Dan Cantor's Machine
Election night, New York City, November 5, 2013. Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, the candidate for both the Democratic and Working Families parties, is racking up a huge victory after running on a platform that calls for raising taxes on the rich and raising wages for workers. Shunning the usual Manhattan-hotel bash, de Blasio has decided to celebrate in a Brooklyn armory, where his supporters have gathered to mark the end of the Michael Bloomberg era and, they hope, the birth of a national movement for a more egalitarian economy.
In one corner of the packed armory, Dan Cantor is talking with old friends and young activists who either work for him or used to—two groups that, combined, probably include about half the people in the hall. Cantor, who is 58 years old and of medium height, is wearing a black suit and tie but exhibits a touch of the willful schlumpiness that comes naturally to certain New York Jewish males. His most prominent features are a white streak that bisects his wavy dark hair, and eyes that seem alert to everything going on around him.
The hall is filled with dealmakers and operators importuning and texting one another. Cantor exhibits no such election-night mania, but his casual manner conceals an idealism, strategic acumen, and a record of political success that puts the dealmakers and operators to shame. Cantor is the national director of the Working Families Party (WFP), a social democratic political machine that in recent years has elected numerous progressives in New York and Connecticut. It has translated those victories into legislation that established paid sick days in New York City and Connecticut and abolished discriminatory drug laws and police “stop and frisk” practices in New York. Founded 15 years ago by Cantor and a handful of like-minded union leaders and community organizers, the WFP has grown from a third party taking advantage of New York state’s “fusion” laws (which permit a candidate to run as the nominee of more than one party) into a full-service political operation, the likes of which are to be found nowhere else in progressive America—indeed, nowhere else in any wing of American politics.
This election night marks a high point for the Working Families Party. Not only is the mayor-elect a longtime ally—the party managed his successful 2009 campaign for the post of public advocate—but both victorious candidates for the two other citywide offices, Letitia James and Scott Stringer, are WFP stalwarts as well. Ken Thompson, with the party’s backing, has ousted longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes; his campaign focused on raising the age for incarceration in general-population prisons from 16 to 18. More impressive still, 12 of the 13 candidates the WFP ran for city council have also swept to victory. In January, when the new council convenes, 20 of the city’s 51 councilmen and –women will be dues-paying members of the Progressive Caucus, which functions, roughly, as the party’s legislative bloc.
The night’s victories are not confined to New York City. Around the state, dozens of local candidates whom the party recruited, groomed, and ran for office are winning races for city council and county legislatures from Syracuse to Rosendale. In Connecticut, a slate of candidates in Bridgeport has won a hotly contested election to the school board. Across the Hudson River, a brigade of the party’s canvassers has helped turn out voters in support of a ballot measure that raised New Jersey’s minimum wage.
“We have a cornucopia of good ideas—debt-free college, paid sick days,” Cantor told me earlier that afternoon. “But nobody cares about your good ideas if you don’t have power.”
Starting from the most marginal position in American politics—that of a third party—the WFP has amassed the power to turn those ideas into law in New York and Connecticut. Recently, it persuaded the Oregon Legislature to enact a proposal that would drastically reduce student debt. Last month, the WFP began operations in the District of Columbia. In the next few months, it will move into Pennsylvania and Maryland and has plans for Wisconsin later in 2014. With the national Democratic Party focusing more of its energy and attention on combating economic inequality, which has been the Working Families Party’s chief purpose since its formation, it’s a propitious time for the WFP to expand. The question is whether the model Cantor and company have created can succeed in other states.
“Is the de Blasio moment, the Elizabeth Warren moment, a real transition to a new period?” Cantor asks a couple of weeks after de Blasio’s election. “Not unless we make them that. This is not a short-term project. It’s taken the left a long time to get as weak as it is.”
By conviction, I’m of the left,” Cantor says. “By personality, I’m a moderate. I don’t like crowds or mobs.” He is seated behind a beat-up wooden desk in an office cluttered by the bicycle he rides to and from work and boxes overflowing with binders and newspaper clippings.
The headquarters of the Working Families Party sprawls across the third floor of a dingy office building in downtown Brooklyn. Cantor’s own office looks out over Flatbush Avenue, from which the steady honking of gridlocked cars punctuates his conversation. His office exits onto a vast, cubicled chamber where dozens of predominantly young staffers are calling potential donors, mapping precinct walks, writing press releases. In a separate room, canvassers have assembled for their daily orientation. These briefings are anything but pro forma. Jessica Carrano, who is the WFP’s political director for Long Island, recalls the issues orientations that canvassers received when she was running the field campaign for a city council candidate in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood: “We were talking to highly educated voters. Everyone had to know everything at every door.”
