On eve of W.F.P. convention, no obvious outcome

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Andrew Cuomo campaigns for re-election. (AP Photo/The Buffalo News, Derek Gee)
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ALBANY—With the Working Families Party convention starting this weekend and no clear consensus on a nominee among committee members, it’s possible the party will nominate a “placeholder" candidate for the gubernatorial race.

Delegates to the convention in Albany are conflicted about whether to nominate Governor Andrew Cuomo, or try and send a message by nominating someone whose beliefs align more closely with their own. Even as education expert and charter-school critic Diane Ravitch withdrew her name from consideration yesterday, Fordham Law professor and former Howard Dean campaign aide Zephyr Teachout emerged as a possible alternative.

The decision will be made by the state committee, which is comprised of about 200 people. One man and one woman can be elected from each of the state's 150 Assembly districts, but about one third of the committee seats are vacant. According to state law, each delegate's vote is weighted based on the percentage of people who voted on the W.F.P. line in 2010 (for Cuomo, ironically enough) in each district. That gives the most voting power to delegates from the Assembly districts that include Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens; Park Slope and Boerum Hill; the West Village, Upper West Side, Morningside Heights and upstate Ithaca.

If a district's state committee slots are vacant, its votes cannot be cast, according to state election law. Those vacancies also lower the total number of potential votes (the denominator) used to determine whether a candidate earns a primary spot (which takes 25 percent of the weighted vote), formal nomination (which takes a majority) or Wilson-Pakula proclamation, the formal document required to let a non-W.F.P. member (an enrolled Democrat, usually) run on the party's line.

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Cuomo and Teachout, for example, would need this designation. But an enrolled W.F.P. member would not, and could force Cuomo into a primary if they won the support of 25 percent of the weighted vote.

While the party's executive committee is dominated by major labor unions—it includes leaders of SEIU 1199 and the Communications Workers of America—most state committee people are engaged and active citizen activists. Roughly a dozen have ties to the organizing group Citizen Action; both executive director Karen Scharff and legislative director Jessica Wisneski are elected delegates. It's unclear which delegates are employees or have ties to major unions, but they do have some influence. Paul Schuh, a leader of the United Auto Workers in western New York, is a delegate, as is Michael McGuire of the Mason Tenders.

W.F.P. spokesman Khan Shoeib said the floor would be opened to nominations on Saturday evening, after delegates heard from a series of speakers, including Dorian Warren. Nominations will be accepted from the floor, speeches will be made, and votes will be called.

In an era where conventions are scripted affairs designed to deliver a party's message, the convention will be an old-style fight. If no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot, another will be called. And another, and another—at least one W.F.P. source said he expected Saturday's convention to stretch past midnight.

If it goes too long, delegates could opt for the placeholder route.

State law bars any person from running for more than one office at a time, so if the party’s nominee is nominated for and accepts a candidacy for a judgeship, they will be struck from the gubernatorial ticket. (Party leaders at either the state or county level control judicial nominations.)

“New York election law allows political parties some flexibility for their nominating process,” said Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer who usually works for Democrats.

By nominating a placeholder, the party ensures that it maintains a spot on the ballot, even if it’s with a candidate they have no intention of pushing toward the governor’s office.

It's not an uncommon practice. In 2010, Conservative Party gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio was nominated for a judicial seat after he withdrew his name from the race for governor upon losing the Republican primary. The G.O.P. and Conservative parties made no secret of the fact the nomination was to consolidate support for Carl Paladino, the Buffalo developer who knocked out Lazio in the G.O.P. primary.

In 2013, the W.F.P. nominated union lawyer Kevin Finnegan for the mayoral race, and later re-gifted the nomination to then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio after the Democratic primary in September. In 2010, the party nominated Legal Aid Society attorney Kenny Schaeffer for governor, only to replace him with Cuomo.

The only problem is that a placeholder would take control from the more activist-based state committee and place it in the hands of the executive committee, which is dominated by labor leaders who have been assiduously courted by Cuomo.