Working Families Party reshapes N.Y. politics

NEW YORK — As 2004 comes to a close, New York’s Working Families Party has a lot to celebrate. Through effective grassroots organizing, the party has helped shatter the right-wing myth that you can’t gain victories around progressive working-class politics.

The WFP scored significant electoral successes in the Nov. 2 election, and recently chalked up gains in its campaigns to raise the minimum wage and to reform New York’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws. This is in addition to its important breakthrough in 2003 when it elected the first third-party candidate to the New York City Council in decades.

Commentators agree that the Nov. 2 election of David Soares, the WFP’s candidate for district attorney of Albany County, was attributable to the grassroots, door-to-door work done by the party in both the Democratic primary and the general election.

While most people running for district attorney campaign on a “get-tough-on-crime” platform, Soares emphasized opposition to the state’s hated Rockefeller drug laws, which provide draconian penalties, up to life imprisonment, for nonviolent drug offenders. The governor and Legislature have finally agreed to slightly soften the laws. Though practically none of the groups involved in the anti-Rockefeller drug laws coalition consider the change to be nearly enough, many say it is a crucial step forward. Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York State Assembly, credited Soares’ victory as a primary reason why Pataki felt forced to agree to changes in the law.

Another of the WFP’s recent victories was the culmination of a six-year struggle it initiated to raise the state’s minimum wage, when the Legislature overruled Gov. George Pataki’s (R-N.Y.) veto of an increase Dec. 6. As it stands now, the minimum wage is the lowest allowed by federal law, $5.15 an hour. Now the wage is scheduled to go up in three annual increments to $7.15 an hour. The hike will benefit over a million New Yorkers, increasing their annual full-time pay from just over $10,000 per year to $14,900.

The party has had great success with its “fusion” strategy in recent elections. New York is one of only seven states in the country to allow fusion, where a minor political party can cross-endorse the candidates of another party, allowing candidates to run on multiple lines. The candidate gets credit for votes on all the lines on which he or she runs.

The WFP, for the most part, endorses Democratic candidates and campaigns to get voters to select the Democrat on the WFP line. This strategy allows people to “vote their conscience” by sending a message that they support progressive politics, while not endangering the movement to defeat the most right-wing candidates. It also gives the party a greater degree of power, because a politician can see when a third party has influenced their vote tally. An example of this success is that a total of 120,000 people voted for John Kerry on the WFP line, and 150,000 for Sen. Charles Schumer.

At the same time, the WFP occasionally runs its own candidates. In 2003 it did precisely that, running and electing Letitia James as the first third-party candidate in decades to the New York City Council. She has been a staunch voice for working people since taking office.

Founded in 1998, the WFP was formed by a group of labor unions and community organizations in New York State, including the Communication Workers, the United Auto Workers, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Today, its member organizations number more than 70, and it is also working to set up grassroots chapters in different communities. These chapters allow WFP activists to come together to work on issues in their city or community on the elections, but also during non-election periods as well.