ALBANY — The Working Families Party endorsed actor Cynthia Nixon over two-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Saturday, fueling Nixon’s left-flank challenge and deepening a split among New York Democrats.
“You are the heart and soul of the progressive New York that we want to create,” Nixon said. “The last eight years under Andrew Cuomo have been an exercise in living with disappointment and dysfunction and dishonesty.”
Nixon has promised to legalize and tax marijuana, end cash bail, push for single-payer health care and increase funding to public schools — raising taxes if necessary. Cuomo has said he has a record of progressive achievement and is an effective leader in the fight against President Donald Trump.
The WFP endorsement all but guarantees a formal nomination — which will come at a convention in May — and assures the “Sex and the City” star a spot on the November ballot, even if she fails to dislodge Cuomo in September's Democratic primary.
Beyond the election-year politics, this weekend's dramatic events at a pair of Albany-area hotels showed how the state Democratic Party's schism is playing out.
Nixon snubbed Democratic party activists who gathered for the annual Democratic Rural Conference beginning on Friday. Cuomo addressed them in private.
She instead pitched the New York Progressive Action Network — an affiliate of Our Revolution, which grew out of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign — and was greeted with praise and cheers on Saturday shortly before 4 p.m. when she arrived in a basement ballroom opposite the hotel pool where the WFP had gathered.
“We have a lot of work in front of us, but one thing is clear: if we’re going to win and transform our state, the old way of doing things just won’t cut it anymore,” WFP state director Bill Lipton said. “For eight years we tried to work with Andrew Cuomo to transform New York into a truly progressive state. For eight years he broke his promises and kept the Republicans in the State Senate, blocking critical legislation for affordable housing, women’s equality and criminal justice reform.”
A spokeswoman for Cuomo, who is seeking a third term, did not immediately comment.
But sensing the WFP nomination was slipping from his grasp, Cuomo announced on Friday evening that he didn’t want it anyway. Major unions that have endorsed the governor pulled out of the WFP, continuing an exodus of Cuomo-allied unions that began in 2014.
A few union representatives spoke up on the governor’s behalf anyway.
“He has shown his commitment to working families, he passed the [$15] minimum wage. Just this week he signed a bill on the Janus issue, which is very important to our members,” said Beverley Brakeman, assistant director of the United Auto Workers Region 9A. “The governor is the strongest candidate here and we think he’s going to win and we’re going to help him win. We’re very concerned about the process here, and we’re very concerned about this being a spoiler and hurting us all in 2018.”
But the overwhelming sentiment among those who attended the WFP event was that Cuomo was a false progressive, whose tacit support for the state Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference has led to what they believe are watered-down achievements. (Earlier this month, Cuomo cheered as the IDC dissolved into the Senate’s mainstream Democratic conference.)
“Many of us have imprisoned ourselves in a cell with no windows and doors. Fear of losing some tenuous grip on power derived through duplicitous efforts has left us satisfied with scraps gained,” said Rosemary Rivera of the group Citizen Action on New York. “It’s not enough.”
The WFP was founded in 1998 as an alliance of unions and progressive groups hoping to drag the Democratic Party to the left. New York law allows for fusion voting, and Democratic politicians often seek the WFP line as a buttress, and its support has at times tipped the scales in Democratic primaries for local races.
The WFP has a rocky history with Cuomo. In 2010, when the party was reeling from an investigation of its campaign practices, WFP leaders asked Cuomo, then the state's attorney general, to be its standard bearer in that year's governor's race. While his platform didn’t mesh with the party’s, Cuomo agreed and helped the WFP win the 50,000 votes it needed to have an automatic ballot line.
But Cuomo’s fiscally moderate first term alienated some party activists, and in 2014 there was a push to endorse Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who is now serving as Nixon’s campaign treasurer.
Cuomo promised to work for policies like the minimum wage hike and to push for a Democratic Senate. Citizen Action agreed to endorse the governor, but others abstained. One was WFP treasurer Dorothy Siegel, who on Saturday shouted her support for Nixon.
“I can think of only one man in America I trust less than Andrew Cuomo,” Siegel said, declaring that his current promise to push for a Democratic Senate is “the same pile of manure.”
Nixon won 91 percent of the weighted vote, party leaders said; 187 of the 229 members of the state committee were represented either in person or by proxy. The party also backed City Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, who is challenging Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Cuomo’s labor allies spent Friday evening and Saturday sniping at the WFP, saying it has turned its back on progressive values.
“The WFP was a good concept,” said Mike McGuire, director of the Mason Tenders District Council, who left the party after 2014. “Unfortunately, it was never allowed to become what it was supposed to be, because the agenda was always driven by the so-called progressives running the staff. In hindsight, it's easy to see the whole thing was just a scam, a cynical ploy to drive a radical agenda using the muscle and money of organized labor while widely ignoring the actual concerns of New York's working people. It's no wonder that they now want to be the disruptors, that the last thing they want to see is Democratic unity at a time when we need it most.”
George Albro, another WFP founding member and co-chair of NYPAN, said, “it’s unfortunate that the governor has chosen to have a tantrum.”
WFP co-chair Karen Scharff, of Citizen Action, said she was not worried about the party’s long-term viability, even though Nixon has not committed to staying on its line if she loses the Democratic primary.
“We’re going to bring in new people, new members, new energy and the unions that are still in the party are going to be part of the party and working for the party — regardless of disagreements over one endorsement,” Scharff told POLITICO. “We’ve had disagreements in the past over endorsements. We’ve gone forward together as a party, and I hope in the long run we will all be sitting together again.”