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October 29, 2008

Reconsidering New York State’s Working Families Party
Posted by Patrick at 09:35 AM *

Attention Conservation Notice: Of interest only to electoral-process geeks and progressively-inclined voters in New York State. Time-sensitive materials. Contents may settle in shipping. Phenylketonurics: Contains phenylalanine.

Unusually among the states, New York allows “electoral fusion,” defined by Wikipedia as “an arrangement where two or more political parties support a common candidate, pooling the votes for all those parties. By offering to endorse a major party’s candidate, minor parties can influence the candidate’s platform.” As a result, New York has several minor parties that exist primarily not to field their own candidates, but rather to broker their endorsements to Democratic or Republican candidates.

Currently, one of the most prominent such parties is the Working Families Party, an organization I supported (and, modestly but regularly, donated to) for some years in the early part of this decade, voting for Democratic candidates on their ballot line rather than on the Democratic one. I stopped in 2006, because I was unhappy with their support, in exchange for help on minimum-wage issues, of an incumbent Republican state senator notorious for efforts to suppress minority voter turnout. I didn’t (and don’t) deny that this kind of horse-trading is the whole point of organizations like the WFP; I simply found that I didn’t agree with their priorities and judgment. If you read my November 6, 2006 post on the subject, you’ll even find, toward the bottom of the comment thread, a spirited defense by a WFP official.

My question for 2008 is: should I reconsider? Is the WFP a worthwhile vessel for progress in New York, or just an unaccountable vehicle for a few power-brokers? I’d like to hear from readers who actually know something about the often-arcane byways of local progressive politics. (Julia, Lindsay, Talking Dog: your cue…)

Comments on Reconsidering New York State's Working Families Party:
#1 ::: RMKrist/PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 10:25 AM:

Hmmmmmmmmmmmm. That is something to think about, as I've occasionally voted for someone on the WFP line instead of the Democratic Party line. But this year I'm thinking I want the Democratic Party to have the numbers behind them solidly. So this is still an issue for the future. I'll be interested to the read the views of my fellow ML readers.

#2 ::: Andrea A. Phillips ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 10:33 AM:

Thank you, Patrick, for finally explaining to me what the heck was up with all of those small parties that seemed to run identical candidates to the big parties. It seemed to me like an exercise in futility. I've been wondering for years (but obviously not enough to go and find out for myself!)

#3 ::: franz ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 10:46 AM:

Let me see if i can offer a few good reasons.

The Working Families Party did a knock up job on the NYC term limits discussion.

Working Families needs all the support they can get to help ensure progressive values are not forsaken in the upcoming budgetary crisis in New York state.

Also, you should support Working Families party because of their unparalleled canvassing operation that is going to be the primary reason that the State Senate is going to go the Democrats in over four decades.

Thanks for posting this topic, it is a very important discussion.

#4 ::: Hob ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 11:30 AM:

I lived in NY until 2003, so I missed the Spano thing, which would've pissed me off too. If there were any other great constructive horse-trading deals WFP deserves credit for, I missed those too. Ironically, it looks to me like their main accomplishments have been the few times they actually ran a candidate of their own.

Patrick, I presume you were following WFP pretty closely at the time, so... did they make it clear what the rationale for this Spano endorsement was -- I mean publicly, not on your blog -- at the time that he made the alleged promise, rather than after they endorsed & got all the shit for it? Because otherwise what they're saying is, "Vote on our line, and we'll explain our secret back-room deals some day and they'll sound good."

I'm not sure that would be enough for me, anyway. The stuff Gilliard was talking about is pretty damning.

It's kind of how I feel about SEIU endorsements, too. I used to be in a large SEIU local, and for me, the buzz of strength & solidarity when the union flexed its political muscles was killed every time that the upper echelons rammed through some crappy compromise and insisted that we cheer just as loud as if it were the thing we had actually wanted. Their attitude always boiled down to "Trust us! These guys we make deals with, we KNOW these guys-- we hang out with them and drink their wine and smoke their cigars! Which is a good thing, because we know how to get things done! Like this thing we just got done, even if you don't like this thing, we sure did get it done. You wouldn't have known how to get that lame thing done without us." It was the same spiel when they finally dissolved our local and absorbed us into a huge unit in which, not surprisingly, our elected officers were replaced by the same top guys with no apparent connection to anything on the ground -- that was all good because it increased our bargaining power, so we could make even more of those kinds of deals. And this was always coming from people who didn't have even the corrupt-but-down-to-earth charisma of a Frank Sobotka; they'd been practicing talking like ageless interchangeable legislators for so long that they resembled them exactly. Sorry, I should've just said "Don't get me started," but yeah.

