The WFP won. That’s why it could go extinct.

A dodo bird.
A dodo bird.
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The WFP won. That’s why it could go extinct.

Working Families was founded by outsiders to make New York more progressive. Now that progressivism is mainstream, what’s left?
October 20, 2019

On a balmy night in September, Maurice Mitchell, the new national director of the Working Families Party, introduced a leading presidential contender to thousands of her delirious supporters. “Repeat after me: People power! People power!” Mitchell shouted to crowd thronging Washington Square Park. “In the past few months, the Working Families Party had a deliberative process that included state chapters, members and supporters. I couldn’t be prouder to say this morning we announced our support for (U.S.) Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic nomination!”

Mitchell stepped back from the podium, his lips closed with satisfaction, as the crowd began to roar. For Warren, who entered the race as an underdog to household names like former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the rally was an affirmation of her place in the top tier of the presidential field.

For the WFP, it was something like an apotheosis: a once-fledgling political party, launched at a nadir for progressive politics, had arrived on the national stage, backing a lefty candidate who may go all the way. Mitchell’s blue and white WFP sticker, pasted over his heart, was visible for everyone to see.

But all was not well, because nothing is ever so simple with the most prominent and powerful third party in New York’s history. The WFP’s decision to endorse Warren had enraged backers of Sanders, who was the party’s choice in 2016, when the self-described socialist launched an insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton that captivated millions. Jacobin, a magazine that serves as the house organ for socialists and their preferred candidates, declared the WFP had “written itself out of history.” Leftists canceled their monthly donations to the party. WFP staffers were harassed online, enduring threats that were racist and sexist in nature.

Anger festered among Sanders’ supporters as the WFP refused to say how exactly Warren won the internal vote. Half of the votes came from just 56 delegates on the national committee, while the other half were drawn from an estimated 10,000 dues-paying members and progressive activists. Some of the delegates lead large community organizations that belong to the party, like New York Communities for Change. These leaders largely preferred Warren.

The fallout threatened to destabilize coalitions the WFP has forged and maintained over its 21-year existence. For all its boasts of increasing its national power – the WFP now organizes in 18 states, including Wisconsin, Colorado and Connecticut, plus Washington, D.C. – it is chiefly a New York force.

In the past year and a half, the WFP has played a pivotal role in flipping the New York state Senate to Democratic control and nearly elected a democratic socialist, Tiffany Cabán, as Queens district attorney. The policy victories in Albany have been significant: new voting laws, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, stronger rent regulations and a far-reaching plan to combat climate change.

“The WFP has effectively moved New York politics to the left and given a real voice to progressives,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a progressive consultant who has worked for Sanders and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “They gave progressives an alternative vehicle to make their voices heard outside of the traditional Democratic Party machine that runs New York.”

Yet the WFP inhabits a precarious moment. Its mortal enemy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is alleged to be behind an ongoing effort to end fusion voting in New York, which could severely undercut the party. Many powerful labor unions, once its lucrative backbone, left the party last year under pressure from the governor. And the leftist movements they helped build have arguably overtaken the party. Groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats – with their lodestar, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – represent a new vanguard of the left: more radical, unapologetic and disdainful of the Democratic Party.

“Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders dramatically reshaped the landscape of New York and national politics. When Ocasio-Cortez won, you saw the apex of that reconfiguration.” – Bob Master, a WFP founder

The WFP, in many ways, could become a victim of its own success. Before the left’s ascent over the past few years, they were the uber-progressives. The governor views them as enough of a player to try to end them. If a state commission set up to allow the public financing of political campaigns manages to kill fusion voting, the lifeblood of New York’s third parties, the WFP would hobble on having already won the war.

“Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders dramatically reshaped the landscape of New York and national politics. When Ocasio-Cortez won, you saw the apex of that reconfiguration,” said Bob Master, a prominent labor leader and a founder of the WFP. “All of a sudden, you have a new set of actors who are independent of institutional foundations. And these actors are doing things that even a couple of years ago seemed unimaginable.”

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Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a rally in Washington Square Park.
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Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a rally in Washington Square Park.
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Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a rally in Washington Square Park.
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Thousands flocked to an Elizabeth Warren rally at Washington Square Park. The WFP took heat from leftists for backing Warren over Bernie Sanders.
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Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a rally in Washington Square Park.
Image Credit: 
lev radin/Shutterstock

The leftward movement of New York politics represents exactly what the WFP sought to accomplish when it was founded in 1998. At the time, Rudy Giuliani was in his second term as mayor of New York City. George Pataki, another Republican, was the governor of New York, and Republicans had an ironclad grip on the state Senate. Conservative Republicans had taken control of Congress and passed a welfare reform bill that slashed benefits and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, who had declared “the era of big government is over.”

