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Eye on the News

Fred Siegel and Harry Siegel
New York’s Two-Party System
Public-sector unions on one side, billionaires on the other
7 October 2009

Many political observers saw the rise of the Working Families Party as the big story of this year’s primaries, which in New York City are effectively the general elections for most offices. That’s accurate, but only part of the story. It would be more meaningful to say that in New York’s left-and-lefter political environment, the once dominant Democratic Party fell victim to its own strategy of minimizing turnout to guarantee that their core constituencies carry the day. In the WFP, the electoral face of Gotham’s public-sector unions, the Democrats found that a party to their left could beat them at their own game.

The dependably dutiful aside, virtually the only voters in this year’s primaries were those directly or indirectly connected with government. The record-low turnout of 11 percent in the primary and then 7 percent in the resulting run-offs left the city’s second-and third-highest posts, Public Advocate and Comptroller—usually platforms for future mayoral runs—in the hands of WFP candidates Bill de Blasio and John Liu, who both won with the support of about 4 percent of registered Democrats. At the same time, in what counts as a small earthquake, the WFP backed three of the five successful challengers for City Council seats—an incredible result in a body where only three incumbents had been voted out of office since 1997.

Locally, the Democrats are in dramatic decline. In a contested Democratic primary—and in New York City, most contested elections outside of the mayoralty are in Democratic primaries—the WFP has become much more than an alternate ballot-line option. It’s now the only machine in town. Being shut out of the mayor’s office for the past 16 years has stemmed the flow of patronage that Democrats long directed to their political clubs, once the source of Democratic strength. Except for a few anomalies, the clubs have mostly faded away, displaced in part by the rise of the mini-machines that come with each gerrymandered city council seat or state legislative slot. Shorn of its patronage hires and campaign workers, the Democratic Party has lost touch with the grass roots at the same time that the public-sector unions now have, in the WFP, an operation that can represent them without making the compromises necessary to attract a broader coalition.

WFP officials told the New York Times that the party’s organizers knocked on nearly a quarter-million doors and talked directly with more than 60,000 voters. On Election Day, thanks to generous funding from the unions, the party had 350 workers—most paid $100 a day—to cover the handful of contested elections. The Democrats have nothing to match the telephone banks and campaign-day voter pulling operation that the unions run.

While the WFP was reaching out to voters, the Democrats still haven’t recovered from the one-two punch of Rudy Giuliani’s governing success and Michael Bloomberg’s money. Riven by racial claims, the party’s mayoral candidates have cannibalized one another in four consecutive campaigns. In 1997, Ruth Messinger was submarined by Al Sharpton because, with so many Democrats backing the incumbent Giuliani, she didn’t have the financial leverage to make him go away. In 2001 Bloomberg had the cash, and he used Sharpton and failed mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer to undercut Mark Green. In 2005, Ferrer got the nomination in part by forcing Anthony Weiner, the white ethnic candidate, out of the race, and then paid the price as many resentful Democrats stayed home, either in annoyance or in exchange for receiving direct or indirect contributions from Bloomberg. This year’s Democratic mayoral candidate, Bill Thompson, though he enjoys WFP backing, can’t get most big-time Democratic pols to give him the time of day, whether Al Gore or President Obama.

Meanwhile the WFP, taking advantage of the frequent electoral turnover produced by term limits, rose by providing newly minted candidates with an organization that they could count on. Already the most powerful force in state politics, the WFP drew on public-sector unions, most prominently the American Federation of Teachers and the hospital workers of 1199, to provide the campaign workers that the Democratic clubs no longer could. Daniel Cantor, WFP’s talented leader, who got his start in politics as an organizer for the WFP’s sister organization, ACORN, seized the almost unique-to-New York opportunity to exploit “fusion,” or the ability of candidates here to run on multiple ballot lines. The Liberal and Conservative parties had long held a duopoly on this tactic, but as the Liberal party slid into obscurity and the Conservatives sometimes postured as spoilers punishing moderate Republicans, Cantor seized a surer strategy. “The keystone groups” involved in forming the WFP were, he said, “the Communications Workers, the UAW and ACORN,” along with other unions. Cantor saw that the WFP could use its ballot line to drive moderate-to-conservative Democratic candidates to defeat in party primaries.