Young progressives frequently turn to canvassing as their first job out of college and just as frequently quit when the jobs prove to be both exhausting and uninteresting. Not so at the WFP. As the first organization (and still one of the few) to give its canvassers health insurance, the WFP has long recruited the canvassing crème de la crème and provided them with a postgraduate education in the theory and practice of progressive politics. The party places many of them in positions of responsibility on election campaigns or at allied organizations, and a number have been hired on as WFP staffers.
The party employs a full-time staff of 40 in New York, not counting its paid canvassers, who range in number from 35 in a non-election year to 500 as Election Day approaches (augmented by thousands of volunteers who turn out for party candidates in the final weekends of a campaign). The party’s permanent non-canvassing staff is larger by far than that of any other state’s Democratic Party (California’s, for example, employs 19). Outside of New York, the WFP employs about a half-dozen.
Ideologically, the party is akin to the New York third parties—the American Labor Party and the Liberal Party—established in the 1930s and 1940s by the social democratic leaders of the clothing and garment unions who backed Franklin Roosevelt but didn’t want to vote for him on the line of the Tammany-dominated Democratic Party. “We’re garden varieties of social democrats, trying to use the state to make people’s lives a little less hard,” Cantor says. “The crisis of social democracy is real. If the 20th century was the century of the working class, it’s not clear yet what the 21st century will be. We are all Keynesians, but we need to be more than Keynesians. Our answer is to win massive investment in public goods, so you don’t have to be rich to have a decent life. Add in the climate crisis, and this grows still more complex.”
If the Working Families Party is the ideological heir to the American Labor Party, its status as a permanent electoral army makes it, however improbably, the operational heir to such classic Democratic machines as Tammany Hall (to be sure, a cleaned-up Tammany: no patronage, no kickbacks, no rigged elections). On any given day, the WFP’s tasks include cultivating progressive groups willing to join and fund the organization; convening meetings with its member groups to decide on strategies, causes, and candidates; undertaking research; finding and training candidates; and running campaigns. Cantor worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential bids and concluded that individual campaigns, no matter how groundbreaking, were too ephemeral to alter fundamental power relations. “I didn’t believe,” he says, “that the excitement of a presidential campaign was transferrable to the slow grind of building the kind of institutional trust and relations you need to contest for power.”
Maintaining a sizable and expert staff (“these are really talented people, not schleppers,” Cantor says) takes money. The WFP raised and spent $7.8 million in 2013. Most of the money came from unions and small donors. Only $600,000 came from large individual contributors. Cantor is always cognizant of the need to make payroll. “A big part of my job is being a small-business man,” he says. “I’m totally like my father, worrying about keeping the lights on at his store. I have the same fears he had, all the time. But the hunt for money is part of politics. I don’t mind it.” Colleagues describe Cantor as an unrelenting fundraiser. “He’s really had to push a lot of people,” says Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It’s not as if the party gets multimillion-dollar contributions.”
Cantor was born and raised in Levittown on Long Island, the youngest of three children. His father owned and ran an auto-parts store. “He hated his job, but it provided for his family,” Cantor says. His mother was a librarian who was active in civic affairs. Cantor describes his parents as liberals “but not of the left.” When Cantor was a teenager, his uncle gave the family a gift subscription to The Progressive, the monthly magazine started in 1909 by Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, which Cantor devoured. “I was amazed,” he says. “I remember reading a piece on the Vietnam War and militarism and realizing I basically knew nothing.”
Bob Master, the political director of the northeastern region of the Communications Workers of America and perhaps Cantor’s closest political compatriot, has been a friend since they both attended General Douglas MacArthur High School, where Cantor was elected student-body president and Master vice president. Cantor was “funny and ebullient,” Master says, “but only somewhat political.” (Friends say he’s still funny, recounting the song parodies he’s written for birthdays and kindred occasions. For one soirée saluting Master, Cantor wrote and sang a lyric to the tune of Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls.” For Loesser’s opening line—“When you see a guy/Reach for stars in the sky”—Cantor substituted, “When you see a Jew/Reading Monthly Review.”)
Cantor attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut but was not a happy student. “I was too young,” he says. In the middle of his sophomore year, he took time off to work on an Israeli kibbutz. “I essentially took the gap year I should have taken before college,” he says. “I milked 400 cows twice a day. I very much liked it. It was good to be seen as competent at something new.”
