Open doubts as W.F.P. prepares to meet

Cuomo attends a campaign event with his running mate, Kathy Hochul, and Rep. Brian Higgins. (AP Photo/The Buffalo News, Derek Gee)
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ALBANY—Andrew Cuomo has made some progress recently with the labor leaders who make up the Working Families Party's executive committee.

But among the activists in the party's state committee, who vote to determine the party's gubernatorial nominee, there's apparently still considerable doubt about the governor.

“The people I've spoken with, there isn't anybody supporting Cuomo,” Dorothy Siegel, the party treasurer and chair of the W.F.P.'s South Brooklyn chapter, told Capital. "Something could happen, but I don't know what it would be."

Contrary to the more transactional calculations of the union leaders, who after all have their members to think about as they consider whether to back or oppose the man who is overwhelmingly likely to win re-election, Siegel suggested principle would be the determining factor.  

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"The state committee members can't endorse Cuomo, because he goes against what we stand for," she said. "Whoever is endorsed will be articulating our views. They won't be Republican views, or Democratic views. We believe now, more than four years ago, that our views are mainstream; they're popular. But you can't win at the state level with a third-party candidate. Our interest is not in teaching him a lesson, or denying him the endorsement—this is what we believe in.”

In interviews with over a dozen state committee members, Capital heard common frustration with Cuomo's fiscal record—he blocked an income tax hike on wealthy city residents, cut corporate taxes, reduced school aid in 2011 (and slowly dialed it back up), reduced pensions for newly hired public workers and pushed for a cap on local property tax increases.

“It's no surprise that the state committee has been disappointed with the governor's priorities on economic issues,” said W.F.P. state director Bill Lipton.

There are approximately 200 state committee seats.

Cuomo's surrogates argue he has delivered for progressives on other fronts, by brokering the passage of same-sex marriage, renewing most of a 2009 income tax surcharge on the wealthy and, after much back-and-forth with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, authorizing the money for an expansion of pre-kindergarten programs statewide.

At the Democratic state convention in Huntington last week, Cuomo showed a video featuring praise from machers of SEIU 1199, the Communications Workers of America, SEIU 32BJ and the mason tenders council. All are major union affiliates of the W.F.P., but do not sit on the state committee, which convenes on Saturday in Albany and will vote on whether to offer Cuomo its ballot line this year. (The party backed Cuomo four years ago.)

Many W.F.P. members said action on a system of public campaign finance could tip them in Cuomo's direction.

In a deal with State Senate Republicans, Cuomo created a narrow program that extended a taxpayer matching system that would apply only to this year's race for state comptroller.

Reformers blasted this as not a loaf, or half a loaf, but a crumb, and the Democratic incumbent has refused to participate.

Cuomo at first said critics should shut up and be happy with him for taking the best deal possible, but now says he's pushing hard to get another bill through the Legislature.

Capital reported that Cuomo is now separating the matching fund system from other campaign finance reforms long sought by good-government advocates.

On Monday, Cuomo allies speaking on background threatened that the governor would campaign against Senate Republicans if they did not come around on the issue.

Marching in a Memorial Day parade on Staten Island, Cuomo reiterated his desire to gain the W.F.P.'s support, but downplayed the significance of public campaign finance in that context.

"I'm going to be asking all people for their votes—Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives,” he said, adding that Republican embrace of the comptroller-only program proved there was no “justification” for campaign finance to be an “ideological issue.”

It will clearly help him in some corners of the W.F.P., though.

“If Cuomo were able to carry through on his promise for a really effective fair elections platform, I think that would make a tremendous difference to people,” said David Sprintzen, a state committeeman from Syosset. “I would be very pleased if that would've happened, very doubtful that it will happen, and from my point of view, the notion that he can't do it because of the Republicans isn't true. I think that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction, that hew is not really a progressive Democrat.”

Daniel Calabro, a delegate from Mastic Beach, agreed that the issue was important but said he was inclined to run a challenger.

“I would like to see a third-party candidate,” he said. “A lot of the unions are very leery of making an enemy of the governor, because their contracts depend on it. But I'm not affiliated with anyone right now, I take more of a long view because I don't have a contract to think about. We can say, 'We have certain principles and we're not just thinking about our next contract.'"

Most delegates also said they were unsure how things will play out.

“The whole raison d'etre of W.F.P. is to walk a fine line between being practical and having political power and following the exact line on every issue," said Joe Seeman, a W.F.P. committeeman from Saratoga County. "I'd be willing to give Cuomo a pass on some issues, but campaign finance reform is a real bottom line issue. I don't know what's going to happen. I certainly think there's any kind of deal that's been made, and everyone else says they have no idea how it's going to turn out.”