Today, for the first time in years, the political center of gravity in New York State is shifting. The conservative Senate Republican majority, which has held state politics in thrall to its agenda of low taxes, budget cuts and prison-building, has passed a hate-crimes bill covering gays and lesbians (after blocking same for more than a decade), expanded healthcare coverage for the working poor and, most telling, opened the door to a sizable increase in the state minimum wage.
From where has the impulse for these changes come? Not from regular Democrats, who have had a cozy understanding for years with the Republicans. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York almost 2 to 1, but until recently state Democratic leaders have done little to upset the balance of power. Rather, the pressure for change has come from outside the Democratic establishment, centered on a group of progressive labor unions (the United Auto Workers, the Communications Workers, various transportation, building trades, teachers and Teamsters locals), community organizations (especially ACORN and Citizen Action) and maverick politicians who together have been building the Working Families Party. It is the WFP, in existence for just over two years, that has pushed the goal of raising the state minimum wage to $6.75 per hour and indexing it to inflation, which would make it among the highest in the nation. (Assembly Democrats passed the bill this past summer, albeit without covering restaurant workers.) What’s given Working Families real muscle is the party’s demonstrated ability, in a series of lower-level elections over the past year, to mobilize blacks, Latinos and other minorities, along with white blue-collar workers and suburban independents, around an economic populist agenda as well as the concept of a new independent political party.
One sign of the party’s influence: This past summer all of the vulnerable Senate Republicans from Long Island, New York City and Westchester County were practically begging for the WFP’s endorsement, offering in exchange their support for boosting the minimum wage. That deal never occurred–the WFP’s executive committee insisted that it would take a lot more than that to get their line on the ballot, and the state’s business community came down hard against any deal as well. Weeks later, these same Republicans retaliated by trying, futilely, to knock the party off the ballot altogether.
New York is unique in that it is the only state where political parties regularly cross-endorse candidates from other parties (known as “fusion”). As a result, instead of being marginalized as “spoilers,” third parties have played an important role in state politics going back to the 1930s, with the Liberals giving FDR his margin of victory in 1944 and Conservatives averaging 300,000 votes in state elections. With the decline of the Liberals in recent years–since their endorsement of Mayor Rudy Giuliani it’s been clear that they’re little more than a law firm with a ballot line for sale–the founders of the WFP saw an opportunity to fill a void.
Now, having passed its second birthday, an evaluation is in order. Unlike most third-party efforts, the WFP has real resources–a paid permanent staff of sixteen, the support of major labor and community institutions, and hundreds of politicians seeking its endorsement. The question is: How independent is it? Is it just an adjunct of the Democratic Party, as some critics allege? Or is it a genuine hybrid, an inside-outside play that makes sense for progressives to support and try to copy elsewhere?