Magazine | January 27, 2014, Issue

Bill de Blasio’s Other Party

How the Working Families party is coming to power

As recently as 1998, New York State’s Republican party controlled the governorship, a United States Senate seat, and the mayor’s office in Manhattan. Today, it is greatly diminished, with its sole beachhead of influence in the state senate, where it shares a majority with four independent Democrats. 

In contrast, the Working Families party (WFP), a 15-year-old left-wing, union-fueled group with just 20,000 members, now holds the whip hand over much of the dominant Democratic party in New York — and is already spreading its wings to other states. The WFP not only was a major force behind Bill de Blasio’s victory for mayor last November; it dominated the rest of the election, too. “They propelled all three citywide officials in New York City into office, and have a huge chunk of the city council allied with them,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a leading Democratic consultant who has worked for Hillary Clinton. “They are a real force.”

In New York, the WFP’s power is magnified by state laws that allow minor parties to cross-endorse major-party candidates, which has given rise to a number of influential third parties. (Incidentally, one such upstart, the Conservative party, provided the ballot line for WFB’s mayoral campaign in 1965 and his brother’s successful Senate campaign in 1970.) But cross-endorsements are especially crucial in New York City: Rudy Giuliani won the mayoralty in 1993 only by running on the lines of both the Republican party and the heavily left-leaning Liberal party. He rewarded the Liberals with patronage jobs and hefty pay increases for their teachers’-union allies. Mike Bloomberg won in 2001 only by having both the Republican- and Independence-party lines, and in 2009 he even actively negotiated with Working Families for their endorsement, until his representative admitted “the price was too high.”

But Mayor de Blasio isn’t going to have to negotiate with Working Families, because he is in large part their creation. He helped found the party, used the discounted services of their grassroots organizers to win election to the city council in 2001, and then won the citywide office of public advocate with their backing in 2009. Their agenda might as well be his: a new city-wide “living” minimum wage, tax hikes on upper-income New Yorkers, requirements that developers build “affordable” housing units on a massive scale in exchange for building permits, tougher rent controls, retroactive wage hikes for public employees, and severe curbs on the growth of non-union charter schools. 

“None of this should surprise anyone,” Steve Malanga, an urban-affairs expert for the Manhattan Institute, says of the party’s policies. Working Families, he points out, was founded in 1998 by hard-core union activists, from the Communications Workers of America, the United Federation of Teachers, and the New York chapter of the ACORN “community organizing” group. 

New York political operative Bertha Lewis was the head of national ACORN when its employees were convicted of voter-registration fraud during the 2008 presidential campaign. She presided over its collapse in 2009 after a series of undercover tapes showed its employees in Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., giving advice on how to hide prostitution activities and cheat the tax system.

But now, thanks to de Blasio’s victory, she’s back in the saddle. “Bertha Lewis is one of the city’s most passionate and effective progressive leaders, and I’m proud to have worked with her for years,” de Blasio said during the 2012 campaign. On primary-election night last September, Lewis stood onstage next to de Blasio and told interviewers: “We’re baaaack. The right wing will have to deal with it.”

She was one of the privileged few who attended de Blasio’s private midnight inauguration at his house in Park Slope on New Year’s Day, and is busy seeding his administration with her operatives. “Our ties in the government run deep,” she boasts. She also makes clear de Blasio is on a tight leash: “When we disagree with Bill, we’re going to say it. We’re not letting people off the hook.”

When the ire of Working Families is aroused, it can be crushingly effective. In 2010, city-council speaker Christine Quinn was positioning herself to run for mayor as someone who could balance left-wing loyalties with a realistic approach to business issues. She opposed a controversial bill to mandate paid sick days at private companies because, she said, “businesses are on the brink, and they fear that any new costs will put them under.” Working Families leaders yelled betrayal and helped lead a left-wing attack machine against Quinn that eventually drove her into a poor third-place finish in the mayoral primary and helped defeat some of her allies in city-council races.

#page#Working Families is now spreading into other states that allow cross-endorsements by minor parties, such as Connecticut. It’s also trying to change laws in other states to allow cross-endorsements, also called “fusion voting.” In 2010, Democrat Dannel Malloy won the governor’s office in Connecticut by a mere 5,000 votes; he won 27,000 votes on the WFP line. He later fulfilled a key plank of the WFP platform by signing a paid-sick-leave bill into law. 

But while it expands its influence, the Working Families party is coming under increasing scrutiny. In 2012, Brooklyn attorney Roger Adler, a Democrat, was appointed as a special prosecutor to probe allegations that Working Families had been manipulating state and city election law. Last year, a New York City grand jury issued subpoenas as part of an ongoing probe of the party and its tangled links with Data & Field Services, a company that provides campaign workers and organizers to candidates. Critics of WFP have charged for years that Data & Field Services (DFS) has provided heavily discounted consulting work for Working Families candidates, essentially giving them in-kind contributions without publicly disclosing it.

In 2010, Working Families agreed to settle a civil lawsuit on the issue but didn’t admit wrongdoing, paying $100,000 for legal bills to Randy Mastro, a former Giuliani deputy mayor who brought the suit. It also signed a court agreement that DFS would end its association with the party. But in 2011, DFS filed an appeal with the court, saying it had to remain linked with Working Families — by far its largest client — or suffer “extreme economic and logistical hardship.” In April 2011, state-supreme-court justice Anthony Giacobbe held DFS in contempt for failing to follow through on its agreement to separate from Working Families.

Mastro has said the party claims it “needs the DFS’s people there so vitally, so close at hand that they need to be there operating in the same office space with the same people.” 

While legal investigations grind on, WFP is making progress elsewhere. It continues to perfect its Alinskyite tactics in New York: recruit activist leftists to run for office on the WFP line and the Democrats’, help them raise money that can be generously supplemented by city financing, and make certain they change election laws in the party’s  favor. In 2005, WFP allies on the city council were instrumental in overturning a ruling by the city’s independent Campaign Finance Board that restricted union political donations. Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., then the chairman of the Campaign Finance Board, complained that the changes “create a gaping loophole for union contributions, undermining the contribution limits established by the Campaign Finance Act.”

New York’s loophole-ridden campaign-finance laws have been a happy hunting ground for Working Families for years. But now there’s a new sheriff in town, unaffiliated with the de Blasio–WFP cadre. The day before he left office as mayor, Mike Bloomberg announced a new head for the city’s Campaign Finance Board: Rose Gill Hearn, a no-nonsense lawyer who formerly headed the city’s watchdog, the Department of Investigations. “She has been getting worms out of the Big Apple” for years, the New York Daily News reported last year in an article highlighting her dogged investigation procedures.

Working Families may be at the top of New York City politics for now, but Hearn, and others, will be watching.

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