Back at Wesleyan, Cantor read a piece in The Progressive by the influential left writer Andrew Kopkind, who made the case that community organizing was an appropriate place for a young leftist to get started. “I didn’t really know what community organizing was,” Cantor says, “but it sounded cool.” After graduation in 1977, Cantor moved south to work for ACORN, a group founded by New Leftists seeking to mobilize the rural and urban poor. Cantor admired the writings of radical sociologists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, who argued that the power of the poor was the power to disrupt, which would cause the state to respond with greater social provision.
Cantor spent a year in Stuttgart, Arkansas, building an organization of whites and blacks that sought to pressure the local government to pave more roads. “I can’t say I accomplished a lot,” Cantor says, “but I got a real education.” For the next five years, Cantor worked for ACORN in St. Louis and then Detroit, where he organized a union of fast-food workers that won a representation election at a McDonald’s. “Only young people would have deigned to try this,” he says. “It got a lot of buzz until it crashed.”
In 1983, Cantor left ACORN for the National Labor Committee on Central America, where he mobilized union opposition to the AFL-CIO’s support for the Reagan administration’s efforts to destabilize the leftist government of Nicaragua and buttress the military regime in El Salvador. A number of unions supported the committee’s work, but they were opposed by the hard-liners who dominated the AFL-CIO.
Like many who came out of the 1960s left, Cantor came to realize that community organizing and movement building were both indispensable and insufficient to win lasting change. He still identifies with those movements, but his distinctive aptitude has been to find ways in which the electoral process can advance progressive goals. “I feel we’re in a long line of people going back to the abolitionists: the populists, the suffragists, the labor activists, the civil-rights workers,” he says. “These were all extra-parliamentary movements. We strive to be like them, and we recognize we have to contest for these values through the state, through elections. That’s what most people think politics is. That’s our role.”
At the end of the 1980s, Cantor took a job as a program officer at the Long Island–based Veatch Foundation, which funded a range of liberal organizations. Cantor remembers the time as one in which “the American left was made up of people desperately sending fundraising appeals to each other.” In 1989, Cantor married Laura Markham, the co-founder and -owner of the alternative weekly Detroit Metro Times. Markham and Cantor took their honeymoon in Europe, which coincided with several Green Party victories in Germany. Markham asked Cantor why there were no successful third parties in America. Cantor answered that U.S. election rules didn’t permit third parties to get anywhere. Then he thought about that some more.
When Cantor returned from Europe, the New York mayoral election was under way. Progressives were furious that the no-longer-liberal Liberal Party had endorsed Republican Rudy Giuliani. “There was a lot of dismay with the Liberals,” Cantor says. “My old friend Bob Master, who was at the Communications Workers, floated the idea of taking over the party. Then he forgot it. I didn’t.”
Cantor got in touch with Joel Rogers, a professor of law and political science at the University of Wisconsin who’d done academic work on third parties. “Danny called me out of the blue,” Rogers says. He flew to New York to join Cantor in discussions with various liberal and union heavyweights about establishing a substitute for the Liberal Party. The heavyweights soon lost interest, but Cantor remained enthusiastic. “I was young enough and stupid enough to try something,” he says.
Many within the left—from socialist Michael Harrington to onetime Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden—had argued since the 1970s that given the absence of a parliamentary system or proportional representation voting, progressives had no plausible alternative to going into the Democratic Party and using primary elections to move it to the left. By the time Cantor and Rogers got together, most 1960s leftists still active in politics had followed Harrington and Hayden’s advice.
But by the time Cantor and Rogers got together, the Democratic Party was moving in a more conservative direction, particularly on economic issues. Center-right groups, like the Democratic Leadership Council, urged Democrats to cast a cold eye on the welfare state and steer clear of the tax increases that could make that welfare state more secure. Some on the left, on the labor left particularly, demanded that liberals break with the Democrats and start something new. Because the only vehicle for defeating an invigorated Republican Party shifting rightward under the influence of Ronald Reagan, however, was the Democratic Party, that break never came. Trapped within a Democratic Party that was also shifting rightward, the left stewed in discontent.
