Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Working Families Party Created This Mess
A socialist nurse won a Democratic primary. Her opponent isn't giving up.
While most of us were transfixed by the various hyperreal absurdities on our national stage—Donald Trump testing positive for COVID-19, Donald Trump threatening to not accept the results of a presidential election—a much smaller but still notable political event had transpired in New York. Walter Mosley, a New York State assemblyman (not to be confused with the accomplished author), announced last week he was running for re-election in November. Mosley, a Democratic lawmaker representing the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Crown Heights, and Clinton Hill, had lost his primary in June to Phara Souffrant Forrest, a nurse backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other movement politicians and organizations. The victory was narrow but decisive. Mosley seemed to concede and Forrest, who charmed even the DSA-hostile Errol Louis, appeared on her way to Albany.
But Mosley had a lifeline. While much of the left in New York had supported Forrest, the Working Families Party had endorsed Mosley, lending him their stamp of approval and, crucially, their ballot line. Regardless of the outcome of the June primary, Mosley was guaranteed a spot in the November general election, courtesy of WFP. Unless the candidate dies or moves out of the state, there is no way to get the candidate off the ballot. Mosley is not a lawyer so he can’t be nominated for a judgeship, the only other means for removing him. This same scenario presented itself when WFP endorsed Joe Crowley over Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and Crowley, the longtime Queens congressman and party boss, refused to vacate the line. Crowley ultimately never mounted a strong challenge to Ocasio-Cortez in the general election.
How seriously Mosley runs this race is an open question. Allies in the area like Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo could aid him. Without the Democratic line in a presidential year, he is probably doomed. Under much more favorable circumstances, he couldn’t survive a June primary. Forrest, as the Democratic nominee, should still prevail, even if she will be forced to campaign again in the next month for no good reason. Her predicament is a direct product of the strangeness of WFP’s ballot line. It rarely, if ever, matters in general elections, and WFP doesn’t even encourage voters to register into their party or vote on their ballot line unless it’s to make sure the ballot line continues to exist. With rare exceptions, candidates are never elected to office solely on the WFP line. And in moments like these, when WFP can’t evict candidates from their own ballot line—they’ve since endorsed Forrest—it becomes a pressing liability.
In New York, unlike most other states, political candidates can appear on multiple ballot lines at once. WFP, which fashions itself as a progressive leader nationally, has championed fusion voting as a means for progressives to keep winning elections, though the evidence of this is mixed at best. This November, WFP is fighting for its ballot line, marshaling much of the progressive Democratic establishment in New York behind an effort to get Joe Biden at least 130,000 votes or two percent of the vote total on their own ballot line so it can keep existing for at least the next two years. In the past, WFP, like all political parties in New York, only needed to win 50,000 votes on its ballot line in gubernatorial years to keep its ballot status. Though this created drama over whether to put Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been committed to ruining the WFP for much of his tenure, on their ballot lines in 2014 and 2018—both times, they ultimately did—reaching 50,000 votes statewide was never much of a challenge. This time around, Cuomo helped engineer a law change, with the state legislature’s approval, to raise the vote threshold for political parties in New York. The effort, clearly aimed at undercutting WFP, will probably kill off relatively inactive and corrupting third parties, like the Independence Party.
Losing a ballot line has traditionally been a death knell for third parties. Cuomo himself unintentionally helped kill the Liberal Party in 2002 when he took their endorsement but dropped out of the gubernatorial race. The Liberal Party failed to get 50,000 votes in that fall’s general election and the party, already increasingly irrelevant in New York’s political firmament, ceased to matter. WFP, like the original incarnation of the Liberal Party and the American Labor Party before it, emerged as an attempt to push New York’s politics to the left. It was an audacious and ultimately successful effort—at the moment of its 1998 founding, with Republicans controlling both City Hall and the Governor’s Mansion, it was a dark time for economic liberalism. For many years, WFP was a hybrid of large labor unions and party activists who worked in concert to, generally, elect more Democrats. There were tensions between these two factions which would lead to the weakening of WFP after Cuomo, a centrist who resented progressives in New York, came to power in 2011. Cuomo helped drive many of the state’s most prominent unions out of WFP. Forced to choose between having a strong relationship with Cuomo, the state’s most powerful actor—the man who could decide their contracts and the funding for policy priorities—and WFP, these unions, like 32BJ SEIU and the United Federation of Teachers, chose the governor. Caught between two worlds, WFP alienated many left activists when it chose to endorse Cuomo in 2014 over attorney Zephyr Teachout. It was a gambit, in some sense, to retain Cuomo-friendly organized labor. It failed.
