The Working Families Party’s growing influence—and bank account—is raising eyebrows among local Democrats. Councilmember Eva Moskowitz has accused the party of illegally funding State Assemblymember Scott Stringer, her chief rival in the race for Manhattan borough president. Meanwhile, Democratic Party officials say the WFP is illegally interfering with their Tuesday primary.

The hubbub started last week, after the WFP sent mailings and sponsored a series of “robo-calls” to registered Democrats, urging them to vote against Eva Moskowitz.

As first reported in the New York Observer’s Politicker blog, the calls blasted Moskowitz for refusing to co-sponsor anti-sweatshop legislation, even though she voted for the bill—twice. “It’s hard enough for families like mine to get by, and Eva Moskowitz is just making it worse, ” said the caller, after identifying herself as a member of the WFP. “Eva Moskowitz, wrong for working families.”

In response, Moskowitz fired off angry letters to Stringer and to the city’s Campaign Finance Board, arguing that the calls and mailings constitute coordinated expenditures on Stringer’s behalf, and thus “threaten to undermine the campaign finance program.”

WFP spokesperson Alex Navarro said his party’s efforts were not linked to Stringer’s campaign. The WFP “is making an independent expenditure in the Manhattan borough president’s race,” Navarro said.

But Moskowitz isn’t the only one raising questions about the party’s conduct. Arthur Greig, law chair of the New York County Democratic Committee, considers the calls and literature an effort to influence the Democratic primary. Under state election laws, parties are prohibited from spending funds on behalf of specific candidates before a primary.

“It’s not this particular race we’re interested in,” Greig said. “It’s the whole concept. What are these guys doing getting involved in our primary race?”

Greig compares the mailings to those sent out by the WFP in the 2004 primary for Albany D.A. With an infusion of cash from George Soros, the WFP put out four mailings on behalf of David Soares, a relatively unknown prosecutor who vowed to reform the state’s antiquated drug laws. Soares toppled incumbent Paul Clyne in an upset victory that demonstrated the new power of the WFP.

“We didn’t really pay that much attention to them before,” said Greig. “Soares woke everybody up.”

The Albany County Democratic Party, joined by the County Independence Party, State Republican Committee and State Conservative Party, ultimately sued the WFP and won. Yet this case is different, Navarro explained, because, unlike the Albany mailings, the anti-Eva calls and flyers never specifically mention the Democratic primary.

“We’re confident we’re in full compliance with the letter and sprit of every applicable city and state law,” said Navarro. The WFP, he added, can’t be barred from talking about its own general election candidates before September 13.

The Campaign Finance Board has yet to weigh in on the controversy. “We do not comment on individual campaigns and we audit all campaigns,” said Deputy Press Secretary Andrea Lynn.

Regardless of outcome, the battle highlights the increasing strength of a once-fledgling party. Between Jan. and July 2005, the WFP harvested donations from many of the city’s top pols, including its own endorsees. Morgenthau 2005 and Quinn for Council 2005 each donated $5,000, for example; Friends of Yassky and Supporters of Addabbo each gave $1,000. In total, the WFP collected a whopping $1,008,958, compared to $174,039 during the same period in 2001.

Councilmember Margarita Lopez, another candidate for Manhattan borough president, wonders if the party has lost sight of its mission as it has grown. “I’m the progressive in this race,” she said, though she wasn’t surprised the party backed Stringer. “Endorsements reflect the interests of who controls the institution, not the interests of who they claim to represent.”

Navarro disagrees. “Voters and people inside and around politics see what the party has been able to accomplish around issues like the minimum wage and reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” he said. “That awareness and recognition gives the party more power to advance the issues that we care about.”

–Cassi Feldman