In 1990, Rogers and Cantor came up with an idea they believed could revive the left while uniting both its in-the-party and out-of-the-party camps. They co-authored and circulated a paper titled “Party Time,” which laid out their strategic vision. Beginning by noting that there were “an almost bewildering number of progressive groups of one stripe or another out there doing things,” they observed that those efforts had amounted to little. “We propose,” they wrote, “a cross between the ‘party within the party’ strategy favored by some Democratic Party activists and the ‘plague on both your houses’ stance adopted by some critics of both major parties.” What was needed was a new party, but one that didn’t take votes away from Democrats and thereby elect Republicans. Fusion, Cantor and Rogers argued, permitted just such an inside-outside hybrid. By winning explicitly progressive votes for Democrats on their new party’s ballot line, they could pressure Democratic elected officials to move left. The problem was only six states in addition to New York permitted fusion voting, so Cantor and Rogers urged their fellow progressives to expand the number of states where it was legal.
When they’d finished writing the paper, Cantor says, “I did one thing that was really clever. I wrote, ‘Do not circulate without permission’ on the front page, which guaranteed that people would pass it around.” Community organizers generally liked the proposal, he says, “but no one from labor did. They still thought they controlled the Democratic Party.” Cantor continued to mail out the paper, and when he’d received funding commitments totaling $300,000, he and Rogers founded the “New Party,” for which Cantor, leaving his post at Veatch, became executive director.
The party’s success hinged on challenging the constitutionality of the state laws banning fusion voting. For the next seven years, the New Party ran hundreds of left-leaning candidates for nonpartisan municipal offices, while laying the groundwork for the court challenge. “We worked out a whole strategy in detail,” Rogers says. “We were positioning local elected officials for future New Party candidacies as we were moving to the Supreme Court for our inevitable victory.” Rogers and Cantor’s optimism was bolstered when the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously for them in their suit against Minnesota. The case reached the Supreme Court in the spring of 1997. Although the Constitution establishes no special protections for the two-party system, the justices ruled 6-3 that states could bar fusion voting.
“That was the end of the New Party,” Rogers says. But Cantor believed fusion could still enable the left to build electoral power in the states that allowed it—at minimum, in New York.
Initially, Cantor says, the court’s decision left him dispirited. He was living in Ann Arbor, where he and his family had moved in 1996 when his wife had to rescue the floundering Detroit Metro Times. In New York, Governor George Pataki, a Republican, looked to be cruising to re-election in 1998, much to the dismay of liberal union and community group leaders. Cantor encouraged Master and Jon Kest, the New York–based executive director of ACORN, to think about establishing a party that would cross-endorse Pataki’s Democratic opponent, whoever that might turn out to be.
Under New York law, if a gubernatorial candidate receives at least 50,000 votes on a party’s line, that party is ensured a place on future state ballots, as long as its nominees for governor continue to reach that threshold. If this new venture succeeded, progressives would secure an electoral platform in New York politics, at a moment when neither the Democrats nor the Liberals had much to offer them. “It won’t fucking work,” Master recalls thinking, “but we’ll try it.”
Spending his weekdays in New York and his weekends in Ann Arbor, Cantor, with Kest and Master, convened a series of meetings to persuade New York liberals to get on board. “These three white boys had a fever dream of fusion,” says Bertha Lewis, then a leader of ACORN. “It was Danny who broke it down about why we needed a party to go to, why we needed some place where we could show our vote.” In time, Cantor convinced the leaders of the New York regions of the United Auto Workers and the community organization Citizens Action to join the Communications Workers and ACORN in backing the venture, which they named—after much debate—the Working Families Party.
New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee the WFP cross-endorsed, was hardly a man of the liberal left. The decision drew considerable and predictable criticism from some progressives, but it set the course the party was to take in future years: Making an immediate pragmatic compromise when it enabled the left to make a long-term strategic advance. Cantor has always understood that purity is not the path to power. “We don’t just want to have grievances,” he says. “We want to govern.”
ACORN precinct walkers explained to thousands of voters why it was important to vote for the Democrat on the Working Families line—no simple chore on someone’s doorstep—and an editorial in The Nation urged its New York readers to vote Working Families. On election night, though, it looked as if the party had come up short, with Vallone winning just 45,000 votes in the WFP’s column.
Gathered in a pizza joint as the votes came in, Lewis recalls, “Danny and Bob and Jon were seated in a booth, weeping. Grown men, weeping. Danny was the most crushed. His whole body crumbled. I said, ‘You punk-ass motherfuckers, stop crying and go out and check the voting machines!’” The trio heeded Lewis’s counsel. “We went to these dusty warehouses and oversaw recounts,” Cantor says. “‘That’s three for us. No, that’s 30!’” The party picked up 6,000 votes on the recanvass, ending up with 51,325.