In the last few years, WFP has drifted further left—rhetorically, at least. The party is fluent in the language of economic and racial justice. It shunted aside its longtime white leadership for younger Black leaders. It has expanded nationally, endorsing winning candidates across America. The departure of organized labor has meant a party more willing to confront Democratic establishment figures like Cuomo, as it did in 2018 when Cynthia Nixon was their candidate for governor. Most of the popular progressive elected officials in New York have nothing but kind words to say about WFP and its large slate in the June legislative primaries did quite well. In certain races, like Jabari Brisport’s State Senate campaign in Brooklyn, DSA and WFP worked together to secure a dominant victory. Last year, both WFP and DSA were instrumental in Tiffany Cabán’s near-upset in the Queens District Attorney’s race. WFP helped professionalize her campaign, helped fund it, and hired her afterwards to work on criminal justice policy.
Yet WFP can never quite be at the vanguard. Compromises must be made. Motivations are sometimes opaque. In 2019, the leadership of WFP decided to endorse Elizabeth Warren over Bernie Sanders, though they had backed Sanders for president in 2016 and many other progressive leaders and organizations remained loyal to the democratic socialist senator, who had maintained a consistent base of support. The endorsement process was confusing, difficult for outsiders to decipher. Did WFP’s national membership actually vote to back Warren? DSA, in contrast, manages a rather transparent and lengthy endorsement gauntlet that empowers membership and sidelines, generally, influential leaders in the organization. Candidates answer lengthy questionnaires that are then debated in meetings. It is never a secret why certain candidates net DSA endorsements or miss out on them.
As a State Senate candidate myself, I sought the backing of both DSA and WFP. DSA endorsed no one in my race. WFP endorsed my opponent. I can tell you why I lost out on DSA’s backing: a public vote didn’t come down in my favor and the organization decided to only support a single State Senate candidate in my election cycle, Julia Salazar. WFP’s rationale was far less clear. I went into a room of leaders—WFP, at this point, is an amalgamation of advocacy organizations like Make the Road, New York Communities for Change, Citizens Action, and stray labor unions—and gave my pitch, answering their questions. Later, I was told in a phone call I didn’t get the endorsement, and that was that. My sense was the Brooklyn leader in WFP liked my opponent more than me and that swayed it. How does a WFP endorsement actually work? As we learned from Warren vs. Sanders, it’s a complicated process that is top-down driven, conducted behind closed doors. In retrospect, it was a strange choice, since Warren’s coalition would only shrink—cannibalized by the likes of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar—retaining mostly college graduates and people with advanced degrees, the kind of folks WFP doesn’t need any help winning over. Warren, as the WFP candidate, would not come close to winning a single state. Sanders’ second campaign would prove disappointing too, but not nearly on the scale of Warren’s. Sanders was still able to capture major states like California. By the standard he set in 2016 and the expectations he had going into 2020, he failed. But Warren, once votes began being tallied, was distantly behind, and it was unclear what sort of effect, if any, the WFP endorsement had on her campaign.
Gauging the power of WFP has been particularly challenging since large labor unions left the party, depriving it of people power and money. On the cash front, WFP seems to have rebounded, building a substantial email list and raising funds from well-off left-leaning donors. WFP’s endorsement helped inject cash into Cabán’s Queens DA campaign. Now two decades-old, the liberal third party has been a training ground for progressive consultants and campaign managers, and has evolved into something of an umbrella organization for activist groups. Meanwhile, DSA has 70,000 members nationally, many of them incredibly active in get-out-the-vote efforts. DSA lends enthusiastic volunteers to their chosen campaigns. In 2020, their fundraising apparatus grew more sophisticated as they expanded their email list and formed a new PAC. It has always been easy for me to explain why DSA is so effective—they pick a handful of campaigns to support and send the full force of their all-volunteer organization to help them. Through the constant running of these campaigns, they’ve cultivated expertise and institutional memory, with their own in-house operators to head up ever-stronger field operations.
