After an intense debate, the Working Families Party voted to give Governor Andrew Cuomo its ballot line on Saturday night, turning back a challenge by academic and activist Zephyr Teachout.
The final tally was 41.34 percent for Teachout, 58.66 percent for Cuomo.
The vote was framed by both sides as a referendum on the essence of the party. Cuomo partisans insisted the party needed to recognize the magnitude of the promises the governor made to secure the nod. Teachout supporters argued that Cuomo’s performance over his first term, when he often failed to deliver or even resisted progressive change, necessitated a break with the governor.
One committee member backing Teachout called out his vote after noting that “I have a conscience.” A Cuomo supporter countered a moment later, “I have a conscience and good sense.”
Cuomo agreed to work for a Democratic Senate and a list of progressive policy changes, like the DREAM Act and marijuana decriminalization. His foes argued that an energized WFP could deliver a Democratic Senate without the governor, whom they did not trust to keep his vows.
The entire episode demonstrated the power the WFP now has, having delivered 155,000 votes for Cuomo in 2010. The call of the roll of state committee members was a decision about how to use it. The party has always balanced its progressive dreams with practical calculations about backing candidates who, if not perfectly aligned with their goals, would back at least portions of the WFP agenda and help the organization build its influence.
Cuomo’s hostility to much of that agenda for most of his term raised the possibility that the WFP would, on principle, throw its power against a candidate all but certain to win. In the end, the deal Cuomo struck was enough for most of the WFP state committee members. Whether the move pays off for the party and its agenda will be clear only after he and the state Senate begin conducting business in 2015.
(Many thanks to The Nation’s Frank Reynolds, who has dutifully scrubbed and managed all the posts today and into the night.)
Zephy Teachout Asks WFP Members to ‘Pass the Peace’
10:50 pm update
Zephyr Teachout, making her pitch for the Working Families Party endorsement, stressed the need for party members to mend fences after a wrenching debate over whether to back her or Andrew Cuomo. She ended her speech by asking members to follow the example of church congregants and “pass the peace” with a handshake to the person next to them.
But the kumbaya moment did not obscure a sharp if subtle critique of the deal that party leaders struck with the governor.
“My goal is to launch a different argument about what kind of America we want to live in, what kind of New York we want to live in, not what kind of New York we will settle to live in.,” she said, stressing themes of economic democracy, checks on corporate power and support for family farms and small businesses.
“I will never ask you to compromise your principles and values,” she said. “No matter what happens here tonight, I want you to stand with each other to be good fighting friends together.”
Teachout was followed by Cuomo surrogate Mayor Bill de Blasio, who improbably said that state Senate Republicans—not the governor who resisted UPK funding and embarrassed the mayor on charter schools—are the biggest obstacles to progressive change in New York.
Cuomo to WFP: This Is Very Simple
10:16 pm update
Governor Andrew Cuomo lashed out at Republicans and “those who call themselves Democrats” who have control of the state Senate, and asked the Working Families Party to endorse his re-election so the Senate can be returned to Democratic control.
Rather than coming to the convention, the governor literally phoned it in, sending a video message and then following up with a call.
The governor hailed his achievements on job creation and budget discipline. “Most of all on a grand scale we showed that government can work,” he said. In his second term, Cuomo said, he wants to pass the women’s equality agenda in full, achieve marijuana decriminalization, pass the DREAM Act and create a $10.10 minimum wage indexed to inflation and open to adjustments by cities—precisely the sort of policy Cuomo opposed when Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed it three months ago.
Cuomo also called for “eliminating the power of big money in our campaigns” with “a system of public financing modeled on New York City’s successful program.”
“To make this agenda a reality,” the governor said, “we must change the Senate leadership. Let’s unify around a simple goal: Taking back the Senate.” The governor, whose tax cuts have largely been in line with the agenda of fiscal conservatives, at length lambasted the “cultural conservatives” who are poised against the progressive agenda. “These are ultracons,” he said. “They are anti the very essence of what this state is all about.”
Cuomo Opponents Denounce His Promises to WFP
9:15 pm update
If volume decided who the Working Families Party would pick for its ballot line for governor tonight, Andrew Cuomo would lose in a landslide. Bertha Lewis, the former ACORN leader who now runs the Black Institute, delivered a rip-roaring nominating speech on behalf of Zephyr Teachout.
Moments after the governor’s supporters read a laundry list of progressive goals that Cuomo has taken up in hopes of getting the WFP nod, Lewis declared, “Not one iota of it depends on someone else other than us fighting for it.”
