Five Reasons the WFP and Cuomo Should Stick Together

Five Reasons the WFP and Cuomo Should Stick Together

Five Reasons the WFP and Cuomo Should Stick Together
May 29, 2014

If the tea leaves are correct, Governor Cuomo and the Working Families Party (WFP) are headed for a split. Let me try my hand at the political equivalent of marriage counseling. Mistakes have been made on all sides. I think five factors argue for reconciliation rather than divorce, based solely on the interests and priorities of Gov. Cuomo  and the WFP.

First, both the Democrats and the WFP should be realistic about the essence of the statewide electorate. New York is a Democratic, not a liberal state. Polling data has consistently shown that self-described conservatives and liberals are about equal in the state. On top of this ideological balance, in gubernatorial elections, despite New York City’s growing share of both population and registered voters, at least 70 percent of the statewide voting electorate is outside of the city. Of the Democrats’ 3.1 million registration advantage, 2.7 million comes from New York City. Outside of New York City, the Democrats’ registration edge is just under 400,000, but unaffiliated voters (what we think of as independent voters) total 1.6 million. It is basic arithmetic that to win statewide Democrats must carry a large percentage of moderate independents, while holding the votes of moderate and conservative Democrats. Neither Democrats nor the WFP would benefit from a return to the days, as Jimmy Breslin once observed, that as a result of the liberal drift for statewide Democrats "November don’t count." Therefore, both coalition partners have a practical incentive to avoid a split in 2014 becoming a long-term schism. 

Second, the WFP has not crafted itself as an instrument designed to push the Democrats to the left, unlike the state Conservative Party, whose mission was to reduce and ultimately remove the influence of liberal and moderate Republicans in the nominations process. Instead, the WFP attempted to use its endorsements tied to turnout muscle (buttressed by their labor allies) to successfully leverage the enactment of their legislative priorities (e.g., Rockefeller Drug law repeal, same-sex marriage, minimum wage increases, family and paid sick leave, the DREAM Act, the Women’s Equality Act and campaign finance reform). The WFP focused their time and attention on the retail policy market rather than the wholesale ideological market. The WFP did not object to Democrats garnering moderate support as long as their agenda got a fair hearing and made progress. 

Third, the WFP is currently frustrated with their inability to get their remaining priorities, especially public funding of campaigns, through the State Senate. Their frustration is leading them to fall prey to an old liberal blind spot: expecting executive leadership to just deliver legislative victories. That is not how legislative politics works. Executive leadership is a critical element in forging the all-too-brief periods of legislative accomplishment in Washington and Albany. Meanwhile, the real trick is not waving a magic wand, but having a chief executive  forging a sense of enlightened political self -interest, which clears the path for the enactment of major legislation. The Cuomo-led passage of gay marriage, the progressive tax in the 2011 special session, gun control and the minimum wage increase, was actually driven by a mix of carrots and sticks, which persuaded legislators in both houses and from both parties that inaction was politically risky. The precise problem facing the WFP is not that Cuomo is no longer supporting their agenda, but that the Republican Conference, whose numbers dominate the Senate’s majority coalition, is more worried about primary challenges than general election victories. How else do you explain their unwillingness to pass the Women’s Equality Act over the codification of Roe. V. Wade, when that reproductive health plank regularly polls at levels of 4-1 support? 

Fourth, it is time for the WFP and the governor to confront their mutual relationship mistakes. The WFP should stop blaming the governor for their real problem, namely that Republican candidates for the State Senate feel safer avoiding primaries from their right flank than facing tough center-based challenges in general elections, precisely because they combine the endorsements of the Conservative and Independence parties in the swing districts outside New York City. If the WFP wants to crack through the logjam they face in the Senate, wouldn’t it have been more strategic if it made their endorsement of the governor contingent on his not accepting the Independence nomination (presumably making the Independence Party’s quest to remain a third party much more difficult as 2014 could have seen them meet the fate of the old Liberal Party, which lost ballot status in 2002 by not getting 50,000 votes in the gubernatorial election), so that they had more influence in the State Senate races outside New York City that will determine the balance of power in the Senate both philosophically, as well as in terms of the three party conferences? Without the Independence line to contend with in legislative races, the WFP could be a major player not just in the urban cores, but where they need to be to meet their goals: the suburban districts of upstate and downstate. Alternatively, Gov. Cuomo needs to stop forgetting Bill Clinton’s admonition that while Republicans fall in line, Democrats need to fall in love. So when Cuomo’s pragmatic streak kicks in and he is seen by the WFP as dismissively rejecting the legislative priorities that don’t yet have the votes, he needlessly creates tensions not just with the WFP, but with his party’s liberal base. The governor would be wise to adjust and use the bully pulpit to advance measures whether they pass now or in the future. He would also benefit from showing more affection toward his party’s liberal base.

Fifth, the WFP should not be seduced by early polls which show an unnamed progressive candidate getting close to a quarter of the vote on their line against Cuomo in November. History shows almost all third party candidates’ vote totals fall like dead leaves by the time the frost hits the pumpkins around Halloween. In 1966, FDR Jr. dropped from about 25 percent in early polls to a weak fourth. In the 1980 presidential race, the Liberal Party was intoxicated by John Anderson running at just under 30 percent in late summer polls of New York State voters. Anderson wound up with only 7 percent of the vote statewide. Moreover, the WFP should remember that Cuomo will have cards to play to precipitate their vote total to fall. Namely, Cuomo can run hard on the issues progressive voters care about: women’s equality, the DREAM Act and climate change. Moreover, the governor has the resources to spotlight those issues for liberal voters and to scare them in regard to his Republican opponent. Worst of all, from the WFP perspective, if the unions long affiliated with the WFP bolt, helping the Governor form a new third party, the WFP might have a long-term competitor on the left. So by not endorsing Cuomo the WFP might not only lose a chance to knock out the Independence Party, but they could unwittingly create a strongly resourced competitor on the liberal side; a parallel filled with irony given what the ILGWU and the Hatters Union did under Dubinsky and Rose in creating the Liberal Party, which ultimately eclipsed the once successful American Labor Party. 

When one fully assesses the downsides to a split between Cuomo and the WFP, from their perspectives not mine, the upside of their coming together is all that separates them from Barbara Tuchman having to come back to consider adding a chapter to her classic about the march of folly.


Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany. 

Gyory discusses this column in a City & State TV interview you can view here. 

Placeholder blue outline avatar
Bruce N. Gyory