Daniel Cantor, Working Families national director, was the founding director of the New York WFP. Learn more at workingfamilies.org.
“I am not a Christie-crat. I am not a Corporate-crat. And I am not a Chicken-crat. I’m a Working Families Demo-crat!” – Hetty Rosenstein, CWA and NJ Working Families leader at the 2014 NJ Democratic Party Convention
Consider the example of the Tea Party Republicans. A minority force in a minority party, they now dominate politics in Washington and in many statehouses. They have exploited racial, cultural and economic anxieties among a subset of white voters and created a political vehicle capable of winning primary and then general elections. In power, they promote an agenda focused less on the dwindling prospects of their constituents and more on enhancing the life chances of the 1 percent. It’s a scam that Paul Krugman, Thomas Frank and others have been on to for a long time, but it continues to work all too well in the absence of a convincing alternative from Democrats.
What progressives should do in response is not hard to fathom, and it informs the strategy of the Working Families Party and its allies. Since its founding in 1998, working both inside and outside the Democratic Party, the WFP has tried to yank and pull and prod the Democrats to the left. It’s the job of the Democrats to defeat Republicans, and it’s our job to make sure that they defeat them for the right reasons, and with the right people. Think Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, Keith Ellison, Jeff Merkley.
This means building independent political power and independent organizations. It means thinking more about top versus bottom than left versus right, and tapping the anger at the 1 percent that the Tea Party discusses more than the Democrats do. It means growing a base of engaged citizens to change the ideological atmosphere in which all citizens breathe. Easy to say, not so easy to accomplish. But it is not impossible, as the record in a growing number of states suggests.
For the WFP, in New York and nationwide, the fundamental challenge is how to navigate the tension between the ideal and the possible. We are constantly trying to walk that tightrope between independence and relevance, finding our way to the left wing of the possible. This requires a nimble approach, not a single tactic. Sometimes we’ve endorsed prominent Democrats and worked hand in glove with them to achieve progressive outcomes—like winning the nation’s first statewide paid-sick-days law in Connecticut with the support of Governor Dannel Malloy.
Quite often, we’ve challenged incumbent or machine Democrats—in Clackamas County, Oregon, in Newark, New Jersey, in Bridgeport, Connecticut—who were either indistinguishable from Republicans or firmly in the pocket of the Democrats’ own big-money crowd. And sometimes we just aim to help Democrats beat truly awful Republicans, like the race in Pennsylvania this year against Governor Tom Corbett.
In late May, the New York WFP debated at its quadrennial convention in Albany how best to pull Democrats in a progressive direction. Some 800 attendees, most traveling on their own dime, gathered to choose the person we’d endorse for governor. Incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo was actively seeking WFP support, even as he was aware of unhappiness among some party leaders and rank-and-file over aspects of his fiscal and education policies. He was being challenged by Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, one of the nation’s leading experts on corruption and political money.