A minor political party could make major waves this fall with its push for progressive legislation in support of working people

Photo courtesy of Working Family Party

Championing bread-and-butter causes affecting low and middle-income earners, such as raising the minimum wage and taxing the wealthy, one independent political party headquartered in Brooklyn Heights is intent on a sweeping elimination of Democratic incumbents in the upcoming elections.

Formed in 1998 with a presence in 19 states, the Working Families Party claims to fight for an economy that “works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.” This election cycle, the party is crusading to vote out the “corporate Democrats” accused of consorting with Republicans in exchange for campaign money from real estate lobbyists.

WFP founder and executive director Bill Lipton consults with organizer Kayla Rivera. Photo credit: BK Reader

“The Democrats have to really change. And if not, they need to get out of the way so we can build a new party in this country that actually represents working people.”

Among them are Senator Jesse Hamilton of District 20 in Brooklyn and seven other Democratic state senators who are part of the Republican-aligned Independent Democratic Conference. The IDC purportedly blocked progressive initiatives, such as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s effort to give $4.2 billion in IOUs for underfunded public schools and also stalled efforts to pass criminal justice reform that would eliminate bail for misdemeanors. The WFP has endorsed Hamilton’s opponent, progressive lawyer and activist Zellnor Myrie.

Insurgency is an uncharacteristic move for a minor political party, but WFP has laid everything on the line by endorsing Governor Andrew Cuomo’s challenger, Sex and the City actress and activist Cynthia Nixon despite her lagging in recent polls, and launching the “No Trump Democrats” campaign in January this year to educate voters about the eight senators who defected and are running for re-election on the Democratic ticket.

While this radical overture has cost WFP the support of union leaders fearful of angering Cuomo, founder Bill Lipton says the trade-off is worth it:

“Our mission is to ensure that there is a party that represents working people,” he says. “The Democrats have to really change before they can be that party. And if not, they need to get out of the way so we can build a new party in this country that actually represents working people.”

Ava Benezra, a political organizer at WFP, came up with the idea for the ‘No Trump Democrats’ campaign to dispel the mystery of the IDC by sending 300,000 text messages and placing hundreds of thousands of calls to voters.

Ava Benezra, a political organizer at WFP, speaks to a client. Photo credit: BK Reader

“The majority of Americans when asked what the Democratic party stands for respond with ‘I don’t know.’ That was a big problem for the Democrats in 2016 and we want to change that.”

“I think before this campaign, the IDC was an intensely convoluted issue to explain; they just lied for years and years,” said Benezra. But those who felt jarred after the 2016 presidential election sprang into action, many as political activists. “When that shifted we really wanted to take advantage of that and we really wanted to put it to use on winning elections,” she said.

The WFP has also endorsed two candidates for attorney general: Constitutional rights lawyer Zephyr Teachout and public advocate Tish James, the first WFP member elected to office when she won a City Council seat in 1997. After the primaries in September, WFP will back the winning candidate for the general election. Meanwhile, Councilmember Jumaane Williams, running for lieutenant governor against incumbent Kathy Hochul, is also on the WFP ballot.

“Here you have Andrew Cuomo who raises tens of millions of dollars from the same people, the Koch brothers. Donald Trump himself has given this guy money.”

Lipton says the real reason Trump won the 2016 presidential election is that Democratic voters can’t trust their own party when elected officials are in the pocket of corporations. “There was a lot of concern about those Goldman Sachs speeches and the donors to her foundations,” he says of the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The New York State Democratic Party exemplifies this problem at the local level, Lipton says. “Here you have Andrew Cuomo who raises tens of millions of dollars from the same people, the Koch brothers. Donald Trump himself has given this guy money. And so many wealthy real estate industry leaders and hedge fund leaders.”

One of numerous walls papered in handmade posters at the WFP office

The result in New York, he says, is a rift between progressives and liberal Democrats, who seem fiscally and ideologically conservative in contrast. “The Democratic party is like a person without a country. They’re lost and they’re trying to find themselves.”

He cites survey data indicating that the majority of Americans when asked what the Democratic party stands for respond with “I don’t know.”

“That was a big problem for [the Democrats] in 2016 and we want to change that.”

The New York State primaries will take place on September 13, followed by the general elections on November 6. In New York State, to register to vote, go here.

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Kindra Cooper

Kindra Cooper is a freelance journalist and copy editor. She hails from Indonesia, where she wrote features for The Jakarta Post, Indonesia's largest English-language newspaper. Once in New York, she covered...

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