What is this Working Families Party, anyway?

If the September primaries — marked as they were by low turnout and voter apathy — produced one compelling story, it was that of the emergence of the left-wing Working Families Party as perhaps New York City’s premier political organization.

The WFP endorsed three candidates for citywide office; all three won by big margins. One, Bill de Blasio, running for Public Advocate against a heavy favorite, Mark Green, won his runoff 63%-37%. In the race for comptroller, John C. Liu was the favorite from start to finish. He won his runoff against David Yassky easily, 56%-44% with strong support from the WFP: “I hope they take credit for my campaign,” he said before the primary. Both candidates thanked the WFP in their victory speeches.

Teammates: Thompson, Congressman Charles Rangel (D, Harlem), de Blasio, and Liu

Teammates: Thompson, Congressman Charles Rangel (D, Harlem), de Blasio, and Liu

Even the party’s candidate for mayor–the Democrat Bill Thompson, who won his primary race easily– will probably see a surprising boost from WFP support in his longshot bid to unseat Mayor Bloomberg. In its roundup analysis of the runoff election, the New York TimesCity Room blog said “the mayor’s race will be much closer than polls suggest,” thanks to the WFP’s “formidable field operation.” The same post called the party “now the pre-eminent political force in New York City politics.”

Mayor Bloomberg addressing the party's Mayoral Forum, in July.

Mayor Bloomberg addressing the party in July, before they endorsed his opponent.

But many New Yorkers seem confused by the party. The day after its big wins in the September 15th primaries, the New York Times ran a piece calling the party “still relatively little-known.” My politically savvy roommate, who once applied for a job with them, told me he “really has no idea what they do.”

What they do is blend the role of a political party with one more traditionally left to political advocacy groups. Founded in 1998 by a coalition of labor unions and community groups (including members of both the SEIU and ACORN), the WFP takes advantage of New York State’s fusion voting law, which allows one candidate to be endorsed by multiple political parties.

In 1998, the WFP endorsed Peter Vallone, a Democrat, in his race against then-governor George Pataki. Vallone, who lost, received slightly more than 50,000 votes on the WFP line, just enough for the party to earn an automatic ballot line in future elections.

Using fusion voting, the party rarely runs its own candidates (Letitia James, councilwoman from Brooklyn, being a notable exception), but attempts to force major-party politicians to address its signature issues.

In 2001, Bill Lindsay, running on the Democratic and WFP tickets, won election to the heavily Republican Suffolk County Legislature 50.6%-49.4%. Three percent of his votes came on the Working Families Party line–just enough to swing the election. Lindsay also had access to the party’s army of organizers and large cash reserves—paid by union contributions and by the party’s for-profit political services arm. County Republicans took notice, and in a first for a Republican-controlled county legislature, passed a living-wage bill pushed for strongly by the WFP.

An example of a WFP fusion ballot.

The party’s impact on New York City races can be even more dramatic. Its organizing power dwarfs that of most individual campaigns: leading up to the September 15th primary, party organizers knocked on 227,928 doors, and had workers stationed at 350 polling places on election day. The party works closely with its traditional labor allies to drive turnout even in low-profile elections, leading to lopsided results like the 63%-37% drubbing in the Public Advocate race.

The WFP has become a power broker, sometimes endorsing candidates in races where all the contenders are progressive Democrats. It has even endorsed some Republicans, in areas outside of the city. This has led to accusations that the party throws its clout behind candidates who make use of its for-profit political services arm, Data and Field Services.  Republican political consultant Roger Stone has called it a “criminal enterprise” and accused it of “trading ballot positions for political consulting contracts.”

Jacobs may be responding to a threat. Some even predict that the WFP may come to dominate New York City politics in the same way that local Democratic Clubs once did. After the runoffs on Tuesday, political consultant Hank Steinkopf told the New York Post: “More than anything else, this is the new generation, the complete shift: the Democratic Party can’t elect the Mayor and now can’t elect a comptroller or Public Advocate. It was the power of the paid operation of the WFP.”


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