#5 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 11:58 AM:

I never used WFP as one of my check points, as I left NY before they came on the ballot. I did use "Right To Life" as an anti-factor in my decision process, though -- any person running with their "endorsement" was automatically dropped from consideration. That made some elections really easy, and I would end up voting a straight Unity Party or other small group ticket.

I did wonder why other states didn't have ballots like NY's, and now I need wonder no longer.

Oddly enough, this particular aspect of NY ballots could have led to my father running as a combined Democrat/Republican, if he'd run for re-election. Luckily for him, one term was enough.

#6 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 12:05 PM:

Here is the WFP blog.

A HS classmate of mine was at one point involved in the WFP's net presence. I'm not sure he still is, but he's a smart guy and I've known him since we were 12, so I'll see if I can get him to chime in here.

#7 ::: Franz ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 12:13 PM:

I am actually writing from this from the WFP office in downtown brooklyn. I would be perfectly happy to address any concerns that anybody has about the Working Families Party.

Currently, in addition to all the hard work beign done to take back the state senate, WFP is encouraging everybody in New York to vote change like they mean it and vote for Obama on Row E.

You can learn about the campaign here:

Also, minutes ago, a wonderful post went up on Open Left, from some of the top New York netroots activists asking people to help out the working families party. you read about that here:

#8 ::: Matthew Daly ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 12:31 PM:

Andrea@2: It isn't entirely an exercise in futility. For instance, the Conservative Party is proud to proud to point out that no Republican has won statewide office without their cross-endorsement since 1974, although of course it could be argued whether they punish moderate candidates or merely diagnose them.

RMKrist/PurpleGirl@1: AFAIK, if you vote for a "major party" candidate, they really don't care which party line you are voting on. The only exception (again, IIRC) is the race for governor, because that establishes which parties can skip the petition drives to make it onto the ballot and the order in which the parties are listed.

#9 ::: cathy ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 02:19 PM:

I haven't lived in NYC for 8 years, and my dad, who was active in politics has been deceased for 6. However, based on politics as it was before i left, the smaller parties and voting for them did serve certain purposes. First, it used to be the case (no idea if still true) that the smaller parties had to get a certain percentage of votes or number of votes in order to remain on the ballot. Therefore, if you agreed with the majority of what the smaller party stood for, found value in their positions etc., it was useful to vote on that party's line in order to keep them on the ballot.

My dad used to hold the nomination on Republican (he was a Rockefeller Republican) and Independent Neighbors. He couldn't win his district without crossover votes and democrats whose arms would fall off if they touched the republican lever would vote for him on Independent Neighbors. My dad also used to say his best case scenario was the conservative party not endorsing him and agreeing not to nominate anyone else.

That said, I do think they exist primarily as power brokers, but they do also provide a voice for a significant number of people who feel ignored by the 2 major parties.

#10 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 03:27 PM:

As another New York state voter a little confused about the Working Families Party, thank you Patrick, and thanks to all above for being so informed and lucid.

Since it makes me nervous (for admittedly irrational reasons) not to vote for Obama as a Democrat, I won't be voting for him on "Row E." But I will continue to support Working Families at the state level.

#11 ::: Matthew Daly ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 04:43 PM:

Yeah, the key is 50,000 votes on your line for the gubernatorial race. At the moment, that threshold is crossed by the Democratic, Republican, Conservative, Independence, and Working Families Parties. The Liberal, Green and Right To Life Parties have made it in the past but aren't at the moment, and the Libertarian, Socialist Workers, and Marijuana Reform parties haven't ever made it in. If there are more than eleven state-wide parties in New York, the remainder are pretty darned small.

If you don't make the cut, I believe you need to pass a petition drive for each candidate you field which is expensive and challenge-prone. So you get things like Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis running for governor on the Green ticket in 1998, arguably to splinter the Mickey Mouse vote in a (successful) bid to make it over 50K.

#12 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 06:23 PM:

We have a WFP here in Oregon, but there's no fusion in our election system, so you can't vote for a Democrat as a WFP candidate. On the other hand, their candidate for Attorney General this year looks very good, and it's an office in which I haven't seen anyone I liked for awhile, so I voted for her this time. I wouldn't vote for anyone other than a Democrat in federal office, and likely not in the state legislature, because we have such a huge job ahead cleaning up after this last bunch of bozos, but where it doesn't affect voting patterns in the state or federal legislature I have no problem voting 3rd party.

#13 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2008, 10:52 PM:

Matthew Daly @11: So you get things like Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis running for governor on the Green ticket [..]

