Capital New York
May 31, 2014
COLONIE—Governor Andrew Cuomo clinched the nomination of the Working Families Party late Saturday, capturing 58 percent of the state committee’s weighted vote afterpromising to campaign for a Democrat-controlled state Senate that would carry forward the party’s progressive platform.
The vote followed a raucous, nearly four-hour nominating convention, during which party leaders fought openly, at times bitterly, over whether or not to rebuff Cuomo in favor of Zephyr Teachout. The Fordham professor and former campaign aide to Howard Dean was encouraged by activist groups even as labor leaders coalesced around Cuomo. She took 41 percent of the vote and said she would consider challenging Cuomo in a Democratic primary.
Many W.F.P. priorities have stalled in the state Senate, which is currently controlled by a governing coalition made up of Republicans and the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference.
“To make this agenda a reality we must change the senate leadership,” Cuomo told the members in a pre-taped video message, which was initially drowned out by boos and jeers from the crowd. Cuomo said that under the terms of the deal, the I.D.C. “must agree to return to the Democratic party, or face our unified opposition.”
He spoke of a legislative agenda that includes an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, indexed to inflation and with the option of localities to increase it by an additional 30 percent within their borders. He called for passage of the Dream Act to provide tuition aid to the children of undocumented immigrants, and the Womens’ Equality Act, which changes state law on abortion, pay equity and sexual harassment.
Union leaders, particularly, whipped votes and spoke passionately of the need for the party to be pragmatic and using Cuomo’s influence to achieve the party’s goals.
“We ought to be able to capture a victory when we have it sisters and brothers,” said George Gresham, president of powerful healthcare union 1199 SEIU.
“I ask that we don’t overplay our hand at this moment,” Gresham said, wearily.
“Yes many people will say that the governor has not been a perfect governor. I can’t remember the last time we had a perfect anything.”
“We keep quoting around, so I’m going to quote a great philosopher that I know — Kenny Rogers. ‘You need to know when to hold ’em. And goddamnit with this victory you need to know when to fold ’em,'” Gresham said, yelling from the podium.
But anti-Cuomo speakers drew the loud, sustained applause and cheers from the committee members, who set out a litany of complaints about Cuomo’s educational, economic and environmental policies.
“We gave him four years and we said then, never again,” said Bertha Lewis, the former leader of ACORN, as she placed Teachout’s name into nomination.
“There ain’t nothing that was said here about the Senate or minimum wage or schools, not one iota of it depends on someone else other than us fighting for it,” Lewis said.
Phil Rumore, head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, urged members not to believe the promises included in the endorsement deal.
“This party is supposed to be a party of principle. It always has been. I’d implore you to remember the roots of why this party was formed,” he said.
“If you believe that this governor who just in the last day decided he’s going to work against the Democrats, if you believe that this governor is going to really start to work to have a really clean fair elections bill, if you believe any of the things that you heard there today, if you believe all of what he said, I’ve got a bridge for you in Brooklyn that I’m going to sell you real cheap,” he said, to raucous laughter.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a darling of the liberal left and sometime foil to Cuomo, also urged the party’s members to be pragmatic, asking them to remember that it took six years to get an increase in the state’s minimum wage in the party’s early years.
“We did not expect the status quo to move without the action of the W.F.P.,” de Blasio said. “Tonight is, to me, a realization of that door opening wider and wider.”
“Tonight we talk about a package of major changes and reforms for the progressive agenda,” he said, describing the components of the deal with Cuomo as “things we have pleaded with Albany for.”
Under the Senate’s current leadership, “they just weren’t going to happen. But tonight that is changing,” he said.
“This is one of those historic things,” he said.
“There has been no greater enemy to that change than the state senate Republicans.”
In a statement, Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos said he had “grave concerns” about Cuomo’s deal with the W.F.P.
“The voters will choose who controls the New York State Senate, and we are going to have an extraordinary year. No one wants to go back to the chaos and dysfunction of the past,” the statement said. “The scandal-scarred Working Families Party shouldn’t be holding elected officials hostage in exchange for an endorsement, legislation and money.”
Candice Giove, a spokeswoman for I.D.C. leader Jeff Klein, said he was “a lifelong Democrat” who would not “walk away from his record of progressive accomplishments over the past four years.”
“He looks forward to the remaining legislative session and will focus on governing and not be distracted by nefarious political deals,” Giove continued.
Challengers were heartened. Oliver Koppell, a former attorney general who declared a primary run against Klein, smiled during Cuomo’s video announcement. Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Cuomo had been “signaling” his support, and that the deal simply “crystallized” the effort.
Teachout said she would weigh a primary challenge to Cuomo, and promised to be a “watchdog” over Cuomo and the deal.