At W.F.P. convention, an endorsement and plenty of anger

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Bertha Lewis. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
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COLONIE—At 1:15 a.m. in the lobby of the Desmond Hotel, the rage had temporarily gone out of the most ardent members of the Working Families Party.

A man in a turquoise Che Guevara t-shirt sat slouched in a chair, outside a half-empty ballroom where a d.j. spun electronic dance music.

Most of the party’s members had packed themselves in tight at the hotel’s bar. Kids had missed their buses back to New York City and had no place to stay, and nothing to do except drink a few beers.

Near the bar, a young man in a black shirt and shorts stood aimlessly, letting a rubber mask (Andrew Cuomo’s face with a pinocchio nose) dangle from his left hand.

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He’d just spent four hours in a chair in a hotel ballroom yelling “Liar!” at the mention of Cuomo’s name.

“I was one of the people who fought against Governor Cuomo during Occupy Wall Street.”

“This sucks,” he said.

He looked at the carpet, glanced around the lobby, and after a few seconds, he walked away.

The yelling didn’t make a difference in the end, as 58 percent of the party voted to endorse the governor, instead of his would-be challenger Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor and former Howard Dean campaign aide.

For four hours on Saturday, the W.F.P.’s convention was a collective group therapy session, where dozens of members of the liberal wing of New York’s Democratic party aired their long-building displeasure with Cuomo.

But in the short term, the convention was a triumph for a party cowed by Cuomo as he ran for his first term in 2010, when its leaders practically had to beg Cuomo to accept their endorsement in order to ensure the group’s continued survival.

It was a bizarro version of the Democratic convention earlier in May, where Cuomo was the unquestioned star and lawmakers carefully avoided criticizing him.

At the Desmond, Cuomo was target practice.

He won the line, but not before many W.F.P. members took the podium at the hotel to flog him publicly, repeatedly calling him a “liar” who’d abandoned his own party.

Among the dissidents was former ACORN head Bertha Lewis. She took the podium and said of Cuomo’s nomination, “Well, I beg to differ.”

“We gave him four years and we said then, never again,” she said.

She brought the crowd to its feet.

In a brutal speech in support of Teachout, Capital Region delegate Susan Weber decried Cuomo’s support for charter schools run by “rich bastards” and urged the party not to accept the deal with Cuomo.

“What's the problem with that deal? He’s a liar,” she said referring to Cuomo. “He won’t keep his promise. He’ll figure out a way to squirm out of it.”

“I was under the impression we were never going to do the same thing we’ve done before and expect a different result,” she said.

“There's a word for that and it’s called psychosis. We are not psychotic!”

Bob Master, the Communications Workers of America’s legislative and political director, took the podium to put Cuomo’s name into contention.

He got as far as “It is my honor to nominate as governor,” before his voice was drowned out by booing and hissing from the party’s members, several of whom stood in the back of the ballroom hoisting anti-Cuomo signs.

“A crowd with few opinions,” Master joked. “The decision that we’re making tonight is one of the most complex and challenging that we face. Make no bones about it.”

Master and other union officials who spoke on Cuomo’s behalf said little about the governor and his accomplishments, largely avoiding even mentioning his name.

Instead, the union officials made an argument out of pragmatism—the ends, they said, would justify the means.

They argued to the party’s rogue idealists that endorsing Cuomo would yield a swifter, if more ideologically compromised, path to passing a minimum wage increase and other progressive wish-list legislation.

Pro-Cuomo speeches were frequently interrupted by cries of “coward!” and “bullshit!” from the audience.

None of the rank-and-file party members spoke on Cuomo’s behalf.

Instead, they yielded their time to union officials or activist group leaders. Those officials have much to gain from a continued alliance with Cuomo, who controls the state budget and holds tremendous sway over state funding for laborers.

The party’s endorsement of Cuomo wasn’t sewn up until moments before it was announced, said sources involved in the negotiations. One of the W.F.P.’s conditions for the endorsement was Cuomo’s public embrace of every element of the party’s platform, including a plan for Democrats to re-take the State Senate, and a slate of progressive legislation, including an increase in the minimum wage, the Womens’ Equality Act and the Dream Act. Party leaders haggled in the early afternoon in an attempt to get Cuomo to appear in person, but he opted instead to send a video and then call into the convention via Skype.

Sources said the first video Cuomo’s campaign sent did not include all the planks of the platform, touching off a tense last-minute fight between party leaders and the governor’s campaign.

The W.F.P. heads demanded another video.

Sources said party leaders including Karen Scharff, as well as Bill de Blasio aide Emma Wolfe, were on the phone with Cuomo campaign officials minutes before the endorsement was supposed to be announced, threatening to push for an endorsement of Teachout unless the video was improved.

On Sunday, Cuomo was in New York City to march in a parade in honor of Israel. He told reporters that the fight on Saturday night didn’t matter.

“It’s very simple at these political conventions: you either win or you lose,” he said.

“You know, the Democratic Party, we have a big tent, we have a lot of people with a lot of opinions and everybody has a voice and everybody wants to use it. So, part of being a Democrat is the lively debate among the people in the party.”

“But at the end of the day I won the endorsement and that’s what really relevant.”

— Azi Paybarah contributed reporting