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What the NY Working Families Party Sees at Stake in This Election

The WFP needs at least 130,000 votes – or 2% of the total, whichever is higher – to keep that ballot line in future elections. That’s a product of changes ushered in by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2019 in a failed attempt to destroy the party.

Sochie Nnaemeka, New York State Director, Working Families Party (WFP),Photo courtesy of Sen. Michael Gianaris’ office // Gothamist

In New York, when you look at your ballot for this election, you might notice some repetition.

Thanks to a system known as fusion voting, candidates in New York are allowed to run on more than one party’s ballot line. That’s why you will see incumbent gubernatorial candidate Kathy Hochul on the Democratic and Working Families Party lines.

Since this is a statewide election, the WFP needs at least 130,000 votes – or 2% of the total, whichever is higher – to keep that ballot line in future elections. That’s a product of changes ushered in by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2019 in a failed attempt to destroy the party.

On last Sunday’s episode of “The People’s Guide to Power” on WNYC, I spoke with Sochie Nnaemeka, the chair of the New York State Working Families Party, about the party's roots in the labor movement, what’s at stake in this election, and why the WFP has a ballot line if they seem to just run Democrats.

An excerpt of that conversation is below. It’s been edited for length and clarity.

Brigid Bergin: I want to start with the WFP’s origin story and how it connects to labor unions. Can you tell me about that?

Sochie Nnaemeka: Absolutely. I mean, the Working Families Party was founded in 1998 by community organizations and labor unions [in New York] who came together probably out of recognition that Democrats were not doing enough for working people and putting working people's interests first. Both parties, Republicans and Democrats, were espousing this pro-worker ideology while failing to deliver any real gains for working people. And this third party structure allowed different organizations to come together to advance interests that were more than the sum of their parts. But actually it was about expanding the pie and pushing Democrats towards a more progressive, pro-worker position while also ousting Republicans who were demonstrating themselves to be purely on the side of organized capital and not of the working people. And so that's our origin story that has really inspired and continues to fuel our pro-labor approach to the work that we do, ensuring that all working people in the state are able to thrive.

So let me ask you this: some of those founding unions have since really broken their alliance with the party. What happened there?

I think there has been a shift very much in the dynamic of our state, which I think has a lot to do with what our politics are right now. A lot of the contests that we see right now as the Republican Party has really dwindled in power — knock on wood that that trend continues — is that a lot of our races are happening in the Democratic primary space, where labor and community or also different labor groups might end up on different sides.

There definitely were dynamics about how the Working Families Party felt towards our former governor, Andrew Cuomo, that also put us at odds with some of our union partners. However, we found good ways to work together inside and outside of the Working Families Party structure. And we're glad that with Teachers, United Auto Workers, Teamsters, we do have labor participation, [along with] the nurses up and down the state.

I spoke with state Sen. Jessica Ramos from Queens before this show. She's someone who comes out of the labor movement and was very involved with the Working Families Party, particularly in Queens, and she made this comment to me: "I would like to see a Working Families Party that speaks the language of workers, not from any particular ideological tone necessarily, but that truly speaks to the economic interests of New Yorkers.” Has ideology replaced a focus on workers for the WFP?

I think they have to be separate things. We fundamentally believe that the state should be run for and on behalf of working people. And so all of the policy priorities that we set out, including in partnership with state senators like Jessica Ramos, is about delivering for the majority of those who live in the state. That is pushing for universal child care last year; that is some of our biggest accomplishments — paid sick leave, increasing the minimum wage. Bread-and-butter issues that affect working people, but also realizing that when we get to the bargaining table, so to speak, in Albany that we have to fight for the things that don't transpire at the bargaining table in someone's workplace, right? What are we doing about climate action? What are we doing to ensure that we have deep housing affordability up and down the state? How are we fighting for fair funding in schools that affects schools as places of work and also places of refuge for students and for children? And so I think in this moment where we really want New York to be a progressive beacon, it's absolutely about putting the interest of working people first and ensuring that we have shared narrative power, which does affect how power circulates in the state. But also real economic power that people feel a sense of dignity and advancement in their everyday.

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I want to talk to you about a really important issue facing the WFP related to your ballot line in the upcoming general election. What do you need voters to do to hold onto that?

