How the Working Families Party found itself emboldened in 2018
New York candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon Bebeto Matthews/AP

Decades before the Trump era, the Working Families Party was launched as a means to channel grassroots energy into the left’s electoral politics.

Founded in New York in 1998 by a coalition of labor unions and community groups, the minor political party has spent the last two decades building up the infrastructure for a progressive electoral movement in 19 different states across the country. Once known primarily as a New York-based organization, the WFP is now active everywhere from Washington, D.C., to Wisconsin, and has helped elect progressive candidates across the country — even in places it does not have any active chapters.

Now, the party is making a number of moves to further solidify its niche in the political ecosystem, as it aims to become the nexus between grassroots social movements and electoral politics. And they’re ready to take on everyone from the Republican speaker of the house to the Democratic governor of New York to do it.

On April 9, the WFP announced that it had tapped veteran social justice organizer Maurice Mitchell to be it’s new national director. The decision came after more than a year of searching for the best candidate to lead the party into a new era.

“Maurice is a rare combination. He’s a visionary leader and a skilled and detail-oriented tactician,” said Dan Cantor the outgoing national director who will now chair the party’s national committee. “He can paint an inspiring future, and also break down the steps to get there. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have Maurice take the party to the next level.”

In an interview with Mic, Mitchell made clear that he wants to make the WFP the political home for social movement leaders willing to enter the world of electoral politics, providing them with skills and resources they need to compete with career politicians.

“For a while, there were people on the left who were great tacticians, but political hacks,” Mitchell said. “And you had people who were ideologically principled, but not good at winning elections. This provides an opportunity to have both the heft and skills to win, and the vision.”

Mitchell, 38, has spent most of his adult life confronting the issues facing marginalized communities in America. While attending Howard University in 2000, he says he became aware of the problem of police brutality after an officer shot and killed his unarmed classmate Prince C. Jones Jr. The story of Jones’ killing was famously recounted by another Howard classmate, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his bestselling book Between the World and Me.

Since then, Mitchell became increasingly involved in the movement to end police brutality and other progressive movements. After college he spent years working for organizing groups, like the Long Island Progressive Coalition and Citizen Action of New York, before running the New York State Civic Engagement Table, a coalition of community groups from across New York state.

After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Mitchell cofounded the racial justice group Blackbird, one of the anchor organizations for the Movement for Black Lives. He later helped organize the Movement for Black Lives convention in 2015, which helped bring racial justice groups across the country together and shine a spotlight on the national movement to end the killing of unarmed black and brown people.

Now he plans to use his new role to help the WFP build on a strategy of recruiting leaders from grassroots movements, like the Movement for Black Lives, the movement to support public school teachers and the immigrants’ rights movement and others to run for political office.

“What’s exciting about being a party that is the electoral expression of movements is a lot of those people can find a political home in the Working Families Party,” Mitchell said. He argues that the WFP could work symbiotically with groups to elect social justice-focused candidates, and then continue to build support and pressure for their agenda once in office.

“It’s the job of the Working Families Party to find candidates who will reflect its values. It’s the job of movements to hold them accountable. So I see these roles as complimentary,” he said.

These candidates include Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the recently elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, whose unapologetically radical campaign for office was endorsed by the WFP over eight other Democratic primary candidates in the race. And WFP has been working to ensure that a potential 2018 progressive wave isn’t just about electing career Democrats whose politics are merely to the left of Donald Trump.

In addition to Lumumba, the party has endorsed major progressive challengers around the country. It was among the first organizations to endorse Randy “Ironstache” Bryce, the union ironworker who gained national fame with his campaign challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan in his home district. Ryan recently announced he will not seek re-election in the race against the staunchly progressive Bryce, who has run a populist progressive campaign that supports everything from single-payer health care to abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Breaking with Cuomo

The WFP’s boldest 2018 move, however, was in the race for governor of New York. On April 14, the party’s New York chapter endorsed actress, political neophyte and longtime activist Cynthia Nixon over incumbent Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

That endorsement carried significant weight, given the WFP’s long and complicated history with Cuomo.

