Changes approved by the state Public Financing Commission establishing new limits on campaign contributions for statewide offices and requiring political parties to get at least 130,000 votes in such races—compared to the current threshold of 50,000—or lose their ballot line will take effect shortly before Christmas unless legislative leaders abruptly convene a Special Session to reconsider those changes.
The panel’s actions Nov. 25 created a furor among smaller state parties and good-government groups even though it backed away from approving the abolition of fusion voting, which would have ended the practice under which Democratic and Republican nominees can run on multiple ballot lines, which can benefit both the candidates and the smaller parties.
Big Unions Not Grieving
But there was relative silence from the more-powerful public-employee unions, even though they were the driving force slightly more than two decades ago behind the birth of the Working Families Party, which is among the groups that could be hard-pressed to retain its ballot line once the new standard takes effect.
One reason it may be endangered is the schism created between those unions and party leaders when the WFP last year gave its endorsement to Cynthia Nixon against Governor Cuomo in the Democratic primary.
Mr. Cuomo was so angered by that snub that he advised the diminishing number of unions which at that point were still providing financial and political support to the WFP that they should “lose my number” if they didn’t cut those ties.
Although state legislators could overturn the changes approved by the Public Financing Commission, State Sen. Diane Savino—who played a key role in launching the WFP while on staff at Local 371 of District Council 37 but had a falling-out with the party last year when it backed primary challengers to her and seven other former members of the Independent Democratic Conference, six of whom lost their seats—said a Special Session was unlikely to be called.
‘No Indication From Leaders’
While Senators and Assembly Members will each be meeting in Albany in mid-December, she said in a Nov. 27 phone interview, “We’re not gonna be in town at the same time. The leaders have given us no indication that they want us to come back” to address the commission’s changes.
If legislators do not undo some or all of them, they will become state law by Dec. 21.
The leaders of DC 37 and the United Federation of Teachers—the two-largest city unions and major players in the creation of the WFP in 1998 as a way of moving the Democratic Party left—did not respond to calls seeking comment on the changes.
Arthur Cheliotes, president of Local 1180 at the time the WFP came into being and an activist for much of its existence before backing away in recent years, said of the raise in the threshold—which will be the higher of 130,000 votes or 2 percent of the total vote—said in a Nov. 26 phone interview, “I think it’s a very large hurdle, and we’ve always had robust political discourse that’s worked well for the state.”
On the one hand, he said, “The progressive community is growing,” creating a larger potential pool of persons willing to cast their votes on the WFP line. At the same time, Mr. Cheliotes said, in some instances the more-radical positions taken by the party have turned off union supporters.
Nixon Wasn’t the One
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is the most-prominent of the critics of the changes who believe they are part of an effort by Governor Cuomo to reduce the WFP to rubble as payback for its endorsement of Ms. Nixon even though he handily dispatched her in the primary, forcing party leaders to ease her off the November ballot and run him as their candidate to meet the vote threshold.
Mr. Cheliotes did not dispute that suspicion. But he also contended that, notwithstanding the hard feelings left over from 2014, when Mr. Cuomo got the party’s endorsement only after he pledged to help fellow Democrats regain control of the State Senate but then did virtually nothing to accomplish that goal, the WFP blundered on a couple of counts in bucking the Governor last year.
He said Mr. Cuomo had redeemed himself for some actions he took that were hurtful to public-employee unions during his first term through “stuff that he’s done for working people” in his second one. Besides belatedly helping to push through a significant rise in the state’s minimum wage—which had its primary impact on private-sector workers and their unions—”he came through in the Janus case,” Mr. Cheliotes said. He was referring to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2018 that ended the four-decade-old practice under which public workers who opted not to join a union were still obligated to pay agency fees that were the equivalent of dues in return for the services they received in areas like collective bargaining.
Anticipating the high-court ruling that overturned its own 41-year-old precedent on the issue, the Governor in early spring had signed into law a bill requiring that public workers in the state join unions or be forced to pay out of pocket for representation in grievance and disciplinary cases. That helped prevent major defections from public-union ranks once the court ruling ended the agency-fee requirement.
‘She Wasn’t Up to Job’
And, Mr. Cheliotes said, what compounded the WFP’s political folly in picking the period between the new law protecting those unions and the Supreme Court decision to take on Mr. Cuomo was its choice of Ms. Nixon, who despite her political activism proved herself unschooled about many key issues.