Bit of a tangent, but it has annoyed me that McCain had been labeled as "Grandpa Munster" by some humorists. Al Lewis was apparently quite the progressive; equating him with McCain dishonors his memory.

#14 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 01:31 AM:

Franz, could you expand a little on your comment in #3 where you say that "The Working Families Party did a knock up job on the NYC term limits discussion"?

This is curiosity, not a challenge or a rhetorical question. I live at the other end of the country. The change in NYC mayoral term limits was national news, but I'm sure there are lots of details I don't know. I have no idea what the Working Families Party's role in that decision was, and I don't know what would have constituted a good or bad job on their part.

#15 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 08:31 AM:

In a previous election, there was a ballot question in Massachusetts proposing to bring New York-style fusion voting here. I voted no mostly because I was worried about confused voters and also about various ways somebody might abuse such a system, such as spamming the ballot with dozens of parties running one's favored candidate.

It's possible that NY has adequate safeguards against the latter abuse, but it does sound as if people are sometimes puzzled about the fusion parties. On the other hand, I do like the idea of giving the voters that extra channel of information about what they're really voting for. Do New Yorkers have opinions as to whether it's all worth it?

#16 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 09:23 AM:

Matt McIrvin,

I have lived in New York State all my life, and I really like fusion on the ballot.

#17 ::: Bill Altreuter ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 09:49 AM:

New York's minor parties are mostly patronage vehicles. In exchange for a ballot line the successful major party is expected to find a spot or two on some payroll for a member of the minor party. You may recall the old Liberal Party. That turned into a pure patronage play for its chair, a cat named Raymond Harding, and his family. There have been people elected on those tickets-- John V. Lindsay was elected Mayor as a Liberal, and James L. Buckley was elected to the Senate as a Conservative Party candidate. Split support was what turned the trick in those instances-- Buckley ran against a Rockefeller Republican, Charles Goodell, and a liberal Democrat, Richard Ottinger. Back then a lot of New Yorkers split their tickets because the Republicans were quite a bit more moderate on social issues. The Democratic base in NYC split, and Buckley waltzed in. Lindsay's case was similar.

As I recall the late Elliott Wilk was elected to the bench as a Liberal. He'd been asked to stand for the office by the party in order to fill out the ticket, and the Democrats screwed up their filing and didn't have a slate. Those are the instances of someone actually winning something that I can recall-- for the most part the minor parties are a sham, useful primarily as a screening device in the Right to Life instance, merely clutter most of the time, and a near occasion of sin in many cases.

#18 ::: Matthew Daly ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 11:41 AM:

Rob Rusick @ 13: I had heard some good things about Al Lewis' thoughtfulness when he started his campaign, but unfortunately I saw nothing from him but sophomoric insults towards George Pataki and the two-party system. I've got nothing against the Green Party, but I thought they really missed an opportunity to educate the electorate because the actual result looked exactly like a joke campaign would.

Matt McIrvin @ 15: I'm also a big fan of fusion. is a nice sample of what our ballot looks like in an off-election year. The most confusing part of the instructions is for judgeships and school boards and the like where you have to vote for four different names even if some are in the same column, but that's a teachable skill. And you can see goodness like the Independence Party which sometimes supported the Republican, sometimes the Democrat, sometimes their own candidate, and sometimes decided to sit out. I suppose a lot of the power is the same as having the unions endorse and support you at the beginning of your campaign (which is probably exactly what the WFP is), but the freedom for a platform-based entity to cross-endorse or field their own candidates is great for the richness of choice and information and all that gooey democratic freedom stuff. I understand people that feel queasy about patronage jobs, but if a party helped achieve your election it seems only fair that they have someone on your team to ensure that the constituents they brought to your campaign are being satisfied.

#19 ::: Franz ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 12:29 PM:


Sure Matt. Working Families coordinated the paid media, did the web campaign and did the boots on the ground canvassing and petitioning council members in their districts.

There was a solid article done by the NY Times about how WFP was leading the fight:

Here is a link to the article:

Right after the vote by New York City Council, Councilman Bill de Blasio spoke about the important role WF played.

You can view the youtube video here:

#20 ::: Richard Klin ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 01:31 PM:

#17 A minor point--Lindsay was actually elected in 1965 as a Republican, with the added Liberal endorsement. I think when he ran for reelection he lost the GOP primary and wandered into third-partydom...then became a Democrat.

#21 ::: Bill Altreuter ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 03:19 PM:

Matthew Daly- "the richness of choice and information and all that gooey democratic freedom stuff" is really something of a sham in the context of multiple party elections in non-parliamentary systems because of the operation of the voter's paradox. What you end up with is everybody's second choice, rather than anybody's first choice. Worst case scenario? We just had eight years of it. I stand corrected on John V. Lindsay-- he was cross-endorsed, and the Liberal lable made him more palatable to some voters than he might otherwise have been.

