Working Families Party endorsement causing seismic shifts in NY politics

The Working Families Party is fractured: Unions want to support Gov. Andrew Cuomo but progressive activists want to back Cynthia Nixon. Why does it matter?
The Working Families Party is fractured: Unions want to support Gov. Andrew Cuomo but progressive activists want to back Cynthia Nixon. Why does it matter? Photo Credit: amNY / Mark Chiusano

You’ll be forgiven for not caring about the internecine joys of multiple ballot lines and minor parties, but something noteworthy happened in New York’s complicated political landscape last week.

The Working Families Party, formed 20 years ago by unions and progressive activists, endorsed long-shot gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon over fellow Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Both Cuomo and Nixon are Democrats. But the endorsement had consequences.

Before the party’s state committee voted to support Nixon on Saturday, two Cuomo-supporting unions that formed a good portion of the WFP’s financial support exited the party. That’s a big blow to the WFP, which had become a key player in New York thanks to the state’s strange “fusion” voting rules allowing candidates to run on multiple party lines.

Numerous Democratic candidates have sought the WFP endorsement to help virtue-signal their progressive bona-fides. There are relatively few people registered with the WFP in New York, but the party has been a tool for urging the Democratic Party further left. But what happens now that much of its union ground-muscle and donations are gone?

The squabble is emblematic of the larger arguments going on among the Democratic left. How do you mix pragmatic governance that results in incremental progressive gains with grassroots activism hammering on the gates of those in power? Who is the future: Cuomo, the canny operator who can see which way the wind’s blowing and rapidly tacks leftward? Or someone like Nixon, a political newcomer who embraces purer progressive ideology (see: her uncomplicated stance on marijuana legalization)?

Although they often backed the WFP, unions have to consider the economic needs of their members, maintaining good relations with a governor who has recently overseen minimum wage increases and other pro-worker measures (he also reportedly put the screws into union officials over union-supported groups drifting to Nixon). But activists at the core of the WFP are fired up after more than a year fighting President Donald Trump and less satisfied with slow change.

For now, the WFP seems to have sided more with those activists, fed up with Cuomo after a years-long contentious relationship. But the party is now a big x-factor because Nixon, set to receive the formal WFP nomination in May, would be able to run on its ballot line in the general election. Assuming Cuomo wins the Democratic primary, that would potentially draw votes away from Cuomo and empower a Republican opponent.

Party leader Bill Lipton said this week that the WFP did not intend to be a spoiler — no Ralph Nader or Jill Stein. There are a few ways the WFP might be able to thread that needle. Nixon could continue into the general and hope Cuomo’s lead over the Republican is sufficient. She could run a half-hearted campaign. Or the party could try complicated maneuvers to get her off the ballot. Seriously complicated, like have-another-candidate-accept-a-judicial-position-and-have-Nixon-qualify-for-the-vacant-role complicated.

At the end of the primary season, it may very well be that the WFP goes back to Cuomo, as it has in the past, returning to the center-left of Democratic politics.

For now, the party is experimenting with the more activist-left, watching 1,000 or so small-dollar donations come in during the days after the Nixon endorsement. A party spokesman said about half came from first-time donors. Also new to the party: foot-soldiers from the New York Progressive Action Network, a collection of groups across the state mostly rooted in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. That network is now affiliated with the WFP. Those elements are being raised now that traditional powerbrokers like Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America District 1 are out.

The result is a peek into the left’s internal divisions at an early stage in the political calendar. Reporting back on the weekend WFP state committee meeting, Daniel Altschuler of the Make the Road Action Fund, said there was reason for encouragement (despite Cuomo-world’s threats to WFP affiliates like Altschuler’s): “I could hear in people’s voices as they engaged in the debate and cast their votes their excitement to have the debate, to engage in the fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.”