New York City

Cabán campaign shows WFP’s real purpose

While technically a minor political party in New York, the WFP has evolved into a top-notch political consultant and political action committee and that is their real value in the political process, writes Ross Barkan.

Tiffany Cabán campaigning on the day of the Queens District Attorney primary.

Tiffany Cabán campaigning on the day of the Queens District Attorney primary. Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

The Working Families Party – a two-decades old progressive third party – was an instrumental backer of Tiffany Cabán, the young public defender who could still pull off a stunning upset in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney when all the votes have been counted. Cabán was an ideal WFP candidate: a queer Latina and unabashed leftist running to shake up the criminal justice system. Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, whom she trails by just 16 votes, was not. Katz has a liberal policy platform, but she was a creature of the moderate, real estate industry-backed Queens Democratic Party with which the WFP has frequently clashed.

The WFP is increasingly winning its battles with the Democratic establishment. The Cabán campaign came less than a year after the WFP, along with other progressive organizations, threw its weight behind the progressive insurgents who defeated members of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, helping to reshape Albany. And it arrived mere months after the WFP helped elect Jumaane Williams as public advocate. “WFP has shown they are a political powerhouse,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic consultant who has worked with the WFP. “They help where it counts.”

While technically a minor political party in New York, the WFP has evolved into a top-notch political consultant and political action committee. The party may have unintentionally demonstrated that is their real added value in the political process, rather than operating as a separate full-fledged political party. And that may undercut the party’s argument for keeping fusion voting – in part because Cabán herself, unlike many of their endorsed candidates, does not have the WFP ballot line for the general election. But, if fusion voting does die, the WFP is well-positioned to keep doing what it does best: finding and promoting promising progressive candidates in the Democratic primaries.

Although the WFP has a ballot line it must earn every four years by netting at least 50,000 votes in the statewide gubernatorial election, it does not operate like a true political party. It rarely fields its own candidates. Instead, it cross-endorses Democrats who align with its progressive values. There are very few WFP political clubs statewide and they are, even by the party’s own admission, not very active.

The WFP does not encourage left-leaning voters to enroll in their party. They are more influential if they enroll as Democrats, to vote in the all-important Democratic primaries. As rare as it is for the WFP to field a candidate on their own ballot line for a general election, it’s even rarer to witness a WFP primary. The few registered WFP members in New York exist to sign petitions to ensure a Democrat can have their ballot line. (State law says a countywide NYC candidate must gather signatures from 5 percent of enrolled voters in a political party or 4,000 members, whichever number is smaller. Party leadership can choose to put a candidate not enrolled into their party on their ballot line through the obscure Wilson Pakula law, but that only works when a candidate already occupies the ballot beforehand. Since no candidate in the DA’s race petitioned to be on the WFP line, no candidate can be plopped onto it for the general election.)

Fusion voting, only allowed in a handful of states nationwide including New York, has been touted as a key to WFP’s success. A Democrat running with the WFP’s endorsement gets WFP’s ballot line in the general election, in addition to the Democratic nod. In some contested general elections, the extra votes from the WFP line can occasionally make a difference. Having a ballot line also lends some degree of credibility with progressive voters.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a WFP nemesis, is a fusion-voting skeptic, and a new commission will evaluate fusion’s future and other electoral changes later this year.

The reason Cabán doesn’t have the WFP line in the Queens DA race this November, according to WFP sources, was simple logistics. Cabán launched her campaign in January, petitioning was in March, and WFP didn’t have time to both help guide her campaign and undertake the relatively arduous task of hunting down registered WFP voters to sign ballot petitions. (Their formal endorsement came in April, after petitioning season.)

That doesn’t harm her prospects in overwhelmingly Democratic New York City because Cabán would only need the Democratic line to win the general election, assuming she gets there.

If a political party doesn’t care how many registered members it has, rarely fields its own candidates, and possesses a ballot line that can be entirely disregarded in certain races, what makes it a political party? A statement of values, which the WFP certainly has. But so do many political membership organizations that aren’t electoral parties, like the Democratic Socialists of America, and various political action committees committed to liberal or conservative causes.

“They’re an interest group and a consulting firm – sometimes they take money, other times they don’t,” said Jerry Skurnik, a longtime Democratic consultant. “In my mind, the main thing about Cabán is that she’s not going to appear on the Working Families line in November and it doesn’t matter… they’re certainly not anywhere near a traditional political party.”

For most of its history, WFP was described as a marriage between organized labor and progressive activists. The party was founded to push politics to the left in an era when New York state had a Republican governor and New York City had a Republican mayor. Unions sought influence through the WFP, lending it money and manpower to help elect certain Democrats. The political careers of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York state Attorney General Letitia James, for example, owe much to the party.

The marriage could be awkward: labor leaders are more accommodating to political power brokers than party activists. Cuomo, a centrist, drove a wedge between these two groups when he sought re-election in 2014. Leftists in the WFP hated Cuomo, while big labor wanted to work with him. The result was a schism that weakened WFP, at least temporarily. Major funders departed, including the United Federation of Teachers and 1199 SEIU.

Some organized labor remains, including the New York State Nurses Association, but progressive organizations and activists now dominate. It’s this umbrella coalition that makes a WFP endorsement valuable in the first place. The WFP itself is a small organization with relatively few volunteers it can deploy to a campaign, but Make the Road New York’s political arm, VOCAL NY, and New York Communities for Change all can collectively lend a volunteer army. In the Cabán race, they all worked in concert and took their political cues from WFP.

For fledgling campaigns, the WFP is the consultant with the institutional memory that can also legally pay for things the campaign cannot afford. WFP hired Cabán’s campaign manager, Luke Hayes, and paid for other staff operatives with WFP, who have worked on many campaigns, offered expertise and guidance to DSA organizers (DSA was an early endorser) who had little experience with borough-wide campaigns. WFP also sent fundraising emails to their list on behalf of Cabán.

In the past, the WFP has sought reimbursement for the services they provide. Under more flexible state election law (relative to New York City) with much higher in-kind contribution limits, they don’t have to seek it or report it, saving the Cabán campaign tens of thousands of dollars.

Like a political action committee, the party can spend lavishly on behalf of chosen candidates. They can pay for direct mail and digital campaigns. As a political party, they are free to coordinate with campaigns, allowing for a best-of-both-worlds scenario: big spending with fewer restrictions.

The Cabán campaign represented a new frontier for the WFP in the wake of the departure of several major labor unions several years ago. In addition to cash, these unions offered ground troops. On Election Day, unions can deploy thousands of their own to poll sites and doors, as well as tell members through mailings and phone calls who they should vote for. Beyond organized labor and some progressive organizations, like Make the Road, one of the only other political groups in city politics able to marshal any kind of large volunteer force is DSA.

It was DSA’s large volunteer base – the city chapter boasts over 5,000 members, with many of them helping out on the limited number of campaigns DSA gets involved in – that complemented the consulting, for lack of a better term, WFP did. And this could be a model for future races, though DSA’s politics are more radical and less institutionalist than WFP’s.

Were fusion voting eliminated – this remains a long shot – a closer working relationship with DSA could ensure WFP remains the political power on the left. “I think that DSA and WFP really showed what we can do working together and also WFP has really demonstrated it almost has a second lease on life in the wake of Cuomo trying to kill it,” said Michael Kinnucan, a DSA electoral activist. “It’s something we should be deeply relieved about.”