The Working Families Party (WFP) was founded in 1998 by members of (the now-defunct) community organization ACORN, the Communications Workers of America, and the United Automobile Workers (UAW). WFP supports leftwing political candidates running for state and local office in several U.S. states, most prominently New York. The leader of ACORN's New York chapter, Steven Kest, was the major force behind the party's formation, and WFP's headquarters were initially located at the same address as ACORN's national office—88 Third Avenue in Brooklyn. WFP's co-chairs in 1998 were former New York City Councilmember Sal Albanese, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, UAW Region 9 Director Tom Fricano, UNITE! labor leader Ernesto Jofre, and Brooklyn Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez.
Since its inception, WFP has benefited from a quirk of New York State election law which allows parties to “cross-endorse” candidates of other parties. This “electoral fusion” enables sympathetic voters to support a minor party without feeling like they are “wasting” their vote. For the most part, WFP, throughout its history, has cross-endorsed Democrats with far-left political values; the Party has run candidates of its own only occasionally.
WFP-backed candidates generally conceal their extremism beneath a veneer of populist rhetoric, promoting bread-and-butter issues designed to appeal to union workers and other blue-collar voters, Republican and Democrat alike. The Party uses this approach, as one early WFP organizer put it, in hopes of gradually, stealthily moving the Democrats ever further “toward the progressive end of the spectrum.” Shortly after the party's launch in 1998, co-founder Bob Master emphasized WFP's unbreakable bond with Democrats, saying: “We are very clear that we are not abandoning the Democratic Party.”
In order to gain “permanent” status on the New York state ballot, the fledgling WFP needed to win a minimum of 50,000 votes in at least one political election. The Party accomplished this in 1998 by cross-endorsing Democratic City Council Speaker Peter Vallone in that year's election gubernatorial race. Vallone lost the election, but his moderate Democrat politics—which were utterly incompatible with ACORN's doctrine of militant class struggle—helped to lure 51,325 unwitting New Yorkers into voting on the WFP line, thus qualifying the Party for ballot status.
Having established itself in this surreptitious manner as a legitimate political party, WFP began seeking concessions from a number of major-party candidates, gaining leverage through its power to grant or deny its endorsements. When Hillary Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate (representing New York) in 2000, for instance, she ran on both the Democratic Party ticket and the WFP ticket. After receiving WFP's endorsement, Mrs. Clinton, vowing to wage a “people's grassroots campaign,” told a cheering crowd of WFP-affiliated supporters: “I consider this the beginning of a partnership.”
During her 2000 campaign, Mrs. Clinton spoke at numerous WFP events, most memorably at the Party's debut convention, held March 26-27, 2000 in Albany—an event which the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) newspaper People's Weekly World approvingly called “a turning point in New York politics.” Also in attendance at the convention was a delegation from the Democratic Socialists of America, many of whose members belong to WFP.
“Candidates know that when they're on our [WFP] line, they're committed to certain things,” said Bertha Lewis, who, at that time, served as WFP's co-chair and ACORN-New York's executive director. Just days before Mrs. Clinton won her U.S. Senate seat in November 2000, Lewis noted: “Hillary knows that if she wins, we're going to be knockin' on her door. She won't be able to hide.” Of the 3.4 million popular votes Mrs. Clinton received from New Yorkers in that Senate election, WFP delivered 103,000.
That same year, WFP also cross-endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, winning 80,000 votes for him. “[T]here have been few candidates in history more supportive of our issues than Al Gore and Hillary Clinton,” proclaimed WFP campaign literature.
During the 2004 election cycle, the CPUSA was very supportive of WFP, endorsing the latter's congressional candidate, Frank Barbaro.
Also in the 2004 election cycle, a new, highly influential force entered New York politics: billionaire financier George Soros. The Soros-funded Drug Policy Alliance—a drug legalization lobby through which Soros often funnels political contributions—gave $81,500 to the Albany County District Attorney campaign of Democrat David Soares. Instead of donating the money directly, however, the Drug Policy Alliance laundered Soros' contribution through the Working Families Party—an illegal act. New York State law bars one party from funding another party’s candidate.
In 2006, WFP exhorted voters to “help stop the [George W.] Bush agenda and elect a Democratic majority to the House of Representatives” by supporting its “Take Back Congress” project.