Cuomo was endorsed by WFP during his initial run for governor in 2010. In the 2014 governor’s race, the party considered endorsing his progressive challenger Zephyr Teachout for the governorship. But because of New York’s “fusion” ballot system, candidates can receive the endorsement of multiple political parties, which allows voters to choose which party’s ballot line they wish to cast their vote on.

Some feared in 2014 that a Teachout endorsement would split the progressive and Democratic vote between her and Cuomo, allowing Republican candidate Rob Astorino a chance to come out ahead.

In the end, the WFP decided to broker a deal with Cuomo, endorsing his candidacy in exchange for a number of promises on key progressive issues like supporting a higher minimum wage. But after the endorsement, Cuomo decided to back his own new minority party, known as the “Women’s Equality Party” — whose initials WEP were just one small line away from those of the WFP.

Many progressives saw the move as an attempt to weaken the WFP by reducing the number of voters who cast their votes on the WFP ballot line. This year, it was unclear if Cuomo would once again be able to use his power and standing to wrangle a WFP endorsement away from his challenger.

On April 14, the WFP ultimately chose Nixon; doing this brought about the wrath of New York’s Democratic political machine. Two major labor unions with strong ties to the Democratic party — the local 32BJ chapter of the SEIU and the Communication Workers of America — both withdrew their support for the WFP over their decision to endorse Nixon (Editor’s note: Mic’s editorial staff are part of the NewsGuild of New York, a member organization of CWA).

WFP NY released a statement following the decision expressing sympathy for the members of the two unions and saying that Cuomo had threatened to deny access to their unions if they continued to support WFP. “Our friends in labor are in a tight spot, and we respect their decision,” said WFP NY state director Bill Lipton.

But critics have begun suggesting that by endorsing Nixon, the New York chapter of the WFP is straying from its roots.

“When the WFP really started to grow and assert themselves, it was to ensure organized labor and the rights of labor members had a clear voice in politics,” Jon Reinish, a New York Democratic strategist and critic of the WFP’s Nixon endorsement, said in an interview. “It has become less about actually advocating about the rights of union members and unions, and much more about an identity-based and character-based liberal or progressive litmus test.”

Such a fight over union support may look strange to anyone who followed Cuomo’s initial 2010 campaign for governor, in which he vowed to mount an offensive against the state’s powerful labor unions. But unions like CWA and the SEIU rely on their ties to the institutional Democratic party to survive, particularly in an era when Republican lawmakers nationwide have tried to hack away at union rights.

The New York WFP’s decision to stand behind Nixon, despite the immense pressure from these groups, is emblematic of the organization’s emboldened position in 2018.

“What we’ve seen in the last few days is that, when you break with Cuomo, he tries to break you,” Mitchell said in a Facebook video about the decision. “[Cynthia Nixon] is not just an actress, she’s an activist who’s used her voice to lift up so many of our fights.”

A longterm investment in the movement

Outside of New York, the decision not to back Cuomo will almost certainly have ramifications for the WFP. As the organization continues to build up its infrastructure in states across the country, it will have to navigate its complicated relationship with the Democratic party, and its huge institutional power.

Democratic special election wins across the country continue to suggest the 2018 midterms will be a make or break moment for the progressive movement. This has led the WFP to prepare to make a bold investment in organizers outside the traditional structures of politics. Such an investment will take time to pay off, as grassroots movements continue to try and build power outside the two-party system.

Mitchell says that he doesn’t plan to go all-in on near-term electoral success. Instead, he wants build a sustainable organizing base that will continue the fight for generations to come.

“If you’re building an organization for victory in 2018 or 2020, then your organization will have value for the next few years and dissipate,” Mitchell said. “If you’re interested in generational change, then you build a party and an electoral strategy that builds ongoing local chapters where they are focusing on political education.”

“It’s about shifting a party from focusing narrowly on an election, to focusing on transformational change over a generation.”