The WFP’s place on the ballot assured, Cantor officially became executive director, and the party began to expand. Some of New York’s giant private-sector unions affiliated, including locals 32BJ (janitors, doormen, and security guards) and 1199 (hospital workers) of the Service Employees International Union. Later, the Teamsters, the New York Hotel Trades Council, and Make the Road New York, which canvasses and provides social services in Latino communities, joined as well.
Cantor took pains to devise a structure and bylaws that made groups large and small feel they had fair representation in the party’s decision--making. Initially, the party had sought to build neighborhood clubs, but the effort required so much staff time that it was abandoned. Instead, the party became a hybrid: a mix of county organizations (which individuals could join), unions, and community groups. The party set a maximum number of votes that an affiliate could cast in party deliberations, so an organization like 1199, with more than 200,000 New York members, couldn’t dominate the decision-making process. It levied dues for unions at a higher per capita rate than those for (invariably poorer) community groups. Meeting steadily over the years, the affiliates acquired a better understanding of one another’s concerns and their combined potential, which Cantor sees as critical in building an effective political coalition. “People have to develop trust with one another,” he says, “so that even if we don’t win every time, they still won’t go away.”
Following the 1998 election, the party hired Bill Lipton as its organizing director. A native of upstate New York, Lipton attended Columbia University, where he studied under Eric Foner, the great historian of Reconstruction. After graduation, he worked as a tenant organizer before moving on to ACORN and then the New Party. At the WFP, Lipton assembled the canvass operation and built a reputation as a stellar campaign manager. “Where Danny is a visionary, always thinking about how to win and export big ideas,” says one leading New York politico, “Bill is an unbelievable ground tactician.”
In 1999, Cantor’s wife, Laura Markham, sold the Detroit Metro Times, and the couple, with their two children, returned to New York. (Markham has since become a clinical psychologist and a noted parenting authority. Her website, AhaParenting.com, Cantor says, has “a lot more hits than the party’s.”) In 2001, the WFP backed the mayoral bid of Democrat Mark Green, who signaled his awareness of the party’s electoral proficiency by making Lipton his field director in Queens. Confronted with the aftermath of September 11 and Michael Bloomberg’s limitless campaign spending, Green lost. In 2003, the party deviated from its usual practice and ran community activist Letitia James only on the WFP line against an unqualified Democratic nominee for a Brooklyn City Council seat. James won with 72 percent of the vote, becoming the first strictly third-party candidate elected to the council in nearly 50 years.
The campaign that made the WFP’s reputation in New York state was its 2004 effort to elect a little-known lawyer named David Soares as Albany’s district attorney. Cantor conceived the campaign as a way to dismantle the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which for decades had wreaked havoc in minority communities by imposing lengthy prison sentences on people apprehended with small amounts of drugs. Civil-rights groups had tried and failed repeatedly to get the law reformed or repealed. “Dan came up with the notion,” Master says, “that if we could win a D.A. race in which the candidate says the Rockefeller drug laws are terrible policy, it could break the legislative gridlock holding up their modification or repeal.”
In 2003, Cantor asked WFP interns to see which counties had district attorney’s races the following year. He concluded that the most tempting target—though with the steepest odds against success—was Albany, the state capital. The district attorney there, Paul Clyne, was seeking re-election with the backing of the city’s venerable Democratic machine. Cantor cold-called an Albany legal-aid attorney and asked if he’d like to run. The attorney declined but suggested Cantor call David Soares, an assistant district attorney who was promoting community policing and youth programs.
At first glance, Soares was not a promising candidate. His name had appeared in the local paper just twice in the preceding four years. He was black in a county that was 95 percent white. And he had never heard of the Working Families Party. But he agreed to meet with Cantor, Lipton, and Karen Scharff, the head of Citizens Action in New York, which was the biggest community-organizing group in the Albany area.
“I didn’t understand their strategy initially,” Soares says. “They placed huge emphasis on educating the electorate on reforming the Rockefeller drug laws. Most people don’t understand how a D.A.’s race could be a force for change, but the party did a great job on messaging.” Cantor raised money from sentencing--reform advocates, Scharff turned out precinct walkers, and Lipton ran the campaign in perpetual overdrive. “After a day of knocking on doors in the rain, 30 volunteers and I come back to the campaign headquarters, wet and exhausted,” Soares says. “It’s nine o’clock. Lipton gets up on a desk to thank everybody and gets them to stuff envelopes for another two hours.”
