What is the Working Families Party?

They never like it when I say this, but so be it.

Last week, the Working Families Party endorsed three candidates for mayor. The first choice for the proudly left-wing third party was Scott Stringer, the city comptroller. The second choice was Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive who has excited left activists and built an enthusiastic online following. Coming in third was Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio who perhaps would’ve won the endorsement outright if she had gained more traction with the electorate.

Perhaps no endorsement decision, in media and political circles, was more anticipated. The WFP’s profile has only grown in recent years, with many celebrated progressive politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, embracing the party. Media attention has only increased for WFP, and in November 2020 more New Yorkers voted on the WFP ballot line than ever before.

WFP-endorsed candidates, in downballot races in New York and across America, keep winning. The state legislature and City Council is filled with WFP-approved candidates and many feel a real loyalty to the organization. The brand, at the minimum, has never been more appealing, and Democrats competing in primaries usually seek their endorsement.

Given all of this, what does the WFP’s decision to endorse three candidates mean for the mayoral race? Can they stop Andrew Yang, who is increasingly reviled by the professional left, and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president? Can this popular, seemingly ascendant third party work their magic again?

My gut says no. This doesn’t mean I’ll be right on June 22nd, when these votes are counted. But I do want to explain why I think the WFP won’t be able to build a popular, progressive front against both Yang and Adams and what it means, in the most material of terms, to be a WFP candidate.

First, allow me a disclosure, since members of WFP have been irked by my  reporting in the past.. In 2018, I ran for State Senate as a Democrat in Brooklyn. As a candidate trying to win, I sought the backing of at least two dozen labor unions and progressive organizations. One of them was WFP. A vast majority of these groups, including WFP, endorsed my opponent. DSA, which I courted far more aggressively than WFP—my campaign manager, now a state assemblyman, was an active DSA member, as well as his deputies—refused to support me. That’s politics. No labor union, save one, endorsed my campaign. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did. None of these decisions have impacted my journalism and writing since. I’ve written, at times, critically of Ocasio-Cortez and I have not altered my critique that organized labor can still have a tremendous impact on local political races. I learned this firsthand when the state teachers’ union went against me, calling and mailing the many public school teachers in my district. C’est la vie. Similarly, I have not turned into a furious DSA scold because they did not understand the glory of Ross Barkan, State Senate contender.

My view of WFP, which has remained consistent since at least 2016, is that it functions more as a political consultant and political action committee than an actual political party. If you’re interested in a deeper dive into the party, I suggest you read this piece on WFP I wrote in 2019. My argument there, which I will summarize, is that WFP fundamentally changed once the majority of the major labor unions left the party. It became, instead of a hybrid of influential organized labor and progressive activists, a constellation of nonprofits with relatively limited constituencies. In this form, it has plenty of value, with an ability to pay smart political operatives who can help oversee campaigns, like they did for the Queens District Attorney’s race two years ago. WFP zealously protects its status as a political party with a ballot line so it can spend virtually unlimited amounts of campaign cash in coordination with endorsed candidates, not because fusion voting helps the cause of the progressive left in New York, as they’ve repeatedly argued. (A current counterpoint to fusion’s value for the left is DSA, which succeeds without any kind of ballot line.)

Without WFP, the left’s revival in New York would not have happened. The party was founded in 1998 at a nadir for progressive Democrats in the state. Republicans governed New York State and New York City. A year earlier, Rudy Giuliani—yeah, that one—had cruised to re-election, winning the support of Democratic elected officials and cowing labor unions. Bill Clinton was president, triangulating the old left into the dust. It would be easy to believe, at that juncture, neoliberalism was the present and the future. There was little reason for hope.

Several progressive labor unions and organizers came together to form WFP, first gaining ballot status by winning enough votes in Peter Vallone’s failed campaign for governor in 1998. The idea was simple: make a third party that would force the stale Democrats into more economically populist positions. From the beginning, there were tensions between more accommodationist labor leaders and true-believing activists, but the Republican villain was great enough to create a sense of unity. The WFP’s long-term project, which it largely achieved, was to elect more progressive Democrats to the City Council and citywide office. Bill de Blasio, who was active in WFP from their earliest days, became mayor, and WFP’s star organizer, Emma Wolfe, ended up his chief of staff.