The longtime Local 1180 president, who despite being retired still plays a key advisory role in the local, called the actress best known for her role in “Sex and the City” “a person that I don’t think was qualified to govern. She had progressive ideas, but she didn’t know how to govern.”
He said he was similarly stunned by the WFP’s decision to make an early endorsement of Elizabeth Warren for President after strongly backing Bernie Sanders in 2016, saying, “She came late to the ideas that Bernie’s been supporting all his life. He has the long record of always being there” going back to the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
Another veteran leader of a smaller union with a history of political activism, Organization of Staff Analysts Chairman Bob Croghan, said that whatever bad blood existed between the Governor and the WFP, he believed that looking to marginalize it or other smaller parties was harmful to the democratic process, which he said was more important than any benefit it might have for the Democratic Party.
An Aversion to ‘Monopolies’
Pointing to third parties having made a difference in numerous city political contests, he said Nov. 27, “I don’t think we should be placing an impossible burden on smaller parties to continue in existence. And as a lifelong Democrat, I don’t believe we should be creating a Democratic and Republican monopoly or trying to get rid of the smaller parties.”
Alluding to some of the opportunistic bargains those smaller parties have made over the years—usually in return for patronage jobs for its members if the candidate they backed was elected—Mr. Croghan continued, “I know despicable things some of the third parties have done, but I also know the despicable things the Republican and Democratic parties have done.”
One smaller party that was not expected to have to scramble for its continued existence was the State Conservative Party. State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs—who became a lightning rod for criticism by reformers once he emerged as the primary voice for the Public Financing Commission—initially proposed that the vote threshold be raised from 50,000 to 250,000 votes. Last year, the Conservative Party barely cleared the higher threshold, with Republican nominee Marc Molinaro getting 253,000 votes on the smaller party’s line.
Scaling down the threshold ultimately adopted figured to blunt some of the criticism from Conservatives. But Mr. Molinaro, who ran a spirited campaign against Mr. Cuomo last year despite huge disadvantages in campaign funding and name recognition, remained withering in his criticism of the entire process, saying in a phone interview that “empowering a commission to do this is a sham.”
“It circumvents democracy,” said Mr. Molinaro, who remains the Dutchess County Executive. “This should never have been given to a commission. If it were done by the Legislature, at least the legislators are accountable.”
Instead, he continued, what was produced amounted to “petty short-sightedness, meant to stamp out minor parties.”
Referring to Mr. Jacobs, who is also the head of the Nassau County Democratic Party, he said, “When the Chairman of a major party is given power over the fate of other parties, clearly it’s an effort by insiders to help other insiders. But the ideology of the entire spectrum deserves to be represented on the ballot.”
He said of the Democratic State Chairman, “He clearly seems to want to diminish, if not dismantle, the Working Families Party. It is possible that the Conservative Party will have to work harder as well to survive. But we should be making it easier for voters, not harder.”
WFP New York Director Bill Lipton blamed both Mr. Jacobs and the Governor, saying in a statement that they were “hell-bent on punishing the WFP for our independence. The WFP fought hard to end the IDC and win Democratic leadership in the State Senate, in order to create the wave of progressive legislation passed this year, and to set the stage for a first step toward public financing of elections.”
‘A Cuomo Power Grab’
He went on to say, “This is a power grab by the Governor and his allies to consolidate power and weaken independent progressive political organizing.”
Senator Savino said she wasn’t sure the changes would cripple the party politically, remarking, “The WFP has proven when they’re up against the wall, they can deliver the votes.” She cited its meeting the 50,000-vote threshold in 2002 with Carl McCall running on its line against incumbent George Pataki “even though half the union affiliates were with Pataki,” including SEIU Local 1199 and the building-trades unions, while the UFT stayed neutral in the contest.
She noted that in 2006, the WFP got more than 150,000 votes on its line supporting Eliot Spitzer, although he won in a landslide in a low-turnout election.
“They can do it,” Ms. Savino said. “It just takes organizing.”
But, she conceded, in 2022, “If Cuomo’s running again, he’s not taking their line. So they’d have to run someone who’s not a Democrat,” and meet the far-higher threshold with just a shadow of the union support the WFP had in the past.
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