The WFP, a brainchild of Dan Cantor, Joel Rogers and labor leaders such as Master, had its origins in something called the New Party, a third party founded in the early 1990s to be a home for progressive Democrats and organized labor frustrated with the Democrats’ rightward drift. The New Party had national ambitions: to bring fusion voting to every state in America, so left-leaning third parties could cross-endorse Democrats and – by threatening to withhold that endorsement – drive them left.

Through legal challenges (most states bar fusion voting), the New Party hoped to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court and have laws preventing fusion voting ruled unconstitutional, but it lost at the Supreme Court in 1997, effectively killing the party.

In 1998, to gain party status in New York, the WFP needed to secure 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election. Their only option was to back the Democratic candidate, Peter Vallone Sr., a conservative Democrat who, as speaker of the New York City Council, had worked closely with Giuliani. It would be the first of several seemingly contradictory alliances the WFP would forge to protect its livelihood.

“Labor didn’t really have as much clout in the Democratic Party at the time as it should have had,” said Sal Albanese, a former Democratic member of the City Council who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1997, 2013 and 2017. Along with Master, Albanese pushed for the idea of a third party that would center the concerns of private and public sector labor unions, building around an agenda of raising wages for workers and combating government spending cutbacks. The party would also include influential community organizations committed to liberal causes, like ACORN. “We put a ground operation together, urging people to vote on the WFP line,” Albanese said.

On election night, Vallone lost to Pataki and it appeared the WFP would not garner 50,000 votes. Master stood up to give a concession speech at a Lower East Side pizzeria. In the audience was a young political operative named Bill de Blasio, who would hitch his political fortunes to the WFP in the coming years.

The votes continued to roll in late into the night and the WFP narrowly cleared the threshold, securing its place on the ballot for the first time. As a political party, it would have a ballot line to lend to Democrats and gain the ability to spend much more aggressively on its endorsed candidates.

The victory had even greater symbolic value. For decades, New York had been home to important progressive third parties, fueled largely by organized labor. In the 1930s, the American Labor Party was New York City’s social justice conscience, battling with Tammany Hall to help elect Fiorello La Guardia as mayor. At its peak, the party enjoyed a neighborhood presence to rival the Democrats, with thriving political clubs across the city.

The collapse of the American Labor Party during the anti-Communist 1940s and 1950s gave way to another WFP predecessor: the Liberal Party. Founded by labor leaders to be an anti-Communist alternative for the left, the Liberal Party was influential in the 1960s and 1970s, helping to elect important figures like New York City Mayor John Lindsay. It also controversially contributed to some conservative Republican victories – including Ronald Reagan for president and Alfonse D’Amato for U.S. Senate in 1980 – by endorsing its own candidates for those offices instead of the Democratic nominees.

By the 1990s, the Liberal Party had cemented its move rightward, backing Giuliani for mayor and morphing into a corruption-plagued patronage mill. Its transformation created an opening for the WFP.

“You can’t have a fight between the left and Democrats with Republicans in control,” said Bill Lipton, the WFP’s New York state director and one of its longest-tenured staffers. “We formed this institution to challenge that.”

The party changed New York by electing more Democrats who cared about raising the minimum wage, beefing up tenant protections and creating a fairer criminal justice system. The effort began in earnest in 2001, when the WFP successfully backed a small number of New York City Council members in Democratic primaries, including James Sanders Jr. in Queens. It was not a major player in that year’s mayoral race – billionaire Michael Bloomberg would pull off the upset over Mark Green – and de Blasio himself was elected to the City Council. But the groundwork was being laid for a legislative takeover.

Unlike other third parties, the WFP would mostly influence elections by supporting progressive-minded Democrats in primaries. In the general election, winning candidates appeared on the ballot line for a handful of extra votes.

“(They say) you can’t have a fight between the left and Democrats with Republicans in control. We formed this institution to challenge that.” – Bill Lipton, WFP state director

Each cycle, more WFP-friendly Democrats joined the City Council. There was the future speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and the future state attorney general, Letitia James, who were elected in the next couple elections. James was unique for the circumstances of her win: one of the rare candidates to triumph exclusively on the WFP line in a one-of-a-kind special election to replace a slain City Council member.