#22 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 03:51 PM:

I'm having one of those "Nobody could ever make up anything as baroque as the real world" moments.

#23 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 04:13 PM:

My parents, both lifelong Democrats, voted for Lindsay on the Liberal line, back when the Liberal Party actually stood for something. The only time either of my parents pulled a lever on the Republican line was when my father voted for Nixon (twice!). Otherwise, even if voting for a Republican candidate, they did so on a minor party line whenever possible.

Like others, I have used the RTL party as a litmus test and not voted for any candidate who had a Right to Life endorsement or ballot line.

Today's NYTimes has an article on WFP, whose levers I have often pulled in the past (I may have been one of the first people to tell PNH about WFP). This is not the same article linked to above.

#24 ::: franz ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 05:30 PM:


Thank you Melissa for posting today's New York Times article (it should be out in print in tomorrow's edition)

Today we also found ourselves being attacked by fox news. heh, we must be doing something right.

#25 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 07:59 PM:

Third parties are a joke so long as the Electoral College ensures that they can never gain traction on the national level. On the local level, they usually have to work with the Dems or the Repubs to accomplish anything, and when they do anything to annoy a devout Dem or Repub, they lose support, as Working Family's 2006 endorsement of a Repub demonstrates.

I have little in common with liberal or conservative capitalists, but given the two-party system, I don't see any way to have a viable democracy in the US by working outside them. So I'm looking closely at the Progressive Democrats of America and their sometime allies, the Democratic Socialists of America.

#26 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 09:01 PM:

Will @ 25:

Wikipedia tells me that the last time a third-party candidate was elected to the US Senate was Christopher Buckley, in 1970 (NY Conservative Party). That was a year after New York City reelected John Lindsay as mayor on the Liberal Party line (his first term he was a Republican, but he disagreed with Nixon and lost the 1969 Republican mayoral primary).

(That definition of third party does not include candidates who are considered independents, even if they have one-time party names for printing on the voting machines. Lieberman, for example, after he lost the Democratic primary. I don't know whether Bernie Sanders is required to invent a party name before running as an independent because "socialist" won't quite sell, even though his constituents and other people who are paying attention know he's a socialist.)

#27 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 09:05 PM:

Sorry. The senator was James Buckley, I appear to have been confused by the recent news stories about Christopher Buckley.

#28 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 09:14 PM:

John V. Lindsay was cross-dressed? So then Rudy Giuliani wasn't the first New York City mayor who did so.


Oh, never mind.

#29 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 10:00 PM:

Vicki, third parties can certainly have their moment. If you look at the numbers that don't count, in '92, Perot got 19% of the popular vote, and in '12, Roosevelt got about 27.5%. But if you look at the numbers that do count, Perot got zip, and Roosevelt got 88, a tiny fraction of the EC count. We know where the Progressive and Reform Parties are today.

I believe Bernie Sanders runs as an independent, but he is a member of the DSA.

#30 ::: jim ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 10:47 PM:

In the early '70s, when I lived on W. 76th St., the Harlem congressional district ran a finger down the upper west side. As a result, we got to vote for Charlie Rangel on the Democratic line, Charlie Rangel on the Liberal line, Charlie Rangel on the Republican line, or some otherwise unknown Conservative.

#31 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2008, 11:05 PM:

Jim, did you write in Charlie Rangel?

Sorry. Had to ask.

#32 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2008, 12:09 AM:

Bill @21, I'm a bit confused. Matthew's comment about "the richness of choice and information and all that gooey democratic freedom stuff" was clearly about fusion balloting elections in NY state -- the ballot he linked to looks like a local ballot for Syracuse. So how on earth do you go from that to the Bush administration, which took office after an election that, for the most part, did not involve the fusion balloting that Matthew was talking about. (And which they didn't even really win the actual voting.)

#33 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2014, 10:46 AM:

A nicely timed spam indeed, as this is a current question. The WFP nominated the relatively rightist jackass this year and the Democrats from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party are fighting for its nomination. I normally am behind the WFP a hundred percent, but this sucks.

I'm thinking about sending some money. Teachout and Wu are solid.

#34 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2014, 09:37 PM:

Second time in two weeks for this thread.

#35 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2014, 10:02 PM:

Bill --

I don't know why that happens, but yeah, spammers will often put out feelers toward a small set of threads at first.

One of the things I think about, when I'm ticked at the DOJ, is that they've never gone after spammers.

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