Who's Afraid of Progressive Power?
New York's Democratic nominee for attorney general prevailed in a hotly contested primary this September in a way candidates aren't supposed to these days: by running to the left of his rivals. Under the banner of "economic fairness, social justice and real reform"—and reminding voters that he wrote last year's legislation undoing New York's wildly punitive Rockefeller drug laws—State Senator Eric Schneiderman edged out Kathleen Rice, a former homicide prosecutor.
Schneiderman won with a surge of votes in his native New York City, where at lunchtime on primary day he made his way to downtown Brooklyn, flanked by a pack of elected officials and volunteers. From Governor David Paterson and Congresswoman Yvette Clark to the young City Council aides handing out fliers, Schneiderman's campaigners had one thing in common: an affiliation with the Working Families Party, the most influential progressive force in the state.
Schneiderman came into office in 1998, the year the Working Families Party first secured a spot on New York ballots. Since then, the party has put progressive candidates in office and given the state legislature its first Democratic majority in generations through aggressive outreach to voters—and an unusual feature of New York elections. Under "fusion" voting, candidates in a general election can run as the nominee of more than one party, upending the usual dynamic of third-party politics that curses minor-party candidates with the Nader effect, in which a vote on their party line denies it to a major party nominee. In fusion states, third parties "cross-endorse" major-party candidates so that every vote counts. By tallying voters on their own ballot line, third parties influence turnout—and the agendas of the candidates they support.
Under normal circumstances, Schneiderman, an important Working Families Party ally, would have been a shoo-in for the party's early endorsement. But unlike in every other election he's run in, Schneiderman was not the party's nominee on primary day this year, and his campaigners took great pains to note that they were not there at the party's behest.
The shadow hanging over the race, and the Working Families Party itself, was cast by the current attorney general, Andrew Cuomo. In order to maintain its ballot line, the party needs to win at least 50,000 votes in the governor's race in November. To survive, it has hitched itself to Cuomo as its nominee.
In exchange for his support, Cuomo demanded that the Working Families Party hold off on endorsements for governor and attorney general until after the September primary. He then insisted that the party sign on to his entire policy agenda, which includes a property tax cap, a freeze on state budgets and worker pay, and a reversal of one of the party's signature successes—a tax hike on households earning more than $250,000 a year.
Cuomo was emboldened by a loose coalition of conservatives and business leaders deeply opposed to the Working Families agenda and threatened by the elevation of labor unions and progressive allies to such heights of influence. Opponents have mounted increasingly vicious attacks seeking to maim—or kill—the party. A federal investigation, subsequently withdrawn, and a lawsuit alleging campaign finance violations in the party's canvassing operation forced the party to divert funds and energy to the cause of defending its existence.
The voice of opponents has been amplified by hostile media. The editorial page of the Daily News called the possibility of the party's demise a "pleasing prospect"—pleasing, certainly, to owner and Boston Properties CEO Mortimer Zuckerman, whose nemesis is building workers local 32BJ, a major player in the Working Families Party. The Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post called Working Families a "squidlike party" "expert at growing tentacles to stay one step ahead of the law" and "a clearinghouse through which elected officials are bought and sold by New York's public-employee unions." The Post repeatedly called on Cuomo to renounce the party's "corrupt" ballot line.
As such, the party came to Cuomo with a weak hand. Although the lawsuit and investigation proved frivolous, defending itself against the charges had drained the party's resources. Running its own third-party candidate would have come at too high a cost. Instead, as Dan Cantor, the party's executive director, explained in a statement announcing the Cuomo endorsement, "We will be fighting for his electoral victory in November and then fight for legislative passage of his New NY Agenda in January," adding that the executive committee "unanimously" agreed to this decision.
