In today’s America, the concept of change and the structure of political parties seem to pull in polar opposite directions. But a political party on the progressive left, the Working Families Party, is an interesting case study in how a small group can (slowly) pull once fringe ideas into the mainstream.
Founded in New York in 1998, it is having an impact on local and state politics around the country. In July, we covered an innovative pilot project that it's behind in Oregon, which would create a debt-free college of sorts, where students would pay back loans at rates proportional to their income after graduation. The state legislature endorsed the fresh idea swiftly and unanimously—a rarity for an idea that would bring real progress to the increasingly pressing issue of crushing student debt. And in New York City, which is going through a major election cycle, the Working Families Party is at its strongest ever and could send a number of candidates to the City Council in November.
We spoke with the Working Families Party to understand how it has built a strong third-party movement.
The Working Families Party is a "minor party," and instead of running its own candidates, they usually deal in endorsements. In New York, where the party was formed, it’s at its strongest, in part because it has the strongest form of "fusion voting." It lets voters select WFP-endorsed candidates and explicitly vote for them on the minor party (WFP) line, as opposed to the major party line. After 15 years of building its progressive brand, the WFP endorsement has clout in primaries, too. "In New York City, we're on track to elect a dozen new progressive members to the City Council, who all won hotly contested Democratic primaries, often against a flood of real estate money," says Jessy Tolkan, a strategist who is helping to grow the Working Families Party across the country.
With solid progressive credentials and a union-heavy membership, the Working Families Party isn’t trying to be the largest tent. But its agenda also isn’t a top-down party line, according to Tolkan, because it’s set by a coalition of both unions and non-union groups. Getting agreement from that limited diversity has its downsides—the party didn’t manage to endorse a democratic mayoral candidate in New York City’s latest primary, for instance. But it also keeps the party focused on issues that concern working people, rather than those of a single special interest. "My union is part of Working Families because we need a political organization that fights for the 99%," said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, which represents property service workers. "It’s important that working people, immigrants and low-wage workers have a voice not only at their workplaces, but in politics too."
The Working Families Party is solidly progressive, but that doesn’t mean it's solidly Democratic. In fact, most of its big successes involve taking on not Republicans but conservative Democrats. In Oregon, the nascent operation backed a successful push to defeat Mike Schaufler (who Tolkan calls "the Koch Brothers’ favorite democrat") in a primary election last year. "Defeating Mike Schaufler really put us on the map in Oregon," says Tolkan. "It meant every other lawmaker had to take us seriously, because they knew that if we work hard, we can help swing an election."
Another way WFP shakes up the traditional D-R dichotomy is by picking ideas backed by neither, but have the broad appeal that comes from taking on the serious economic concerns of working people. Debt-free education in Oregon is one example. Paid sick leave, which came most recently to Jersey City, is another. "New solutions energize and mobilize people," says Tolkan. "Paid sick days was a brand new idea to Connecticut when we started. Now that more cities and states are following suit, it doesn't look so unusual."
The Working Families Party was founded 15 years ago, but it has become a serious political force in New York much more recently. It takes years in a community to build the base that makes electoral wins possible. And that has a corollary for what happens after the elections. "We don't quit the day after elections," she says. "That’s when the fun begins." The fun part? Holding the elected officials accountable.