The Working Families Party’s Cuomo dilemma

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Andrew Cuomo addresses a pro-charter rally in Albany. (Governor's office)
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Blake Zeff

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Among the questions spurred by Andrew Cuomo’s newfound devotion to charter schools is one with real implications for the governor’s re-election: How much more can the Working Families Party take before ditching him and running someone else on its line this year?

The WFP promotes itself as the liberal conscience of New York politics. Meanwhile, the governor, its 2010 nominee, has amassed a decidedly conservative fiscal record. From castigating unions to consistently fighting efforts to tax high earners to cutting public services, Cuomo has reliably taken positions that put him in direct opposition to the party. 

Now he’s gumming up Bill de Blasio’s pre-K plan and leading the charter movement, positions anathema to the labor-fueled party’s very existence.

Cuomo is all but assured of winning big this year, but the party’s support matters.

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He wants to drum up as big a margin as possible, the better to make the case that he's got what it takes to run for national office. Facing a challenger, on a line that he represented in 2010, would certainly trim the size of his victory. And the very existence of a liberal protest opponent (particularly if said candidate garners noticeable support) could certainly mar Cuomo's introduction to prime Democrats in key states.

The WFP would be taking a significant risk in opposing Cuomo. 

In the short-term, the party knows it needs to land 50,000 votes on its line in races for governor to maintain its ballot status. There's plenty of anger toward Cuomo on the left, making 50,000 a perfectly plausible target. But it would be a risk.

The other consideration, of course, is that if the party runs its own candidate against Cuomo, the governor will win big anyway, and then seek retribution. It's one thing to have Cuomo ignoring your wishes. It's another to have him determined to destroy you and everything you've built.

But at this point, there is also considerable risk to the WFP in not opposing Cuomo—in allowing him to make a mockery of the party's entire priorities list and then waltz to re-election.

Can a party whose rationale for existing is to grow progressive economic movements throughout the country “where politicians are held accountable to working people, instead of big-money backers” really work for, endorse, and host on its line one of the greatest threats to its agenda within the Democratic Party?

So far, WFP has remained noncommittal, reflecting a cautious approach that, despite the party’s aggressive talk, is coming to define it.

Give credit where it’s due. When it comes to local races, Working Families Party has demonstrated immense audacity and deftness. Much of the current city council (not to mention the new public advocate) was recruited and bolstered by the party—and in many cases, the WFP-backed candidate defeated county machine candidates expected to glide to victory.

But when it comes to major big-ticket races, WFP has shown a distinctive reluctance to risk political capital, even when a clear liberal alternative stood out.

Most recently, there was Bill de Blasio’s mayoral election. While the mayor was a key player in the party’s development, WFP was nowhere to be found in the primary (where the early favorite was the relatively moderate Christine Quinn), choosing to back no one in the contest that decided the race. (A WFP source explained retrospectively that the party’s executive committee was split, as many unions endorsed other candidates, such as Quinn and Bill Thompson.)

Either way, while the party tried to own de Blasio’s election after his victory, it was far less vocal beforehand.

In 2010, liberal attorney-general candidate Eric Schneiderman opposed a field of Democrats that included front-running Kathleen Rice, a law-and-order centrist from Long Island (and quietly, Cuomo’s favorite). Again, the party sat out the all-important primary, choosing to forsake political risk, despite clear distinctions between the candidates. This time, the explanation was that the party’s survival was at risk, as it had to fight back legal inquiries and couldn’t afford to take any chances.

Of greatest relevance, though, is the party’s decision in 2010 to back Cuomo for governor, despite the fact that he was running explicitly on a platform of fighting organized labor and boosting big business. With the party beaten down by the aforementioned legal challenges, the added risk of losing the ballot line due to insufficient votes for its gubernatorial candidate was not deemed worthwhile.

The added indignity was that Cuomo said he’d only take the ballot line if the party supported his platform, which included property-tax cuts, pension reform and a spending cap. So the WFP has spent the ensuing four years trying to criticize an agenda it was forced to publicly support.

The party is in a much different place now. It resolved its legal issues long ago. It’s continued to rack up wins in local races. And it’s seen key allies rise to top New York City offices. All while support for liberal populism has become more explicit in the Democratic Party both locally and nationally.

The Working Families Party now has some political capital to expend. Whether it will do so depends on what it thinks the answers are to a couple of key questions:

Can it continue to claim the aggressive, liberal, king-making brand without making the hard calls when faced by powerful enemies?

Can it really have Andrew Cuomo on its ballot line in 2014 and continue to make the case, with a straight face, that it stands for something?

Asked about the party’s plans for this year’s governor’s race, a party spokesman declined to comment.

Blake Zeff was a presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and worked on staff for Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman. He is currently political editor of Salon.