David Schwartz, a WFP leader from Westchester County, said a vote for Teachout would be the culmination of the sixteen years of work since the party’s founding. “Are we going to remain true to our basic purposes? Are we going to protect the essence of the Working Families Party?”
Cuomo’s tax cuts for the wealthy, lack of action on campaign finance reform and lack of significant action on minimum wages. Of the governor’s cut to bank taxes, Schwartz said, “It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.”
Union Leader Calls for WFP Delegates to Back Cuomo
8:53 pm update
To a mix of boos and applause, union leader Bob Master nominated Andrew Cuomo for the Working Families Party endorsement.
The Communications Workers of America political operative asked party members to recall Cuomo’s progressive achievements—marriage equality, gun control, saving auto worker jobs and raising wages for home healthcare workers.
Noting that tonight’s vote is “one of the most complex and challenging that we have faced, Master said backing Cuomo makes sense because of the governor’s commitment to take back the state Senate and pursue with it an agenda including the DREAM Act, the women’s equality act, marijuana decriminalization, campaign finance reform, and raise the minimum wage while permiting cities to adjust it further.
“We’re not talking the old same-old, same-old—incrementally raising the minimum wage,” promises New York Communities for Change’s Jonathan Westin.
Cuomo Challenger Teachout Eyes Democratic Primary
7:50 pm update
Minutes before the gavel dropped on the Working Families Party convention that will decide whether to give the party’s valuable ballot line to her or Andrew Cuomo, challenger Zephyr Teachout said she will consider challenging the governor for the Democratic nomination if she fails to secure the WFP slot.
Teachout, a Fordham University law professor around whom anti-Cuomo sentiment has coalesced, said she would “seriously consider whether I have the resources” to mount a campaign for the Democratic nomination. (It appears she would need to get 15,000 valid signatures by registered Democrats to force a primary.)
There remains the theoretical—though slim—possibility that Teachout or Cuomo could force a WFP primary if they fall short of the party’s endorsement this evening. Any candidate receiving 25 percent or more on the first ballot qualifies for a primary, though non-WFP members (both Teachout and Cuomo are Democrats) would also have to secure a Wilson-Pakula exemption. That requires a majority vote of the delegates, and it’s obviously unlikely that the convention would vote to permit a losing candidate the right to stage a messy primary bid.
In a hastily called press conference, Teachout told reporters, “I’m here because I care about democracy. I care about political democracy. I care about economic democracy.” She said she didn’t trust Cuomo to follow through on promises of campaign-finance reform and other vows.
While the body language of top WFP staffers and some news reports suggested that the outcome of the nominating vote is locked up in Cuomo’s favor, some uncertainty remained. Teachout hailed the tumultuous intra-party wrestling match that has preceded tonight’s the vote in the chandeliered ballroom of the Desmond Hotel.
“The debate tonight is going to be about which way to get to the New York that everybody wants,” she said. “We had a Democratic convention that was a pageant, a Republican convention that was a pageant. In the best American tradition, we are having an old-fashioned convention where we get to talk about big ideas.”
(One delicious irony: One reporter’s question referred to Teachout’s opponents as “Cuomo-de Blasio people,” a reference to the mayor’s call for the WFP to back Cuomo, despite their very tense exchanges over UPK and charter schools a few months ago.)
WFP Delegates Contemplate Possibility of Party Split
6 pm update
During the strange afternoon lull in the official action at the Working Families Party convention outside Albany, some party members attended breakout sessions covering different aspects of policy and tactics. Others, perhaps drawn by the handsome life-sized horse statue that stands guard at the door, retired to Scimshaw, the hotel bar. There, as elsewhere throughout the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center, some of the talk was about the big “what if.”
As in, what if the state committee votes this evening to endorse Zephyr Teachout for governor instead of Andrew Cuomo, and the unions that have long provided the party with resources and want Cuomo renominated decide to quit the party in response?
It’s not clear just how likely is either contingency—the party rebuffing Cuomo, or the unions breaking away. But both are distinct possibilities.
“I’ve no doubt that if we don’t endorse Governor Cuomo, many of our union supporters would leave the party,” said David Schwartz, a member of the state committee from Westchester County, earlier in the day. “That is so painful today. That’s what makes this so torturous.”
Other party members, asked what a union exodus would mean, believe the party could potentially survive and grow as a more purely grassroots organization.
Is that plausible? Let’s see what the numbers suggest.
