National News

Working Families Party Starts Small, but Thinks Big

Posted December 25, 2017 3:15 p.m. EST

In the months leading to the November election, the Working Families Party spent thousands of dollars aiding left-leaning Democratic candidates in dozens of races around New York state, often with relatively small amounts in contests for obscure offices. There was the $663 spent on a race for trustee in the Westchester County village of Croton-on-Hudson or the $1,549 for a candidate running for Monroe County legislator.

In taking a hyperlocal view of politics, the party, which considers itself to be the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, is trying to lay the groundwork for bigger things. Party officials are focusing on small local races in the hopes of grooming politicians for more high-profile offices, like state legislator or a seat in Congress, while at the same time pushing the Democratic Party to the left.

They might take inspiration from the recent house of delegates election in Virginia where a Democratic candidate, Shelly Simonds, gained headlines when she appeared to have won in a recount by a single vote; ultimately, a court declared the race a tie, which will have to be decided by drawing lots. Simonds’ previous elected position? She is a member of a local school board.

Closer to home, Laura Curran, a Democrat who was elected Nassau County executive in November, in part with support from the Working Families, was a county legislator and before that a school board member. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has often worked with the Working Families Party, also started out as a school board member in Brooklyn.

“If you want to build a progressive pipeline of candidates you’ve got to give people some steppingstones,” said Bill Lipton, the party’s New York state director. “They have to learn how to govern. They have to develop a track record.”

The Working Families Party has gradually increased its presence around the state. This year it identified 148 contests as priority races, winning 109 of them. Two years earlier, the party prioritized 111 candidates, winning 71 of those races. Two years before that, it backed 38 candidates and 25 of them won.

But the party, which is much smaller than the state Democratic Party and has far fewer resources, is not spending large amounts on television ads or mailings. Instead, it puts resources into coaching a candidate or training candidates or volunteers to use voter databases to pinpoint possible supporters.

“We are providing expertise and additional resources to progressive local Democratic allies,” Lipton said, adding that the state Democratic Party has little or no engagement with most local candidates. “We train people how to do a stump speech, we get donors to give money, we get unions to endorse.”

In some cases, Working Families also contracts with local Democrats to bring in paid canvassers or organizers — filling a void left by the state Democratic committee, which has not typically been involved to that extent in lower level races, and by county committees, which often do not have the organizational resources. That was the case this year in Dutchess County, where canvassing by the Working Families helped boost the number of Democrats elected to the 25-member County Legislature from seven to 11.

“They fill that gap when we need more people on the ground,” said Elisa Sumner, Democratic Party chairwoman in the county.

The Working Families has also benefited from grass roots Democratic anger following the election of President Donald Trump.

David Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report, said that the surge of Democrats running for and winning local offices around the country is part of the cyclical nature of politics.

“Sometimes it takes an election loss to regrow,” Wasserman said. “We saw this on the Republican side in the early stages of the Obama era, and we’re seeing it on the Democratic side now. It’s a natural and healthy regrowth for a party that had lost a lot of ground locally.”

He added, “This is a story of Democrats being angry and running because anger is a stronger motivator than love.”

The Working Families Party was founded in New York in the late 1990s to provide an alternative to mainstream Democratic politics. It has 41,000 registered voters statewide, compared with more than 5.7 million Democrats. It has also expanded into at least 14 other states. In some cases this year, the Working Families Party supported candidates running in Democratic primaries in heavily Democratic areas where the primary was the only contested race.

One of those candidates was Alfredo Balarin. He had never run for office before he took on an incumbent Democrat in a four-way primary race for a seat on the Albany Common Council, the city legislature. Balarin won the primary in September with 161 votes, which was 22 more than the incumbent who came in second. Then he went on to win the general election in November.

Balarin, 37, a college administrator who has been active in his neighborhood association, attended candidate training sessions held by the Working Families Party, which helped him learn the basics of running for office. The party also provided him a staff member and volunteers as the primary neared. The party reported spending $2,065 on his campaign.

“In a four-way race, going up against an incumbent, I had a lot of people saying I was wasting my time,” Balarin said. “Getting the technical support was critical.”