Where Have All the Political Parties Gone?

Dan Cantor at the Working Families Party's office.Photo: Timothy Devine

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.

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.

Where Have All the Political Parties Gone?