National News

Nixon Tops Working Families Ticket, but Party Remains at ‘Crossroads’

Posted May 19, 2018 8:39 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It was supposed to be a moment of triumph.

The newly emboldened members of the Working Families Party, New York’s minor progressive party, had envisioned their convention Saturday as a celebration of what they saw as their newfound freedom from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, whose re-election bid they had snubbed in favor of Cynthia Nixon’s challenge from the left.

The state committee members would gather in a church in New York's Harlem neighborhood to officially anoint her — and to mark their independence from Cuomo’s political bullying.

Nixon was indeed anointed, formally accepting the party’s nomination as she took plenty of shots at Cuomo, calling him a lackey of Wall Street interests who left working families with “scraps.”

“We need a governor that is as true and blue as its people,” she said of New York.

But the party could not completely distance itself from Cuomo and the machinations that often complicate political life in the state.

After devastating allegations of physical abuse led to the resignation of Eric Schneiderman, the state attorney general, a breakneck race to replace him began. Letitia James, the New York City public advocate and a longtime darling of the WFP, quickly emerged as a front-runner — and then, just as quickly, declined to seek the party’s ballot line, saying she would seek only the Democratic Party’s backing.

The unexpected rebuff created a somewhat awkward backdrop for Nixon, who did not address the attorney general’s race in her speech, and for the party, which found itself once again playing defense against Cuomo, whom they blamed for pressuring James to snub them. (Cuomo has denied exerting any pressure.)

Rather than crowning James, the members, over lunch at the start of the convention, found themselves scrambling to decide who to nominate.

“Obviously we all thought this was going to be a very simple business meeting,” Karen Scharff, a party co-chairwoman, said as she opened the gathering. “It’s gotten a bit more complicated.”

That may have been an understatement. The only person to apply for the party’s attorney general nomination was Zephyr Teachout, another WFP stalwart, who had leapt into the 2014 governor’s race to challenge Cuomo at the party’s urging.

But if they elevated Teachout, the party members might undercut James, who for many is not just a political ally but also a dear friend — one who has officiated their weddings and served as godmother to their children. The party would also risk seeming to stand in the way of history: If elected, James would be the first black woman to hold statewide office in New York.

It was the latest chapter in the open warfare within New York’s left, with supporters of the more centrist Cuomo and the more progressive WFP battling to control the state’s image as a liberal beacon for the country.

“There are attempts to divide us — to divide us as a party, to divide us as a progressive movement,” Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former City Council speaker and another WFP ally, told the group. “I understand that this is undoubtedly a very difficult choice.”

“It is,” someone called out.

In pitching her candidacy, Teachout emphasized her own ties to the party, declaring its members the people she had worked “shoulder to shoulder with.” She did not mention James.

But Mark-Viverito exhorted the group to choose a placeholder, whom the party could later replace with another candidate — either Teachout or James, who has not ruled out seeking the party’s nomination in the future — perhaps after September’s primary.

Mark-Viverito emphasized the importance of electing diverse leadership. “Some may view this as a crossroads in terms of the decision you have to make,” she said, “but let’s unite and stand behind a progressive candidate who is on the brink of making history.”

The tension in the room was at times palpable. During Teachout’s speech, as she asked for the group’s support, one member shouted, “You got it!” But others remained silent. After Mark-Viverito’s speech, another member sounded plaintive: “I don’t know what to do!”

After a brief deliberation, the members voted overwhelmingly to install Kenny Schaeffer, a longtime WFP member, as a placeholder. But it also voted to support Teachout and James by issuing to both what is known as a Wilson-Pakula certificate — formal legal authorization to be on the party’s November ballot line.

“Cuomo would like nothing more than to see the Working Families Party’s progressive base tear itself apart,” Bill Lipton, the party’s state director, said. “It’s classic Cuomo divide and conquer. We’re not going to take the bait.” The WFP’s leaders suggested that they had not only avoided Cuomo’s trap, but had even one-upped him.

“If you think about it, it’s a victory for us and the movement,” Jonathan Westin, a WFP co-chairman, said. “Cuomo is putting his full weight behind the person who has been the iconic WFP elected official for the past 15 years.”

But Cuomo’s allies doubled down on their criticisms of the party, trumpeting the choice as proof of the group’s dysfunction. Even before the convention, Geoff Berman, president of the state Democratic Party, which is in effect controlled by Cuomo, had released a statement casting the WFP as veering toward self-destruction.

“That’s some WFP ticket,” Berman said, pointing out that Teachout had previously served as Nixon’s campaign treasurer. “They don’t even support each other.”

And indeed, even as they embraced James’s candidacy, party members did not disguise their dismay with her decision. At times, they sounded like disappointed parents.

“We are family,” Patrick Welsh, a state committee member, said. “And family is patient and understanding with each other, even when some of us may disagree.”

James’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.

It is not the first time the party has declined to nominate Teachout. Four years ago, despite recruiting her to challenge Cuomo, the WFP then voted narrowly to back Cuomo after winning last-minute policy concessions from him.

After the vote, Teachout said she “would have loved an outright” nomination but appreciated the Wilson-Pakula designation. But she demurred when asked if she had been surprised by the party’s decision, or if she thought the party leadership had brokered a deal to shut her out.

“Look, the WFP is in a tough spot,” she said. “And I see that. I really appreciate the values the WFP fights for.”