Part of the challenge of being a labor-activist hybrid, as I alluded to above, was the tug between idealism and relationship-building. Labor leaders need wins for their members, which can mean appeasing otherwise conservative politicians who make concessions to certain unions. 1199 SEIU, the powerful healthcare workers’ union, was most notorious in this way, aligning closely with Republican Governor George Pataki and the GOP majority in the State Senate. As late as 2016, with Donald Trump storming to the presidency, 1199 was backing State Senate Republicans in exchange for them agreeing to raise the minimum wage. The better approach, obviously, would have been to build power from the ground-up to drive the Republicans out of office altogether, but this would have required greater effort and courage. Until around 2018, a lot of that was in short supply.

Large unions like the United Federation of Teachers, the Hotel Trades Council, and 1199 used to belong to and fund WFP. Each union brought many thousands of members to causes WFP believed in. If the activists and organizers were the heart of the party, these unions were the ground troops. Beginning in 2014, they all pulled away, driven out by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s deep hostility to WFP. Cuomo’s hatred for WFP should be obvious; as a Clintonian Democrat, he’s always reviled any threat from his left, and WFP was certainly a threat. In 2014, the party came very close to endorsing Zephyr Teachout in a primary against Cuomo. Though party leadership, ultimately, sided with Cuomo—with a huge assist from de Blasio, of all people—it didn’t matter to the famously vindictive governor, who created a fake party, the Women’s Equality Party, to attempt to siphon votes from WFP in the fall. Cuomo came to many of the labor leaders in WFP, meanwhile, and told them they could either choose the party or choose him. Most of them, concerned about self-preservation over a greater left project, exited WFP quickly, withdrawing money and support.

Some unions remain in WFP, but they no longer offer much muscle. The state teachers’ union, for example, is an affiliate, but UFT—which represents all the public school teachers in New York City—is not. The real drivers of the party are the nonprofits and NGO’s, organizations that collect both donations and public funding to do organizing and politics. These are groups like Make the Road, New York Communities for Change, Citizens Action, and the New York Progressive Action Network. They all serve an important role in New York: they push Democratic elected officials to take more progressive positions and support certain bills. They organize protests and marches. Many of their leaders enjoy close relationships with Democrats in office, which can pay dividends when the time comes to rally for a certain policy goal. I’ve come to term them the alphabet left, because many of these groups are known by their acronyms and represent a certain style of politics.

The upshot of WFP becoming a party of nonprofits and NGO’s, with a few unions attached, is that it can stake out purer left positions. The old WFP is probably not organizing to oust the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of conservative Democrats who helped Republicans control the State Senate until 2019. The new WFP did this readily. In 2014, the WFP couldn’t endorse Teachout. In 2018, they were all-in on Cuomo’s next primary challenger, the actress and activist Cynthia Nixon. Without a significant labor constituency to worry about, WFP leadership was able to take many more worthy political risks. Of course, there were always exceptions, like WFP’s perplexing decision to endorse Joe Crowley over Ocasio-Cortez—the more obvious choice would be to remain neutral—and the choice to possibly override a membership vote and back Elizabeth Warren for president over Bernie Sanders. Warren did not win a single state in the Democratic primary and ran a distant third in her home state of Massachusetts on Super Tuesday.

The fundamental problem with the new WFP, though, isn’t a past choice to pick one candidate over another. All political organizations make endorsements that don’t work out. And it’s not even that their endorsement process remains confusing and opaque, and that they are somewhat notorious for overridinglocal chapter votes for candidates the leadership doesn’t prefer. Labor unions make undemocratic endorsements all the time.

In the mayoral race, WFP seemed to follow the internal survey they took by ranking the three candidates, since a ranked-choice voting system will be deployed for the very first time in a citywide race this June. Ultimately, the internal survey was more of a formality, because their New York City Regional Advisory Council made the choice to back the three candidates. The RAC, as it’s known, is made up of the nonprofits and a few labor unions, as well as local WFP chapters. If the RAC chose, it could entirely disregard the member survey. Such a move would be unthinkable in DSA, which only reaches endorsement decisions through an exhaustive, multi-tiered process of public votes from rank-and-file members.

The larger challenge, however, for WFP and all of these organizations that make up its membership is that it is no longer a mass constituency organization. What does that mean? Quite simply, that on any given day, the WFP and many of its member nonprofits cannot deploy dozens of volunteers to knock on doors for a campaign. A nonprofit claims to speak on behalf of a very large group of people—progressives, working class people of color—but doesn’t really, since most of these people have no real awareness or involvement in the groups. DSA doesn’t speak for the working class either, but it can at least speak for DSA—the thousands of active members who volunteer on campaigns and vote on endorsements.