Cuomo's downsize-government agenda was a bitter pill for the Working Families Party to swallow. Now that Cuomo is carrying the party line, leaders have to convince constituents that the party is not an accomplice to a rush to the right for New York. Once in office, he will be under constant pressure from the right to keep Working Families in line. The political action committee New Yorkers for Growth, led by state GOP chief Ed Cox, responded to the Working Families endorsement with a Shepard Fairey–style mash-up depicting Cuomo as Che Guevara. The big money in New York State politics—from real estate and Wall Street—is backing Cuomo against Tea Partyer Carl Paladino and expects to be taken care of in return.
In order to get Cuomo on board again in 2014, Working Families will have to spend the next four years showing deference—at least publicly—on issues it once would have pushed aggressively from the left. The party that just this spring declared it would support only those candidates who pledge to tax Wall Street bonuses will have to soften one of the main planks of its agenda—the pursuit of economic justice—in a state that is home to some of the nation's wealthiest people and a large concentration of its poorest.
Which raises the question: why have a progressive party if it isn't free to be, well, progressive? "It's hard not to compromise your principles," observes a consultant close to the party. "The history of the party is one of expedient political decisions along the way for institutional reasons. It's understandable, but how much is too much? At what point have you lost your way?"
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The answer to these questions has implications far beyond New York's borders. In November voters in six fusion states—Connecticut, Oregon, Delaware, South Carolina and Vermont, in addition to New York—will have the opportunity to vote for Working Families candidates in state and federal elections. In Connecticut Dan Malloy is running for governor as a Working Families candidate, as is Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal—both could receive a crucial edge in tight races against Republican opponents. Although the party doesn't yet have the critical mass outside New York to move legislation—it just got on the ballot in Oregon and Connecticut in 2008—it is already using its canvasses and campaigns to bring urgent proposals into the mix, including the creation of a state bank in Oregon that would handle taxpayers' money in a public trust. A bill that would mandate paid sick days for workers has come close to passing in Connecticut, provoking sharp attacks from employer lobbyists.
The party's influence remains most pronounced in New York, where it not only elects statewide candidates but has filled the seats of state and local legislatures with progressive, party-endorsed candidates. One of them is Gustavo Rivera, who scored a historic upset against an entrenched and corrupt incumbent to win the Democratic nomination for a Bronx State Senate seat. Rivera won with the help of volunteers like Patrick Cousins, a member of Stagehands Local 52, who decided to take three weeks off to volunteer for Rivera and Schneiderman.
"Phone-banking, handing out tons of literature, standing by the subway station every day, watching the polls today at 5 am," Cousins recounts the nonstop activity. "My kids are grown, so now it's time to give back." In the Bronx, unknown Rivera took nearly two-thirds of the vote, trouncing State Senator Pedro Espada, who helped stage a 2008 coup that briefly brought Republicans back to power in Albany. Working Families canvassers had knocked three and even four times on every Democrat's door in the district that they could. While Espada handed out school supplies to court voters, Working Families canvassers appealed to voters' hunger for values and results.
"What issues are important to you?" canvasser Mike Staab asks 92-year-old Mildred Kaminsky, a resident of the union-built Amalgamated co-ops. "Jobs," she replies, as her home health aide looks on. "I couldn't agree more," continues Staab, a recent NYU graduate. "Gustavo Rivera wants to make sure that jobs pay a fair wage."
This isn't just talk. Assuming he wins in November, Rivera will become part of a progressive Democratic coalition in the once impassably Republican State Senate. That bloc has passed formerly unimaginable measures, including a minimum-wage hike, a bill of rights for nannies and housekeepers, a moratorium on destructive natural gas drilling and a cap-and-trade fund devoted to creating well-compensated green jobs.
In these battles, the Working Families Party has proved adept at exploiting division and instability as openings to push progressive legislation, and at out-thinking and out-organizing its opponents. One winning bill created a green jobs fund that will weatherize homes statewide. A second provides for utility-bill payment for energy efficiency retrofits. Both stemmed from the work of the Center for Working Families, an independent research group that was founded by the Working Families Party. Operating in the mold of ALEC, the conservative state legislation machine, the center provided extensive supporting research and legislative development for the green bills, and continues to help shape the programs.