Like 1199’s Dennis Rivera, the sophisticated Cantor—a man of sectarian orientation but mainstream tactics and ambitions—understands that “the Democrats and Republicans are basically media operations, not on-the-ground organizations.” The unions, not the Democrats, have the troops. By endorsing Democrats in the primaries and then delivering voters to the polls, Cantor saw that he could exercise considerable influence over the party’s nominees. “If the WFP produces 5 percent of a winning candidate’s total,” he explains, “we have a claim on their loyalty.” Cross endorsements solve the “wasted vote” and “spoiler” problems that plagued Ralph Nader’s presidential runs. In New York, a vote for the third party WFP has real consequences.

All of this might have come to little if mainstream Democrats felt that aligning themselves with the WFP could cost them votes. But moderate-to-conservative Democrats rarely turn out in the primaries, and on a whole host of issues, the aspiring young pols drawn into the electoral arena today are closely aligned with the WFP’s positions on raising taxes and expanding the public sector.

The WFP’s successes are bringing the party greater scrutiny. Edward-Isaac Dovere of City Hall News, a monthly publication, reports that the WFP has been systematically violating the city’s campaign-finance laws. As written, the finance rules already give the unions a privileged position in the city’s politics. But the WFP added a new wrinkle by creating a for-profit Data and Field Service as a back door to evading campaign-contribution limits. The largely toothless city Campaign Finance Board has served notice that it will be closely watching, but likely to scant effect. The CFB attention may bring a minor scandal, at worst.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party struggles against its declining influence. Jay Jacobs of Nassau County, the incoming state Democratic chair, said recently that “It’s incumbent on the Democratic Party to begin demonstrating to candidates and elected officials that it has the resources to support their campaigns in a meaningful and substantive way.” Alluding to the WFP’s growing influence, he added, “We should not abdicate our responsibility to any other organization or entity, regardless of how close we may be to them, ideologically speaking.” Acknowledging that he lacks the means to back up that principle, Jacobs argues for the need to “study” the problem of cross-endorsement. For the foreseeable future, “the tail,” as Jacobs puts it, will continue “to wag the dog.” He’s right. In the words of Joseph Strasburg of the landlord-funded Rent Stabilization Association, “many elected officials are afraid to cross the party. They view [WFP] support as critical for purposes of getting elected.”

Fordham political science professor Dan DiSalvo argues that the Democrats don’t have the wherewithal for a comeback. Unlike party leaders such as Jacobs, who find it increasingly difficult reaching the grass roots, the WFP is in regular communication with the Democratic core constituency, aided greatly by a regular flow of union cash. And it’s the WFP that does the best job of attracting young activists to its banner.

The Democrats will also have competition of sorts from the Independence Party, controlled upstate by billionaire Tom Golisano and in the city by the Newmanite cultist Lenora Fulani (who rents the party line to Bloomberg in exchange for influence and funding). It offers a far smaller but nonetheless potentially invaluable field operation for would-be rivals to the WFP. Under the guidance of the notorious trickster Roger Stone and with backing from the Rent Stabilization Association and other landlord groups, the Independence Party hopes to recruit small-business owners fearful of the WFP’s penchant for taxes and regulation. So far, though, it’s had little success fielding candidates.

Two of the biggest obstacles to the continued growth of the WFP’s power will probably come from potential internal rivalries and the looming menace of fiscal reality. No sooner had they been elected than de Blasio and Liu were at each other’s political throats, and the maneuvering for the 2013 mayoral race has already begun. Both de Blasio and Liu have vigorously denied the need to confront the coming budgetary challenges; their victories were a gift to Mayor Bloomberg. After eight years of raising taxes and increasing borrowing, Bloomberg gets to pose as the fiscal adult.

New York’s politics are paradoxical, to say the least. It’s the most intensely political plot of land outside of Washington and Berkeley, while at the same time it suffers from a collapse in public political participation. Barring a dramatic economic revival, the city has been reduced to a curious version of the two-party system: billionaires and their makeshift allies on one side, public-sector unions on the other. That leaves most everyone else out in the cold.

Harry Siegel is an editor at Politico. Fred Siegel is a contributing editor to City Journal and a visiting professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.

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