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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo giving the State of the State address on January 8, 2014. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Will Cuomo Keep His Promises?

The Working Families Party went out on a limb when it endorsed the conservative Democrat.

BY Sarah Jaffe

Even Andrew Cuomo, a savvy politician if not a responsive one, understands that suddenly his left flank is more vulnerable than his right.

Whichever candidate the Working Families Party decided to endorse in the New York state governor's race, there was going to be blood.

There was Zephyr Teachout, the progressive activist and law professor who emerged in the days before Saturday's convention as a potential challenger to incumbent Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the progressive third party's ballot line in November's general election. Her platform, she tells In These Times, was based on the idea that it's time to demand more: investment in infrastructure, “really good jobs” and an economy that creates them and a challenge to “the concentrated economic power that is choking our economy.”

And then there was Cuomo, the governor who has drawn fire from progressive critics for trying to divert settlement money for foreclosure fraud victims into a general fund that could underwrite tax cuts for banks; freezing wages for public workers and allegedly helping to hand the state Senate back to Republicans. Most recently, in March, he angered progressives by wading into a messy battle over New York City charter schools and granting them what the New York Times called “some of the most sweeping protections in the nation,” including a requirement that the city either provide public space for the privately run schools or give them public money to rent private space. One state Democrat told Buzzfeed, “The core activists are asking, ‘How can we endorse this guy? He’s a right-wing douchebag.’ ”

If the WFP endorsed Teachout, they ran the risk of losing several major unions who provide a lot of the party's funding and clout, maybe permanently. The union leaders were opposed to an independent candidate, preferring to be at the table to negotiate with the governor rather than to wind up on his hit list. Michael Hirsch, a longtime labor activist, union staff writer and WFP member who attended the convention, is critical of the unions' threats to leave, yet tells In These Times that he understands their pragmatic impulses to support a deal.

A spurned Cuomo might also have stepped up his attempts to wipe out the WFP entirely. Despite receiving the WFP’s 2010 endorsement, Cuomo has since tried to ban the “fusion voting” process by which the WFP can endorse Democrats like him and deliver votes to Democrats on a separate ballot line.

If the party did endorse Cuomo, it would face a lot of anger from statewide activists who point to the governor's right-wing record, and a lot of questions from progressives across the country as to whether you can actually build power by challenging Democrats if you wind up endorsing them anyway.

In the end, the party's state committee, made up of representatives from each state assembly district, voted for Cuomo over Teachout at its convention Saturday night outside of Albany, New York. The vote was 58.7 percent to 41.3 percent, with the party's leadership, major union leaders such as 1199 SEIU president  George Gresham, and even New York City mayor Bill de Blasio—last seen in the losing battle with Cuomo over charter schools—whipping votes hard for the unpopular governor.

The party's choice of Cuomo, whom no one within the party appears to be able to say something genuinely nice about, is contentious, to say the least. By extending trust to a governor who has done little to earn it, the party is setting itself up for tough criticism if the plan backfires. It’s also reigniting a debate about the best way for third parties to wield power.

How the deal was struck

The story is different than the one in 2010, when the WFP first endorsed Cuomo. Back then, the party was on shaky ground, and the narrative was that it couldn't risk losing its ballot line on a protest vote. Because New York State law requires a minor party to get 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate in order to secure its spot on the ballot for the next election, the WFP felt trapped into not only endorsing the governor but signing onto his agenda—which included pay freezes for public workers, property tax caps, and more. Bertha Lewis, former ACORN head and WFP founding member, as she stood up to nominate Teachout, said, “We gave [Cuomo] four years and we said then, ‘Never again.’ ”

At this convention, no one argued that the party risked coming in with too few votes. There was no doubt that the WFP could hold its ballot line and even increase its margin with a challenger. A poll released in April showed a generic Working Families Party candidate could take a significant bite out of Cuomo's expected margin of victory—24 percent of those polled preferred a “more liberal or progressive” WFP candidate, any such candidate, to Cuomo. Gresham's argument on the floor of the convention, in fact, was that an alternative candidate could actually get enough votes to throw the election to the Republican (a familiar argument against third parties, and a rather ironic one to invoke when one is already part of such a party).

Instead, Cuomo came to the table and, according to an email sent out by the WFP on Sunday, committed to the WFP's agenda. Bill Lipton, the New York State director of the WFP, says, “We met with Governor Cuomo to make the concerns of members of our state committee clear, and explain what we'd need to hear from him to consider an endorsement, being as specific as possible. He heard us, and after some back and forth, came out in support of that agenda.”

The list of policies he pledged to support includes public financing of campaigns, marijuana decriminalization, a 10-point “Women's Equality Agenda” with stronger abortion-rights protections and increased regulations aimed at producing pay equity, allowing New York City and other municipalities to raise their minimum wages up to 30 percent higher than the state minimum, and more. The governor didn't appear in person at the convention, but sent a video and called in via Skype, to jeers and boos—Laura Nahmias at Capital New York reports that Bob Master, legislative and political director of the Communications Workers of America and state co-chair of the WFP, was nearly drowned out by hecklers when he introduced Cuomo's name for nomination.

“The question on the table,” says Hirsch, “was and is still a practical question: Is the deal a healthy way to proceed or a bridge too far?”

Why trust Cuomo now?

