That the WFP, the biggest institutional local political success story of the past decade, finds itself wobbling between enormous influence and extinction is emblematic of a larger drama: the highly fluid state of the New York political Establishment not named Michael Bloomberg. The real-estate and financial industries have been weakened by the recession. The unions are on the defensive. There’s a rising number of Latino voters, but they haven’t coalesced into a functional bloc. No current elected official, aside from the mayor, enjoys real money or prominence. And the Democratic Party clubhouse structure is ancient history. “Thirty years ago, if you wanted to run for mayor, people would ask, ‘Okay, how are you doing with Meade Esposito or Ray Jones?’ ” says Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, who is interested in making a 2013 City Hall bid. “Today, the parlor game is which political consultant you’ve hired, not which district leader you’ve talked to. That’s a fascinating sea change.”
The mayor remains by far the dominant actor right now. But the jockeying for position in the world after Mike is already fierce. Stringer, De Blasio, Liu, Bill Thompson, and Congressman Anthony Weiner are good bets to be in the running—though Bloomberg himself will likely play an outsize part in who follows him as chief executive. “He won’t just walk away from everything he’s done,” an adviser says. “He wants to see the changes in the schools continued, for instance.” When Bloomberg was still legally prohibited from running for a third term, he courted then Time Warner boss Richard Parsons as a potential successor, and he’s still sifting the ranks of corporate rich guys for future protégés. And Bloomberg remains a booster of Christine Quinn, currently the City Council speaker.
Cantor wants to believe that Bloomberg’s reign is an aberration. “The normal rules of political gravity don’t apply to the richest guy in the city,” he says. “It will be very different afterward. We’ll return to a more normal situation in New York, and the WFP’s role will be an interesting one.” Not that Cantor is intending to stay on the sidelines until 2013, or to allow Cuomo’s ascension to silence the WFP. Defeating Espada showed that the party is plenty resilient, even when on its heels. Cantor’s detractors say he’s nimble to the point of cynicism. The WFP was an early advocate of candidate Eliot Spitzer; then the WFP became one of his most ferocious opponents when Governor Spitzer tried to trim health-care costs.
For now, Cantor is emphasizing all the places the party agrees with governor-in-waiting Cuomo—and if Carl Paladino makes it a close race, Cuomo will need all the liberal WFP votes he can get. Right now, however, Cantor needs to deal with a pressing existential issue. Today’s primary is the first for the city’s computerized voting machines. “On the old lever machines, you could not double-vote—that is, vote for one candidate on two ballot lines,” Cantor says, whipping out a piece of blank paper and sketching. “With the new bubbles, you see ‘Andrew Cuomo, Democrat,’ and here’s a bubble; ‘Andrew Cuomo, WFP,’ here’s a bubble. ‘I’m for Andrew—I’m doing both!’ But under state law, the vote is counted only toward the major party. We need our 50,000 votes to survive. So we’re suing the Board of Elections.” The Working Families Party is here to stay.