Daniel Cantor, Working Families national director, was the founding director of the New York WFP. Learn more at workingfamilies.org.
“I am not a Christie-crat. I am not a Corporate-crat. And I am not a Chicken-crat. I’m a Working Families Demo-crat!” – Hetty Rosenstein, CWA and NJ Working Families leader at the 2014 NJ Democratic Party Convention
Consider the example of the Tea Party Republicans. A minority force in a minority party, they now dominate politics in Washington and in many statehouses. They have exploited racial, cultural and economic anxieties among a subset of white voters and created a political vehicle capable of winning primary and then general elections. In power, they promote an agenda focused less on the dwindling prospects of their constituents and more on enhancing the life chances of the 1 percent. It’s a scam that Paul Krugman, Thomas Frank and others have been on to for a long time, but it continues to work all too well in the absence of a convincing alternative from Democrats.
What progressives should do in response is not hard to fathom, and it informs the strategy of the Working Families Party and its allies. Since its founding in 1998, working both inside and outside the Democratic Party, the WFP has tried to yank and pull and prod the Democrats to the left. It’s the job of the Democrats to defeat Republicans, and it’s our job to make sure that they defeat them for the right reasons, and with the right people. Think Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, Keith Ellison, Jeff Merkley.
This means building independent political power and independent organizations. It means thinking more about top versus bottom than left versus right, and tapping the anger at the 1 percent that the Tea Party discusses more than the Democrats do. It means growing a base of engaged citizens to change the ideological atmosphere in which all citizens breathe. Easy to say, not so easy to accomplish. But it is not impossible, as the record in a growing number of states suggests.
For the WFP, in New York and nationwide, the fundamental challenge is how to navigate the tension between the ideal and the possible. We are constantly trying to walk that tightrope between independence and relevance, finding our way to the left wing of the possible. This requires a nimble approach, not a single tactic. Sometimes we’ve endorsed prominent Democrats and worked hand in glove with them to achieve progressive outcomes—like winning the nation’s first statewide paid-sick-days law in Connecticut with the support of Governor Dannel Malloy.
Quite often, we’ve challenged incumbent or machine Democrats—in Clackamas County, Oregon, in Newark, New Jersey, in Bridgeport, Connecticut—who were either indistinguishable from Republicans or firmly in the pocket of the Democrats’ own big-money crowd. And sometimes we just aim to help Democrats beat truly awful Republicans, like the race in Pennsylvania this year against Governor Tom Corbett.
In late May, the New York WFP debated at its quadrennial convention in Albany how best to pull Democrats in a progressive direction. Some 800 attendees, most traveling on their own dime, gathered to choose the person we’d endorse for governor. Incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo was actively seeking WFP support, even as he was aware of unhappiness among some party leaders and rank-and-file over aspects of his fiscal and education policies. He was being challenged by Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, one of the nation’s leading experts on corruption and political money.
For four hours, people were on the edge of their seats as activists well-known and obscure rose to speak in an unscripted debate. Hector Figueroa and George Gresham, the top two Service Employees International Union leaders in the state, made impassioned pleas for the party to support Cuomo to ensure a united front against the Republicans, who control the State Senate. Bertha Lewis of the Black Institute, a founder of the WFP, countered that the governor’s record did not warrant our support and that we should back Teachout. Hundreds of community activists and unionists, environmentalists and fast-food workers, students and retirees were paying close attention as the voting came to an end, as were thousands of Twitter users following scores of journalists. This was authentic political debate, the kind that barely exists in the meticulously controlled world of two-party politics.
In the end, Cuomo won by 58 to 42 percent. He announced a set of electoral and policy commitments that carried the day. Which, when you think about it, is how politics is supposed to work.
The electoral commitment came first. After nearly four years of Republican dominance in the State Senate—with right-wing views on inequality and the economy thus determining the limits of state policy-making—the governor announced a public and forceful commitment to end Republican control of the state’s upper chamber. For readers outside New York, this may not seem earth-shaking. But when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took the stage and called it “a transcendent moment,” members were on their feet. The Republicans have controlled the State Senate for all but two of the last seventy years, and it is the main reason progressive policy reforms fail. (It took us five years to overcome Republican opposition and get a minimum wage increase passed in 2004. Should we retake the Senate with a Democratic–Working Families majority in November, it shouldn’t take five weeks.) That was the core argument made by the pro-Cuomo forces, and it was a good one.
Cuomo made policy promises too, pledging vigorous support for New York’s version of Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. That promise, in turn, won the critical support of the low-wage-worker organizing groups inside the WFP. Cuomo also announced via video that in the next legislative session—assuming he is able to lead this “Take Back the Senate” coalition to victory—we will see the passage of public funding for elections to reduce the power of big money in Albany, as well as passage of the DREAM Act to provide college access to the children of immigrants; decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana in public; the remarkable Women’s Equality Act; and funding for 100 new community schools.
A perfect solution? That doesn’t exist in politics. An advance for progressive values, power and organization? Absolutely. The WFP was able to construct a powerful compromise—one that keeps us building something together in which our principles and vision remain paramount. The winners on that recent Saturday night didn’t gloat, and the losers didn’t stalk away in anger. They were all aware that an organization that makes it possible to have such a debate in the first place is a precious thing indeed.
The WFP doesn’t just want to speak truth to power: we want the middle class, the working class and the poor to share in that power. As Joel Rogers wrote many years ago, the task of progressives is to move from “grievances to governance, from protest to policy.”
So what’s next? We need to recruit and support hundreds—and then thousands—of leaders and activists across the country to run for local, state and federal office, challenging corporate Democrats and articulating a bold and sustainable vision for our economy and society. We need to help them become the kind of leaders that we need in office. And we’ll know we’ve succeeded when the phrase “I’m a Working Families Democrat” means a pathway to victory for the values of decency and equality that are at the heart of modern progressivism.
PROGRESSIVE STRATEGIES IN A POPULIST MOMENT
Also in this forum…
Robert L. Borosage: “Time to Stand Up and Fight for a More Perfect Union”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II: “How to Build a Powerful People’s Movement”
Carlos Saavedra: “Winning the Fight for Public Opinion”
Sarita Gupta: “How to Write a New Organizing Playbook”
David Rolf: “What if We Treated Labor Like a Startup?”
May Boeve: “Fighting, Not Drowning”
Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Max Berger: “How to Organize After Occupy Wall Street”
George Goehl: “Organizing Where We Have the Most Leverage: in the Cities”