Andrew Cuomo does not like to be told no.
For weeks, New York state political circles had been gossiping about the possibility that the pro-labor Working Families Party might endorse Cuomo’s long-shot rival for governor, Cynthia Nixon, at their statewide committee meeting this weekend in Albany.
Cuomo, who has fashioned a reputation as a political brawler, had two choices: Go to battle against the “Sex and the City” actress and muscle the endorsement for himself, or quit.
Cuomo opted to quit, pulling his name out of the running at the last minute and seemingly trying to destroy the WFP in the process. Two major unions, which had for weeks been expected to endorse Cuomo, walked out with him, and Cuomo broadcast a threat that anybody who funded the groups that endorsed Nixon should “lose my number.”
But the party went on. On Saturday at the WFP’s gathering, under fluorescent lights in the basement of an Albany Hilton, the group moved to endorse Nixon, with 91.5 percent of the vote going her way. Speakers on Nixon’s behalf lined up to make the case as much against Cuomo as they did for her.
“It isn’t enough to say you care about your desire for an Albany free of corruption and then vote for corruption,” said Rosemary Rivera, organizing director of Citizen Action of New York, one of the groups whose funding Cuomo threatened. “It isn’t enough to run like a progressive and move like a neoliberal.” Another speaker for Nixon put it starkly: “If we wait to make the decision, it will be seen as a victory for Cuomo’s bullying tactics over the last week.”
Nixon addressed the crowd: “You are the heart and soul of the progressive New York we need — the New York that belongs to all of us.”
That defiance was blended with sorrow at how the internal war was unfolding. The word “healing” was peppered throughout the day’s remarks, and those present were eager to offer assurances that they stood broadly on the same side. “This has been a rough week for the WFP,” New York WFP Director Bill Lipton admitted as he kicked off Saturday’s proceedings. “I want to acknowledge that some of these unions are not here with us today, but I want you to know that everyone in this room is rooting for you and cheering for you,” he said, going on to list off recent victories for SEIU 32BJ, including the agreement reached Friday on wages and retirement benefits.
With two influential unions splitting off from the WFP to endorse the incumbent governor less than a day before Saturday’s meeting, the New York party’s rough start to the weekend comes at an otherwise resurgent moment for both progressive challengers and the party nationally.
Started in 1998, the WFP now finds itself in what might be the most friendly left-of-center political environment for candidates in its relatively short history. Bernie Sanders — whom the WFP endorsed in the Democratic primaries — is the country’s most popular politician, and mainstream Democrats eyeing 2020 runs are getting behind ideas for everything from “Medicare for All” to a federal job guarantee. And the party has had significant success branching out from New York. Its insurgent candidates won surprise upsets in the recent Illinois primaries, and the once long-shot candidate the party recruited to run against Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., last summer, Randy Bryce, just became that race’s most viable contender.
As he has before, Cuomo has cast a pall over what should be a time for progressives to celebrate. The question is whether — amid a national wave of grassroots energy looking to relegate establishment Democrats to history’s dustbin — he can get away with it. Will the WFP emerge from this stronger or crushed, as Cuomo hopes?
In her acceptance speech, Nixon repeated her campaign’s pledge not to take corporate money and took a jab at Cuomo. “The last eight years have been an exercise in living with disappointment, dysfunction, and dishonesty. We have had it with corporate Democrats who have been unwilling to lift a finger unless their real estate and Wall Street donors say that it’s OK.”
If Cuomo “were a Republican and doing exactly the same things,” Nixon told me afterward, “people would have mobilized against him a long time ago. He’s very canny in how he plays both sides of the aisle.”
Following Cuomo’s announcement on Friday night that he wouldn’t seek the party’s nomination, the WFP’s remaining members didn’t have much of a choice to make. Rumors had flared for weeks that the WFP would back Nixon at Saturday’s state committee meeting — the last before its statewide convention next month.
It also wasn’t a shock that SEIU 32BJ and CWA District 1 — two large New York locals — would endorse Cuomo, as their leadership had indicated to Politico weeks beforehand. What did come as a surprise was that each of those unions would leave the WFP in advance of the decision, and that Cuomo would threaten community groups who broke ranks.
Lipton, the WFP state director, told the New York Times that, in a meeting earlier in the week, Cuomo had said repeatedly that “if unions or anyone give money to any of these groups, they can lose my number.” It was a remarkably aggressive statement that has the potential to take millions of dollars out of New York state’s community organizing infrastructure. Nixon called the threat “unforgivable.”
