It was backroom business as usual in Albany over the weekend, and when all was said and done, New York’s politically ambidextrous Working Families Party had nominated upstart actress Cynthia Nixon to oppose Governor Andrew Cuomo in the November general election. The governor was not amused. How much the WFP nomination will be worth is an open question. The party was badly damaged during the struggle, as is already becoming apparent, but Nixon’s victory was a well-earned rebuke to Cuomo, and the battle offered rare insight into the transactional nature of politics in the Empire State.
Nixon also is challenging Cuomo for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the September primary. She had sought the backing of the rhetorically hard-left WFP to solidify her authority to speak for progressive Democrats. Cuomo wanted it precisely to deny Nixon that platform.
WFP support was never going to come easily for the governor. Four years ago, in similar circumstances, he bargained an endorsement from party leaders, many of whom preferred progressive gadfly and Democratic primary challenger Zephyr Teachout. With WPF imprimatur in hand, Cuomo promptly reneged on an agreement he had made with the party to broker an end to an internal Democratic feud in the state senate. By declining to do so, he ensured continued Republican control of the body, humiliating his WFP supporters and precluding any realistic hope for an endorsement in 2018. Yet Cuomo was incensed when the WFP refused to come back for a second helping, threatening to punish party supporters if Nixon was nominated and almost certainly instigating the defection of several well-heeled unions from the party. It was an unsubtle display of political power, but who’s to say that the WFP didn’t have it coming?
Founded in 1998 ostensibly as a perch for left-leaning New Yorkers put off by the (relative) moderation of the Democratic Party, the WFP has always talked a lefty game but in practice has been little more than a cat’s paw for its principal funders, New York’s public-sector unions. Because New York lets minor parties cross-endorse major-party tickets, the WFP almost invariably offers its line to union-approved candidates in return for union cash delivered directly to WFP accounts, plus funding—often paid in tax dollars—for the equally self-interested activist groups that fill out the WFP coalition. The party, including its cadre of deep-indigo true-believers, has contentedly dined at the taxpayers’ table for two decades without embarrassment. It was Cuomo’s misfortune to be center stage when Donald Trump was elected president and the WFP finally found progressive religion.
Exhibit A in this regard is Nixon. She’s long been a public face for the WFP-affiliated Alliance for Quality Education, itself a lushly funded cat’s paw for New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers’ union. AQE, like NYSUT, defines quality education as more money, and less accountability, for teachers. New York’s teachers are America’s best paid, and among its least accountable. This is hardly all Nixon’s doing, but it speaks to her worldview that so much isn’t nearly enough.
There is some irony in her WFP nomination, though, in that Cuomo has been anticipating a challenge from the left and has busily been reconfiguring his administration’s policies and practices to meet it. Cuomo’s leftward turn has damaged the state’s already dubious business climate, to say nothing of its overburdened taxpayers. To coopt union opposition, Cuomo promoted New York’s $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, expanded publicly funded health care, and lavish increases in education aid. His ardor for publicly funded charter schools seems to have cooled in direct proportion to his desire to woo New York City’s United Federation of Teachers.
The principal WFP-affiliated unions understand what Cuomo has been up to, even if the party leadership seems not to, which helps explain union defections from the party. It also accounts for talk that the defecting unions—ever mindful of a need to keep the gravy flowing—will now form a new party. So Cuomo’s 2014 WFP double-cross has been repaid in kind. But the party’s remaining leadership seems to understand that while the frisson is sweet, it soon will fade. “In a meeting [last] week,” said WFP director Bill Lipton, “the governor was threatening people. Several times, he said, ‘If unions or anyone give money to any of [the WFP-affiliated] groups [that have endorsed Nixon], they can lose my number.’”
That’s no idle threat. It’s how politics works in the Empire State. If go-along-to-get-along wasn’t invented here, it surely was perfected. The WFP once understood the rules, but it seems to have forgotten them. Now the party stands to get a refresher course from a governor who never forgets slights—or forgives them.
Photo: Working Families Party