Rory Lancman has seen the clout of the Working Families Party firsthand. The Queens city councilman has run and won with the support of the progressive third party multiple times. And he has endured its wrath after unsuccessfully boosting a rival candidate for Speaker of the City Council.
Lancman, like most left-leaning Democrats, likes the idea — relentlessly promoted by the WFP itself — of the party as a kind of New York macher. But now even allies like Lancman are questioning its future as a preeminent player in the city and the state.
“The WFP, in order for it to be a real force and not just a social media organizing brand, has got to bring its base — its organizational and financial base — back together,” Lancman told the Voice. “And that’s primarily organized labor.”
To even suggest that there’s an existential rift in the WFP is to invite acid rebukes from the party’s swaggering leadership. There are too many signs of strength, they’ll tell you: Why else would New York’s triangulating governor, Andrew Cuomo, have agreed to eventually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, a top WFP priority? Not to mention that New York City’s leadership is overwhelmingly liberal and WFP-aligned: Mayor Bill de Blasio is very close to the party’s founders, and Public Advocate Letitia James, who holds his old job, was the first elected official to win solely on WFP’s ballot line.
But the party, which has national aspirations to be a Tea Party for progressives, is at a clear crossroads, whether it wants to acknowledge it or not. The Daily News reported in April that two of its biggest organized-labor benefactors, the Hotel and Motel Trades Council and 1199 SEIU, the healthcare workers union and the state’s largest, quietly withdrew their support for the WFP at the end of 2014. The United Federation of Teachers isn’t paying dues. The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union — another influential WFP member — as well as building trades unions are less enchanted with the party than they once were.
Despite the headlines the party seized for organizing in states like New Jersey, Connecticut, and even New Mexico, its influence in the city is waning. It hasn’t successfully defended de Blasio, now drowning in scandals, from his critics, nor spearheaded recent legislation in the City Council. “I cannot tell you the last time I’ve even heard their name in City Hall,” said one City Hall Democrat. “They don’t influence policy, they don’t influence politics.”
The labor departures weren’t news to those close to the WFP, who wanted to keep the rift under wraps as long as possible. But for the elected officials, party operatives, and various Democrats who revered and feared the WFP, it was an emperor-has-no-clothes moment.
And they have begun privately to ask: Does this third party still matter?
The WFP has been the muscle of New York’s left for almost two decades now. Founded in 1998, it nurtured the political careers of de Blasio, James, and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, three of the most prominent elected officials in the city. In 2013, perhaps the high point of the WFP’s influence, it helped elect a host of proudly progressive City Council members. No matter what happens to the party itself, the city’s political firmament, due in part to the WFP’s efforts, is much more liberal than it once was.
Perhaps the most value the WFP offers is an actual line on the ballot come election time: In New York and seven other states, candidates can run with the endorsement of multiple parties, and Democrats who also run on the WFP line get the help of the party’s ground troops and the coveted imprimatur of being a progressive candidate. And in an era of diminished political clubs and county Democratic organizations, the WFP has filled the vacuum as a vote-pulling apparatus, paying canvassers and mobilizing members of labor unions to knock on voters’ doors. In local races with low turnout, the WFP’s endorsement can be the difference between winning or losing by a hundred votes.
From the WFP’s genesis, there was an uneasy alliance between organized labor and the grassroots activists undergirding the party. Its founder, Dan Cantor, is a true believer, a cerebral operative who once worked for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. Working under Cantor is Bill Lipton, the sharp-elbowed New York State director, another progressive who was ready for a Bernie Sanders insurgency years before it happened.
For Cantor, Lipton, and other progressives in the organization, the dream is a political revolution: campaign finance reform, a more equitable distribution of wealth, an end to oligarchy.
But labor leaders are far more transactional than activists. They have to worry about serving a constituency and bartering with the powers that be to do right by their members. Raising wages and ensuring access to more jobs trumps fighting to publicly finance elections or rein in Wall Street. Which explains why, for years, 1199 propped up a conservative Republican state senate to form a bulwark against New York governors who sought to cut the state’s swelling Medicaid budget.