In 2009, WFP supported New York State's newly increased “millionaire's tax” on the income of individuals earning $500,000 or more per year. When New York billionaire Tom Golisano (whose tax liability rose to $13,000 per day as a result of the tax hike) announced that he would thus be moving to Florida (which had no state income tax), WFP executive director Dan Cantor called Golisano's move “selfish” and “a disgrace.”
In a July 2010 interview with the New York Post, Brooklyn resident and former WFP employee Patrick Crooks reported that during his brief stint with the Party, he had been encouraged by superiors to falsify names and addresses on sign-up sheets supporting WFP's campaign to repeal a state law involving rent regulation: “I saw that everyone else was doing it [putting down fake names] and my field manager was encouraging it ... just so it looked like other people had been signing ... But from my second day onward I decided not to do it ... It just didn’t seem right to me.” Crooks also enumerated several other unethical practices that prompted him to quit. According to the Post, these included:
"Being misled about the type of work he was hired to perform — fund-raising and canvassing instead of policy work";
"Getting a paycheck from the party’s former political arm, Data and Field Services, although the job posting he responded to was for the WFP"; and
"Receiving instruction to collect money and names in buildings that had “no trespassing” signs and only leave if forced out by police."
In the fall of 2011, WFP supported the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. That October, the Party posted a help-wanted ad on Craig's List soliciting “energetic communicator[s]” with “a passion for social and economic justice” and a desire to “make $350-650 a week 'protesting' on Wall Street.”
Lamenting that in America “a person’s class, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or country of origin continue to determine too much of one’s chances in life,” WFP seeks to bring about “a rebirth of democracy”; end “the stupid and cruel [capitalist] economic policies that are destroying cities and communities” with “corrosive inequality”; and promote wholesale wealth redistribution, on the theory that “the blessings of liberty must be shared.”
Other major priorities of the Working Families Party include:
* Affordable Housing: WFP condemns a New York City “rent law loophole” stipulating that when a family in a rent-stabilized apartment moves out, landlords can often “deregulate” the apartment and, as WFP phrases it, “charge whatever they want for the next tenants—even double or triple the old rent.”
* Green Jobs, Green Homes: To “massively reduc[e]” Americans' carbon footprint and their energy bills while “creating thousands of family-supporting jobs,” WFP favors programs that offer “green retrofits”—to be implemented disproportionately by nonwhite minority workers—to homeowners and landlords at no upfront cost.
* Clean Elections: To “radically level the playing field between working families and powerful corporate interests,” WFP favors a public campaign-finance arrangement that would cap big-money donations and match low-dollar contributions with public funds.
* Education: Calling for “community control and equitable funding of our schools,” WFP advocates “increased investment in our public school system—a qualified teacher in every classroom, smaller class sizes, pre-Kindergarten classes, [and] increased funding for after-school programs.” Ultimately, the Party supports programs and policies whose net effect is to maximize the number of publicly funded, unionized education workers.
* Equal Rights: WFP calls for reduced levels of incarceration for “nonviolent offenses” such as drug crimes; an immediate moratorium on the death penalty, on grounds that “capital sentences fall most heavily on minorities” while “no evidence [exists] that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime”; marriage rights for “all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation”; and a “path” by which illegal immigrants, whose “hard work and sacrifice” have contributed greatly to America's “prosperity and cultural vibrancy,” can “becom[e] full participants in our society.”
* Good Jobs, Living Wages: Asserting that “hard-working men and women deserve good, family-supporting jobs,” WFP contends that “raising the minimum wage, and tying the new rate to inflation, will help thousands of low-wage workers across New York make ends meet.”
* Healthcare for All: WFP demands a “guarantee” of “high-quality, affordable healthcare for every New Yorker.”
* Paid Family Leave: WFP is outraged that the U.S. is “the only advanced country without a paid family leave program” whereby employees can continue to draw a salary while taking time off to care for a newborn baby or a sick family member.
* Public Transportation: Asserting that “our public transportation system is in [fiscal] crisis,” WFP calls for injecting that system with a “massive new investment” of “state and city” tax dollars.
Among WFP's leading officials are executive director Dan Cantor (a longtime community organizer) and secretary Jon Kest (former director of New York ACORN, and the younger brother of Steven Kest).
Unlike conventional political parties, WFP charges its members annual dues—$30 for union members and $60 for non-union members—a policy characteristic of ACORN and its affiliates. In 2009, WFP raised approximately $1.8 million from nearly 30,000 donors.
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