How Cuomo Played the Working Families Party

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NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04:  Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sandra Lee and family on stage after Andrew Cuomo won re-election for a second term, at the Sheraton on November 4, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Steve Sands/Getty Images)
Photo: Steve Sands/Getty Images

Give New York’s Working Families Party credit for this much, anyway: It was willing to take a big gamble by endorsing Andrew Cuomo for governor. Which isn’t likely to provide the WFP’s leaders with much comfort this morning, after the party lost the biggest part of its bet — that Cuomo would help it win a Democratic majority in the state Senate. And it won’t stave off what’s likely to be months of infighting and recriminations.

A brief recap. Back in late May, the WFP marshaled left-wing anger at Cuomo and threatened to run Zephyr Teachout as its candidate for governor. Cuomo seemed to capitulate, pledging to get behind the WFP’s agenda — with the marquee political item being energetic gubernatorial backing of the Dem’s campaign to take control of the state Senate — in exchange for the WFP’s endorsement of Cuomo’s reelection.

But the WFP nearly imploded in the process. Its activist wing hates Cuomo, doesn’t consider him sufficiently liberal on economic issues, and didn’t trust him to follow through on his end of the bargain. Its pragmatic wing, composed mainly of labor union leaders who supply much of the WFP’s budget, saw a Cuomo second term as inevitable and wanted to be in the best possible deal-making position for the next four years.

Cuomo made the decision harder by encouraging the labor faction to bolt the WFP. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Working Families stalwart, helped broker what was sold as a win-win compromise: Cuomo got the endorsement, and the party got the prospect of moving the state legislature to the left.

Only now it looks like the WFP got played. Cuomo’s help on state senate campaigns was underwhelming, and he instead spent millions on the creation of a rival third party. Yesterday’s result pushed the WFP to Row E of the ballot for the next four years, behind the Green Party — and, worse, handed Republicans a state Senate majority, squashing the chances for immigration reform or an increase in the minimum wage. De Blasio — who dispatched his top campaign aide, Emma Wolfe, to assist Democratic Senate candidates and personally raised thousands of dollars for the effort — takes a hit too.

The governor, in his victory speech last night, buttressed his standing as a centrist by declaring he’d steered between “the extreme forces on the left [and] the right.” Not that he escaped unscathed: Cuomo won the biggest prize, reelection, but all the machinations with liberals helped hold his total to a lackluster 54 percent. The bitterness on the left also makes it hard to see how he’d win a third term, if Cuomo even wants one, in 2018.

Early this morning the WFP’s political director, Bill Lipton, took the highly unusual step of blasting his party’s winning nominee while the confetti was still being swept. “Governor Cuomo promised to take back the State Senate,” Lipton said in a press release. “Instead, he squandered millions on a fake party, and left millions more in his campaign account as New York Democrats in the legislature and in Congress withered on the vine.”

There will be a lot more harsh words tossed around, a familiar ritual for the left, and a fair amount of it will be posturing. “I’m on their side, but the WFP really needs to get its act together and figure out what they stand for,” a de Blasio insider said, even before Tuesday’s vote. Which would certainly be better for the WFP than one alternative: Cuomo eventually finds a way to put it out of business completely.