The slate of progressive promises is a significant shift for the governor, who has repeatedly been criticized for being closer to Republicans than to his own party. Perhaps that's why many news reports have focused on Cuomo's commitment to support Democrats in statewide races: It’s telling that the governor had to be pushed by a third party to support candidates from the party he ostensibly belongs to.

The real question, however, is: Now that the governor has the endorsement, what leverage do the WFP and other progressives have to keep him honest? That was the foremost concern of WFP delegate Susan Weber, from the Albany region, who spoke on the floor of the convention against endorsing Cuomo. “He’s a liar,” she said. “He won’t keep his promise. He’ll figure out a way to squirm out of it.” And Hirsch says, “I didn't support the deal for one reason: because I don't believe it can hold.”

Indeed, on Sunday morning, Cuomo appeared to already be walking back his commitments, telling Capital New York's Azi Paybarah, “No. I opposed municipalities being able to set their own wage. I did and I do.” And Saturday night at the convention, the governor's people sent a video to be aired from the governor that reportedly did not contain all of the commitments he had made, so they demanded another. Cuomo, it seems, even fresh from cutting a deal, has to test the boundaries.

Teachout tells In These Times, “One of the things that's most troubling to me about Cuomo is not just his policies, but his reputation, which I think I'm already feeling, of using fear as a way to build power. It can be effective, but I would much rather live in a democracy where power is built through shared values and people organizing around those shared values.”

If Cuomo has built his power based on his ruthless reputation, it’s worth asking whether he will respect a handshake deal. He did his best in the days before the convention to get two prominent statewide Democrats—Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli—to refuse the WFP's endorsements if the party didn’t back him as well. They weren't tested on this, as the vote fell in Cuomo's favor, but Schneiderman and de Blasio, both of whom have repeatedly been targets of the governor's political and personal attacks, were there campaigning for him, raising the question of just who really had the power in that room—if the decision to endorse was made from a position of strength or out of fear.

Should Cuomo backs down from his public pledges, it won't be the first time. As I reported in 2013 for RH Reality Check, the governor made sweeping commitments to his “women's equality agenda” in that year's State of the State speech, but none of those items has moved in that time. Before that, he promised to prioritize nonpartisan redistricting for state legislature seats, then signed off on highly partisan maps created by Republicans, and when enough of those highly gerrymandered districts still swung to Democrats, he backed a deal between Senate Republicans and a breakaway “Independent Democratic Caucus” (IDC) to put the Republicans back in charge on a rotating basis with the IDC caucus.

Challenging those IDC Senators is a key part of the WFP's agenda—they endorsed a primary challenger to Klein, and the commitment extracted from Cuomo to support Democrats included a promise, which he voiced at the convention, that, “Either [the IDC] announce that they agree to come back to the Democratic Party, or they will face primaries this year from our unified Democratic coalition.”

At the moment, the Working Families Party leaders sound confident that they'll win; Lipton tells In These Times, “We're proud to have helped jump-start a powerful new coalition, including the mayor, the state's most powerful labor unions, and the governor, that united to win back Democratic and Working Families control of the state Senate and pass our progressive agenda in 2015.”

Cuomo's other challengers

Teachout may yet decide to petition to appear in the Democratic primary against Cuomo despite having lost the Working Families ballot line to the governor; she tells In These Times that she's already got a great campaign infrastructure (and if there's one thing that Teachout, the former architect of Howard Dean's strategy knows well, it's campaign infrastructure). She says she'll decide within the next week. “If I decide to run, I am going to look at [Cuomo’s] use of governmental power and its relationship to what he says. When you have a governor like Cuomo, the strongest power you have is, it's so simple, it's telling the truth,” she says. “I don't think we should settle for a governor who governs on fear.”

And there's another candidate to Cuomo's left in the race—Howie Hawkins of the Green Party, now running with teacher activist Brian Jones as his lieutenant governor candidate. On Sunday, after the news of the WFP's endorsement of Cuomo broke, Jones told In These Times, “Progressives are in an abusive relationship with the Democratic Party. They keep hoping the party will change, but it never does. Cuomo has made it clear that he supports the privatization of our schools and hospitals and the weakening our unions. The bulk of his financial support comes from the 1% and that's who he serves, not working families.”

National waves

Though it's easy to focus on the governor's outsize reputation (and his reported presidential ambitions), the question of the gubernatorial endorsement has always been bigger than Cuomo. It's a question of the WFP's entire strategy, as I pointed out in March. That's why political watchers from around the country were following the Twitter feed from the convention on Saturday night, commenting on its choices and offering sometimes less-than-polite criticism.

Does it make sense to operate as a political party alongside the Democrats, mostly endorsing them when the chips are down, in order to pull policies that much further left? If the power that will enable the Working Families Party and its member groups to hold Cuomo to his promises is their on-the-ground organizing and committed base, does it matter if they make endorsements at all? Labor and the Left have gotten all too used to extracting lovely promises from candidates on the campaign trail, who realize they can't win with corporate cash alone and that they need foot soldiers and actual voters to seal the deal, only to see those promises evaporate when the votes are counted. One doesn't have to look much further than the current occupant of the White House to remember that.

The ability to extract those pledges does show that progressives are making gains; even Andrew Cuomo, a savvy politician if not a responsive one, understands that suddenly his left flank is more vulnerable than his right. But Cuomo has known that for a little while now and continues to bluster in the other direction. It will take real power to make sure his promises are kept. 

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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