Twenty years ago in November 1998, this magazine encouraged its readers to back a centrist Democrat from Queens for governor of New York, but to do so in an unusual way. A political start-up called the Working Families Party had endorsed Peter Vallone in order to improve his chances against a mediocre Republican incumbent, but more importantly to establish the WFP as a legal, ballot-qualified party under New York State law. The organizers of the WFP argued to the magazine’s editors that America needed a new, sensible, progressive political party that would “start small but think big,” and we were won over by their seriousness, commitment and passion. To this day, The Nation believes it put WFP over the top—helping the Party amass the 50,000 votes needed to win a ballot line!
The Republican incumbent, George Pataki, won his reelection. But the lasting news of that 1998 election was the WFP’s improbable, skin-of-its-teeth emergence as a qualified party. Since that time, the Working Families Party’s combination of common-sense progressive ideology and electoral muscle has changed this state for the better, and created a model for building independent political power that has now migrated to another fifteen or so states.
The party’s record in New York is an impressive one: the “millionaires” tax, Fight for $15, Rockefeller drug-law reform, green-jobs legislation, inclusionary zoning, living-wage laws, paid sick days, crucial support for Occupy Wall Street… it grows every year. What has made it possible are the important and occasionally astounding election victories in every county in the state.
Did the WFP do all of this alone? Of course not. Politics is a team sport, and seated at the WFP table are terrific community, labor, and issue advocates and allies. And throughout these two decades, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have voted on the WFP line because of its steadfast commitment to a politics of decency and equality.
This year, the WFP initially endorsed Cynthia Nixon for governor. (So did The Nation.) Nixon and the WFP ran a spirited primary campaign, prodding Governor Cuomo to the left (see #TheCynthiaEffect). At the same time, the WFP coalesced with Indivisible, True Blue, NYPAN, and other grassroots groups to elevate the down-ballot primary challenges against the absurdly named, degraded outfit known as the Independent Democrat Conference—the “Trump Democrats” who kept the Republicans in charge of the State Senate.
On primary night, Cuomo defeated Nixon handily, but the feisty progressives who took on the IDC were in some ways the much bigger story. Seven of the worst state senators will be replaced in the new year by what you might think of as Working Families Democrats. If the general election goes as hoped, it means a new Senate Democratic leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, will be able to advance policies long blocked by the Republicans and their fraudulent, now defeated Democratic allies.
This is how political change happens. Step by step. Sometimes there are tough compromises. Sometimes ringing victories. Always there is unglamorous, day-in and day-out work.
With Cynthia Nixon’s defeat, the WFP has shifted its support to Governor Cuomo, another centrist Democrat from Queens! The WFP and Cuomo have had their differences, often searing one, but they are united in this electoral moment against the Republicans. And they are joined by their mutual support for Tish James, who first won office running solely on the WFP line for City Council. The D-WFP candidate for attorney general, and a former public defender, James has a long record of championing campaign-finance reform, affordable housing, women’s rights, and much more. It is also noteworthy that she will be the first African-American woman ever elected to statewide office in New York.
A vote for Cuomo on the WFP Row E line is about more than just a particular candidate. It’s about a party, and your support sends a powerful message of support for the WFP’s brand of progressive, multiracial populist politics. We hope Nation readers will send the WFP off into another 20 years of principled, effective political organizing by once again voting for the D-WFP candidates on the WFP line.
For NYC Voters only: Don’t forget to vote YES, YES, and YES on the three Charter Revision proposals that are on the back of the ballot. The topics are public financing of elections, participatory budgeting, and improved community boards. These are the sorts of rules reform that seem quite modest but are in fact profound. Good rules means better outcomes, and in this Trumpian era of wanting government to fail, we need to strengthen democratic practice.
If you live in NYC, you can do so by turning your ballot over and voting Yes on each proposition.