Soares defeated Clyne by 25 percentage points. Six weeks later, the legislature pared back the Rockefeller laws, and when the Democrats captured the state senate four years after that, the laws were repealed altogether.
Following Soares’s victory, the party’s newly won reputation as the state’s most effective campaign organization convinced many Democratic elected officials that they needed the WFP’s endorsement and its operatives to run and staff their campaigns. Members of New York’s Democratic congressional delegation funded the WFP’s successful efforts to flip historically Republican upstate districts in the 2006 and 2008 elections. At the insistence of Governor Eliot Spitzer, the state Democratic Party engaged the WFP to manage all the state senate races in swing districts in 2008. The WFP–backed candidates won, putting the senate in Democratic hands for the first time since 1964. The consequence was immediate. When the new legislature convened, it raised $4 billion in new taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers, enabling the state to avoid the huge cutbacks in social services that other states enacted in the depths of the Great Recession.
In 2007, party organizer Emma Wolfe began to vet and recruit candidates for the New York City Council races two years hence. The unions and community organizations, meeting under the party’s auspices, settled on nine council candidates for which the WFP would campaign. The party referred to the gatherings as its “table.” Political directors of the party’s main affiliates convene regularly—weekly in election season—with WFP leaders to discuss, debate, decide on, and plan campaigns. “There’s not a city in the United States, and I’ve worked in 17 of them, with a table as sophisticated and effective as this,” says a veteran political consultant.
One of the candidates who received the party’s support in 2009 was Brad Lander, an affordable-housing advocate who lived in Park Slope. “I never would have been interested in running but for the party,” Lander says. “The progressive table that Working Families had created made it possible to wage campaigns both inside the government and outside for causes I cared about.” Lander and seven other WFP–recruited candidates won in 2009. The party then helped them set up their offices, hire chiefs-of-staff, and master the city’s arcane budgets. “New members elected only on the Democratic line are often dependent on the county Democratic bosses for these things,” says one union leader who attends the WFP’s weekly table. “The party does it better.”
At Lander’s suggestion, the incoming members formed the Progressive Caucus on the council and announced they were promoting three pieces of legislation: mandating paid sick days for employees; extending the living-wage ordinance to more workers on projects that received city funding; and enacting an inclusionary zoning ordinance that would require developers of luxury apartments to build affordable housing as well. “For three years we had nothing to show for it,” Lander says. “People scoffed at the caucus. They thought it was silly. But the momentum for these issues grew.”
Led by Lipton, the WFP waged a media and canvassing campaign on behalf of paid sick days. The party and the caucus tried to persuade Council Speaker Christine Quinn to bring the measure to a vote six times, but she refused. The seventh effort—a discharge petition signed by a majority of council members—succeeded. With Quinn planning to run for mayor and fearing she had placed herself on the wrong side of an issue city voters thought was a moral necessity, she permitted a vote. The measure passed over Mayor Bloomberg’s veto.
As early as 2010, the party began looking at potential candidates for the 2013 city council races, eventually choosing and training candidates for 13 seats. The candidates waged their campaigns on the party’s signature issues: eliminating the police practice of targeting young minority men for “stop and frisk,” and increasing wages for fast-food workers. Some faced opponents backed by the city’s real-estate lobby, fearful that the new council and mayor might enact an inclusionary zoning ordinance. In all, the city’s real-estate industry spent $7 million on the council races, with virtually nothing to show for their effort. Twelve of the WFP’s thirteen candidates won.
It was not the first time the party had come under establishment attack. Following the WFP’s victories in the 2009 city elections, the Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post ran more than 100 stories alleging that a company the party had created to provide campaign services gave illegal discounts to the candidates it favored. Investigations by the U.S. attorney’s office and the state’s Election Commission found no basis to file any charges, but it took three years and nearly a million dollars in legal fees before the party was absolved. (The Republican district attorney of Staten Island still has an ongoing grand-jury investigation of the allegations.)
Conservative policy analysts contend that the party’s emphasis on raising wages will hurt small businesses without engendering any of the higher-skilled jobs the city needs to rebuild its middle class. “I don’t think Cantor knows much about how to revive the New York economy,” says the urban historian Fred Siegel. By advancing an agenda that helps city unions, Siegel says, the party will raise the cost of living and make New York increasingly unaffordable for the very workers the WFP claims to be helping.
