Has New York state’s Working Families Party come up with the formula for forcing centrist Democrats to the left and delivering bread-and-butter progressive policy? That was the hope on Saturday night outside Albany, where the party gathered to make its endorsements for state races later this year. Faced with losing the ballot line to a challenger who tapped into resentment over his estate tax cuts, charter-school championing and failure to deliver campaign finance reform, Governor Andrew Cuomo won the party’s designation only after promising to fight for Democratic control of the state Senate and deliver a progressive policy wish list.
Progressives in the Empire State are getting used to hearing that their moves serve as a model for the broader movement. That was the take on Bill de Blasio’s mayoral victory last fall, and it’s how Cuomo’s backers cast the endorsement vote this weekend. “The eyes of the country are on you,” said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to the party faithful in the ballroom of the Desmond Hotel. Schneiderman and de Blasio put their solid progressive credentials to work for Cuomo in pushing Working Families state committee members to back the governor and not Zephyr Teachout, the academic and activist who had emerged as a progressive alternative.
The sales pitch worked: Cuomo won a solid (if not commanding) 59 percent of the vote to Teachout’s 41 percent.
But the endorsement vote and the deal that secured it don’t represent success. The real test of the WFP approach—honed since its founding in 1998 and facilitated by hard work in hundreds of contests for local and state office—will be whether Cuomo delivers, which won’t really be clear until his second term is under way.
Both the governor and the WFP went into the weekend needing something from the other. The governor walked away with what he wanted. The party got an IOU.
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What exactly is the Working Families Party all about? This is the question many New York progressives have asked themselves as they stepped into the voting booth in election after election over the past sixteen years to see the party’s name, usually on Row D.
The WFP is not a third party in the traditional sense. It was formed in the late 1990s out of the ashes of the short-lived New Party to take advantage of a quirk in New York state’s election laws that, virtually alone among the states, permits “fusion voting,” in which a party can cross-endorse members of another party. The tactic—also used by the state’s Conservative and Independence parties—has deep roots in progressive politics. In the 1930s, socialist trade unionists formed the American Labor Party here basically to give people on the far left a way to support FDR and the New Deal without pulling the Democratic lever.
Born in the era of Clinton’s centrism, the WFP offered something similar: a way for progressives, frustrated with the party’s direction, to support Democrats against the GOP, while sending a signal to Dems that their power depended on votes from a mobilized left wing.
In 2010—the previous statewide election year—the WFP had 42,000 members in New York State but its ballot line generated 155,000 votes for Cuomo. The Democrats claimed 5.8 million members and generated 2.6 million votes in the governor’s race while the Republicans, who boasted a 2.9 million-person enrollment, managed to collect 1.3 million for their disastrous nominee, Carl Paladino. In other words, while the two major parties drew about half as many votes as they have registrants, the WFP pulled three times its enrollment in votes .