The Working Families Party, on the rise nationally, faces a defining test in New York

The Working Families Party, on the rise nationally, faces a defining test in New York

The Working Families Party endorsed progressive Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential primary last year. When she dropped out earlier this year, the party threw its support to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont.

But after a controversial change to election law in New York, the WFP needs a groundswell of supporters and allies across the state to cast their presidential ballots for a moderate champion, Joe Biden — where his name now appears under its banner — in the general election.

At stake is the WFP’s treasured automatic slot on the state ballot, which has been imperiled by new rules raising the qualification threshold from 50,000 votes to 130,000 or 2% of the final tally, whichever number is greater. If the final count of WFP votes falls short of that number, it will lose an important toehold in New York politics and elections, which through a system called “fusion voting” allows candidates to appear under the heading of multiple parties. Biden and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, for example, will appear on both the Democratic Party and WFP lines in this year’s presidential contest.

Without the ballot line, the party would be cast into a place of existential uncertainty in the state where it was founded more than two decades ago as a progressive bulwark against an increasingly centrist, business-friendly Democratic Party. The WFP is unique among the country’s leading progressive groups because of its ability and willingness to run its own candidates, something its allies — and, occasionally, competitors — like the Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats do not. New York’s voting system, which allows for candidates to run on multiple ballot lines, enables the party to apply pressure to Democrats without necessarily playing spoiler.

To preserve that role, the WFP has launched a campaign within a campaign to both explain the situation and turnout its backers. But the fight is a drag on the party’s resources, financially and with personnel, and marks the latest chapter in a long and contentious relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, one of the country’s most powerful state executives and a sharp-elbowed political practitioner who backed the new standard. The WFP’s decision to support primary challenger Cynthia Nixon in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, along with a slate of lefty opponents to incumbent Democratic state senators who had been part of a breakaway faction that undermined party progressives, shattered any remaining pretense of a partnership.

A growing party faces trouble at home

Over the past several years, the WFP has grown up from its New York roots into an influential national organization and incubator for progressive candidates and policy drives. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, first won election to the New York City Council as a WFP candidate. In Wisconsin, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a rising star in progressive politics, has served as a Working Families National Committee member. The party has scored victories in downballot races across the country.

In an email on Monday, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made the WFP’s case to her supporters. After acknowledging the “internal debates and disagreements” inside the Democratic Party, she urged progressives to “act in solidarity” by voting against President Donald Trump.

“But in New York, we’re lucky,” Ocasio-Cortez continued. “We have the opportunity to both vote out Trump AND, and the same time, send a message to the Democratic Party that we can do better. We do that by voting Biden/Harris on the WFP line.”

Tiffany Cabán, the progressive political novice who nearly defeated the establishment favorite in a tight 2019 primary for Queens County district attorney, credited the WFP for bringing her campaign the “electoral know-how” that brought her to within a few dozen votes of a historic upset.

The guarantee of the WFP’s presence on the ballot, she told CNN, is important because it offers an on-ramp to candidates without traditional resumes or political connections to run for office and, when its votes are counted, provides clear evidence of the progressive movement’s support to Democratic officials.

The fact of the matter is that there are people who look at what these tallies are,” said Cabán, a national political organizer with the WFP who is now running for city council. “And so when elected officials are in office, they are looking to see what’s going to keep them in office and in power.”

Cuomo agreed to put his name on the WFP line in 2018, after he trounced Nixon in the Democratic primary. But the formation of a commission to address the public financing of elections, agreed in the next year’s state budget deal, was viewed by many as a first step toward limiting the influence of third parties. Its legally-binding resolutions, including the upping of the voter threshold, were struck down in court, only to reappear — and subsequently be passed into law — during tense budget negotiations this spring, as the coronavirus ravaged the state.

WFP supporters have accused Cuomo of engaging in an act of political vengeance — using the new rules as a tool for diminishing a party that has sought to undermine his control of the governing agenda in a state he’s dominated for more than a decade.

“The governor is someone who bullies, who engages in behavior that can be disrespectful to other stakeholders at times. He’s an imposing figure. And I’m sure that he’s upset about what happened in 2018, with his primary, and with the new Democratic majority, as well,” said state Sen. Jessica Ramos, a WFP-backed Democratic lawmaker, who unseated an incumbent two years ago, and a frequent Cuomo critic.

Ramos argued that there was no popular support for the changes before they were proposed, or much awareness, even now, in the public about their knock-on effect.

“There’s no one out there asking the governor to do this. Never has been,” Ramos said. “He decided to do it in a clandestine way. As is the culture that he has created in (the state capital of) Albany.”

Cuomo’s team has denied that the changes to the ballot requirements were intended to hurt the WFP.

“These (new rules) were enacted by the public financing commission and passed by both houses of the Legislature as part of a comprehensive campaign finance overhaul,” Rich Azzopardi, senior advisor to the governor, told CNN. “The never ending conspiracies here continue to be sad.”

Sochie Nnaemeka, the WFP’s New York state director, insisted the party was “not interested in engaging in interpersonal or prolonged, tit-for-tat in this moment where the state is in crisis,” but described decision to insert the overhaul into the budget package, which was passed in April, as timed to cut off any potential pushback from lawmakers.

“The administration, the executive, was very clear that a down-vote (on the budget) meant defunding the Health Department. And in that moment, the (WFP) was not mobilizing to prioritize what was slipped into the ballot during this crisis,” Nnaemeka said. “It was a dark day for democracy.”

A daunting road ahead

With just two weeks to go until Election Day and with mail-in ballots already being sent out in New York, the WFP is ramping up its efforts to convince liberals across the state to cast their ballots on the WFP line for Biden and Harris. The party is leaning on the vocal support of both local and national progressive leaders to break through during a period of intense focus on the election’s topline outcome.

Among the stars featured in a recent, two-minute digital ad: Jamaal Bowman, who unseated longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in a primary this year; fellow House primary winner Mondaire Jones; state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar; New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and state Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. It concluded with an appeal to New Yorkers to vote for Biden.

On Friday, Warren used her email list to encourage voters in New York to do the same. The national WFP’s decision to endorse her presidential campaign set off a backlash among some supporters of Sanders, but their attacks on the party only raised itself profile.

“The Working Families Party is under threat. The state has more than doubled the votes needed to keep WFP on the ballot,” Warren said in her message. “That’s why it’s so important that when you vote — you look on your ballot for the Working Families Party, and then vote for Biden and Harris on the WFP ballot line.”

Meanwhile, the party and its allies have been phone-banking and texting, waging a campaign within a campaign to preserve the WFP’s status and underscore the stakes to its supporters.

But in a state that has been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, organizing work remains a challenge. Safety concerns, especially at a time when fears of a second wave are escalating, have effectively ruled out organizers and volunteers going door-to-door to make the party’s case to voters.

If the WFP falls short, it faces a daunting road back onto the ballot.

Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, called the new law “off-center” when compared to rules in most other states and said it would be “extremely hard” for the WFP and other smaller parties now at risk of losing their places to regain them.

To start, the WFP would, ahead of the 2022 election, need to collect 45,000 signatures to petition for its line — a process that would require time and resources currently dedicated to running actual campaigns.

“It would be a huge burden,” Winger said, “and it would be a huge burden on the elections officials processing all those petitions.”

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