Break The Machine: In Newark, Imani Oakley Launches Left-Wing Challenge to Entrenched Democratic Congressman

“I’m going to be a fighter for the people,” says the former legislative staffer who broke with the Jersey machine early in her career and is now running to replace Donald Payne Jr. who inherited his congressional seat from his father 10 years ago.

John Tarleton Jul 6, 2021

Imani Oakley has witnessed the machinations of the New Jersey Democratic Party machine from the inside as a young legislative staffer and fought it from the outside as policy director for the NJ Working Families Party. Earlier today, Oakley announced she is running for Congress in New Jersey’s 10th congressional district which encompasses Newark. The primary will be held next June. Oakley is taking on one of the machine’s dynastic heirs, Donald Payne, Jr. who inherited the seat from his father in 2012. 

Oakley, 31, says Payne has done little with his office over the past decade to improve the lives of his constituents. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of Squad members like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush each of whom upset disengaged, status quo incumbents in recent years. Shortly before Oakley announced her candidacy, she spoke with The Indypendent about why she’s running, her personal history she brings to the race and what she hopes to achieve if she pulls off the upset.

The Indypendent: Why are you running? Why do you think New Jersey-10 needs a new congressperson?

“I know how New Jersey’s machine politics works,” Oakley says. “I understand exactly what the pressure points are.” 

Imani Oakley: The quick answer is that New Jersey’s 10th congressional district truly deserves a representative in Congress who isn’t afraid to one take on New Jersey’s establishment and stand for democracy. We are a very strong machine politics state with a very strict party boss system, where the party bosses often put elected officials into positions of power, simply to be Yes Men for them. And it tends to benefit them financially or politically.

I want to fight for the marginalized communities that are too often shunned and pushed aside. This district is number one, not only in the state, but in the entirety of the country for mortgage and foreclosure issues. And I think a big part of that is because developers here really, really donate a lot to the Democrats here. And I think people just do not fight back against them. Our congressman, Donald Payne Jr., inherited his seat from his father 10 years ago and has done nothing with it. 

Congressman Donald Payne Jr. Photo: Wikimedia.

You say Donald Payne Jr. hasn’t done much. But what is there in your personal and professional history that makes you qualified to replace him?

I’ve lived in this district my entire life, and I have lived the issues that affect my constituents. I think it’s important to have that shared, intimate experience of hardships. 

In my case, we almost had our family’s home foreclosed on while I was in law school. I was diagnosed with asthma when I was two-years-old. The same thing happens to many other Black and brown children in the district. We consistently receive D’s and F’s on air quality in the area. I understand what it’s like to sometimes not be able to afford a $200 life-saving inhaler, which is why we need policies like Medicare for all. I also have a considerable amount of experience in government and politics.

How so?

I’ve been a constituent advocate in the office of Senator Cory Booker. I’ve worked for a New Jersey assemblywoman and I’ve been policy director for the New Jersey Working Families Party. 

When I worked for Senator Booker, part of my portfolio was foreclosure and mortgage issues. I also worked on consumer protection, as well as taxes and student loans. I left Senator Booker’s office because I felt he wasn’t left enough. He was about to run for president. He has this assumption that most of the country is moderate, and his advisors were trying to brand him as a moderate even though if you look at the polling on individual policies across the nation, people’s views are really in line with the Left.

In addition to challenging machine politics, Oakley is running as a champion of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, reduced military spending and justice for the Palestinian people.

After that, I went to work for Assemblywoman Britnee Timerlake. She is a young, millennial Black woman with a really progressive image. But I saw her back away from her positions on a millionaire’s tax and a version of marijuana reform that had really good social justice and equity provisions because senior party leaders told her to. I did not respect that. I went on to become the policy director of New Jersey Working Families Party. I felt like I’m not built to work for a politician. I need to be working in a space where I know I’m fighting for the right things all the time and full throttle. I then went on to work for Movement School, which is an organization that teaches people of color and folks in marginalized backgrounds how to run campaigns. 

I think that amalgamation of experiences really makes me ready to take on Donald Payne and run for Congress, because I know how New Jersey’s machine politics works. I can speak from experience as to how exploitative they are. I understand exactly what the pressure points are. I’m actually going to be a fighter for the people. I’m not going to get along with the machine and just go along with whatever they say. I also have the experience of working in legislative spaces to be ready as a congresswoman on day one to get to work. 

Before we move on to other issues, can you talk a little bit more about the nuts and bolts of how machine politics works and how they absorb any idealist who tries to work within their ranks?