In 2009, the wave crested much higher: the WFP-backed insurgents Jumaane Williams, Jimmy Van Bramer and Daniel Dromm won Democratic primaries and arrived in the City Council, along with Brad Lander, another close ally, and Deborah Rose. De Blasio, a top-priority candidate for the WFP, was the new public advocate. John Liu, another the WFP-endorsed Democrat, was elected city comptroller, becoming New York’s first Asian American elected citywide.

Beyond the five boroughs, the victories were piling up. In 2004, the WFP threw its full weight behind Democrat David Soares, who unseated the more conservative Albany County district attorney in a primary. Soares ran on reforming New York’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which brought steep, mandatory prison sentences for people convicted of drug crimes. Not long after Soares’ win, state lawmakers voted to significantly soften the laws.

The dramatic Soares victory mattered for another reason, one that hangs over the WFP today as the state Public Campaign Financing Commission threatens to tie the end of fusion voting to creating a system of publicly financed campaigns. Until now, the party has been allowed to spend virtually unlimited amounts of cash on favored candidates, in full coordination with the candidates’ campaigns. A 2006 state Supreme Court case upheld the WFP’s lavish spending on behalf of Soares, striking down limitations the state Board of Elections had placed on party expenditures during primaries. The WFP’s cash reserves, fed at that time by unions, could be put to full use.

Meanwhile, the WFP would make the sort of alliances it hopes history will forget. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, now the state Senate majority leader, was not a WFP candidate when she first ran for the Senate in 2004, losing by just 18 votes. The WFP endorsed her Republican opponent, Nicholas Spano. Spano was more labor-friendly than the typical Republican; when Stewart-Cousins ran again in 2006, the WFP stayed neutral, rather than back her outright.

Though the WFP would work enthusiastically to retake control of the state Senate in 2008, playing decisive roles in electing Democrats on Long Island and in the North Country, the liberal third party would triangulate too. Labor unions needing favors from the Republican-controlled state Senate would back the GOP over Democrats, and the WFP, loathe to alienate its labor allies, would do the same in certain cases.

“They were supportive of Joe Bruno when he was the Republican (state Senate) majority leader for many years,” said a labor leader who worked with the WFP at the time and requested anonymity to speak frankly. “They refused to support Democratic candidates in marginal districts.”

By the 10-year anniversary of its founding, the formula for the WFP’s success was quite clear: unite influential labor unions with party activists, undergirding it all with a highly effective canvassing operation. This for-profit operation would have a formal name, Data and Field Services, and endorsed candidates would pay for its services. In 2009, one of City & State’s predecessor publications, City Hall, published an investigative series about the WFP’s relationship with Data and Field Services, prompting federal and local investigations. After the 2009 cycle, Randy Mastro, a Republican attorney, filed a lawsuit alleging the WFP was circumventing campaign finance laws by offering its services to endorsed candidates at illegally reduced rates. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York launched a probe as well, though no charges were filed.

Enough damage was done. In 2011, the WFP reached a settlement with Mastro, paying $100,000 to cover his legal fees and agreeing to shut down Data and Field Services. Its prized outside canvassing arm was no more.

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Attorney General Letitia James taking the oath of office.
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Attorney General Letitia James taking the oath of office.
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Attorney General Letitia James taking the oath of office.
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Letitia James was an outsider when she won her New York City Council seat exclusively on the Working Families Party line. Now she’s the establishment-backed state attorney general.
Description: 
Attorney General Letitia James taking the oath of office.
Image Credit: 
lev radin/Shutterstock

The WFP, through necessity and savvy, has reinvented itself several times over, morphing internally as its façade has remained largely unchanged from its founding days. In the 2000s, it was the party of organized labor, with a for-profit canvassing arm attached.

In 2010, Andrew Cuomo was elected governor, forever altering the party’s trajectory. In New York City politics, all would be well. The 2013 cycle was triumphant: de Blasio was elected mayor, James became public advocate and the City Council chose Mark-Viverito as its speaker.

The City Council, more conservative in the Bloomberg years, went into full progressive bloom. A new law guaranteeing paid sick days to city workers, a long-standing priority for the WFP, was passed within weeks of de Blasio taking office, after Bloomberg and his allies had bottled it up for a decade.