Labor unions endorse widely in every election cycle because most of the campaigns aren’t a pressing priority. Money is doled out from a PAC, members in the district are dialed, and some could show up to knock on doors. Labor cares about instilling loyalty in the many candidates they back so all of the winners can feel they owe something to a hotel workers or healthcare union. WFP functions in a similar way, sans the obvious: they don’t represent many thousands of workers in any kind of union organization. And if you lack a mass constituency, it becomes far easier to endorse readily and widely, since most campaigns will accept a similar level of perfunctory help. There is no need to be selective. Whether it’s five candidates or 15 or 40 getting support, the assistance will not vary dramatically.

With the regional council making endorsement decisions, there is little input from actual membership and little incentive to grow the WFP voter rolls—only to cultivate more donors through their large email list. The WFP isn’t a normal political party because it doesn’t care if it has more voters registered as WFP, since it’s always cross-endorsing Democrats under New York’s funky fusion voting law. In fact, encouraging too many independents and Democrats to become WFP registrants can hurt a WFP candidate’s chances. In 2019, the WFP and DSA-backed Tiffany Cabán lost a district attorney’s race in Queens by less than 100 votes, and could have possibly won if more WFP members were able to vote for her in the closed Democratic primary.

All of this boils down to a simple reality many of WFP’s defenders don’t want to acknowledge: there is no standing army of WFP volunteers waiting to be dispatched to WFP campaigns. In contrast, DSA is an all-volunteer organization that selectively picks campaigns to throw their members into. If you are a DSA campaign, you are guaranteed to have a bunch of young people canvass and make calls for you on a daily basis. NYPAN, Citizen’s Action, and several others don’t have that kind of people-power, even if they claim formidable membership rolls. I know this because I’ve spoken to enough campaigns who have won endorsements from them. This is not a sharp criticism; most organizations cannot do what DSA does. And most organizations are not large labor unions either, with tens of thousands of dues-paying members who receive emails, phone calls, and direct mail from paid union organizers. The real issue is that many of these WFP affiliates—and WFP itself—pretend to have an enormous grassroots constituency of individuals who will regularly show up to volunteer for their chosen campaigns. There is no evidence of this and I’m not here to imagine otherwise.

While analyzing Andrew Yang’s chances of winning the June primary, I’ve been careful to explain why a political outsider with no municipal experience is leading the field. Some of it has to do with Yang’s talent and celebrity; some of it certainly has to do with the weakness of the candidates he is up against. Yang has so easily upended the Democratic primary for another reason: so many New York political institutions are weakened. The strongest, organized labor, is split among Adams, Stringer, and Wiley. The political clubs, give or take a few, are shells of what they were 40 or 50 years ago, when young people flocked in droves to storefront clubhouses to gather petitions and angle for jobs—back when Democratic machines enjoyed serious patronage at City Hall. The county Democratic organizations are all virtually useless today, with no base of volunteers or even large amounts of money. Individual religious leaders can whip some votes, but not in the way they once did.

There are new activist groups that have filled the void, like Indivisible, True Blue New York, and DSA, of course. Meanwhile, WFP makes all the kinds of claims old-line political machines once did: that they can, through influence and power, determine how many thousands of people will cast their ballots. The machines of yesteryear could plausibly make these boasts because they controlled many jobs, keeping their base of working class voters loyal to the county leader and his allies. Their political clubs were large and incredibly active. As you may have gathered by now, WFP’s few clubs do not function in such a way, as mass gathering places for volunteers. The clubs, for most of the general public, could be said to hardly exist at all. And since several of the nonprofits that comprise WFP rely on funding from elected officials for their survival, there is a degree to which the party won’t challenge allies. There’s a reason DSA has been far more eager to launch primaries against members of the State Assembly and is even mulling 2022 bids against state lawmakers who have a WFP seal of approval.

What is a political party without a large volunteer base? What is a grassroots democratic organization that can choose, whenever it wants, to disregard the rank-and-file who vote on endorsements? WFP remains a potent force in New York and I’m not here to argue otherwise. It is a nerve center for the activist left, a repository of political talent, and a professionalized body that can help certain campaigns pay for staff. It does real organizing work across the state and America. The left is better off with it there, offering guidance and muscle to new generations of activists, organizers, and voters. What it probably isn’t is the kind of organization that can move tens of thousands of votes for a chosen mayoral candidate. Stringer, and maybe Morales, are going to enjoy a good branding opportunity. What happens after that is unclear.