Ten years ago, Dan Cantor was trying to fend off a friend who had been guilt-tripping him into giving to National Public Radio during one of the network’s regular pledge drives.
“I’ll tell you what,” Cantor responded. “I’ll start giving when Bill de Blasio becomes mayor.”
And so, NPR, please prepare a complimentary tote bag for Mr. Cantor. A donation should be coming your way soon.
That’s because de Blasio, New York City’s public advocate, is poised to win a historic victory Tuesday night in the race to become the next mayor of New York City. And for Cantor, the head of the Working Families Party, it will be a victory more than 10 years in the making and one that cements his and the WFP’s place as political power brokers of the first order in the new, post-Bloomberg New York.
“Early on, back when [de Blasio] was just on the school board, we saw him as someone we could hitch our wagon to,” Cantor said. “And he to us.”
Less than 24 hours before polls opened, Cantor was in his office at the WFP’s headquarters in a gritty strip of downtown Brooklyn. Stacks of bankers boxes stuffed with documents teetered in one corner. Dressed like an out-of-work filmmaker (minus the shades) in blue jeans, a vest, and a red scarf draped over his neck, he shared a laugh with an aide about a column that had run in the New York Post over the weekend by Bob McManus. In it, McManus, a former editor of the tabloid’s editorial page, called Cantor’s group the “rolling-in-clover Working Families Party” and wrote that the group was “a laser-focused, hard-left-leaning coalition of militant private-sector unions, grasping public-sector unions and advantage-seeking hangers-on now masquerading as a ‘progressive’ mainstream political party.”
“Now de Blasio and the WFP will ascend to the mayoralty together,” McManus added.
“It was ‘de Blasio is going to steal your money, your wife, your children, your freedom, the WFP made it possible, and now it is payback time for the WFP,’” Cantor chuckled.
McManus’s portrayal may have been hyperbolic, but the closeness of Cantor and the WFP and the likely next mayor of New York is hard to overstate.
The two men met 30 years ago, when they were both graduate students at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Cantor, originally from Levittown, New York, had been a labor organizer in New Orleans and New York, and had worked for the progressive outfit ACORN but eventually turned almost full-time to party-building. He founded the little-remembered New Party in the mid-1990s, and when that sank after a court decision limited the ability of minor political parties to cross-endorse other candidates, he teamed up with some allies to found the Working Families Party in 1998.
Among them was a Clinton administration official named Bill de Blasio.
The idea was birthed at a time when the Democratic Party was in retreat in New York. George Pataki was cruising to reelection as governor, Rudy Giuliani was in his second term as mayor, and the Legislature was controlled by Republicans. The Democratic Party seemed to be at least complicit in this state of affairs, more concerned with pleasing party bosses and the donor class than electing progressives.
“The idea was there is a big market for common sense progressive politics, focused on the issue of inequality,” Cantor said now. “The question is how can you get heard over the din? And the way you get heard if you want to make non-violent political change is via a political party.”
New York’s arcane voting rules allow for minor political parties to endorse candidates who run as candidates for major political parties. The possibilities of a Ralph Nader type stealing votes from an Al Gore are thus diminished, as the minor parties can permit the candidate they prefer in a Democratic primary to run on their line in the general election.
“Party,” however, is something of a misnomer. The WFP is more akin to an umbrella organization of affiliated groups that often have their own agenda and process. That includes major unions such as SEIU, the transportation workers, the teachers union, smaller labor unions such as the American Federation of Musicians, and activist groups such as Citizen Action and ACORN, now called New York Communities for Change.
Each affiliate has a weighted vote to endorse candidates, and so in this year’s hotly contested Democratic primary, the WFP did not make an endorsement, despite Cantor’s obvious affection for de Blasio. After the primary, the party quickly fell in behind him, and Cantor is clearly proud that such a nakedly left-wing message was victorious.
“I think the basic view is that this thing has succeeded way beyond what anyone thought it might,” Cantor said. “The Working Families Party helped make the de Blasio ascension possible. The work we have done to inject issues of income inequality into the debate, from the first day—we have been articulating and advancing a policy of fairness over these last 10 years. The right’s view is that vast inequality is the price you pay for freedom. They are very clear on this. And our view is vast inequality is the price you pay for stupid rules. We are Rooseveltians. When people are secure that they are going to retire with some dignity, they are not less free.”
