The Working Families Party’s Fight for Survival

Congressional candidate Jamaal Bowman speaks outside In-Tech Academy. Photo: Scott Heins

As early voters walked toward the polling station at In-Tech Academy in the Bronx Saturday morning, they were met by a scrum of state and national Democratic lawmakers criticizing their own party. Congressman Adriano Espaillat, soon-to-be Congressman Jamaal Bowman, State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, and others, were at In-Tech to encourage voters to forsake the Democratic Party ballot line for the Working Families Party line.

“Democrats historically in this state have not done the right thing for a majority of New Yorkers,” said 34-year-old Biaggi, who was elected to the State Senate in 2018 after beating a powerful Democrat in the primary. “The Democratic Party needs a reckoning.” But it is the WFP that is imperiled in 2020. New rules this electoral cycle require all political parties to tally at least 130,000 votes or 2 percent of the final count in order to retain their automatic ballot lines — no small feat for a minor party.

For more than 20 years, the WFP has been a pragmatic alternative to the state’s Democratic Party, making grudge votes cast by progressives go down a little easier. New York allows voters to cast their ballots for major-party candidates on third-party ballot lines. The WFP’s ballot line has helped it accrue enough power to exist as an anomaly in American politics: a minor political party with a modicum of influence. To the extent that there is a viable third party in New York, it is the WFP. But without a ballot line, the WFP will be relegated to a political-action committee, perhaps pushing it to the edge of extinction.

Working Families Party New York state director Sochie Nnaemeka talks to a voter. Photo: Scott Heins
Photo: Scott Heins
Photo: Scott Heins

Should the WFP’s ballot line be killed this week, a Democrat will be the one holding a smoking gun. Governor Cuomo’s contentious relationship with the WFP is long and complicated and stretches back to before he occupied the governor’s mansion. In 2014, Cuomo won the WFP’s nomination over Zephyr Teachout, who had been nurtured by the WFP and was far more representative of the party’s agenda. The party chose to endorse Cuomo after he promised to eliminate the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats in the State Senate who caucused with Republicans, thereby ensuring the State Legislature remained in GOP control. (It was common knowledge that Cuomo had sanctioned the IDC because he didn’t want Democrats to control the Legislature.) Cuomo did not keep his end of the bargain. In 2018, the WFP primaried Cuomo with its own candidate, Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon, though it would ultimately endorse Cuomo in the general election. Still, the governor felt slighted. In the same election, WFP candidates unseated six of the IDC’s eight members, giving Democrats control of the State Senate.

Cuomo and his staff reportedly don’t think much of the WFP’s power (“They’re a piece of stationery,” one of the governor’s staffers told The New Yorker). Still, since 2018, Cuomo’s budget has included a provision that more than doubled the number of votes required by any political party to remain on the ballot line, upping the threshold from 50,000 to 130,000 votes. Publicly, Cuomo brushed off suggestions that the new threshold was a targeted attack on the WFP, but privately he said he wanted to crush the party. Amanda Septimo, a 29-year-old candidate for State Assembly who challenged a 26-year incumbent in the Democratic primary last spring, called the new threshold a “serious politically charged attack and attempt to erase the good work” the WFP has been doing for years.

There is an irony to the fact that the WFP is facing an existential threat when New York’s left is undergoing a renaissance. The WFP’s allies include some of the most influential lawmakers in the city, state, and country, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Attorney General Letitia James, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Major upsets against Establishment Democrats by Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, Bowman, and others have nurtured a progressive ecosystem that, in addition to the 50,000-member WFP, now includes New York’s 70,000-member Democratic Socialists of America chapter and PACs like Justice Democrats that are strategically targeting complacent Democrats. There is overlap between the groups, but there are also significant differences: WFP endorsed Elizabeth Warren, much to the displeasure of Bernie Sanders-endorsing DSA, for example.

The event in the Bronx over the weekend was part of a five-borough tour intended to promote the party line. The tour was the final push of a months-long, expensive campaign, which enlisted the help of Chuck Schumer, Stacey Abrams, Warren, and Sanders and included a Friday-night GOTV rally featuring the Squad, Common, Maxine Waters, and live musical performances.

“The WFP is now under attack by the same corporate lobbyists and interests that they’ve been standing up to for working people,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram post viewed by more than 600,000 people, “and their ballot line is now under attack.”

But the group of lawmakers and volunteers gathered outside In-Tech Academy on Saturday were hardly mired in existential dread. It was the first sunny day in what felt like an eternity, and they cheered for voters towing children in Halloween costumes. Many voters already knew about the WFP and a few stopped to ask for more details, pausing to make sure their votes for Biden would still count on the WFP line. Though the WFP was staring down Armageddon, the group seemed more concerned with bigger crises — affordable housing, campaign finance, the pandemic, the fact that Donald Trump had more than a whisper of a chance at winning a second term — and it was as if they didn’t have time to despair, and they didn’t dwell on Cuomo.

“The governor is obviously the most powerful person in New York politics,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, WFP’s New York director, when asked if she harbored resentment for Cuomo. “But our world and our vision doesn’t revolve around him. It’s no secret that the WFP has fought with the governor over numerous issues where we’ve had deep disagreements. Not taxing the rich, not fully funding public schools, foot dragging on campaign-finance reform, and his tacit support of the IDC. Those are the grounds on which we’re fighting. We don’t exist solely to be an opposition party.”

Like Nnaemeka, Biaggi is disinterested in engaging in personality politics.

“Political retribution is embedded in New York politics and I think we are breaking it one election at a time,” Biaggi said. “When I think back on Cuomo and what he’s done to try to shake us all out of power, it will be a footnote. We are moving forward regardless.”

The Working Families Party’s Fight for Survival