The upside-down logic of the inside strategy

New York's Working Families Party is paying for its decision to endorse Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his left-wing challengers--and that's a good thing, writes Jen Roesch.

Howie Hawkins at the massive People's Climate March in New York City (Carole Ramsden | SW)Howie Hawkins at the massive People's Climate March in New York City (Carole Ramsden | SW)

WHILE HOWIE Hawkins and the Green Party are having the most successful statewide political campaign that New York has seen in decades, the Working Families Party (WFP) is in a panic.

The WFP was formed 15 years ago by a coalition of unions and liberal organizations to give New York voters a progressive choice in elections. But in most cases, it has endorsed Democratic candidates and asked its supporters to vote for them on the WFP ballot line, something allowed under the state's unique election laws.

Earlier this year, leaders of the WFP decided to endorse Andrew Cuomo, the right-wing Democratic incumbent governor, because they thought this was the safest way for the party to maintain its place on the ballot. Instead, the deep disgust for Cuomo among WFP members and the viability of Hawkins as the Green Party candidate for governor has left the WFP in jeopardy of not receiving the 50,000 votes necessary to keep its ballot status for future elections.

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IN RECENT weeks, the WFP and its supporters sent out letter after letter begging people to vote for Cuomo on the WFP ballot line. Initially, this get-out-the-vote drive consciously downplayed Cuomo--to the point that co-chair Bertha Lewis managed to call for a vote for Cuomo without once mentioning his name.

But after the Nation published an editorial urging readers to vote for Cuomo on the WFP line in order to "pressure Cuomo," WFP leaders seem to have taken stock of the deep discontent in their party and decided they had to address the Cuomo question head on. Party director Bill Lipton made an appeal to supporters acknowledging that voting for Cuomo was "a bitter pill to swallow" and that "many of you are considering not voting for governor, or voting for Hawkins."

And who better to make the case for swallowing bitter pills than the campaign manager for Cuomo's primary rival and the candidate that most of the WFP grassroots wanted to nominate for governor?

Last spring, Mike Boland left his prominent role as WFP field organizer to manage Zephyr Teachout's campaign, and he was told in no uncertain terms that he would not be welcomed back. "People like Mike," a WFP source told Capital New York at the time. "But we made it clear that when he left, he was on his own and could not come back. We tried to talk him out of it, but when he refused, we cut all ties, because we're all in for Cuomo."

That hasn't stopped party leaders from turning to Boland in their hour of need. And apparently, it hasn't stopped him from allowing himself to be used to sell a vote for Cuomo--unlike Teachout, who did not endorse Cuomo or Hawkins. In a letter to supporters, he explained his choice:

But the question facing voters on Tuesday isn't who will be governor for the next four years--we already know the answer to that one. The real question facing all of us is how strong the progressive movement will be after the election, and if we will have the type of infrastructure necessary to hold Gov. Cuomo and legislators to the promises they have made to progressives. And I don't think we know the answer to that one yet.

In order to stay on the ballot, the Working Families Party needs to win 50,000 votes for Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday. The more votes progressives cast for Gov. Cuomo on the WFP line, the stronger position WFP will be in come November 5th. And that is when the real work begins--when we all need to come together to fight for higher wages for workers, campaign finance reform to change Albany, full funding of our schools, and so much more.

Since then, the pleas--ranging from Gloria Steinem to Whoopi Goldberg to prominent local activists--have come fast and furious.

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THE BOTTOM line is this: The WFP is so worried about losing its ballot line that it has been reduced to pleading with people vote for everything they hate solely to keep their status.

This begs the question of the logic of the party's inside-outside strategy--which is really just an inside-inside strategy. It has led the WFP to endorse and mobilize resources for someone who has promised to destroy public education and break up teachers' unions, waged war on the public sector, balanced the budget on the backs of the poor, refused to take a position on fracking, spit in the face of unions and even the Democratic Party by cozying up to Republicans, and even created a whole new party--the Women's Equality Party--just to try to destroy the WFP.

On the most basic level, I don't know how much less self-respect you could have to get up in the morning and send out appeals like this.

More importantly, I think the current cul-de-sac of the WFP shows the complete bankruptcy of a strategy that will always prioritize relationships with sitting politicians and ballot status over waging an actual fight. As executive editor Richard Kim put it in a dissenting opinion in the Nation: what the "WFP has become--[is] a party too dominated by inside institutional players who can't or won't see when the air is really better on the outside."

WFP leaders could have taken the bold step of endorsing Howie Hawkins and added the WFP's institutional clout to a real challenge to Cuomo. In the process, they would have opened up possibilities for a genuinely independent political alternative in New York. But this would have meant abandoning the non-negotiable core mission of their party--that to which every other struggle and principle must bow: To be a loyal opposition attempting to pressure the Democratic Party to the left.

The reality is that the WFP is just as afraid of a genuine third-party alternative as Cuomo is. They would rather get behind Cuomo then see a genuine left-wing, independent candidate like Howie Hawkins capture the progressive vote. Boland, Teachout's campaign manager, expressed the attitude of WFP insiders to third-party challenges like the Green Party:

Of all the things that can come out of this general election, the single worst possible outcome for progressives is probably the most likely: The governor wins by a very large margin, remaining powerful in relation to the legislature, while the Green Party establishes a permanent ballot line as the third- or fourth-largest party in New York state, which will wreak absolute havoc for progressives in the coming years...

Left to its own devices, the Green Party will field candidates with no shot at winning in swing state Senate districts who siphon progressive votes away from Democrats. The Greens don't mind doing this because they don't see a fundamental difference between the two major parties. But for anyone who cares about winning a fracking ban in New York, it ain't happening with a Republican majority. The Green Party doesn't seem to understand that, or maybe they don't care.

But no one who has actually followed Cuomo's campaign can argue that he has any intention of banning fracking--Republican majority or not.

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THE LEFT is often forced to explain why Democratic candidates will almost always break their promises after Election Day. But in the topsy-turvy world of this year's election cycle in New York, we can say with certainty that Cuomo fully intends to keep his promises--to gut public education, cut taxes for the rich, continue the health care restructuring that has led to widespread hospital closures; and delay and stall any kind of progressive legislation.

The WFP argues that supporters should vote for Cuomo on its ballot line despite people's deep hatred for him borne out of experience, in order to send a message of support for the party. The argument is that this institutional party presence is more important than individual candidates.

I think people should consider the opposite conclusion--refuse to vote for the WFP and instead cast a ballot for Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones on the Green Party line. That will send a message to the WFP leadership that you won't follow them down this dead-end road.

In many ways, the WFP is right that the choice progressives make in this election is bigger than the individual candidates. But they are wrong about why. This is a choice about what kind of movement we need to build to win real gains for working-class people and social struggles in New York.

If the past four years under Cuomo have taught us anything, it is that it will take a real fight to win even the smallest of concessions. The WFP, with its support from major unions and thousands of grassroots activists, has the resources to help mobilize such a fight. But it has proven that it will put ballot access and insider relationships ahead of that kind of struggle at every turn.

WFP leaders are using their considerable resources and political clout to beg us to vote for Cuomo. Millions of New Yorkers have already been asked to swallow a bitter pill of austerity during the last four years, with more of the same promised. They shouldn't have to swallow a bitter pill from a party that claims to speak for working families.

Frankly, losing their ballot line might be precisely the wake-up call that WFP leaders need.