For a time, a grand bargain between idealists and pragmatists allowed the party to flourish with a simple formula: Cantor and company could strategize and dream big while organized labor underwrote the movement with cash and bodies on the ground. 1199 SEIU has more than 400,000 members and retirees nationwide, with a sizable number residing in New York, and can easily spend millions on television and radio ads for chosen candidates.
But that convenient alignment began to unwind in 2014 when Cuomo was running for re-election. The WFP’s labor wing wanted to back the governor because he was the overwhelming favorite and they needed to stay on good terms with the state’s most powerful, and nakedly vindictive, elected official. The party’s activist wing, however, fed up with a Wall Street–friendly centrist, wanted to defy Cuomo and support Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor known for her academic work on political corruption.
The WFP appeared to save itself when the membership reluctantly backed Cuomo in exchange for a promise from the governor to help Democrats retake control of the state senate. With no real leverage over Cuomo, however, the WFP ended up with the worst of all possible worlds: a pissed-off Cuomo (he always hated the party to begin with and didn’t appreciate the waffling) and a disillusioned activist base. Riding a national wave, Republicans won control of the senate, and Cuomo devised a new organization, the Women’s Equality Party, that not so coincidentally bore a near-identical abbreviation and helped siphon off votes.
And then along came Bernie Sanders.
The WFP had been girding for the possibility of a labor exodus since 2014, sources say. It was looking to raise money as a digital operation like MoveOn.org (which is on WFP’s board), building a nationwide list of small donors to replace the union cash — the very strategy that made the Bernie revolution possible.
This time there was no equivocation. While just about every labor leader in New York lined up to support Hillary Clinton, the party fell behind the socialist senator from Vermont. That made perfect sense for two reasons: First, Sanders shared all of the WFP’s values. Second, Sanders also offered a potential lifeline for a progressive political party looking to diversify its cash flow: the vast donor list that allowed the senator to consistently outraise Clinton.
The WFP has vehemently denied that it ever sought Sanders’s fundraising list, and there’s little evidence the campaign would relinquish such valuable property anyway. But even operating on the outer rings of Sanders’s orbit could in theory have brought benefits down the road for the WFP, especially if Bernie ever deigned to send out a fundraising appeal for some of its chosen candidates or even the party itself.
Sanders’s sixteen-point primary loss can’t be laid solely at the feet of the WFP. Democrats, though, took notice: What exactly did the new WFP do for him in New York? Most gallingly for the Brooklyn-based party, Clinton slaughtered Sanders in the five boroughs, running up twenty- and forty-point margins in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
The loss renewed talk of a “brain drain” from the party, which was once a breeding ground for elite operatives like Emma Wolfe, now a top de Blasio aide, and Britney Whaley, currently chief of staff for a Bronx assemblyman.
“Aside from Cantor and Lipton, how do they keep talent?” asked a progressive Democrat unaffiliated with the WFP. “They had some really awesome operatives in the 2004–2010 era, people whose names serious people all knew. Now? Less so.”
Lipton, for his part, sees a bright future for the party. He rejects the premise that labor departures are wounding the party, pointing to the more than two dozen unions that still belong, as well as to newer additions like the state teachers union and the New York State Nurses Association. The party is also planning to recruit two hundred candidates for various local offices across the state next year.
“It’s an exciting time for us. We have more affiliates than ever,” he said in a statement. “Meanwhile, in no small part thanks to our work over the past eighteen years, the progressive agenda is now clearly ascendant in the Democratic Party.”
The agenda might be ascendant, but NYSNA doesn’t pack the same punch as the departed unions. And the United Federation of Teachers’ de facto exit from the WFP may hurt the state teachers union’s ability to deliver for the progressive party.
The new WFP will be tested next year. A scandal-scarred de Blasio will face re-election, a handful of council seats will be vacant, and a Speaker will replace the term-limited Mark-Viverito. For politicians like Lancman, 2017 will prove how powerful the party is — or how far it’s fallen.
“I hope they can repair whatever rift exists,” Lancman said. “The state is better off having a Working Families Party.”