Cuomo’s plan to undercut the W.F.P.

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Andrew Cuomo. (AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG)
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Blake Zeff

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Andrew Cuomo and his capable team will do all they can to dismiss Tuesday’s stunning Siena poll showing him increasingly vulnerable to a challenge from the left by the Working Families Party. But there’s no denying the threat such a challenge poses—to his margin of victory, and to his reputation in the national party.

The governor knows it, too, and has been aware of the looming problem for months, surreptitiously working behind the scenes in an all-out effort to avert the possibility of a challenge, or to limit the damage if it happens. 

The governor knows he’s got two ways to mitigate this threat.

One is to get the party to forgo its challenge and give him its ballot line, as it did in 2010.

The other is for him to render the party impotent.

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The WFP’s largest union affiliates, such as 32BJ, 1199, and the Hotel Trades Council (1199), are in a position to help him in both of these regards. 

Remember the Andrew Cuomo who ran for his first term on a promise of bringing the unions to heel? That same governor has quietly but decisively reversed course in recent months, delivering key unions several items on their wish-lists, just as the threat of a Working Families Party challenge began to circulate.

Behind the scenes, the Working Families Party is basically composed of two separate factions at this point: the activists and many of the large unions.

For the most part, the activists deplore the governor, who has made a mockery of their progressive ideological vision, opposing them on everything from tax policy to charter schools to campaign finance reform. These are groups like Citizen Action, and individuals who have been active in the party for years and spend their time petitioning on weekends.

For many of them, the idea of giving Cuomo the ballot line is abhorrent, and will remain so unless he delivers on one of their pet issues like public financing of elections--something he's shown no inclination to do to this point. 

So realistically, if the governor is to have a chance at winning the WFP ballot line, it may have to be driven by the union side of the party. While the unions don’t particularly love his record either, they also have very practical concerns that the activists don't have to even consider: concrete items like contracts and pensions for their members that the governor can control directly. 

As a result, while many activists are firmly anti-Cuomo at this point, unions, who need things from the administration, are not. (For instance, 32BJ represents airport workers who are now getting $8 an hour desperately seeking better wages and benefits, and HTC is fixated on ensuring that the casino workforce in New York State is entirely unionized .)

It was no coincidence, in this context, that the governor reversed course last week and delivered a new contract for the Transit Workers Union with raises for MTA workers, despite his previous, long-running insistence that pay increases were a deal-breaker.

That wasn’t the only Cuomo-blessed concession to key WFP union affiliates in recent months.

The Communications Workers of America was able to kill what it called “ damaging deregulatory legislation” that initially appeared in both the governor’s and State Senate’s initial budget proposals, before ultimately disappearing.

32BJ got a boost with its campaign for airport workers’ wages, when Cuomo’s appointee to the Port Authority, Patrick Foye, publicly announced his support in January for enhanced pay and benefits. (“We are thankful to Gov. Cuomo,” Figueroa declared in a press release in response).

And 1199 got roughly $380 million in the recent budget to support a pay increase for home health care workers.

In return for all this magnanimity, labor sources suggest, several of the key unions in the party—like 1199, 32BJ, HTC, and possibly, now, TWU—are leaning toward endorsing the governor and, certainly, away from supporting a protest candidacy.

But that might not be enough. 

While unions tend to play a key role in most political decisions made by the WFP (like the New York City mayor’s race, for example), statewide elections are different. They require that the party’s state committee—not the executive board—determine at the end of May who will represent the ballot line in November. And it just so happens that a significant number of the 200 or so seats on the committee are filled by anti-Cuomo activists in the Citizen Action mold. (As Liz Benjamin reported last month, more than 100 state committee members participated in a conference call at that time “to discuss the possibility” of not endorsing the governor.)

Cuomo could still appeal to those activists by addressing one of their pet issues, particularly public financing, before the WFP state convention in late May. But doing that could also cost him some major concessions from GOP senate leader Dean Skelos.

Assuming the activists still oppose him, it raises the possibility of individual unions—like 32BJ, 1199, and HTC—backing the governor and the Working Families Party simultaneously challenging him.

And that’s when Cuomo would go to work undercutting the party. 

If WFP were to launch a challenge to the governor, one theory gaining currency in Albany circles is that he could urge the unions that want to continue to do business with him after he wins to cripple the party’s future efforts by starving it of funding. Several Albany insiders I spoke to suggested that the governor could even conceivably seek to revive the Liberal Party, which is reportedly eyeing a comeback after effectively having been killed off by the WFP (and, unwittingly, Cuomo) in 2002, as a new home for some of those large unions, instead of the WFP.

WFP state director Bill Lipton dismissed this notion out of hand, telling Capital, "I haven't heard of any unions having their arm twisted to pull out of the Working Families Party."

A senior official at one of the party’s largest union affiliates agreed, saying, “The governor’s too smart to ask us to do that.”

Maybe. But the fact that the party’s activists and unions are not currently on the same page means, at the very least, a challenge from the left could get as messy for them as it is for Cuomo.

Given this possibility, here are some questions the labor side of WFP must now consider: Does the party exist primarily for the purposes of contracts and pensions, or for the broader ideals of economic and social justice? If solely for contracts and pensions, is labor’s recent success at the bargaining table more likely to continue by pleasing the governor and harming WFP, or protecting the party that gave the movement its leverage in the first place? Is there any line an official can’t cross, if that official is willing to cut deals at election time?

“The union doesn’t have permanent friends or enemies,” 1199 president George Gresham, whose union was famously known as Martin Luther King's favorite, said recently. “We have permanent interests.”

Asked about his plans regarding the Working Families Party nomination, the governor’s office declined to comment.