Nader or Gore? In this wan election season, it’s about the only pressing issue remaining for the left in New York City. But there is another progressive alternative to the Democrats this year—the fledgling Working Families Party, a multiracial coalition of labor unions, community-based organization, citizens, and activists.
In 1998, the WFP earned its way into the ranks of New York’s myriad minor parties by winning over 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. Now the party is pushing hard for 100,000 voters statewide to pull the lever for Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Working Families line (that’s Row H, in the far corner of the booth) as a demonstration of the WFP’s political muscle. It’s hoping people will do the same for Al Gore.
Wait a minute . . . Peter Vallone? Hillary Clinton? Al Gore? Not exactly Norman Thomas or Henry Wallace material. With a few nods and winks, party leaders concede that Clinton and Gore, two pro-death-penalty, pro-free-trade, pro-welfare-reform “New Democrats,” are hardly of progressive caliber. But sticking with the Dems, they say, is about the only practical choice. (That hasn’t stopped WFP’s campaign literature from effusing, “[T]here have been few candidates in history more supportive of our issues than Al Gore and Hillary Cinton.”)
Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign may be grabbing the headlines, but WFP activists say they will be around long after the Nader hoopla fades. “We’re a values-based party. We can’t, by our very nature, be candidate-based,” says Dan Cantor, the WFP’s executive director. “The theme of this party is to change the terms of the debate. We want to put things like equality, solidarity, and social justice back on the table. And that takes some time.”
It may take time, but the party has already come a long way. The push to get 50,000 votes for Vallone was an impressive achievement, given that the WFP had to overcome a daunting time crunch. “It was a three-week campaign,” says Bob Master, cochair of the party and political director of District 1 of the Communication Workers of America, noting that the Board of Elections gave the party a spot on the ballot late in the game. On election day in 1998, it appeared as if the WFP would fall just short of 50,000. But after absentee ballots were counted, the final tally was 51,326.
In 1999, when Republicans lost control of the Nassau County legislature, the WFP campaigned heavily for many of the victorious Democrats. This year, the WFP is one of the few liberal groups supporting the Democratic push to take over the state senate—many public-sector unions and other Democratic allies are sticking with the GOP, fearful of Republican retribution should they remain in control of the senate. The WFP’s signature issue is promoting a living wage.
In Rockland County, the party was instrumental in persuading the local legislature to establish a meaty $8.25 an hour living wage, along with health care benefits indexed to inflation. WFP also played a prominent role in the push for a statewide increase in the minimum wage, an effort that fell short in the senate last session. Hot-button social and cultural issues (gun control, abortion rights, government funding of the arts) are low on the totem pole. The bread-and-butter populist issues come first. “We want to be a reliable 5 percent party in these elections,” says Cantor. “And then to turn these votes into affordable housing, education, and comprehensive health care.”
WFP takes its cue not from other left parties of the past but from the Christian Coalition and New York’s Conservative Party. It has emulated the Christian Coalition’s model of focusing on grassroots organizing and small elections (170 candidates are on the WFP line this year, from county legislators to municipal judges), while striving to strengthen the progressive wing of the Democratic Party by getting votes for its candidates, an approach similar to the way the Conservatives operate within the GOP. “Candidates know that when they’re on our line, they’re committed to certain things,” says Bertha Lewis, cochair of the party, and executive director of New York ACORN, a community-based organization (comprising members with low and moderate incomes) and one of the founding forces behind the WFP. “Hillary knows that if she wins, we’re going to be knockin’ on her door. She won’t be able to hide.”
This is not a mediacentric party. It gets its message out through telephoning, organizing, and knocking on doors. A big phone-banking operation has been in place in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Party volunteers call union members, ask them how they plan to vote in November, and tell them that if they plan to vote Democratic (a pretty likely prospect), to do it on the WFP line. “We need this party,” says Mary Pietrowski, a shop steward with Local 1180, as she prepares to work the phones. “The working people are getting screwed in this state. Plain and simple.”
WFP may have its strongest presence in the city, but the party also has pockets of support in various working-class regions in Nassau, Rockland, and Erie counties. Upstate, party leaders are trying to persuade the rank and file to overlook their hostility toward Hillary Clinton and focus on the issues, such as Clinton’s support for a minimum-wage hike and a patients’ bill of rights. “It’s been pretty encouraging,” says Jim Duncan of the United Auto Workers in Buffalo and a cochair of WFP. “The poll we had commissioned clearly showed that when our folks knew what the issues were, they were not reluctant to vote for Hillary Clinton one bit.”
In the city, activists have centered on bringing out the vote in communities of color, especially among union people. “We have two goals,” says Deirdre Schifeling, a WFP organizer. “One is to get back the white working-class Republicans. The second challenge is to energize the vote in black and brown communities.” Schifeling is on her way to address Local 1199 union members at Maimonides Hospital in southern Brooklyn. Her job is to explain what WFP is about and to convince people that the party deserves their vote.
“In New York State, three things matter,” Schifeling tells union members. “Money, troops, and the ballot line. We don’t have money, but we have troops and the ballot line.” She explains why the Democrats need to be pressured by a union-based party and the importance of voting for Working Families candidates. “This is the way to hold politicians accountable,” she says.
The “spoiler” issue has always dogged third-party movements. But New York is one of nine states in the nation that allow cross-endorsements, a luxury the Working Families Party has taken full advantage of. Nearly every one of the hundreds of candidates backed by the WFP over the years has been with a major party. With a handful of exceptions, all have been Democrats. Which begs the question: Is this really a third party at all? Some activists sneer at the WFP’s policy of rubber-stamping Democrats with the expectation that the party’s imprimatur will bring out a candidate’s progressive side.
But the Nader candidacy is clearly a divisive issue for WFP activists. “I really get a little perturbed over this whole Nader thing,” says Lewis. “My constituents need something practical. They don’t have the luxury to waste their vote.” Cantor is less hard-line about it. “There are people who will vote for Nader for president and for Hillary for senator on the Working Families line,” he says. “In both cases, you’re voting against the two-party duopoly.”
With nearly all of New York City’s elected officials—including the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and dozens of City Council members—on their way out next year due to term limits, the WFP will have a prime opportunity to make its mark on the city’s political future for some time. But a strong showing on Election Day has to come first. “This is going to be decades in the making,” says Cantor. “We have to have patience.”