Who benefits from Cuomo’s WFP deal?

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Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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After nearly tearing itself apart to extract a pledge of help from Andrew Cuomo, leaders of the Working Families Party knew what they settled for was risky.

“Listen, we’re making a bet that it’s in his interest now, as well as our own, as well as Mayor de Blasio, who played a very prominent role last night in Albany at this convention, to flip the State Senate," W.F.P. national director Dan Cantor said on MSNBC’s “Up With Steve Kornacki” Sunday morning.

"And not just to flip it to Democrat control,” Cantor continued, “but to flip it to Working Families-style Democrats so we can actually get this quite important agenda on minimum wage, on public funding of elections, on marijuana decriminalization, on the Women’s Equality Act.”

Cantor admitted to Kornacki that Cuomo had not yet committed anything concrete—either in cash, endorsements or campaign time—to what Mayor Bill de Blasio referred to as the “transformational coalition” of labor unions, environmental and community groups uniting behind the goal of a Democrat-controlled Senate.

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Sure enough, the day after restive attendees at the W.F.P, convention at a hotel at Albany watched a carefully brokered video message from Cuomo, the governor began walking back the idea that he’d promised much of anything.

Asked at an Israel Day parade about his promise to support his party’s efforts to take control of the State Senate from his erstwhile Republican and breakaway-Democratic allies, Cuomo told NY1’s Courtney Gross, “This is about electing people who support an agenda. I also will oppose Democrats who have opposed things that we have tried to pass."

Asked about his newly articulated willingness to allow localities to raise the minimum wage, he clarified that he’d only support doing so within a set formula, and that nothing had changed.

It looks for the moment like the party didn’t get much—not even a face-saving deal, thanks to Cuomo’s near-immediate comments undercutting the idea that he had given ground on anything in exchange for the endorsement. What the party got was a safe route to continued existence on the ballot.

On what the W.F.P. could actually do to keep Cuomo honest, Cantor suggested its members could affect him through “organizing.”

“Politics is hard,” Cantor said, a bit sheepishly, adding: “You don’t know ahead of time how things are going to turn out. But we’re confident that this was the right decision.”

So the biggest winner from the W.F.P. battle is clearly Cuomo, in that he got the endorsement he wanted—avoiding a nettlesome W.F.P.-backed challenge from the left—while, apparently, not conceding much of anything at all.

Other winners are the constituent unions of the W.F.P., whose leaders very much wanted a deal to happen with the man who is very likely to win re-election, notwithstanding the complaints of the more ideological liberal activists who were heavily represented on the party’s state committee.

Nominally, the Senate Democrats are winners too, since Cuomo was at least forced to go on record saying things that are ostensibly supportive of them, after having been so reluctant for so long to do anything to challenge their opponents.

But even with Cuomo and the unions on their side, the Democrats are by no means a safe bet to run the table and win back a sufficient number of seats to compel the renegade Independent Democratic Conference to return to the fold. Yes, they would have a 32-member majority, but at least two members—Simcha Felder and Ruben Diaz Sr.—could be counted on to vote “no” on public campaign financing and the full Women’s Equality Act, which contains an abortion rights plank.

Cuomo did tell W.F.P. convention attendees that the I.D.C. must “announce they will reunite with [Senate Democrats] or they will face primaries this year from our unified Democratic coalition.”

But putting aside Cuomo's subsequent hedging, that coalition is less unified than it's cracked up to be. While the W.F.P. is backing former city councilman Oliver Koppell's primary challenge to I.D.C. leader Jeff Klein, for example, a number of unions have endorsed the senator, and so far show no signs of abandoning him. (These are some of the same unions that threatened to bolt the W.F.P. if it didn't endorse Cuomo.)

The jury's out on whether it will prove to have been worth it for de Blasio to have worked as hard as he did to convince the W.F.P. to stick with Cuomo. He succeeded in his immediate mission of averting a possible suicide mission for the party he helped found, and stands to win big if the Senate ends up in the hands of leadership more kindly disposed toward his liberal agenda. But, not for the first time, he's in a position of depending on Cuomo not to embarrass him, which has proven to be a poor bet in the past.

Finally, the Cuomo-W.F.P. deal produced a wild card in someone who was, strictly speaking, a loser: Zephyr Teachout, the grassroots-capable Fordham Law professor and former Howard Dean aide who championed the W.F.P.’s ultimately failed insurrection against Cuomo, and who suggests she’ll continue to be a thorn in Cuomo’s side.

In exchange for her willingness to speak truth to power, Teachout got a taste of the sort of negative treatment she would be in for if she actually continued to make trouble for Cuomo. The governor's allies questioned her residency after combing through her voter history, suggesting she might not be eligible to be a candidate for governor, and darkly hinting there was more dirt where that came from.

But what has this professor and erstwhile grassroots organizer lost, exactly?

She missed out on the W.F.P. nomination—though not by much, considering the furious vote-whipping that was happening on Cuomo’s behalf. But she’s also well aware, as she promises to maintain a public role as a from-the-left Cuomo needler, that there is significant liberal frustration with the governor that wants an political outlet.

The W.F.P., after its realpolitik acquiescence this weekend, won’t be it. It’s the sort of opportunity a loser can make a career out of.

Liz Benjamin hosts "Capital Tonight" each weeknight on the Time Warner Cable News stations across upstate New York.