It's Friday afternoon in early October at the Working Families Party's shabby but bustling headquarters in downtown Brooklyn, and no one is going home early. The halls are filled with a youthful, multiracial crowd of paid canvassers and volunteers, getting trained for the upcoming days of heavy door-knocking. The party's executive director, Dan Cantor, fields calls in his corner office, hoping that one will be from Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, who is in intensive negotiation with the party and its supporters on the county council over a living-wage bill. (If successful, this will be the party's second countywide living-wage win.) One flight down, in the offices of ACORN, one of the main pillars of the WFP (along with the Communications Workers of America and the United Auto Workers), Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez is finishing a pep talk to thirty organizers, focusing on how important she thinks it is to turn out votes for gubernatorial candidate Carl McCall on the WFP's Row H because, as she sees it, the Democratic Party has moved too far to the right.
Despite gloomy projections for the McCall campaign and the endorsement of incumbent Republican George Pataki by nearly all the public-sector unions, the street-smart progressives at the heart of the WFP see a silver lining in this election. "We've actually built some power here," says Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN and one of the party's three co-chairs.
With fewer than 15,000 registrants, the four-year-old Working Families Party is smaller than the Conservatives, the Liberals, the Independence Party, the Greens or the Right-to-Lifers, all of which claim a chunk of the one in five New Yorkers who regularly vote on a minor-party line, thanks to the state's long tradition of fusion politics. But unlike the state's other minor parties, the WFP engages in year-round organizing, and it has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to move votes in close elections. Nowhere was this clearer than in September's Democratic primaries, when WFP ground troops were critical in several races, the most significant being the defeat in north-central Westchester of five-term Assemblywoman Naomi Matusow by insurgent Adam Bradley. Matusow found herself under attack for opposing a sales tax critical to White Plains (a city just north of New York), for being late in joining the call to close down the Indian Point nuclear plant and for voting to sustain the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. She outspent Bradley 10 to 1, and nearly every power broker and interest group in Albany had endorsed her for re-election.
But Bradley had the help of the WFP, which got involved in the race early, with a local base rooted in White Plains city workers and their unions. Firefighter Kevin Heffernan, chair of the WFP's local organizing committee, is not your typical progressive. "I own two handguns, but I don't build my politics around them," he says. "I can't eat my guns." He was unhappy with Matusow's position on the sales tax, which raises revenue from the 200,000 people who commute into the city to work. But the race was defined for him in larger terms when state Democratic Party chair Denny Farrell came to a chapter meeting with Matusow and condescendingly tried to convince party activists to back away from Bradley. "The most disturbing thing to me was that she just appeared to be in with the Democratic machine in the state and wouldn't do anything unless she was told to by them. I asked her in our pre-endorsement interview, 'Why won't you go for this tax?' She said, 'My opponent will use it against me.'" In fact, Matusow didn't have a GOP opponent. "You're going to run and behave based on what the Republicans will hypothetically do against you?" Heffernan retorted. "My question was, 'What's the difference?' No wonder they didn't put up an opponent against her."
Victories like this one are giving the WFP a small but important cadre of allies in Albany and City Hall, and, perhaps most important, showing that solid bonds can be built between working-class whites and inner-city blacks and Latinos. Not that the party hasn't made some mistakes: At times its leadership councils have rejected endorsement decisions by local chapters in ways that appeared heavy-handed and overcautious. That's a reflection of the party's internal structure--while dues-paying members are providing a bigger share of the WFP's million-dollar annual budget, the unions at its core are still dominant.
In order to continue to play its useful brand of inside-outside politics, the WFP has to get at least 50,000 votes for McCall on its line in November, the minimum needed to maintain its ballot line. Dan Cantor wishes McCall were running more of a populist campaign, one with more class bite. But he's confident that many, if not all, of the 100,000-plus voters who have pulled a WFP lever in the past few years will do so again, as they come to see the real, if still modest, power that can be generated through its line. "Whatever the outcome of the governor's race, we'll still be here," he notes. "And our ability to do stuff next year is dramatically improved if we have a good showing."