Cantor counters that it’s the market that has rendered the city unaffordable. He singles out the real-estate market, where an infusion of the super-rich has sent building costs, housing prices, and rents soaring. Fixing the New York economy requires zoning policies that will create housing that’s within the reach of ordinary citizens. More broadly, he argues that what’s needed is “a much greater provision of public goods”: early childhood education, better schools, affordable college, parks and libraries in poor neighborhoods. Cantor’s vision hews closely to that of the city’s last great social democratic mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, and it is one, he hopes, de Blasio and the new city council will make real.
Even with a new council and mayor, New York City lacks the power to enact many of these changes. Greater public provision requires more tax revenues, and taxation is the prerogative of state government. New York may be a heavily Democratic state, but decades of legislative gerrymandering have often saddled it with a Republican senate that has killed countless progressive reforms.
Moving New York state left, says one of the party’s allies, “is a bigger problem than moving the city. Unlike the city council, the state legislature has no term limits. Unlike the city, the state has no public financing for its elections.”
The absence of term limits for the legislature means that the transformation of state government must proceed slowly. To that end, the party has inaugurated what it calls the “Candidate Pipeline Project” to have credible aspirants ready when legislative seats come open. As town council and school board members are often the elected officials who advance to the state assembly and senate, the Pipeline focuses on running candidates for local offices. “We train 1,000 prospective candidates across the state in the off years,” Lipton says, “then we home in on the 75 most promising. We aim to send six to eight new progressives to the legislature in every election. If we succeed, within eight years the legislature will be divided between progressives and Democrats, not Democrats and Republicans.”
The depth of the party’s commitment to the project becomes evident in a meeting of 55 of the party’s regional political directors and campaign workers who convene a few days after the November elections. Dressed in a green shirt that hangs outside his baggy jeans, WFP organizing director Mike Boland reviews the party’s campaigns across the state. While the Republicans had a good day, he begins, the candidates whom the Working Families Party prioritized won most of their races. The Hudson Valley regional coordinator reports on the campaign for a professor active in environmental causes who won a town council seat and her prospects for taking a state senate seat. The Long Island coordinator details the victory of a CWA activist in a Long Beach City Council contest. The party considers him a strong candidate with a bright future: Long Beach’s current state assemblyman is in his mid-eighties. On Election Day, the party turned out 49 precinct walkers for him, although Long Beach has just 43 precincts.
“Experts will tell you this district is winnable, and that one isn’t,” Boland tells me after the meeting. “But facts on the ground change. So instead of recruiting a candidate for where the action is this year, we find progressive activists everywhere and start running them for local office. We see if they’re willing to work hard and build a good record in office. We can see if the person has real political potential.”
In conjunction with its canvass operation and its weekly table, the Pipeline is what sets the Working Families Party apart from almost any other political organization, left or right. “It’s obvious,” Master says of the Pipeline, “but who else does it?”
The scope of the party’s New York activities has grown to the point where Cantor no longer can keep track of it all. On Election Day, Lipton mentioned to him that they had a slate of council candidates running in Plattsburgh, by the Canadian border. “We do?” Cantor asked.
How much of what the Working Families Party has accomplished in New York can be transferred to other states that don’t have fusion voting? Quite a lot, Cantor says. It turns out that fusion—the sine qua non of his and Joel Rogers’s original manifesto—isn’t essential to building an electoral left after all. “The Tea Party proved we were wrong,” Cantor says. “They yanked the Republican Party to the right without being a separate party. We realized that most of our power in New York comes from our work in Democratic primaries. We don’t have to be on the ballot.”
What the WFP has built in New York, in fact, is a left party within the Democratic Party—a coalition of unions and community groups that has come together and decided to fund and conduct joint electoral and issue campaigns. Indeed, as the institutional Democratic Party has atrophied, the WFP looks less like a party within the Democratic Party than a party that has assumed the functions of the Democratic Party, only with progressive politics.
Buoyed by its own success and the rise of economic populism, the party is now expanding its operations into other states. “If you include the New Party, it took us 23 years to get operations in New York, Connecticut, and Oregon,” Cantor says. “In year 24, all of a sudden, we could have operations in seven states.” In June, Cantor became the party’s national director, while Lipton succeeded him as director of the New York WFP. “I pulled away from New York work to go evangelizing across the country,” Cantor says, “persuading labor, environmentalists, and others to invest time and money in us.”
Just how much labor can invest is much on Cantor’s mind these days. “Our biggest problem is that the labor movement is too weak,” he says. In every state where the Working Families Party is active or becoming active, the progressive wing of the labor movement is central to all the WFP’s work. Cantor worries that the ongoing assaults on American unions will diminish them to the point where they can no longer provide the financial and human resources the party needs to survive.
