There isn’t much suspense about which presidential candidate will carry New York state on Election Day. New Yorkers, who’ve seen Donald Trump up close for decades, will reject him by a huge margin—just like they did the last time. But there’s a lot more at stake here than the president’s ego. New Yorkers who favor Joe Biden still have an important choice to make. Here’s why.
When New Yorkers cast their ballots for president, they won’t just be picking a candidate. They’ll also be voting on whether state government will continue on a progressive trajectory, or backslide into austerity, centrism, and political corruption.
That’s because the Working Families Party’s survival is on the ballot this year. During the height of the pandemic in early April, Governor Andrew Cuomo rewrote the rules governing minor party access to the ballot. He slipped a clause into the state’s new—and largely progressive—election law raising the threshold third parties need to reach to keep their place on the ballot from 50,000 votes statewide to 130,000. (If that law had been in force in 2018, only the state’s Conservative Party would have survived alongside the Democrats and Republicans)
By all accounts, the move was Cuomo’s payback for the WFP’s years of success in moving New York politics in a more progressive direction. Our governor does not enjoy being challenged—and is always willing to use public power to punish private political enemies. Cuomo’s revenge may be a less prominent abuse of power than some we’ve seen from Trump, but it’s no less shameful. Unless enough New Yorkers vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the Working Families Party line this November, the state’s leading engine for social progress and enlightened lawmaking could be forced out of business.
The WFP was founded in 1998. Democrats had moved decisively to the right since the 1980 Reagan victory. The WFP viewed this as both a moral and strategic mistake. The Nation agreed, helping the fledgling party secure just enough votes to make it over the (then) 50,000-vote threshold required to become a legally recognized party.
From the start, the WFP took on the long-standing, seemingly indestructible political architecture of Albany, in which Democrats ruled the Assembly and Republicans ruled the Senate. Every governor from Rockefeller through both Cuomos supported this bipartisan “deal”—largely because the real estate, finance, insurance, and advertising industries liked it that way. The left might amass enough strength to force occasional concessions, but this arrangement acted as a firewall against more profound reforms.
Even within these constraints, the WFP helped achieve notable victories, including the long-overdue reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and passage of the 2009 millionaires tax. When, following Democratic gains in 2012, “the deal” seemed to crumble, it was resuscitated by the rogue “Independent Democratic Conference.” The IDC caucused with Republicans and kept control of the Senate, with the tacit support of Cuomo. But by 2018, the winds of change were blowing too strongly. The WFP successfully primaried members of the IDC and elected Working Families Democrats in their place, ending the unholy arrangement. The “deal” was finally dead.
That opened the gates in Albany to a flood of long-overdue progressive legislation on climate change, housing, voting rights, and much more. Once the WFP had changed the architecture, the needs and hopes of ordinary people actually got a fair hearing.
The WFP understood from the start that real political change takes organization and patience. “Start small, think big,” said the party’s first director, Daniel Cantor. “Make steady progress,” said the second, Bill Lipton. Now New York’s WFP is led by its first woman director, Sochie Nnaemeka, who says: “New Yorkers need to beat Trump, but we need so much more than that.”
Cuomo does not agree. Millionaires have made major gains during the Covid-19 crisis, but Cuomo is fighting tooth and nail against any attempt to tax the rich in order to sustain public services and employment. He clearly views the growing cadre of WFP Democrats as the biggest obstacle to his corporate-friendly brand of politics, and is determined to weaken or even destroy the party.
Of course, the governor denies any such aim. Instead, Cuomo’s allies claim that minor parties pose a threat to the state’s new public campaign financing system. Fortunately, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Campaign Finance Institute each looked into this claim—and blew it out of the water.
In today’s Albany, the debate is no longer between Democrats and Republicans but between centrist Democrats and progressive, WFP-style Democrats—and the broader social movements that support the left. This shift is an enormous accomplishment, because it means that the compromises inevitable in politics lean to the left. A lot of actors played a role in making this happen over the last two decades, with Bernie Sanders leading the fight on a national level. But here in New York state, most of the credit goes to the WFP.
The party has made mistakes—most egregiously by backing Cuomo himself over Zephyr Teachout in 2014 (though given the scale of payback the governor is inflicting for the WFP’s backing challenger Cynthia Nixon four years later, the party’s anxiety appears well-founded). It also supported Representative Joe Crowley over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A more recent WFP endorsement wasn’t enough to save incumbent Brooklyn Assemblyman Walter Mosley, who was defeated in July by DSA-backed challenger Phara Soufrant Forrest. And the party’s decision to endorse Elizabeth Warren over Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination remains controversial. (The Nation preferred Sanders.)
But overall the WFP has been a breath of fresh air since it first formed 22 years ago and has grown into a formidable force for justice nationwide. This year, it is supporting candidates and mobilizing voters in more than 20 states. Any New Yorker voting for the Biden/Harris ticket should vote for them on the WFP line. Your vote counts the same as a vote on the Democratic line, but will also register as a vote for progressive principles—and progressive power.
New Yorkers: Vote Working Families Party—and spread the word!