By the time one of its founding members, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, was sworn in as New York City’s 109th mayor in 2014, the Working Families Party had cemented itself as perhaps the most powerful force in New York politics. Not only had the 15-year-old motley collection of labor unions and progressive groups taken control of City Hall, but they had helped elect a majority of the City Council, and were prepared to see another ally, Melissa Mark-Viverito, become the Speaker of the City Council, thus breaking the county bosses’ longtime stranglehold on that job. Loyal to the Working Families Party were the city’s public advocate, its comptroller, the state’s attorney general, and dozens of members of the state legislature.
Four years later, the WFP has been nearly dismantled, its parts sold for scrap. Many of the labor unions that made up the bulk of the party’s membership have bolted. Elected officials who once bowed before the party’s priorities are now rejecting its imprimatur, even as the party’s priorities on tilting the playing field toward workers and away from corporations have become the driving force of the Democratic Party.
Now, in order to regain its heft, the Working Families Party may have to do the very thing it pledged to never do, while also taking on the very person who put the party in the position it is in the first place: Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In case you haven’t noticed, the governor isn’t keen on there being competing power centers in New York State. And for its part, the WFP, formed out of the long shadow of Ralph Nader’s disastrous 2000 presidential campaign, made its mission to pull Democrats to the left in primaries, and vowed never to play the spoiler like the Greens did to Al Gore. If its endorsed candidate lost in a Democratic primary, that candidate promptly dropped out, and the party encouraged liberal New Yorkers to vote for the Democratic nominee on the Working Family Party’s line. In New York, there are several minor parties, and the coin-of-the-realm is placement on the ballot next to the two major ones, with the belief among political professionals that harried voters aren’t likely to spend a lot of time reading the party labels at the bottom of the ballot.
The Working Families Party had slowly crept up to “Row D” on the ballot, behind the Democratic and Republican Parties, and fresh on the heels of the Conservative Party, which held Row C after the Independent Party imploded.
In his first term, Cuomo governed very much as a centrist: cutting spending, capping taxes, battling the state’s public sector unions, boosting charter schools, and exploring lifting a ban on fracking, all the while using backroom machinations to keep Republicans in partial control of Albany. So in 2014, the Working Families Party faced a choice: endorse Cuomo, whom many party members loathed, or take a flyer on Zephyr Teachout, a little-known and littler-funded constitutional law professor mounting a plucky challenge to the governor.
They went with option A after a serious push from de Blasio (back before he and Cuomo began their blood feud in earnest) and a promise from Cuomo that he would address the WFP convention and fight for their priorities. Instead, Cuomo addressed the convention with an awkward hostage-style video link, and after receiving the endorsement promptly set up his own party, the very similar sounding “Women’s Equality Party” to drain votes from the WFP. When he did fight for the party’s priorities — raising the minimum wage or instituting paid family leave or raising the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults — he pointedly cut party brass out of any celebratory ribbon cuttings.
And so in 2018, the WFP went with Cynthia Nixon, who brings the kind of star power to the gubernatorial race that Teachout lacked. And in response, Cuomo did what Cuomo does: He went to war. His pick for attorney general, Letitia James, pointedly declined to seek the WFP nomination, even though she was one of the first lawmakers in the city to receive the WFP’s backing when she first ran for the City Council back in 2003. He pushed the labor unions that formed the backbone of the party to leave it, telling them “to lose my phone number” if they stayed in the party, according to WFP executive director Bill Lipton. Most left, and the WFP has shrunk down to a much smaller agglomeration of good government and do-gooder progressive groups.
Now, if Nixon loses the Democratic primary to Cuomo, she and the WFP have to decide whether or not to violate one of the party’s core tenets and play the potential spoiler by running a quixotic third-party campaign, even if it means potentially handing the election to Cuomo’s little-known Republican challenger, Dutchess county executive Marc Molinaro.
But if they do not, it will mean that the party will have to endorse Cuomo through gritted teeth after he spent the last several years trying to destroy them. The party would have to convince its activist base to vote for someone they loathe on the WFP line as Cuomo actively works to dissuade his voters from doing the same. The party could slip farther down on the ballot — it dropped below the Green Party in 2014, winding up on Row E — and could fail to reach the 50,000-vote threshold at all which would mean falling off the New York State ballot entirely.
In conversations with several WFP activists, they sound very much like a group ready to toss caution aside and go to battle with Cuomo. None would speak on the record for fear of inflaming tensions further between the two sides, but there was a palpable sense that the Working Families Party had been kicked into a corner, and had no choice but to fight back. If that meant a Governor Marc Molinaro, well, Andrew Cuomo would have no one to blame but himself for attacking the progressive flank of his own coalition. And besides, many on the left say, Are there really major differences between the centrist white-guy Democrat and the centrist white-guy Republican?
“The Republican is not well-known, so I don’t think he will be much of a factor anyway. And Andrew Cuomo is an asshole,” said one party insider. “So it’s the perfect moment for a third-party kind of run. If Cuomo wants to come to us and apologize and accept our line, I guess we would think about it, but how can the Working Families Party even trust Cuomo to keep his word at this point?”
In the end, the fight will come down to what Nixon wants to do, since the party couldn’t go forward to November without their standard-bearer. Her campaign wouldn’t respond to inquiries on the subject, since by their lights she will beat Cuomo in September and be the Democratic nominee. But if she doesn’t, and her hatred of the governor is equal to that of her allies in the #Resistance, it will make for one awfully interesting fall.