Cuomo was referring in his remarks to New York-based community organizations that had endorsed Nixon, a list which to this point includes New York Communities for Change, or NYCC; Citizen Action of New York; the New York Progressive Action Network; and Make the Road Action, which just announced its endorsement of Nixon yesterday morning. The groups do a range of work around the Empire State, from environmental justice to immigrant rights. NYCC had been one of the leading forces behind New York’s Fight for $15 campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage. According to its tax filings, the group has received millions of dollars in funding from SEIU locals and the international union to that effect since 2011.
NYCC Executive Director Jonathan Westin was furious about Cuomo’s threats. The night before news of the departure broke, NYCC had hosted a screening of “ACORN and the Firestorm” about the right-wing push in 2009 to bring down the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Using doctored footage taken undercover by conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, BigGovernment.com — a project of Andrew Breitbart — published several videos appearing to show the community organizing behemoth involved in criminal wrongdoing. As a result of the controversy, the group went on to lose both public and private funding and disbanded as a national organization.
“Andrew Cuomo is acting like Andrew Breitbart,” Westin told me and charged that Cuomo was using a “bully pulpit” to go after groups that didn’t fall in line and endorse him. “What type of world are we living in,” Westin posed, “where the Democratic governor of New York is trying to take down community organizations?”
“He will stop at nothing. He will demolish organizations that serve poor people to accomplish his corporate agenda,” Westin added. “The governor in his maniacal way knows how to go after people. He tries to dig the knife in where you’ll feel the most pain. This is his general operating procedure. When you disagree with him, he wants to kill you.”
In advance of the vote Saturday afternoon, surrogates for each campaign lined up on either side of the room to make their pitch. On Nixon’s side were several community organizing outfits and former gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout, an adviser to Nixon who lost out on the WFP endorsement in 2014 after a tense convention. Cuomo won the party’s backing that year on the promise that he would deliver on progressive policies. On some fronts — like $15 an hour minimum wage — he did. But his record hasn’t been strong enough for many WFP members to pass muster this time around. With the unions backing him gone, there was a much smaller line for Cuomo; several of the planned speakers for Cuomo didn’t come to Albany after he announced he wasn’t seeking WFP’s endorsement, leaving his line to be staffed mainly by the UAW.
They spoke in favor of Cuomo and proposed holding off on an endorsement vote until the statewide party convention on May 19. Voicing disagreement with the excitement for Nixon in the room, UAW Local 2010 President Maida Rosenstein reiterated that her union wouldn’t follow 32J and CWA District 1 out of the party: “We stand committed to this coalition and to making it work.”
Lipton said of the unions’ departure over the Nixon endorsement that “obviously it’s going to hurt our bottom line,” but reiterated the fact that Cuomo’s relationship with the WFP had run its course. “With the governor, making a deal didn’t work. You have to demonstrate power in order to make him take working people seriously. He’s focused on his donors, not working families,” Lipton told me.
Among the biggest concerns raised by UAW representatives was the potential that Nixon could serve as a spoiler in the event that Cuomo wins in the primary. Part of the WFP’s power in New York state politics comes from its ballot line and its ability to take advantage of its fusion voting system. Some Democrats think that having Cuomo on the Democratic line and Nixon on the WFP’s could divide the progressive vote and give Republicans an easier go at the governor’s mansion. Proposals to postpone the endorsement were voted down, with some members using their “no” vote to make the case for a speedy backing more forcefully. “On Andrew Cuomo I say fool me once, shame on you,” one delegate urged, “fool me twice, shame on me.”
Asked about the potential for a spoiler effect after the endorsement vote, Nixon demurred: “I will win the Democratic primary. If by some fluke I do not, then I will confer with the Working Families Party and we will make the decision we think is best.”
Speakers for Nixon — from NYCC, MRA, and other community groups around the state — were more raucous, with chants scattered throughout. “It’s horrifying what Cuomo did in this last week. He said, ‘I see you Chris Christie and I’m going to raise you. I’m going to use my power to threaten you,’” Teachout thundered. Addressing members in the room who could face financial troubles without union contributions, she told the 300-odd people gathered, “You know he’s going to go after your funding. But we have to be brave because the governor is not brave. Behind every bully there’s a coward.”