim grind out a squeaker victory in a 5-way primary for State Assembly in 2012, and was campaign manager for Alison Tan’s noble but doomed challenge to the right-wing councilman Peter Koo in 2017.

Noh had another critical advantage that would come in handy for a campaign in the 26th Council District: he grew up here. His parents emigrated from South Korea in the 1980s and settled in Queens, purchasing their own home just a few blocks from where we were sitting. For Noh, the Cool Beans coffee shop is a microcosm of the trends he saw play out before his eyes growing up in the neighborhood. Development brought more economic opportunity and a better quality of life to those who were able to hang on to their homes, but displaced a generation of more vulnerable residents priced out by spiraling rents and property taxes. Now, another generation of working-class New Yorkers is confronting a similar fate.

Those are the people Julie Won wanted as the foundation of her campaign.

According to Noh, the two most important factors that shape a race are the district and the candidate. In his view, both were working in Won’s favor. “Julie wanted to run a campaign focused on the needs of the most marginalized people - immigrants, the working class, people of color.” It was a sound strategy in a district where over half of residents are foreign-born, and where the hollow, glittering towers of Long Island City stand as testaments to the legacy of runaway gentrification. And he thought Won was a uniquely credible voice to deliver a message of radical change.

Julie Won arrived in New York when she was eight years old, after her native South Korea was hit hard by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Her mother had been a culinary professor, her father an entrepreneur who’d found success in a variety of different business ventures. But the downturn was a major shock to the economy, and led to job losses in nearly every sector. Won’s parents found themselves out of work and confronting limited prospects for regaining their hard-won foothold in the middle class. They joined a growing wave of emigration hoping to find better luck abroad, arriving in Astoria in 1998 with Julie and her brother in tow.

Won’s parents were never able to rebuild the life they created in South Korea, but they were able to give their children the chance to build one for themselves. Won studied international relations at Syracuse before moving to DC to work as a consultant at IBM, advising private firms and federal agencies on how to streamline their digital operations. It was there that she first got involved in public life as the district’s Commissioner for Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs. After returning to New York four years ago, she remained active in civic matters but demurred when friends urged her to consider a run for public office. That changed - along with everything else - when the COVID-19 pandemic came to New York.

Her mother was working as a nail technician at a salon in Lower Manhattan, and her father at various odd jobs around the city. Her brother was still living at home and working as a Lyft driver. The closure of nonessential businesses and the collapse in rideshare demand put all three of them out of work. Though New York’s eviction moratorium would ensure they weren’t immediately thrown out on the street, Won didn’t know how long that would last or what kind of assistance would be available after it ended. She decided to start paying her parent’s rent instead of her own, rather than let a backlog accumulate that could serve as grounds for eviction on the chance that no help was coming. She’d duke it out with her own landlord later.

Confronting these kinds of decisions was what pushed Won to run. “She realized it didn’t matter how well she was doing if everyone else around her was suffering,” Noh told me. “Even after things started to open back up, there was all this discussion about the stock market and how well the economy was doing that completely ignored how much working-class people were still suffering. She wanted to be a voice for them.”

But it wasn’t the voice New York’s NGO mafia wanted to hear. Though she had all the qualities they profess to look for, she lacked the one thing she really needed to lock down their support: insider clout. That was something that Amit Bagga had in spades.

A fixture of city politics for years, Bagga is perhaps best known as Anthony Weiner’s chief of staff during his time in Congress, before Weiner was felled by revelations that his sexting was totally cringe. After a brief stint as policy director on his old boss’s comeback mayoral campaign, Bagga went on to hold a number of appointments in the de Blasio administration, most recently as deputy director of its census program.

In Noh’s opinion, this history made Bagga’s support from major liberal institutions - particularly the Working Families Party and its affiliates - a foregone conclusion. “WFP is nothing but an extension of the de Blasio administration,” he told me, noting in particular the influence of the party’s NYC political director Elana Leopold, a former senior aide to the mayor. “They wanted one of their own to have that seat, and they looked at everyone else as a joke.” So much so that they were willing to endure considerable internal upheaval to help him get it.

WFP describes itself as a “three-legged stool” consisting of its individual members, affiliated nonprofits, and affiliated unions. In theory, all three are supposed to have a voice in its endorsement process. But in practice, WFP uses a mathematical formula that assigns different weights to its various constituencies. Not only is any given member chapter just one entity among many with a vote, but their votes count for less than those of the big organizational affiliates. If a split emerges between its own membership and the two other legs of the stool, what the affiliates say goes.

In early 2021, WFP’s Queens chapter voted to endorse Won by a big margin. But when the NYC Regional Advisory Council - WFP’s top decision-making body on which all of its affiliates are represented - met to take up the matter, it was clear that Bagga had the support of the major unions and NGOs.