In 2010, the WFP had 42,000 members in New York State. But its ballot line generated 155,000 votes for Cuomo. Compare that to the Democrats, who claimed 5.8 million members and generated 2.6 million votes in the governor’s race, or the Republicans, who boasted a 2.9 million-person enrollment and managed to collect 1.3 million for their disastrous nominee, Carl Paladino.
So the WFP pulled three times as many votes as it has members and the other parties drew about half as many votes as they have members. Those numbers don’t necessarily translate to a race where the WFP and Democrats nominate different people, or where the WFP goes without union support.
But they do suggest the party has the ability to punch above its weight. That would be handy for it if the unions skip and the WFP gets skinnier.
Top Dems Offer Cautious Praise for Cuomo at WFP Convention
4:30 pm update
Tom DiNapoli and Eric Schneiderman asked for the Working Families Party ballot line this afternoon in speeches to state committee members in Albany. Unlike the other statewide official, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the comptroller and attorney general are guaranteed the third party’s endorsement. Both men have had their differences with the governor, and both were reportedly urged earlier this week to refuse the WFP ballot line if it is denied to Cuomo.
In remarks after his speech, DiNapoli said “nobody spoke to me” about refusing the ballot line, though he wouldn’t say whether there were discussions with any of his aides. Asked whether the WFP should endorse the governor, the comptroller said, “ I support the governor. I’m not a member of this party. This party will make a decision on who to support.”
In his speech to the delegates, Schneiderman recalled four years of progressive policy victories in the state, noting that these occurred with “the governor with us strongly in some efforts, and with us more and more strongly as time went on.”
Shortly after his speech Schneiderman was beckoned into the tiny “international business center” at the Desmond that seems to be serving as some sort of command center for WFP operatives to huddle with City Hall aide Emma Wolfe.
There’s a lull in the official action this afternoon, but behind-the-scenes machinations are clearly ongoing, as operatives wander in and out of the business center glued to cellphones. Some party members say they have heard that Cuomo is coming to the convention, but a WFP spokesman said he couldn’t confirm that.
Floor Fight Still Possible at Working Families Party Convention
2:30 pm update
As Working Families Delegates gathered in the sunny courtyard of the Desmond Hotel on the outskirts of Albany on Saturday afternoon, a few sported orange signs that read “I am a non-believer. Do you believe?”
It wasn’t that a gathering of nontheists had taken up some adjacent conference room. It was that the movement to deny Andrew Cuomo the WFP ballot line had become rooted in a distrust of the governor and the promises he’s reported to have made in hope of getting the party’s support.
Nothing official has been presented, but the concessions Cuomo has apparently signaled he will make include committing to getting the Independent Democratic Caucus back into the regular party fold in the state Senate and supporting the right of cities to set their own minimum wage.
According to prominent progressive activist Bill Samuels, there is a split among the WFP faithful, but not over whether the reported concessions are significant or not; they clearly are. The split—largely between the party’s union backers and it’s activist state committee members—is over whether it’s wise to take Cuomo at his word. (There is also, says Samuels, a small faction who believes that regardless of what Cuomo does or says, it’s smart politics to run a long-shot WFP candidate this year as a cornerstone to building a party apparatus that could actually win an independent, statewide race in 2018.)
In the nerve center of the “non-believers,” which is actually a billiard room off the main chamber, this distrust found expression in signs mocking Cuomocchio (that could sound a little like a fancy-flavored coffee, but it’s meant to be a blend of Cuomo-Pinocchio). There, state committee member Susan Weber recalled the governor’s past commitments on campaign-finance reform, ethics investigation and the women’s agenda, which she feels he systematically abandoned. “If he agrees to them now, what’s to stop him from going back?”
One key question is what happens if the party leadership comes back from the Cuomo negotiations and says the deal on the table is a must-take. Will the committee members fall in line? Weber didn’t think so: “No. We’re going to have a floor fight.”
How Today Could Determine the Future of New York’s Working Families Party
Original story, posted 10:42 am
What exactly is the Working Families Party all about? This is the question many New York progressives have asked themselves as they stepped into the voting booth in election after election over the past sixteen years to see the party’s name, usually on Row D. And that is the question that will be answered today at the party’s convention in Albany, where it will decide whether to give its valuable ballot line to Andrew Cuomo or to deny him its support as punishment for his drift to the right.
(There were reports of a deal late Friday night that would end the drama, but a source told The Nation that the situation was still unsettled late Saturday morning.)
The implications of that decision, which will be made by about 200 party loyalists who got elected as state committee members (one male and one female from each Assembly district, although many seats are vacant), are vast. Denying Cuomo the WFP line and instead backing a progressive challenger could derail the governor’s hopes of winning re-election this fall by a historic margin—the kind of everybody-loves-him win that provides a nice backdrop for a presidential run.
