New York’s Working Families Party was formed two decades ago with an eye toward moving not just the Democratic Party but the electoral process to the left. In so doing, the thinking went, a new and more responsive politics might emerge in the state and nation.
The WFP’s aggressive and strategically savvy prodding has not always been welcomed, especially by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. The party, which has clashed repeatedly with the governor in recent years, has enthusiastically endorsed the governor’s 2018 Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, as part of a progressive slate that also includes New York City Council member Jumaane Williams (who is challenging incumbent Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who was elected as Cuomo’s ticket mate four years ago) and Democratic state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
The WFP, which has its own New York state ballot line but generally backs progressive Democrats, is also supporting the reelection run of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who accepted the party’s March endorsement with a declaration that “I believe that the people of the Working Families Party believe in the same things that I do.”
But the WFP has not made an endorsement in the race for state attorney general, an office that was held until earlier this month by Democrat Eric Schneiderman. Schneiderman’s abrupt resignation—after The New Yorker published a story in which a number of women said the attorney general had physically abused them—set off a late scramble for the post. A number of prominent Democrats positioned themselves for runs, including New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, a veteran anti-corruption activist.
That posed a challenge for the WFP. Both James and Teachout are longtime allies of the party. James was elected to the New York City Council in 2003 on the Working Families Party ballot line. She won the citywide office she currently holds with strong WFP support in a 2013 election that made her the first African-American woman to hold citywide office. Teachout, who ran for governor in 2014 (when, after a contentious convention, the WFP backed Cuomo for a new term), has worked closely with the WFP in recent years and ran for Congress in 2016 with strong WFP encouragement.
Teachout signaled that she wanted WFP backing. But James, who has been endorsed by Cuomo, did not seek the WFP’s endorsement when the party’s leaders met Saturday. As New York’s City & State website explained Tuesday, “Some political observers believe that James agreed not to seek the WFP’s line in exchange for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s endorsement and official party designation at the state Democratic convention this week.”
These pre-convention developments created a great deal of uncertainty prior to Saturday’s WFP gathering. It was not an easy circumstance for the party, but insurgent parties are rarely handed easy circumstances. When they are tested, the challenge is to maintain their integrity and their relevance. To do this, especially in a state like New York where ballot-fusion laws allow for collaboration between large and small parties, smaller parties must define their own options—rather than serve as mere extensions of the Democrats or the Republicans.
It would, undoubtedly, have delighted Cuomo and his Democratic allies if the WFP had played his game by rejecting one longtime ally in favor of another.
But the WFP did not allow itself to be boxed in by the Democratic governor. Instead, the WFP issued so-called “Wilson-Pakula”certificates to both candidates. The certificates are named after a New York law that facilitates cross-filing by candidates on different ballot lines for November races (in which all votes for a candidate running on different lines are fused into a total). There were reports on the WFP convention that claimed the party’s choice represented a “surprising and confusing stance” and that it was “seeing double–or maybe just cross-eyed.”
But WFP leaders say they made a clear-eyed decision based on the realities (and possibilities) of the political moment. As New York Working Families Party director Bill Lipton explained, “There are two incredible progressive women in this race, and New Yorkers would be lucky to have either as our next Attorney General. These are two WFP heroes.”
In fact, argue WFP veterans, they avoided a trap the governor wanted to spring on them.
“This was classic Cuomo—straight out of his divide-and-conquer playbook,” Joe Dinkin, the WFP’s national communications director, said of what many saw as a move to get the party to turn against James. “But we did not let him divide us. These two women are both rock stars in the WFP.”
Indeed, James and Teachout, both progressives, have emerged as serious contenders for the state’s top law-enforcement job. If and when one of them secures the Democratic nod, the hope is that the nominee’s name will also appear on the WFP line.
Rather than letting Andrew Cuomo force the WFP to reject James or Teachout at an early, and still relatively fluid, point in the process, the WFP convention featured speeches celebrating both candidates and signaled that either would be welcome on the party’s fall ballot line. Waiting for the dust to clear is not always the perfect scenario—especially for a party that seeks to push the limits of politics—but sometimes it is the wise and necessary strategy.
What Dinkin and his allies kept coming back to was the fact that Cuomo’s machinations were focused on a competition in which candidates whose progress had been nurtured and encouraged by the WFP were at the center of speculation about who will fill a top state job.
After “20 years of cultivating and encouraging progressive candidates, something the WFP has always focused on in New York state,” says Dinkin, “think of this shift in the Democratic Party, this shift to the progressive side, this rise of progressive women. That’s something we’re excited about.”