While doing all they can to bolster unions’ strength, Cantor and other WFP leaders are looking to new sources of support. They’ve cultivated a close relationship with MoveOn.org, not only because of the groups’ ideological affinities but also because MoveOn’s members can sway elections and fund campaigns. “As labor declines, the netroots become more important,” Cantor says. In 2010, the MoveOn PAC joined with the Oregon Working Families Party to unseat the state’s most conservative Democratic legislator, and Cantor hopes that can be a portent of partnerships to come. “Add the netroots to labor, and you have more than you need to win any Democratic primary,” he says. “In blue states, progressives could govern.”
Ilya Sheyman, the director of the MoveOn.org political action committee, sounds favorably disposed to such an alliance. “We’re not a formal affiliate,” he says, “but we’re now talking about affiliating in several states.”
Cantor also admires MoveOn’s success in online fundraising. “We have 4,500 sustaining members who pay dues to us every month,” he says. “Can we turn that into 45,000? MoveOn has cracked the code on this.”
The WFP’s most successful online campaign has been the one it has waged against fracking in New York state. “Our e-mail list grew more from that one issue than anything else,” Cantor says. Party leaders have long sought to have the WFP focus as much on environmental concerns as on economic. Indeed, Cantor and Rogers’s “Party Time” manifesto called for their new party to have a “red/green coloration.” In New York, the party’s campaign against fracking played a role in convincing Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a moratorium on the practice until further studies are conducted.
But just as an alliance with MoveOn, an expansion of the party’s digital presence, and an increased emphasis on environmental causes all promise to enlarge the party’s base, they also threaten to divide it. Working- and middle-class beliefs on issues like fracking are not always in accord. The weekend before Thanksgiving, the WFP convened its initial event in Pennsylvania—a town hall at Philadelphia’s Temple University, attended by 750 members of the state’s largest progressive unions and community organizations and by five of the state’s leading Democratic candidates for governor in next year’s election. At one point, demonstrators briefly interrupted the proceedings by parading onstage with an anti-fracking banner.
The encounter wasn’t hostile, but they knew they had opponents in the hall. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, has authorized a major expansion of fracking in the state’s Marcellus Shale fields while imposing few regulations and taxes on the extractors. What the Working Families coalition was demanding—which was echoed by the five gubernatorial candidates—was not an end to fracking. Rather, it called for tighter regulation and higher taxes on the industry to increase funding for the state’s strapped social services and schools.
This rift between the party’s different constituencies is hardly peculiar to the WFP. It looms over all of American liberalism. But, as Cantor acknowledges, the division is something that the party will have to grapple with in coming years as it expands. The WFP does not have the luxury of focusing solely on bread-and-butter issues. Cantor particularly wants to ensure that the party continues to take on racially discriminatory public policies, as it did in its campaign against the Rockefeller drug laws and “stop and frisk.” “We will fail if the DNA of this work does not fully recognize the centrality of race and the enduring effects of America’s ‘original sin’ and its newer mutations,” he wrote in an essay he co-authored last year.
If the essence of the Working Families Party project is to put together a coalition that supports an ongoing campaign operation that elects liberals to office and promotes liberal causes, the party should be able to have success in other states—but by no means all of them. In red states, and most purple ones, unions are too weak, if not altogether absent, to support the creation of such a force. In a blue state, however, where progressive unions still have resources, a Working Families Party could become a social democratic force.
The WFP’s growth could also forge new opportunities for working-class advances at a time when traditional collective bargaining has all but disappeared from the economic landscape. The paid sick days that the party has won and the minimum-wage hikes that are being enacted point to a shift in the way workers are seeking to promote their interests. The new arena for collective bargaining, imperfect though it be, is legislative. “Now more than ever, politics is in command, because we can no longer solve our problems one workplace or one company at a time,” Cantor says. In this new world, the WFP becomes a bargaining agent for the vast majority of workers who do not have and are not likely to get union representation.
Still, how much an organization like the WFP can do ultimately depends on conditions beyond its control. “You don’t organize movements,” Cantor says. “You build organizations, and if movements emerge, you may catch their energy and grow. Occupy Wall Street moved the ball farther in three months than a lot of us did in three decades. But the Tea Party understood that you disrupt and then you electoralize. We will fail if there aren’t strong community and environmental and youth movements in America. But they will fail if they can’t figure out how their values and issues become part of the legislative and electoral process. That’s where a group like the Working Families Party has a role to play.”
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