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New York Progressive Party Kisses Andrew Cuomo's Ring

Going into this past weekend, there was a faint sense that the organized Left could genuinely wrest some measure of power from the Democratic Party. Not so fast.

Andrew Cuomo got his way in the end. Photo via Flickr user Diana Robinson

Going into this past weekend, when the labor-backed Working Families Party (WFP) held its convention to select candidates for fall elections in New York State, there was at least a faint sense that the organized Left could genuinely wrest some measure of power from the Democratic Party and send shockwaves throughout the country. After all, so much mainstream American political chatter in recent years has centered on the perceived ascendance of fiery forces on the populist Right—the Tea Party and the Republican “establishment” being locked in some perpetually existential conflict, and so on—that if the WFP indeed went ahead and denied incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo its endorsement out of frustration with his neoliberal approach to governance, it might have forced us all to pay attention to a newly-resurgent populist movement.

Fortunately for those New Yorkers comfortable with the status quo, this was not to be.

Virtually everyone at the convention Saturday in the state capital of Albany agreed that Cuomo, first elected governor in 2010 after serving as New York attorney general, was somewhere between an untrustworthy practitioner of brute force politics and a morally repugnant scoundrel. Many similarly affirmed that the WFP had a prime opportunity to consolidate and exert its burgeoning political leverage: Cuomo plummeted 20 percentage points in recent polling when an unnamed WFP candidate was included in a three-way matchup with him and the Republican nominee, Rob Astorino. The party had also scored major victories in New York City in 2013, with ally Bill de Blasio roaring to an easy win in the mayoral race even though the WFP failed to coalesce behind him. Besides, Cuomo would be heavily favored to win in November irrespective of the WFP’s tactics.

But as the night neared its apogee, Cuomo had managed to secure the WFP endorsement, and so will appear as both their chosen candidate and the Democratic nominee on ballots across the state this November, likely boosting his margin of victory. The triumph for the famously image-conscious pol was the product of high drama, including a frantic final ten minutes during which back-room negotiations were underway between WFP leadership and Cuomo. At around 9:30pm Saturday, the convention parliamentarian declared a ten minute break for “technical difficulties” at what seemed to be a critical juncture leading up to the final vote by members of the WFP’s state committee, composed of about 200 people. Ten minutes turned into 15, and then 20. A person with knowledge of the situation later described the alleged technical problem as “a total ruse"—in reality, frenzied talks between the Party and Cuomo were still underway until the last possible second.

This was the culmination of a days-long negotiation marathon, involving many actors, all seemingly terrified of upsetting one of the most ruthless figures in American politics. Despite his reputation in New York media as having a frosty relationship with Cuomo, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman acted as a surrogate for the governor’s interests, privately conferring with committee members throughout the afternoon. “Step into my office,” he told one woman with a smile, leading her to a closed-door talk. Schneiderman, always quick with a joke, responded wryly when I asked what advice he might offer to committee members still deciding whether to vote for endorsing Cuomo. “I give legal advice only,” he quipped. The governor was said to have directly telephoned Schneiderman during the conference; when I asked Schneiderman to confirm this, he shot me a devious look and scoffed before darting away.

As the outcome remained uncertain late into the night, multiple pro-Cuomo surrogates surfaced to address the convention on short notice. George Gresham, the burly, paternal president of the 1199 SEIU labor union, among the most powerful in the entire country, told attendees he’d been “summoned” that morning to Albany from his home in Washington, D.C. to deliver a message: the Working Families Party must not “overplay our hand.” Another speaker interrupted a vacation to advocate that committee members pick Cuomo without delay.

But it was a third player’s role in the affair that was most essential in tamping down dissent and brokering an accord between activists and Cuomo: that of Mayor de Blasio. That the biggest impediment to the WFP disrupting the existing order turned out to be the man known for his alleged radicalism was some kind of dark poetic justice. De Blasio, acting as a conduit of sorts between the Left and Cuomo, all the while fortifying his own leverage in state politics, cast the night’s proceedings in typically grandiose terms: endorsing the incumbent governor would mark “the moment when the world turns,” he declared to the WFP horde.

Thanks in part to the mayor, pundits are suggesting Cuomo successfully “neutralized” his leftward opposition. The progressive Twitter-sphere immediately went up in arms. One WFP member who identified as an Occupy Wall Street organizer predicted that online donations to the Party would dry up—“Most people are giving money to the party because they’re against Cuomo,” the person told me—and the WFP’s image would be tarnished in left-wing intellectual circles.

When Cuomo’s prerecorded video address did finally arrive (he declined to appear in person—an odd strategy to appease the crowd he was supposedly wooing—and reportedly had to be talked into filming multiple takes after the first was rejected), he paid verbal homage to a few key WFP priorities such as more local control over setting the minimum wage, decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, and helping Democrats win back control of the state senate. Which is to say: boilerplate stuff any other Democrat would be expected to support as a matter of course. Naturally, the governor left himself ample wriggle room; by Sunday, Cuomo was quoted clarifying that his position on the minimum wage still differed from that of the WFP (he did not want localities to go too crazy autonomously boosting the wages of the working poor). Following in the age-old American political tradition of left-wing political parties folding after some strategic pantomiming from the Democrats, Cuomo emerged the PR victor in the eyes of the assembled political press. 

Union leaders and others on the WFP state committee were apparently determined to maintain the balance of power approximately as it is. Cuomo sealed the deal when Dorothy Seigal, an influential state committee member and party treasurer whose district is in Park Slope, Brooklyn, abstained from the roll call vote that would decide the WFP nomination. Earlier in the day, Seigal had been a lead orchestrator of the intra-Party Cuomo opposition, tabulating votes and lobbying other committee members to support the alternative candidate, Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham and an expert on political corruption (of which Cuomo is widely suspected). It was a rather salacious turn of events. “They got to her,” one fellow former anti-Cuomo organizer growled.

After the "second draft" of the video address was shown, Cuomo strangely opted to call in via speakerphone to a chorus of roaring boos. The furor at first drowned him out, but soon dissipated. The best part came last, when the governor explained he could not be in Albany that night because he had “some meetings in the City.” That pretty much says it all.

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.