The Working Families Party Helped Democrats Regain Power in New York. Now Democrats Are Trying to Kill It.

The New York State Democratic Committee voted to ban fusion voting, a system of which the Working Families Party has been the primary beneficiary.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives for a ceremony to sign an anti-discrimination bill into law, Friday Jan. 25, 2019 in New York. New York state added gender identity and gender expression to the state's anti-discrimination law, making it illegal to deny people a job, housing, education or public accommodations because they are transgender. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives for a ceremony to sign an anti-discrimination bill into law, on Jan. 25, 2019 in New York. Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Democrats and progressive groups across the state of New York are pushing back hard against an effort to ban fusion voting, a system that allows multiple parties to nominate the same candidate. The assault, according to those on the receiving end, is being driven by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ongoing hostility toward the Working Families Party, which has been a primary beneficiary of fusion voting in the state.

A majority of Democrats in the state Senate, the entire New York congressional delegation, and a large swath of grassroots groups have all weighed in against the move, which would gut the Working Families Party and handicap the Democratic Party along the way.

“Banning fusion is both substantively misguided and costly for Democrats,” wrote the state’s congressional delegation in an open letter in February, signed by everyone from Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “It could threaten to put marginal members, who won by just thousands of votes, in jeopardy, and also make it harder to gain more seats in 2020. Without fusion, it leaves the WFP ballot line open to be hijacked by opportunistic spoilers and damages Democratic prospects.”

The dynamics of the fight have implications for the future direction of the national Democratic Party, as well. At its core, the debate is about whether centrist Democrats are willing to be partners in a coalition with progressives if and when the progressives are the ones driving the agenda — as is increasingly the case in New York. Should an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders become the party’s presidential nominee, Democrats like Cuomo would be forced into a difficult decision: Support the Democratic Party and back the left, which means upsetting the status quo; or support the status quo, which means keeping Republicans in power.

Cuomo’s approach to the rising progressive energy in New York suggests that, at least for him, the decision is an easy one: Attack the left. The New York State Democratic Committee, which is effectively controlled by Cuomo, voted to ban fusion voting at its convention on Monday. Backers of the ban have said they will push to include it in the state’s must-pass budget, an attempt to force the hand of Democrats who oppose it.

The governor has not personally endorsed this particular effort at a ban, but opponents say his fingerprints are all over it. The loudest advocate of the ban is state party chair Jay Jacobs, who Cuomo appointed to the position in January. Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but his spokesperson Rich Azzopardi has responded to the outcry with a tweet that appeared to distance Cuomo from the move.

“Everyone knows that the person who would benefit the most is in the executive chamber.”

State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who unseated a Cuomo-backed Democrat in a primary last year, said there’s no confusion about Cuomo’s role. “I am fairly certain that those who have been threatened by this movement — and are interested in protecting the status quo and the establishment — are behind this. Everyone knows that the person who would benefit the most is in the executive chamber,” Ramos told The Intercept. Ramos, along with a majority of the Democrats in the state Senate, have signed a letter demanding that the ban not be included in the budget, which must be passed by April 1.

The motion to ban fusion voting originated from the state party’s progressive caucus, whose leaders say that while Cuomo may be pleased with what they’re doing, they’re not doing it on his behalf. Rachel Lavine, chair of the caucus, said that upwards of 20 county party chairs approached the caucus, asking for help banning fusion voting. “It’s incredibly onerous for local chairs and activists,” she said. “I’m not gonna say that Cuomo won’t be happy by it, but we’re not people who are Cuomo’s lackeys.”

“The goal is not to kill the WFP,” Lavine added. “They can do what they do in the 46 other states that don’t have it: Run on your own line. If you wanna be a Democrat, run as a Democrat.”

Elisa Sumner, vice chair of the progressive caucus, said she resents the suggestion that she’s doing Cuomo’s bidding; she has been fighting against fusion since 2009, partly because of the way it forces the major parties to cater to the minor ones. “We have to grovel to get their [ballot] lines,” she said.

Under fusion voting, which only exists in New York and a handful of other states, a candidate may appear on more than one ballot line, and votes for that candidate are fused together when tallied on Election Day. The system allows more than two parties to thrive, while lessening the risk that third-party spoiler candidates will take down a would-be ally.

That’s especially important while the party is being remade from the bottom up, Ramos said. “Everyone knows that the Democratic Party is going through an evolution,” she said. “Many of us are trying to bring the party into a more progressive and less neoliberal place and the only way we can do that, especially during this transition period, is to ensure that we have a ballot line where people feel comfortable casting a protest vote that still supports the real Democrats in races.”

The fractures between New York’s Democratic Party bosses and the WFP-backed progressives became exceedingly clear last year, when Cuomo faced a primary challenge from the left and a number of conservative Democrats he supported were voted out of office.

Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo’s primary challenger, was endorsed by the WFP. The governor spent $30 million to beat her in the Democratic primary, after which she withdrew her name from the WFP line. That’s a typical move from WFP-backed candidates who, if they lose their primaries, take their names off the ballot so as not to draw votes away from the Democratic nominee and risk throwing the race to a Republican.

Cuomo’s answer to the WFP has been to attempt to destroy it.

The WFP also targeted Cuomo allies in the legislature, backing a swath of candidates, including Ramos, who challenged members of what had been known as the Independent Democratic Conference. The IDC was a Cuomo-backed caucus of state Senate Democrats who aligned themselves in Albany with Republicans. The convoluted arrangement helped Republicans control the chamber, which had the dual effect of blocking the progressive agenda while increasing Cuomo’s power, as he became an essential dealmaker. “You knew that your only hope was to convince the governor to take pity on you and actually want to work on your issue and figure out how to get it through the Republicans. That was the main reason he created the IDC, was to create that [power] center for himself,” said Ramos, speaking from her experiences as an activist in Albany prior to the IDC’s dissolution.

Under pressure from progressive activists, the IDC disbanded in 2018, but the electorate wanted more. Six of the eight members were ousted by WFP-backed candidates last year, reshaping statewide politics and uncorking a wave of progressive legislation in Albany, including a sweeping expansion of reproductive freedom and the state’s version of the DREAM Act.

Cuomo’s answer to the WFP has been to attempt to destroy it. During last year’s primary season, he forced major unions to leave the WFP. He then poached the party’s original electoral star, Letitia James. A longtime activist, James was the first New York politician elected outright on the WFP ticket when she won a city council race in 2003. Last year, Cuomo offered to endorse her for attorney general and raise money for her campaign — but only if she refused the WFP’s endorsement. James took the deal and is now the attorney general.

But the WFP, on the back of its IDC takedown, is still thriving. Its candidate for public advocate, Jumaane Williams, won a landslide election to the second-highest position in New York City last week. In January, state lawmakers passed the DREAM Act, legislation that, among other things, makes scholarships available to undocumented college students.

Ironically, Sen. Diane Savino, a former IDC member and one of only two who were re-elected, claimed last year that the WFP was scapegoating the IDC and unfairly blaming it for standing in the way of the state’s DREAM Act. After winning her primary last year, Savino pledged to end fusion voting when she returned to Albany.

On Monday, at a meeting of the progressive caucus that happened alongside the Democratic convention, the group voted down the resolution Lavine and Sumner had pushed. The state party moved forward with it and passed it anyway. “There have always been some members of the Democratic State Committee who have opposed fusion,” said Joe Dinkin, WFP’s national campaigns director. “We believe they’re wrong. But the reason it passed today isn’t because of them. It’s because it had the backing of Gov. Cuomo and his recently selected Democratic Party State Chair Jay Jacobs, who whipped votes and argued for the executive committee to overrule the progressive caucus. And the reason for that is because Cuomo and the Democratic revenge against the progressive movement for defeating the IDC and winning a progressive state senate that isn’t under his control.”

If passed through the budget, the ban on fusion voting might be satisfying for Cuomo and a handful of his allies — but it will likely also hurt the party in the long run, Democrats are warning. The WFP would still be able to run candidates, but now those candidates would simply draw votes away from Democrats. That’s a point critics of the ban are stressing. In a letter sent to the state Democratic committee, the six Democrats who unseated IDC members slammed the suggested ban.

“There is nothing progressive about abolishing fusion. A fusion ban would weaken the Democratic coalition in New York, harm our ability to defend and grow our majorities, and undermine one of the pillars of our state’s progressive movement, the Working Families Party,” they wrote.

“There is nothing progressive about abolishing fusion.”

Progressive activists called Cuomo’s move self-serving and urged him to reconsider. “Any ban on fusion will inevitably be seen as retaliation against the WFP for supporting the new progressive State Senators who defeated the IDC, and for backing Cynthia Nixon’s primary challenge to Governor Cuomo. Using governmental power in a self-serving way that injures or destroys political rivals can only be described as Trumpian. And practically speaking, for Democrats seeking to govern and hold on to or grow their majorities, banning fusion will accomplish precisely the reverse as the WFP would no longer be allowed to support Democrats in general elections,” wrote representatives of the Center for Popular Democracy, Indivisible, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Every Voice, Our Revolution, United We Dream, and others.

Ultimately, the reason to ban fusion voting, and crush the Working Families Party, is because it has been effective at pushing state politics to the left.

“We’re living quite a historic moment here in Albany and we’d be wise to take advantage of it,” said Ramos, who represents a Queens Senate district inside the congressional district represented by Ocasio-Cortez. “And it all started because of fusion voting. Bringing it back full circle, we have this movement because there’s a Working Families Party. There’s a Working Families Party that’s effective because there’s fusion voting in New York.”

Correction: March 4, 2019

This story originally incorrectly described Ramos as representing the Bronx. Her district is in Queens. 

Join The Conversation