There were wrinkles, however, that hinted at trouble ahead. De Blasio’s victory in the Democratic mayoral primary was not a product of the WFP’s foresight, because the party’s labor affiliates could not agree on a candidate to endorse, forcing the party to remain neutral. Those close to Mark-Viverito credited 1199SEIU, the all-powerful health care workers union, with twisting arms on the City Council to elect her, not the WFP.

And then there was Cuomo. The governor, a centrist in the New Democrat mold, called for capping property tax increases, expanding charter schools and accepted bipartisan rule that would keep Republicans in power.

The state’s heavyweight unions, such as 1199SEIU, warmed to Cuomo – or at least learned to properly fear him.

The WFP 2.0. was born in 2014, when progressive activists backed Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout’s primary campaign against Cuomo. The party’s labor union affiliates sided with Cuomo, while the party’s grassroots members argued for Teachout. In the end, to guarantee 50,000 votes in the general election, the WFP endorsed Cuomo.

A deal was struck with the help of de Blasio, who enjoyed a closer relationship with Cuomo at the time: The WFP would endorse Cuomo if the governor agreed to back a host of liberal priorities, including raising the minimum wage and campaigning for Democratic state Senate candidates. In the end, Republicans kept control of the Senate that fall, riding a national wave. Cuomo hardly helped the Democrats at all. He resented having to bargain with WFP at all, which he dismissed as a “fringe” party.

Cuomo’s office did not return requests for comment about his history with WFP.

“I understand their need to be transactional for survival’s sake, but that also calls into question the foundation of their validity.” – state Sen. John Liu, former WFP candidate

The Teachout dilemma, for the first time, would also throw the WFP’s transactional nature into the public eye. That fall – as part of a deal that ultimately fell apart to reunite state Senate Democrats with a breakaway faction of Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference – the WFP withdrew its support from two Democrats running against IDC members.

“I have been turned off by how transactional they have been – not just in my case but in many other instances as well,” said Liu, one of the candidates who lost the WFP’s backing in 2014 and lost the primary. “I understand their need to be transactional for survival’s sake, but that also calls into question the foundation of their validity.”

In 2018, the WFP finally spurned Cuomo during the Democratic gubernatorial primary and selected Cynthia Nixon as its nominee, even though the WFP eventually switched back to Cuomo after he won the Democratic nomination. Under pressure from Cuomo, labor unions began abandoning the WFP. The unions had been a consistent source of cash and ground troops. Without them, the WFP would have to hunt for new sources of revenue.

 

What is the WFP? On one hand, that’s an easy question to answer: a progressive political party that, these days, only cross-endorses Democrats. But the WFP doesn’t organize political clubs, like the old American Labor Party, and doesn’t encourage too many of its supporters to register as members of the party, lest they sacrifice clout in Democratic primaries. Some major unions have remained in the party, including the New York State Nurses Association and New York State United Teachers.

Their power today derives from how they serve as a nerve center for the professional left. The WFP itself can’t deploy 100 people to knock on doors, but member organizations like Make the Road New York, Citizen Action of New York and New York Communities for Change can.

Activist energy no longer exclusively resides within the WFP. Even though its rank-and-file membership may outnumber the Democratic Socialists of America’s, the more than 5,500 members of the democratic socialist organization’s New York City branch are far more willing to volunteer for favored candidates.

Grassroots organizations, including the Indivisible chapters, True Blue NY and No IDC NY, arose to furiously challenge the Republican Party’s grip on the state Senate. They set their sights on the eight Independent Democratic Conference members who had formed a power-sharing agreement with the GOP, confronting them at raucous town halls and alerting formerly apolitical neighbors to their existence.

Though the WFP had been a critic of the IDC and Cuomo, it was the new grassroots organizations that initially led the effort to oust the IDC. Activists involved credit the WFP with lending direction to the anti-IDC movement, which was led by people unfamiliar with the labyrinthine nature of New York politics. “They would host meetings with various grassroots leaders very early on,” said Susan Kang, a founder of No IDC NY. “Most of us who jumped in early were new to state politics. We didn’t have the institutional knowledge. We didn’t know who the key people to speak to were.”

The WFP pulled lists of registered Democrats so the freshly formed organizations could start calling voters long before the primary. On behalf of the IDC challengers, the party paid for staff, digital ad campaigns and rebranded the IDC members as “Trump Democrats.”