However, a final vote was delayed after a group of people who worked under Bagga at various city agencies contacted WFP to lobby against his endorsement, alleging that he created a hostile work environment by pursuing petty grudges and encouraging interpersonal conflict among staffers. They added that in their view, Bagga often operated not out of principle, but political expediency. For example, they noted that he avoided publicly criticizing the de Blasio administration’s heavy-handed response to last year’s protests even as hundreds of other city employees spoke out against it.

When this came up at the RAC meeting, a representative of PSC-CUNY suggested that the committee conduct further inquiries into Bagga’s past conduct before proceeding to a vote. While this perturbed other affiliates, they agreed to table the matter. One thing no one wanted to do was endorse Julie Won. A motion to do so made by a representative of WFP’s Queens chapter was soundly defeated.

Rank and file members were incensed. The Queens chapter’s co-chairs penned a letter to WFP’s executive leadership expressing their displeasure with the process and with the affiliates’ cavalier dismissal of their vote. Noh provided me with the full text of the letter, but this excerpt really captures its spirit:

“We have to be honest with ourselves here and if this committee cannot collaborate with the branch’s vote, and possibly even elbow someone else into the WFP endorsement, given that we only have four votes, this ‘three legged stool' concept will continue to be a dream.

We believe and understand that WFP is a coalition of organizations that fights for equity, but from the last RAC vote, 16 organizations and affiliates got overruled by 8 organizations with a bigger vote share. Where is the equity there, when the Queens chapter did all the work to process the endorsement, when the chapter is expected to do all the mobilizing for the party but only have four votes in this committee, easily overruled by the bigger affiliates? where is the equity?

There’s no trust between our chapter and this RAC, and our members are angry. If our vote does not hold, or if another candidate is being elbowed in, we are only an accessory, we are nothing but an auxiliary, pawns that will do the affiliates’ bidding.”

Well, their vote didn’t hold. By the next RAC meeting, opposition to Bagga had melted away, and no update was given about any inquiry into his conduct as a boss. Someone from Make the Road Action motioned to endorse him, and it passed overwhelmingly. Noh watched all of this play out over Zoom in real time.

When I ask him if I can put him on the record as the source for all of this information, Noh responded: “Absolutely. If you want, you can make the title of your article ‘Eugene Noh Says Fuck the Working Families Party.’” Ultimately I went in a different direction, but I liked where he was going with it.

After WFP endorsed Bagga, the rest of New York’s NGO capos followed suit, along with most labor unions and brand-name progressive elected officials. Won was able to snag Ron Kim and John Liu, plus some smaller left-wing groups with real volunteer muscle, like Women of Color for Progress. But if she was going to win against this united opposition, it wouldn’t be through endorsements. It would be at the doors, connecting with voters one by one. After I wrapped up with Noh, I spoke with a member of Won’s field staff who told me how she did just that.

No extraneous expenses. Why rent a campaign office when your apartment will do, and why hire a campaign manager when you’ve got one living in your house? Every nickel they brought in went straight to the six full-time field organizers they hired to blanket the district, plus literature, mailers, and digital ads.

Know your district. Won invested heavily in cultivating relationships with the area’s diverse ethnic enclaves. The single largest non-Anglophone population is Spanish-speakers, so they made sure to hire a Spanish-speaking field organizer. Woodside is also home to sizable Tibetan and Bengali populations, so they hired Tibetan- and Bangla-speaking women as field organizers too. All written materials were always translated into the most prominent languages spoken in the district: Spanish, Bangla, Chinese, Tibetan, and Korean.

Know your voters. When canvassing, organizers would ask voters what the most important issue was in their communities. While many responded with broad themes like transit or healthcare, many more brought up hyper-local topics. That data was recorded and used to constantly refine the website and canvassing scripts to be responsive to the issues on most people’s minds. The single mailer the campaign sent out before Election Day was built around the most common responses to this question.

Make sure your voters know you. The very first question canvassers would ask was whether or not the voter had heard of Won before. This data was recorded and used to identify areas where she had the lowest name ID. They then invested in more general visibility there: postering, billboards, sidewalk chalk. In a ranked choice voting election, they knew how important it was to appear on as many ballots as possible, even in lower rankings. The fact that Won’s lead over Bagga expanded from 173 votes (1%) in round one to 1,611 votes (13%) in round fifteen vindicates that analysis.

Make sure voters know what you stand for. The field staffer I spoke with told me that many people were overwhelmed by the number of candidates and having trouble distinguishing between them on substance. He found that the issues that helped them separate Won from the pack were that she’s a renter (Bagga is a homeowner), one of the few candidates to signDSA’s public safety pledge (Bagga did not), and a political outsider who wasn’t part of the establishment (Bagga was).

So there you have it. The political machine may still be alive, but it certainly isn’t well.