Governor’s Race Is No Party for Working Families

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It was exactly what the Working Families Party was founded to do: Last Thursday, it got both Democratic gubernatorial candidates to promise in a joint press conference that, if elected, they would raise the state’s minimum wage to $6.75 an hour. Noting that under state law, the Governor could easily raise it himself, without the legislature’s approval, the party scolded the Republican incumbent: “Governor Pataki, who calls himself the champion of working people, could address the needs of 700,000 of New York’s working people who are struggling to make ends meet,” said party co-chair Bob Master to the packed room. “That’s what traditional Democratic values are all about, and that is why we’re here today.”

But as Democratic candidates Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo both vowed, in a union hall so labor its bathrooms were designated for “Sisters” and “Brothers,” to raise the minimum wage, many of the state’s major labor unions–including health care workers’ 1199, the 40,000-member Laborers, and, reportedly imminent, the hotel and needletrades unions–were already lining up behind Republican George Pataki. For the fledlging party, founded in 1998 to drag the two major parties to the left, the imminent clash of those party interests could mean big trouble when it comes to endorsing a candidate for governor in this fall’s election.

“Danny can’t endorse Pataki–he’d be shot,” said one labor insider, referring to Working Families Party executive director Dan Cantor. But if Working Families backs a candidate with little union support, he added, “How the hell are they going to get 50,000 [votes] for someone else?”

This math problem is a real one. To appear on the ballot for the 2003 elections, the party must get at least that many votes on its party line this fall. And if the unions endorse one candidate, and the party backs another, to whom will the voters be loyal?

“We don’t have people walking around the streets saying, ‘I’m gonna vote for the Working Families Party,’” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who’s working for McCall. “Regardless of who the Democratic nominee is, they’re going to have to work like the devil to get that 50,000 threshold.”

To the party Cassandras, most of whom are in the McCall camp, endorsing early is the way around the conundrum. But Masters’ own Communications Workers of America is already strongly supporting Cuomo. Meanwhile, party co-chair Bertha Lewis, head of the ACORN Political Action Committee, seems likely to go for McCall–he’s strongly backing ACORN’s national lawsuit and City Council bill against predatory lenders. No matter which Dem it chooses, the party seems headed for a split when its state committee meets on May 19.

As many see it, there is only one way out of this: party loyalty, unions be damned. Said Lewis, “This year may be the most starkest example: Unions and union leadership can say one thing, but the rank and file may do another … instead of just saying, ‘My big union says yes.’”

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