It also would place the very existence of the party at risk: If the WFP-backed challenger (likely the academic and activist Zephyr Teachout) fails to win 50,000 votes in November, the party would lose its ballot status from whence its power comes. Even before Election Day, the WFP could tear apart over a diss to Cuomo: the unions who are the party’s structural backbone, wanting to stay on good terms with the governor to maintain their influence, could head for the exits. So could other politicians: Cuomo has asked Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to refuse the WFP line if he is not on it.
But there are huge risks, too, if the party backs down.
The WFP is not a third party in the traditional sense. It was formed in the late 1990s out of the ashes of the short-lived New Party to take advantage of a quirk in New York state’s election laws that, virtually alone among the states, permits “fusion voting,” in which a party can cross-endorse members of another party. The tactic—also used by the state’s Conservative and Independence parties—has deep roots in progressive politics. In the 1930s, socialist trade unionists formed the American Labor Party here basically to give people on the far left a way to support FDR and the New Deal without pulling the Democratic lever.
Born in the era of Clinton’s centrism, the WFP offered something similar: a way for progressives, frustrated with the party’s direction, to support Democrats against the GOP, while sending a signal to Dems that their power depended on votes from a mobilized left wing.
The WFP’s power is rooted in careful calculations about how to sustain and expand its influence. It has rarely backed quixotic challengers, even those running against lackluster Democratic incumbents. Often, the party throws its support behind establishment Democrats who are likely winners—sometimes to the disappointment of insurgent primary candidates—because it permitted the party to maintain its juice. Back an inspiring loser and you get to sit in the wilderness and reflect on your ideological purity; back a ho-hum winner, and you at least get to stay in the game. That’s the logic.
So while the party has rolled the dice at times—like backing Letitia James in her 2003 race for City Council—it has played it very, very safe at others. Despite deep misgivings on the left about Hilary Clinton’s support for the Iraq war in 2006, the WFP backed Clinton against a left-wing challenger. In 2005, when Freddy Ferrer mounted a long-shot challenge against billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the WFP dithered so long on whether to support Ferrer that when it finally did, it was too late to actually get him onto the ballot.
But in order for the WFP’s approach to work, there has to be the credible threat that at some point, when some ideological line is crossed, it won’t support the Democrat even when he or she is very likely to win. If Democratic politicians believe they can get a a few tens of thousands more votes from the WFP simply by being likely to prevail and a smidgeon better than the Republicans, the WFP’s leverage all but disappears. At some point, if it doesn’t get what it wants, the party has to be prepared to say “no.”
Andrew Cuomo has apparently come pretty close to crossing the party’s red line. While a solid progressive on some cultural issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun control, Cuomo has on other counts been far less reliable. He gave stingy contracts to unions, pushed a package of tax cuts benefitting wealthy estates and banks, gave a sweetheart deal to charter schools, did little to advance a public-financing plan for state campaigns and seemed content with a power-sharing arrangement that prevents Democrats from controlling the state Senate.
To some extent, the WFP-Cuomo clash echoes the age-old debate about whether social issues or bread-and-butter economic issues ought to define the progressive agenda, although the spotlight is now on the less-easily-categorized issue of public campaign financing.
Even by simply threatening to say no to him, the WFP has forced Cuomo to move more aggressively on trying to get public financing done. But action there might be impossible, partly because of the tangled composition of the state senate. Talks about other issues, like the minimum wage, were ongoing Friday, according to published reports. Late Friday, some outlets reported that a deal had been struck under which Cuomo would agree to push a more progressive agenda, and fight for a Democratic retake of the Senate, but the agreement was variously described as “tentative,” “fragile” and “unsettled.”
By this evening, the WFP leadership will have to decide if Cuomo has done enough. Dissing the governor could be suicide, or an exercise the creates a more muscular and credible progressive counterweight in New York. Welcoming him could be surrender, or a move that pays off for working families. At a time when issues like income inequality are gaining traction, creating space for progressives to drag the Democratic party to the left, how the drama plays out tonight could have national implications as a test of left-wing influence on the Dems.
One thing is certain: Today’s WFP gathering is unlikely to display the insufferable, scripted blandness of modern major-party conventions. And it may at last answer the question of what difference it makes to vote Row D.
The Nation will be blogging about the convention all day. Stay on this post for updates.
Read next: Inside Zephyer Teachout’s bid for governor of New York