Did progressives sell themselves short?
Last weekend at the Working Families Party (WFP) convention in Albany, after some speeches, a floor fight, some recriminations and a lot of discussion, the delegates decided to endorse Andrew Cuomo for a second term as governor.
Did they sell themselves short in the process?
The Working Families Party was formed in 1998 by labor union members, community organizations, public interest groups, environmental advocates and others supporting progressive policies. Its role in state and local elections is enhanced by the fact that New York is one of only eight states whose election laws permit minor political parties to cross-endorse major party candidates, a process called electoral fusion.
Fusion allows a minor political party to exercise some clout in the election process by providing an extra line on the ballot for the candidate so favored. This gives voters who consider themselves independent in some respect, or who don’t want to cast a vote on one of the major party ballot lines, an alternative way to vote for a candidate they nonetheless favor.
It’s a significant consideration for major party candidates. Cuomo received 154,487 votes on the WFP ballot line in 2010, increasing his margin of victory by 3.32 percent.
Conversely, the decision on whether to cross-endorse is crucial for the minor party as well. State Election Law grants an automatic line on the ballot over the next four years to any party securing at least 50,000 votes in the gubernatorial election.
The number of votes cast on a party’s line also determines its position on that ballot. As a result, the WFP currently holds the fourth line after the Democrats, the Republicans and the state’s Conservative Party.
It’s all a delicate dance in an important respect. The minor party holding that extra line can use it to draw a major party candidate seeking its endorsement more in the direction of the policies it favors. At the same time, that minor party needs to support a candidate who will secure, and hopefully enhance, its position on the ballot. That leaves the major party candidate considerable leverage as well.
The Working Families Party has had success of late, notably in New York City. It endorsed then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio early in the run-up to the Democratic Party primary for mayor well before he was considered a likely winner. It helped that de Blasio was already ideologically aligned with the progressive wing of his own party. His election as mayor means that the WFP’s progressive policy preferences have a powerful voice in the country’s largest city.
When Democrat Andrew Cuomo ran for governor in 2010, the Working Families Party readily endorsed him in the understandable belief — based on his own words — that, once in office, he would work to secure Democratic control of the Senate that was then in reach, as well as champion a broad swath of progressive policies. Those included support for public education, campaign finance and electoral redistricting reform, and tax-and-wage policies that would favor the less well-off.
They were to be deeply disappointed. Instead, Cuomo did none of these things. He declined to influence, or engineered himself (both views are held), a breakaway faction of Democrats that has left the Senate in minority Republican control. Then, he sought and engineered alliances with that Republican minority, fostering policies and legislation that appealed more to them than progressives.
It was this sense of disappointment — even betrayal in some corners — that led to that robust debate within the Working Families Party over endorsing Cuomo again. Cuomo, keenly aware of the importance of the votes that go with that extra ballot line, made it his business to — verbally at least — return to the fold, as it were.
So, the WFP has given Cuomo its endorsement and, with it, its line on the ballot in November in exchange for a series of promises to work for full Democratic control of the Senate and fully endorse and enact the progressive policies he eschewed the first time around.
Has the party sold itself short? To be sure, even the enhanced position of the WFP in the wake of de Blasio’s ascendance does not give it a trump card by any means. And a third party always will have to skillfully maneuver and avoid overplaying any good, but never great, hand it is dealt.
Nonetheless, a promise is a promise. Is that enough in the realm of bare-knuckle politics, where personal ambition and public service repeatedly align and clash and then realign? The Working Families Party—and we—will be watching.
John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.