Gov. Cuomo, Zephyr Teachout, and the Working Families Party nomination

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By: David Donnelly, Executive Director

On Saturday, the Working Families Party voted to provide its November ballot line to Governor Andrew Cuomo following several weeks of negotiations between him, party leaders, labor leaders, and prominent elected officials. Zephyr Teachout, who announced her candidacy just on Friday, contested the party’s endorsement. Zephyr – a former board member of PCAF and a friend – mounted an aggressive challenge to Cuomo with the WFP delegates at the convention and lost a floor vote 59-41%, while winning the hearts and minds by 99-1%.

I’m not a dispassionate observer about what happened at the convention or the events leading up to it. While I have remained on the sidelines for the nomination fight, I have spoken with colleagues and friends who spent the better part of the last few weeks navigating all of this. In addition, the actions of the WFP, Governor Cuomo, and Zephyr Teachout all impact our work to win comprehensive change in the way elections are financed in New York. So I feel compelled and well informed enough to answer publicly what many have asked me privately, in the following Q&A format.

Wait. WFP endorsed Cuomo? WTF?

Yes. The most important big picture thing to keep in mind is this: In 2010, then candidate Cuomo forced the WFP to endorse his agenda before he would appear on their line. This year he’s endorsing theirs and he’s pledged to work to elect a state Senate that will deliver on these agenda items.

What did Cuomo pledge specifically?

Governor Cuomo appeared before the conventioneers on Saturday night via video and phone and pledged, among other things, to work to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 and to index it to inflation; to allow municipalities to increase the minimum wage by 30% more than the state level; to pass the DREAM Act for children of immigrants to go to school with the same tuition as other instate students; to pass the entirety of the Women’s Equality Agenda; to increase funding for community schools and rectify funding inequities across the state; to decriminalize minor marijuana possession; and, of course, to pass public financing of campaigns. Many will react that they’ve heard all this before. Some of these items are new promises, like the local control over minimum wage.

Most importantly, the Governor pledged to use his considerable political influence to get these policies through the state Senate by working to elect Senators this fall who subscribe to it. Currently led by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats called the Independent Democratic Conference (the IDC), the Senate has blocked action on all of the policies above. To be clear, the Governor is clearly not blameless for the past inaction in this chamber. He could have, for example, used the leverage afforded to him by the budget to adopt public financing this year.

How do we know Cuomo will actually work to elect a new Senate?

There are reports that Governor Cuomo and some of the unions have pledged $10 million in a fund to focus on electing new Senators. It won’t take many seats. Most importantly, we need a new Senate leadership. In addition, a handful of champions like Senator CeCe Tkaczyk must be defended and re-elected.

What did Zephyr accomplish?

From a distance, what is exceedingly clear is this: Zephyr showed tremendous resolve and is a rising star. She got into the race on Friday when there was no deal and it appeared there wouldn’t be one. I, for one, am convinced the agreement the WFP reached with Cuomo was only possible because of her entry onto the scene. According to her public statements, she didn’t think a new set of promises from the Governor that looked like the old promises made for a good deal. Time will tell if she is right.

Now Cuomo’s claiming victory and softening his positions already. What gives?

Let’s start with this: The floor fight gave Cuomo a black-eye. He was roundly booed and protested during his taped interview. That he had to depend on two erstwhile “frenemies” within the progressive flank of the Democratic Party – NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman – to round up votes on the floor and to make his case underscored how desperate he was to secure the ballot line. He didn’t make this deal with the WFP leadership alone. It was brokered with Mayor, major unions, and other state officials, and was covered in excruciating detail by the press. There is real work to do for New York’s progressives to hold him accountable and elect a better Senate.

There are rumors about Zephyr running as a Democrat in the primary against Cuomo? What does this mean for further divisions with the WFP?

Yes, Zephyr has been quoted in newspaper saying she’s considering running in the Democratic primary. Primary candidates have until Thursday, I believe, to decide. (Just for the record, I’m not advising her on her candidacy.)  I don’t know what it means for the WFP, but there’s certainly a scenario that it helps provide an independent accountability vehicle for holding Cuomo accountable to his promises.

Okay, what does this really mean for public financing?

It means three things.

First, public financing is not likely to pass until next Spring, and that’s only if enough reform-minded Senators get elected. I know Friends of Democracy will be active in making that a reality.

Second, in Zephyr Teachout, it’s easy to see a champion taking on a new role and building more stature. Should she run in the Democratic primary, it’s clear she will be challenging the Governor consistently on making good not just on the agreement with the WFP but on a broader shift to return New York government to the people.

Third, in broad strokes, winning policies like public financing requires three essential ingredients: 1) elected champions, 2) strong organizations, and 3) winning the public debate. I think we can check off the last one, but we need to keep winning it. On the first item, I hope that the campaigns this fall supplement what is admittedly a somewhat weak bench of legislative champions, though the Democratic Senators are coming into the own on the issue. But we need more – at least a few more than a working majority and pro-reform control in the Senate.

The open question is how to parlay what happened over the weekend and the work ahead into a stronger WFP, as well as a stronger Citizen Action of New York, whose leadership is also involved in the party. Both organizations have smart and strategic (and steely) leaders in Dan Cantor, Bill Lipton, and Karen Scharff (and others). They are among the smartest organizers I’ve worked with. The task in front of them is to repair the relationships with leading activists who disagreed with the decision to endorse Cuomo. I am confident they’ll figure it out, but I’m certain it’ll be a rocky road.

These leaders drove a hard bargain with the Governor at great risk internally to the party. They received strong concessions on policy and political grounds from the Governor. They delivered the vote on the floor through the strengths of their relationships with activists and political leaders. And now they are looking at the hard work to produce what the Governor alone can’t produce: progressive Senate victories around the state. If they do so, and they’re able to usher in substantial policies wins next spring, the decision the WFP made over the weekend was prescient and historic. If the Senate stays in Republican control but Cuomo coasts to a 20 or 25% victory, well, let’s just say that would be something else entirely. This, as they say, is a high-risk, high-reward strategy.

For the sake of adopting public financing, let’s hope they succeed.

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