The WFP evolved, in essence, into the pro bono political consultant of a movement that could exist independent of the party.

There was one notable missed opportunity: A 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders organizer was running against the Queens Democratic Party boss, Joseph Crowley.

In 2018, the WFP 2.0. hit a new peak. Six out of the eight anti-IDC candidates won their races. Left-wing novice Julia Salazar, aided by the WFP and DSA, unseated Democratic state Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan, who was perceived by some as too close to the real estate industry. Though the insurgents they supported for governor and lieutenant governor, Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams, were unsuccessful, their campaigns won plaudits from the grassroots left, the very people the WFP now relied on most, and Williams came surprisingly close to upsetting Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

There was, however, one notable missed opportunity for the party: A 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders organizer was running for Congress against the Queens Democratic Party boss, Joseph Crowley. DSA, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats had formed a coalition that was generating buzz. The candidate’s visage was popping up everywhere from widely distributed campaign literature to national news outlets.

But the WFP’s leadership was wary of endorsing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom they hardly knew. Crowley may have been a moderate who supported the Iraq War, but he had close relationships with organized labor and was on track to someday become speaker of the House. In a year of warfare against Cuomo and the IDC, the WFP didn’t believe picking a fight with Crowley was worth their time.

Crowley took the WFP endorsement and went down with it. As Ocasio-Cortez’s celebrity grew, the WFP was stuck with Crowley on its ballot line, lacking legal options to kick him off.

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Christine Marinoni, Cynthia Nixon and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams attending a rally to get names on the Democratic Party primary ballot in 2018.
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Christine Marinoni, Cynthia Nixon and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams attending a rally to get names on the Democratic Party primary ballot in 2018.
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Christine Marinoni, Cynthia Nixon and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams attending a rally to get names on the Democratic Party primary ballot in 2018.
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The WFP backed Jumaane Williams for City Council and when he ran for lieutenant governor alongside Cynthia Nixon. Now he’s public advocate, the second-highest office in New York City.
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Christine Marinoni, Cynthia Nixon and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams attending a rally to get names on the Democratic Party primary ballot in 2018.
Image Credit: 
lev radin/Shutterstock

This year may be remembered as another pivot point for the WFP. Again, they played grizzled political consultant and benefactor to another movement that began without them, endorsing Tiffany Cabán, a young public defender and DSA member, for Queens district attorney. When the campaign was struggling to raise cash, the WFP hired a veteran campaign manager and paid for other field organizers. The major labor unions backed the front-runner, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. After a monthslong recount and court battle, Katz won by a mere 55 votes.

To the democratic socialists who knocked doors daily for Cabán, the WFP was the trusted elder statesman of the resurgent left. When a new public financing commission, with Cuomo’s tacit blessing, began to consider whether to ban fusion voting in New York, the DSA – which would be entirely unimpacted – released a statement in support of keeping fusion voting.

With or without fusion voting, the WFP has left a permanent mark on the political firmament. It has now existed longer than the American Labor Party, its legacy secure. “You could see it as a successful extension of the strategies around since the big growth of unions in the 1930s,” said Joshua Freeman, a professor of labor history at the CUNY Graduate Center.

If Warren is elected the next president, the WFP would have its first White House ally, which could yield all kinds of clout and spoils. But there are those on the left, dedicated to Sanders’ democratic socialism, who will long remember the day the WFP broke with them.

It’s unclear what the WFP can do for a Warren campaign that has already raised a lot of money and spent heavily on building its field operation in early primary states. Even WFP-friendly activists have quietly questioned the wisdom of wading so early into a contest between two candidates beloved by the left, as well as the party’s muddled defense of the decision to endorse Warren in the days after the announcement. Kang, the anti-IDC activist who helped convince the DSA to back Cynthia Nixon for governor a year ago, canceled her monthly donation to the WFP, redirecting it to the Sanders campaign instead.

In 2020, the liberal grassroots organizations of New York are plotting primary challenges to members of the Assembly deemed insufficiently progressive. Whether the WFP wants to partake in that battle, threatening its relationship with the Assembly speaker, remains to be seen.

The WFP 3.0., with its new national renown, may be its strongest iteration yet – or the version that loses the zeitgeist altogether.

Correction: This article originally neglected to include Joel Rogers as a WFP co-founder. 

Ross Barkan
is a writer, journalist, and former State Senate candidate
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