WFP? They’ve got their own operatives and institutional memory, and that’s valuable. They theoretically have a very large capacity because they endorse so many more campaigns than DSA. But not all WFP campaigns, in actuality, receive the same amount of attention. Some endorsements are like the Cabán DA campaign’s—high-octane, with WFP operatives helping to steer the effort and offer incredible help with fundraising. Other endorsements amount to little more than a logo on a piece of campaign literature and, usually, the ballot line, though Cabán herself didn’t have it. There are not hundreds of WFP volunteers waiting around to knock on doors for WFP campaigns. There aren’t any active political clubs or local chapters that meet regularly, as DSA’s do. The American Labor Party had storefronts and club meetings; WFP has none of that. Though they don’t like being described this way, it’s easiest to understand WFP as a leftist umbrella group for other activist organizations, like the aforementioned Make the Road, and a de facto political action committee and consulting firm. They offer money and give advice. They can do it all with the candidates they endorse.
This is why WFP wants to remain a political party. Though this rationale is never stated—either by WFP itself or the media—the power of a political party, under New York election law, is to funnel virtually unlimited money to endorsed candidates in coordination with them. The State Republican and Democratic parties do this for favored incumbents. Parties themselves have housekeeping accounts with far larger donation limits than typical campaigns. If WFP lost its status as a political party, failing to hit the new threshold of 130,000 votes, it could no longer back a candidate like Cabán while telling her how to spend the tens of thousands of dollars they give her. WFP paid for Cabán’s campaign manager and top level staff. Super PAC’s and independent expenditures from labor unions and wealthy interest groups play a significant role in New York politics, but they cannot work directly with a campaign. The campaign and super PAC can’t come together to tailor messaging. The super PAC can’t pay the salary of the candidate’s campaign manager. Without a party designation, WFP would have to reinvent itself either as an outside political action committee (not so devastating) or attempt, like DSA, to be a member-driven grassroots organization. This may prove more difficult. There aren’t thousands of people in New York dedicated as zealously to the WFP cause as they are to DSA.
WFP’s endorsement of Mosley, the Brooklyn assemblyman, is a reminder of why it may be good for WFP to reacquaint itself with the grassroots. Forrest is a socialist nurse running for office during a pandemic. She would be far more of a change agent in the state assembly than Mosley, an understated liberal who recently lost a power struggle for the leadership of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Like a lot of assembly members, he took many of the right votes, though he has pandered to Israel hawks by supporting free speech-chilling anti-BDS legislation. There aren’t many left issues he is a particular leader on, and he is unwilling to challenge entrenched power—Cuomo has far more to fear with Forrest and people like her in the state assembly than Mosley. WFP appeared to endorse him mostly because he stood up for fusion voting, though the practice of political parties cross-endorsing candidates has aided conservative Republicans at least as much as liberals, since GOP candidates can usually benefit from extra votes on the Conservative and Independence Party lines. Mosley’s political club took a stand against the Independent Democratic Conference in 2018, helping to oust State Senator Jesse Hamilton, an IDC member. Is that enough to land a WFP endorsement over a socialist nurse? Apparently.
Support for fusion voting and anti-IDC efforts, however, shouldn’t be enough to back a less dynamic candidate over a more impressive challenger. WFP could have chosen to stay neutral, to offer no one the ballot line in the race. They are very lucky Assemblyman Joe Lentol, defeated by progressive activist Emily Gallagher in June, never secured the WFP ballot line, despite winning their endorsement. The Lentol and Mosley endorsements demonstrated that for all their rhetoric of sweeping progressive change, WFP is still willing to safeguard more moderate incumbents. After losing a Democratic primary, Mosley should not have the option of campaigning in November. Now he does, thanks to WFP.