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Influential Political Party Is Supporting the NY Gov. Who Stands for Everything It Opposes

The Working Families Party endorsed Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo after pressure from unions and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

by Ari Paul
Jun 1 2014, 7:00pm

Photo via AP

A party whose stated agenda, supported by labor and liberal activists, is to push the Democratic Party leftward, has backed a gubernatorial candidate who stands for everything it opposes and is all but certain to win a second term.

The Working Families Party during its convention Saturday, publicly rejected polls noting liberal disgust with Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and endorsed him after pressure from unions and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cuomo told the New York Times that he would work with the party to elect other liberals at the state level. “To make this agenda a reality, we must change the Senate leadership,” he said.

Cuomo’s tenure has been marked by championing schools privatization and fighting de Blasio’s attempts to tax the wealthy. He likened his opposition to the millionaire’s tax to his father’s opposition to the death penalty, all while working with an alliance of business interests called the Committee to Save New York, which saw weakening labor power as necessary to helping the economy.

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And Cuomo recently invited the unwelcome scrutiny of Preet Bharara, the aggressive but straight-shooting Manhattan federal prosecutor, after Cuomo suddenly shut down a state commission to investigate corruption.

With Cuomo’s assertiveness and national name recognition he is widely considered to the face of a Democratic Party that leans on social liberalism but depends on the commitment of corporate contributions while shedding its commitment to the New Deal.

The WFP, which progressives nationwide see as a model for enacting things higher wage ordinances and unseating conservative Democratic incumbents, stood accused of selling out in 2010 when it endorsed Cuomo despite his anti-labor rhetoric.

Using the power of its ballot line, the WFP has been able to broadcast which Democrats are the liberals, giving it power in Democratic primaries where the progressive end of the party tends to have high turnout.

With its alliances with groups like the organization formerly known as ACORN, it has built a reputation as the political brand for progressive Democrats.

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While community activist groups in the party like Citizen Action were pushing for a progressive opposition candidate, the unions in the WFP base, like 1199/SEIU and the Hotel Trades Council, had been the most cautious about angering Cuomo, a sign of labor’s near unshakable alliance with Democratic candidates.

In an interview with VICE News, CUNY Graduate Center labor historian Joshua Freeman, author of "Working-Class New York," noted that the unions “are pretty disgusted with Cuomo’s general stance but find themselves torn because there are things that the governor has done or could do for their members.”

One of those unions is New York City’s militant transit workers union, which last conducted an illegal strike in December 2005. Its president, John Samuelsen, in explaining his support for Cuomo told VICE News, “What is the point of a third party other than putting a Republican into the state house in Albany? I have no appetite for anything like that.”

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At the start of his term, Cuomo angered the two largest state unions, the Public Employees Federation and the Civil Service Employees Union, when he imposed contracts on them that included wage freezes and other concessions. Cuomo’s freezing of property taxes have put a strain on upstate teachers unions.

Nevertheless, Samuelsen rejected the idea that Cuomo was “anti-union,” noting that his union had a productive relationship with the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which recently settled a contract his members were happy with.

“It would be hard to depict a guy as anti-union who settled a contract with paid parental leave for the first time ever, and increases in our health benefits,” he said.

E.J. McMahon of the conservative Empire Center there has been sufficient areas for unions to warm to Cuomo, — while he blocked de Blasio from raising taxes, he did sign off on dedicated funding for universal pre-school, which is a boon for the United Federation of Teachers. “I think Cuomo’s perceived bark is much worse than his bite where public-sector unions are concerned,” he told VICE News.

He added that while Cuomo has been close to the construction industry, those associated unions often see their employers as partners, rather enemies. “Cuomo has been as good a friend as they could hope for,” McMahon said.

And it seems even more bizarre that de Blasio, who rose to prominence with the WFP, pleaded with the party to back Cuomo after he so publicly fought the city’s attempts to curtail educational privatization and tax the wealthy in order to fund universal pre-school education.

But while speaking to reporters, de Blasio deferred to the Cuomo’s commitment of social liberalism, saying, “If you look at the results, if you look at marriage equality, if you look at gun control, if you look at affordable housing--time and time again across the state, the kind of changes that I believe in and that we needed. If you look at government functioning better for people, functioning better for the taxpayer.”

The WFP isn’t walking out of the deal empty handed.

A statement from the party said that Cuomo promised to support a “robust, statewide system of public financing of elections, funding 200 community schools, a commitment to fix the school funding formula to invest more money in high-need schools, the DREAM Act, the Women's Equality Act, decriminalization of marijuana, and raising the minimum wage to $10.10 while indexing it to inflation and allowing localities to raise it up to 30 percent higher than the state minimum wage.”

Compared to the damage Cuomo to de Blasio’s ambitious economic agenda in his first term, not to mention the reputation he has built as a fiscal pragmatist breaks with economic liberals, these seem like minor concessions and are, of course, dependent on the temperament of the state legislature as well.

But the lack of WFP challenger helps another third party leftist who could attract the WFP voters who were itching to break with Cuomo. Cuomo faces Westchester County Executive Rob Astorinoin the governor's race.

Howie Hawkins of the Green Party, who came in third in 2010 with 60,000 votes, believes that in a post-Occupy Wall Street landscape will be able to pull more support since he had almost no downstate campaign presence four years ago.

This time, the Syracuse-based UPS driver and Teamster activist chose as his running mate Brian Jones, a leader in the United Federation of Teacher’s dissident MORE caucus and is well known among city radicals.

“I think it’ll be much larger scale,” Hawkins told VICE News.