With his shirtsleeves rolled up, necktie askew, and voice hoarse, Dan Cantor is the very model of a grassroots political boss on the morning of Primary Day. All that’s missing is a soapbox. Instead, Cantor, 55, climbs atop a chair to address the troops of the Working Families Party, crammed sweatily inside a tiny conference room in the WFP’s battered headquarters above a downtown Brooklyn smoke shop.
“Most days of the year, money triumphs over all things in our society,” Cantor says, beginning the pep talk. “Except on Election Day, when we’re all citizens and we get to vote. There are two conceptions wrestling with each other in America right now: The tea party is saying government is a waste, or evil, even. Our view is that government will be as good as we make it, by electing people who stand for a certain set of values we all share about decency and equality and opportunity. If you communicate your energy and passion when you’re talking to people, that’s another vote for Ruiz, that’s another vote for Rivera, that’s another vote for Toby.”
It’s a stirring rallying cry—never mind that the tea party has zero to do with the local campaigns in which the WFP is working—and it’s greeted with whoops and applause. The organizers packed into this room will join a force of 100 WFP workers who hit the Bronx streets today, part of an all-out door-to-door effort that’s crucial to Gustavo Rivera’s victory over Democratic state senator Pedro Espada Jr. That’s only the latest electoral win in the WFP’s impressive twelve-year climb to power in city and state politics.
Just days earlier, however, the WFP was staring down the barrel of a (figurative) gun held by Andrew Cuomo. Political third parties in New York are required to get 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election every four years to maintain a ballot line. The WFP wanted to endorse Cuomo, the Democrat and favorite, in order to rack up the necessary votes in November; Cuomo wouldn’t accept the endorsement unless the WFP swallowed his budget-cutting agenda, a plan that could chop the pay and pensions of the unionized public employees who make up the WFP membership. Backing the WFP further into a corner was a recently concluded federal investigation of its business practices. The party blinked.
“Listen, we’re not a Ralph Nader party,” Cantor tells me in his cluttered office. “We’re looking to get a good vote on the Working Families line and use the power that accrues to that vote to influence outcomes. We try to be principled and pragmatic. That’s the balancing act.”
The mayor remains by far the dominant actor right now. But the jockeying for position in the world after Mike is already fierce.
In 1998, an alliance of labor unions, community groups, and politicians launched a progressive counterweight to Republican governor George Pataki and mayor Rudy Giuliani, with Cantor as executive director. The ensuing decade, in Cantor’s view, has only heightened the need for the WFP. “America had the first great middle-class society, and it was made by two things: unions pushing up and high marginal tax rates pushing down, from the fifties through the seventies. That was a great thing,” he says. “And we’ve abandoned that for, ‘You need rich people to be really happy so they’ll invest and maybe good things will happen!’ In the city, there’s been a growth in low-wage jobs and a growth in extremely high-wage stuff. So the middle is being squeezed.”
Philosophical foundations aside, the WFP has thrived by playing hardball politics and exploiting two pragmatic voids. The city’s labor unions, for almost a century an enormous force both at City Hall and in Albany, have been in serious decline. The WFP gathered up what remained, forging a power greater than the sum of its parts. But the WFP also became the savviest local campaign field operation, filling a vacuum left by the sclerotic local Democratic Party. Letitia James, of Brooklyn, became the first WFP-backed candidate to win a City Council seat, in 2003; last November, the party broke through citywide, helping to elect Bill de Blasio as public advocate and John Liu as comptroller. The WFP also successfully championed an increase in the state’s minimum wage and supported the domestic workers’ bill of rights in Albany. One sure sign of the party’s increasing potency was the stirring of opposition: The Real Estate Board of New York teamed up with the Independence Party to back business-friendly candidates and legislation. “We’ve made the right enemies,” Cantor says.
Yet the WFP’s successes also showed that it may have become just a little too good at the game. Critics claimed that the WFP’s real edge came from evading campaign-finance laws, by using its ballot line to lure business to its for-profit campaign-consulting arm. No charges were filed, but the party needed Cuomo’s lifeline.