The likely de Blasio win is just the latest in a string of WFP victories. In 2008 and again in 2012, the party helped turn the New York State Senate Democratic after nearly a half century of GOP rule. In 2009, it became involved in a number of City Council races, winning almost all of them and creating a “Progressive Caucus”—“launched right here in this office!” Cantor said—that has grown nearly as large as the county groups that have traditionally been that body’s organizing principle. In 2010, the Working Families Party was an early supporter of Eric Schneiderman in his campaign for attorney general, even as forces allied with Gov. Andrew Cuomo worked for another candidate. Schneiderman, who like de Blasio was present at the creation of the WFP, eked out a victory and has become one of the left’s heroes for his willingness to take on Wall Street.
“It turns out, and this should not surprise anyone, that when you talk about income inequality in a Democratic primary in New York, you do pretty good,” Cantor said. “It wasn’t like it was words they hadn’t thought of. I mean, open up the fucking real estate section of The New York Times. You are like, ‘This is gross.’ Every week there is another story about some bizarre $30 million apartment. What is this? And so when someone stands up and says, ‘This is a tale of two cities,” they are like, ‘Fuck yeah!’”
But the party’s rise hasn’t been powered by rhetoric but a highly sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation that has sent armies of canvassers door-to-door in races in which the WFP thinks it can play. A few years ago, the WFP spun off its political operation into a for-profit arm; concerns that the canvassing arm was operating outside the campaign finance system helped spur an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office. That investigation is now closed, and the GOTV operation has been folded back into the regular party apparatus. But questions surrounding the operation kept Cuomo at a distance when he ran for governor in 2010. As a result, the party nearly lost its coveted ballot status.
“That was a rough year,” Cantor said. “[Cuomo] was tacking in this other direction. Look, politics is hard. If all you wanted to do was elect a few more Democrats to office, you would open a consulting firm, save yourself the headache. But our ambition is something larger. We would like to reshape the terms of the debate.”
Now Cantor cites private polling that says the Working Families seal of approval is the greatest single mover of votes in New York City, outpacing even in the much sought-after New York Times.
“Every candidate we endorse puts our logo front and frigging center,” he said. “Why are they doing that? They aren’t trying to curry favor with us. It must be a valuable name to be associated with. It is no longer just a bunch of fringe lefties over here. This is what is exciting. This is what we have always said: These are very popular ideas—the idea that we would like a society where people could have decent lives without having to be rich. That is, like, a radical view in America.”
In 2008, Cantor’s bond with de Blasio was cemented further when they teamed up to challenge Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s efforts to overturn the city’s term limit law and run for a third term. They lost, but not in the long run. The law set de Blasio up to run citywide for public advocate. When another WFP ally, John Liu, also got in that race, party operatives leaned on him to run for city comptroller instead. He won, too, and the WFP was able to count on allies in every citywide post but the top job. This year, it will be able to lay claim to all three, after going all in for Letitia James in her run for public advocate and Scott Stringer in his race for city comptroller. And the party has secured victories on the legislative front, pushing for an increase in the minimum wage, paid medical leave, and guaranteed living wage on certain development projects.
And with New York now firmly on its side, the WFP is seeking to expand beyond the six states where it has a footprint.
“I think the governor of Connecticut [Dannel Malloy] would say we were frigging helpful in Connecticut, where he won by 5,000 votes and got 27,000 votes on the WFP line,” Cantor said. “The result of that, by the way, was his great support for a Paid Sick Day law in Connecticut. This is not a fast approach. You have to accrue power, use it in ethical ways, and hope that voters reward you for doing this. And so far they have.”
Cantor said he sees the election of de Blasio as the capstone of a transformational year for the progressive movement.
“Think about the last year,” he said. “Elizabeth Warren. Blocking Summers. Blocking the bombing of Syria. It starts to feel like a swing of the pendulum here.”
And if the Post and its allies don’t like that, tough.
“This guy will be the left wing of the possible,” Cantor said. “The New York Post can rant and rave. They have had a great ride and they don’t want it to end, and they know that people who are not them are going to be talking to the mayor in a way they don’t like.”