As the Working Families Party (WFP) gathered for its state convention on May 31, it appeared the small but influential third party was set to turn New York politics on its head and challenge incumbent Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Progressives’ frustration with “Governor 1%” has been building for years, to the point where statewide polls this spring showed a hypothetical WFP candidate getting more than 20 percent of the vote in a three-way race with Cuomo and Republican nominee Rob Astorino. And the party had a candidate waiting in the wings: Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor and former Howard Dean campaign aide who was the favorite of many of the state committee’s 200 members. Yet by the end of a raucous convention, the WFP endorsed Cuomo, just as it had in 2010. In return, the party received a string of promises that no one believes the governor intends to keep — including WFP insiders.
The endorsement deal dismayed many WFP supporters who ask how a left-leaning party with strong ties to labor unions could back a right-wing governor who has cut the pensions of state workers, lavished support on charter schools and handed out tax breaks to millionaires while putting much of the state government on an austerity budget.
Eye On the State Senate
What critics of the WFP’s endorsement are missing is that the strategy isn’t about trusting Cuomo, but boxing him in so he won’t interfere with the real goal: restoring control of the State Senate to the Democrats. Large unions are promising to help bankroll this effort, which will almost certainly include deployment of the WFP field staff. And some of this has already happened; SEIU 1199 has committed to only supporting Democrats this year, while the UFT has told Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) members they need to rejoin the Democrats ‘or else.’
Republicans have controlled the State Senate almost continuously for the past 50 years. The Democrats won a majority in the 2012 election, but soon afterwards, five Democratic state senators announced they would caucus with the Republicans. It’s widely believed that Cuomo encouraged this accord because it takes the pressure off of him to act on progressive legislation that regularly passes the Democratic-held State Assembly but dies in the Senate.
Senate Democrats have almost no money in their coffers. However, the millions that will now flow to contested races will enable the WFP to put boots on the ground in key districts and organize the kind of get-out-the-vote efforts that swing elections. They will target the five renegade members of the IDC plus a couple of vulnerable Long Island Republicans.
If the WFP can bring the Democrats to power in the Senate, a raft of progressive legislation becomes more likely, including a minimum wage increase, campaign finance reform, more funding for public schools and decriminalization of marijuana. These are all issues that Cuomo was forced to endorse publicly during the WFP convention. The WFP’s strategy is a gamble. The union leaders who cut a deal with Cuomo will feel like it was worth it if they can win a substantial boost to the minimum wage. However, if the Senate doesn’t change hands, don’t expect Cuomo to go out of his way to help the WFP.
Teachout’s Next Move
Meanwhile, Teachout and her supporters are now looking to run against Cuomo in the September 9 Democratic primary. As The Indypendent went to press, Teachout had not made a final decision to run but was moving quickly to raise the money to mount a credible campaign against Cuomo in the primary.
Should Teachout run, she will pressure Cuomo from the left. She could also help drive the turnout of progressive voters in districts where the WFP is trying to win primary races against the five renegade Democratic state senators. In the process of building a campaign and mobilizing supporters, Teachout may give birth to something akin to the WFP, but without the dominance of organizations that prioritize transactional politics.
Charles Lenchner is executive director of Organizing 2.0 and former director of online organizing for the Working Families Party.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo will also be challenged again this year by the Greens, who argue that they, not the WFP, are New York’s genuine left third party. For The Indypendent’s interview with New York City educator and Green Party lieutenant governor candidate Brian Jones, see NYC Educator Runs for Lt. Gov: An Interview with Brian Jones.