If you say I want to get involved in politics, the first thing they ask is “Are you connected to somebody important that I have to listen to?”  If that doesn’t work out, they say “How much have you donated to the party?” If that doesn’t check out, then they say, “I’m going to have you do grunt work for free, and see if you are good at just being a yes person. I’m going to run terrible people, for your community, people that do nothing to help your community. And I want to see if you get along with the get along; if you just shut up and tell me yes.” 

Then you do that for a number of years. And they then look at you and say, “okay, you’re loyal. So now I’m going to put you up for a position.”

If you go on a commission or a board, they’re still testing your loyalty. The expectation is that if there is some type of regulation that they need to come down is that you do it because they said so. It’s wildly corrupt. Decisions should be made for the benefit of the people, not the party bosses. 

So you believe a left-wing agenda will resonate with voters?

Yes, especially with a district like mine, which is D + 34. This is a district where no Republican ever has a chance of winning. We really deserve to have a fighter that will go full throttle on all of these issues, and really push the needle forward with the policies that we need: The Green Deal, Medicare for All, holding banks accountable, affordable housing, all those things. 

If you win this race, will you align yourself with the Squad?

Absolutely. I think what they’re doing is brilliant. I would like to join them and help them build their bloc because while their policies are great, they do need to increase their numbers. 

Listen to a different interview with Oakley on WBAI 99.5 FM the day she announced her candidacy.

How do you see your primary challenge in the context of a generational divide in Black politics?  The Congressional Black Caucus has a number of long-term incumbents like Donald Payne who are closely aligned with the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.

The thing about the Black vote is that Black voters tend to vote for survival. Our choices have not been great in the past, and especially older Black voters tend to be more cautious because they lived through a whole bunch of ills that really makes them be voters for survival. But now that we’re getting younger voters of color, who are coming of age to vote, what’s happening now is that we want more than just to survive. We want to thrive. 

We’re up to our eyeballs in student debt, constantly working gig jobs. The economy is great for corporations and billionaires but not for working people. We need to ask ourselves, do we want people in Congress who are fighters or do we want people who will barely show up in the district and barely fight for anything? Do you want somebody who will just kind of show up to a congressional committee meeting in their boxers the way Donald Payne recently did?

I want to remove the idea of who’s up next, and wait your turn, and really just look at what young people of color, especially young Black people need in their representatives. I think that they really should start to come on board with folks like me, who are really challenging people like Donald Payne who are not fighting for their people.

Do you identify as a Socialist?

I do. I’m running as a Democrat, to be clear, but if you ask me where on the spectrum I land, I would say I am a socialist. Socialism has been painted as a dirty word, not only by conservatives, but also by moderate Democrats when they want to shove aside the Left. But really at its core, socialism is the people coming together and putting our resources together so that the community is benefited. Public schools, public libraries and the fire department are examples of that. 

If you are elected to Congress, you will be responsible for not only domestic matters but international affairs as well. How would you describe your approach to foreign policy and the US’s imperial role in the world?

The attack leftists always get when it comes to implementing progressive policies is “How are you going to pay for it?” Let’s find a way to pay for it by not spending nearly a trillion dollars per year on the military, most of which just sits there or is used to exert unnecessary influence in the world. We’re spending that type of money on weapons to just beat our chests. There’s no purpose to that, especially when you have people who are dying because they cannot afford health care. 

“I want to remove the idea of who’s up next, and wait your turn,” Oakley says, “and really just look at what young people of color, especially young Black people, need in their representatives.”

The other aspect is ending forever wars in the Middle East and bringing the troops home. We should fund projects to help rebuild the devastation and destabilization that we have caused in the region over decades of military campaigns there. Additionally, I am fully committed to defending the humanity, dignity and safety of the Palestinian people. I believe in a free Palestine full-heartedly. As a Black American, seeing what is happening to Palestinian people over there and seeing what’s happening to my people here, there are just immense parallels.

What does a “free Palestine” look like in your mind?

For that, I would actually bring in people who are Palestinians who live in New Jersey, as well as overseas to talk about what that looks like. Me personally, I believe that Palestine should be given to the Palestinians. And there should be some sort of process similar to what South Africa did to create one nation with a new constitution with new laws with an eye towards giving justice to those who have been wronged by the Israeli government. But again, I would like to work with people who are actually Palestinian, to see what they want. I don’t think it would be right for me to dictate that. 

What keeps you going at this stage in the race when you are working the phones eight hours per day and are seen as a long shot. 

I firmly believe that government can really help people, and I want to be a part of that, especially having lived the life that I’ve lived. That’s what keeps me motivated every day. It’s typical campaign knowledge that, as a congressional candidate, you need to do 40 hours a week at least of call time. It’s one of those things where it’s either you do it, and you swim, or you don’t do it. 

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