The Working Families Party charade unravels

October 27, 2014

New York's supposed progressive alternative is being treated with contempt by the Democrat it endorsed, writes New York City activist and WBAI co-host Sandy Boyer.

IN NEW York state, the Working Families Party (WFP) tells you that you can have your cake and eat it, too--vote for Democrats and still "vote for your values."

Founded in 1998 by a coalition of unions and activist and community organizations, the WFP was supposed to give voters a progressive alternative when they look at their ballots on Election Day. The party does occasionally run its own candidates--but more often, it endorses Democratic candidates and lists them on its ballot line, as state law allows it to do.

WFP leaders tell liberals and even left-wing people to vote for Democrats on their ballot line. They say this will help elect "leaders who care more about the needs of everyday voters than the demands of Wall Street billionaires and corporate lobbyists." Or as New York City Council member Brad Lander put it, casting a WFP vote for Democrats will "pull the Democratic Party toward its better self and away from corporate interests."

Its leaders claim that Democrats who get elected with significant support from votes cast on the WFP ballot line will go on to enact progressive policies on issues like the minimum wage, full employment, and decent housing and education. Leaders of important New York unions, including the Communication Workers of America, the health care workers union 1199SEIU, the New York Hotel Trades Council, the Laborers, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union pass this message on to their members.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Diana Robinson)

ARE THEY right? The best test of this claim is the record of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the most prominent politician elected with WFP support. Cuomo has been anything but a beacon of liberalism. Among other things, he has:

-- Funded privately owned charter schools at the expense of public schools;

Forced state workers to take a two-year wage freeze, pay more for their health benefits, and take nine days off without pay over two years;

Shut down a commission to investigate corruption in state government when it threatened to expose his own political operations; and

Prevented New York cities from setting their own minimum wage.

In the 2010 election, Cuomo made the WFP beg for the privilege of endorsing him. He refused to accept their nomination until the party abandoned its own platform and endorsed his. WFP leaders were terrified that without Cuomo, they wouldn't get the 50,000 votes for governor that they need to keep their line on the state ballot.

By 2014, everything had changed, however. WFP leaders faced an angry rank and file that was balking at nominating Cuomo. Union leaders delivered an ultimatum--they would cut off the party's funding unless the WFP nominated Cuomo. Even so, Cuomo was forced to present a video message promising to work for progressive policies like a higher minimum wage and public funding of elections.

Most important of all, he pledged to go all-out to elect a Democratic majority in the state Senate. For years, Republicans, sometimes with Democratic support, have used their control of the Senate to ensure that nothing threatening to business or the right wing becomes law. This has enabled Cuomo to avoid vetoing bills that conflict with his real pro-business agenda--the progressive legislation never makes it past the Senate.

Every observer of New York politics knows perfectly well that a Democratic state Senate is the very last thing Cuomo wants. As Michael McKee of Tenants PAC wrote, "It is not a secret that Cuomo prefers a Republican-controlled Senate, although he won't admit it, and virtually no other politician will say so in public." Since the WFP convention, Cuomo has studiously avoided campaigning for Democrats for the state Senate, as he promised he would.

Even worse for the Working Families Party, Cuomo has created a so-called Women's Equality Party designed specifically to take votes away from it. As the New York Daily News observed, Cuomo "appears to be trying to kill [the WFP]. Rarely has so little love lost seemed lost between a party and its candidate."

Caught between Cuomo and the independent campaign of the Green Party's Howie Hawkins, who is also running for governor in November, the WFP is deathly afraid it won't get the 50,000 votes it needs to keep its ballot line. The party has responded with press releases from luminaries like Gloria Steinem imploring people to vote WFP. None of their statements contain the dreaded words "Andrew Cuomo."

UNLIKE THE millionaire Cuomo, Howie Hawkins is a working Teamster from Syracuse and a member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He's running with Brian Jones, a leader of the opposition in the New York City United Federation of Teachers and a member of the International Socialist Organization. They have carved out a platform to meet the needs of working people, including a $15 an hour minimum wage, a ban on fracking, and fully funded public education through the college level.

The spectacular rise of Hawkins' Green Party campaign for governor threatens to eclipse the Working Families Party on the New York political scene. Just in the past few weeks, Hawkins-Jones has been endorsed by six teachers' unions and five New York City Democratic Party Clubs.

When the East Williston Teachers Association endorsed them, it stated: "Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and his running mate for lieutenant governor Brian Jones have produced an education platform that is completely in sync with what we believe and know to be sound education policy...A vote for Hawkins/Jones represents a vote for education and faith in the job that each of us performs each day in the classroom."

The Downtown Independent Democrats, the latest Democratic Party Club to come out for Hawkins, said, "Hawkins' stances on the minimum wage, public education, single-payer healthcare, municipal taxes, clean energy and public transportation make him the only candidate New York progressives can support."

Hawkins is currently polling at 9 percent, which is unprecedented for a progressive third-party candidate in New York. If that holds up, the Green Party will catapult over the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party to "Row C" on the ballot behind only the Democrats and Republicans.

There's a real chance that the Green Party could come out of this election as the only credible alternative to the Democrats. That's already true in places like Syracuse. With a powerful vote in New York City, the Green Party could become a real force there as well.

The Greens are starting to give a political voice to many movement activists who are growing sicker of the fake two-party system every day. These activists come from the environmental movement, the rank and file of the unions, the movement for criminal justice reform and many other disparate progressive causes. Until now, they've mostly gritted their teeth and voted for Democrats--or not voted at all.

The challenge for the Green Party after the election will be to make itself a party and a political representative for this growing grouping of left activists. It may not be an easy task, but it couldn't be more important for the future of the people of New York.

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