So as folks know in New York state, which is fantastic, we have fusion voting, which allows you to choose a candidate on multiple lines, allows you to vote third party without fear of spoiling or taking votes away from either candidate and really vote your values. So we're urging New Yorkers who want the vision ... a New York state that really works for working people, real housing affordability, works for the many and not the few, taxing the wealthy; to choose to vote for Gov. [Kathy] Hochul and Lt. Gov. [Antonio] Delgado on the Working Families Party line as a way to reject the far-right extremism of the [Lee] Zeldin and Trump camp, to embrace democratic leadership with a progressive message: How do we vote our values and communicate to our candidates that we expect them to deliver an agenda that works for working people. And so this year in November, you have the opportunity to vote up and down the ballot. And in particular, the Working Families Party maintains our ballot line by requalifying on the governor's line. So by voting for Hochul and Delgado on the Working Families Party line, you also ensure that we continue to be a progressive working people's party here in New York state.

Why does it matter that you have a ballot line if you always run Democratic candidates? I understand the argument in an election where running a third-party candidate might help a Republican win, but in a race like say the 10th Congressional District contest where you could have run someone like Yuh-Line Niou against the Democrat, Dan Goldman, why not? Why is there a reason to have a ballot line if you don't use it?

Well, we do. We've used it. We have made use of it in a handful of important and serious moments. You think Letitia James' City Council race, Diana Richardson for Assembly and Yuh-Line Niou in her first Assembly race. And in other places like that. We're also realistic and cognizant that even as we're trying to build towards multiparty democracy, that we do operate in a rigid two-party system, and that we focus in our cycles on what would make the largest impact for working peoples in the moment ahead of us. And right now, what we're taking seriously, our main strategy right now is to ensure that the Working Families Party selected candidates, right? There are differences between Democrats, real ideological cleavages, right between them that deliver different policies for people, right?

You have corporate Democrats, you have progressive Democrats, ensuring that the most progressive Democrats win in an overwhelmingly democratic state by taking advantage of the Democratic primaries and then ensuring that they then defeat Republican candidates in competitive races. I'll give you an example of Lea Webb, who's running in the new state Senate district, created up in the Binghamton/Ithaca area, a longtime WFP leader and ally — the first Black woman in the Binghamton town council — will join Samra Brouk, another WFP champion, as one of two upstate Black women state senators, and she has a tough general election in front of us.

We have no doubt that when Lea Webb wins, having won the Democratic primary, and then this general election will govern and lead as a Working Families Democrat and ensure we're pushing that vision. And so fusion our line. These are all tactics with an overall — I heard Sen. Ramos talking about the long arc. What is our long arc? How do we make sure we move our state into a direction where people know that government has their back? And what role does the Working Families Party play — our ballot line, our organizing, our legislative agenda — to get us there? And these are all different tools in our toolbox we use to get towards that end.

Sochie, I remember two years ago you had a major campaign with U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and several other elected officials with the goal of getting people out to vote for President Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the WFP line. I haven't seen a formal campaign like that this year in the same way. Why is that?

We've launched our campaign earlier this year for a state race. I think what we've seen generally is that voters are quite tired of this year and we're trying to generate and really increase turnout in a year where people are hit by inflationary costs, where people are fearful of the new surges in of COVID and where people don't see the big boogeyman motivating factor of Trump.

We're trying to tell people that this year there is as much if not more at stake on the ballot. And we've seen that before. We're trying to encourage people to vote for the governor and the lieutenant governor and really tout and lift up what it would look like if we had this coalition of progressive Democrats pushing and working with the governor's office to deliver more for working people. So we still have two weeks left until Election Day — voters tend to rise a little bit later in New York, especially given the split primaries in the year that we had this year. So we're not taking any day for granted. We are out there talking to voters and we'll make sure that every single day until Election Day we are motivating, engaging, activating, and letting people know what is at stake in this moment and how they can get involved.

[Brigid Bergin is an award-winning senior reporter on the People and Power desk. Fiercely committed to telling stories that help people engage and support democracy for more than a decade, her coverage has led to multiple appearances on NPR, MSNBC and the Black News Network. Brigid's reporting in 2017 included some of the first coverage of a political upstart now known as AOC. In April 2016, she broke the news of a voter purge in Brooklyn just days before New York’s presidential primary, triggering city, state and federal investigations. Brigid also guest hosts The Brian Lehrer Show and The Takeaway. She graduated from the University at Albany and the CUNY Newmark School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @brigidbergin]