Working Families is the national organization to which the Working Families Party in several states is affiliated.
At a late 2015 private dinner in Manhattan, a small group of leftists plotted to take over America.
The group, a dozen community organizers and activists from all over the country, had convened at a sushi restaurant in the Flatiron District with the leaders of the New York-based Working Families Party. They were heads of organizations from Boston to Albuquerque, and included National People’s Action and Washington Community Action Network.They were there to hear "why their states should form their own chapters of the insurgent party, in order to capitalize on the country’s rising liberal tide and push the national conversation leftward".
The party’s deputy director, Jon Green, made the pitch. “In 2010, we saw the Tea Party yank the entire political discourse way to the right,” he said. The Tea Party was powerful, he said, because it was boldly ideological; it recruited and groomed candidates; and it created a strong national brand. “Our view is that there isn’t anything analogous to that on the left, and there ought to be.”
With the socialist Bernie Sanders pushing Hillary Clinton leftward in the Democratic presidential primaries, "liberal frustration with national politics has reached a boiling point". Since its founding in the early 90s,the WFP has become an influential fixture of Democratic politics in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. By mid-2016, the WFP plans to be in 11 states, with more on the horizon. In December 2015, month, the WFP endorsed Sanders after an online vote of its national membership. 
Many of the activists in the dining room that night were there "because they thought their states’ liberals needed more edge". Javier Benavidez, the executive director of the SouthWest Organizing Project, a community group that will help to launch the New Mexico Working Families Party later this year.
Analilia Mejia, the crusading director of New Jersey Working Families, jumped in from across the table. “Here is what you say to them, verbatim: ‘Let us be the “crazy” left,’” she said. “‘Let us be the voice that creates the space that allows you to negotiate for more of what you want.’ You can’t be for raising taxes? Let us say, ‘Tax the rich,’ and then you can push harder.”
From Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, to the Black Lives Matter movement and recent social-justice protests on college campuses, the activist left is enjoying a prominence not seen since the 1970s.
Without the WFP, de Blasio, who may be the most powerful progressive in the country, would not likely be mayor. The party’s Chicago partner helped to force Mayor Rahm Emanuel into Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff as he sought reelection last year. It played a key role in increasing the number of blacks on the six-member Ferguson, Missouri, city council from one to three in the wake of that city’s police-brutality protests. WFP-supported candidates have defeated incumbent Democrats in legislative primaries in Connecticut, New York, and Oregon, and party-supported candidates serve on city councils from Hartford to Chicago. The party has been instrumental in pushing issues such as government-mandated paid sick leave and a $15 minimum wage to the forefront of the national Democratic agenda.
The party has succeeded in racking up electoral and policy victories in the places where it has long been active, starting with New York.
In the Empire State, where it was founded, the WFP is undeniably influential. It’s a force in city politics, but also makes its presence felt in the state legislature. It arose as a result of the state’s unusual fusion-voting system, in which candidates can run on the ballot lines of multiple parties—so, for example, a voter for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg would find him listed on the ballot twice, as the Republican candidate and as the candidate of the Independence Party.
The fusion system allows third parties to exert influence on the two established parties, offering them the chance to support major-party candidates rather than playing spoiler. The system has given minor parties an unusual role in New York politics, but while the Conservative Party has generally lived up to its name, the Liberal Party has not: In 1989, it endorsed Republican Rudy Giuliani. The betrayal outraged then-governor Mario Cuomo and prompted a revolt among a group of leftist union leaders and community activists. They formed the New Party in 1990; which became the Working Families Party in 1998. The party is controlled and funded by a board consisting of labor unions, such as the Service Employees International Union, and grassroots groups such as Moveon.org; its national president, Dan Cantor, has worked for Jesse Jackson presidential campaign and ACORN.
Success for the nascent WFP came faster than its founders could have dreamed: In the 1998 election, the party’s endorsed gubernatorial candidate, the Democrat Peter Vallone, received more than 50,000 votes on the WFP line (despite losing the race), guaranteeing the party ballot access going forward. It immediately started scoring policy victories: the state’s first county-level living-wage ordinances; a statewide hike in the minimum wage passed over the veto of a Republican governor in 2004; and the first major reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws, set in motion by a WFP-backed African American candidate’s primary defeat of a conservative Democratic district attorney in Albany.
In 2003, Letitia James won election to the New York City Council on the WFP line alone, beating the Democratic candidate in the race and becoming the council’s first minor-party representative in 30 years. That planted the seeds of the WFP’s plan to take over the council. By 2009, the party had helped seven challengers win city-council primaries, many of them defeating Democratic incumbents, and backed a progressive councilman named Bill de Blasio’s upset bid for the citywide office of public advocate.
Once in office, the WFP-backed council members joined with liberals already on the council to form an 11-member New York City Council Progressive Caucus which, despite being a minority on the 51-seat council, quickly proved "capable of driving the agenda—and tormenting then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg". Christine Quinn, the city council’s speaker at the time, sided against the WFP on issues like paid sick leave, ending stop-and-frisk, and extending term limits; once seen as Bloomberg’s inevitable successor, Quinn was routed in the 2013 Democratic primary. Today, de Blasio is the mayor of New York, James is the public advocate, the Progressive Caucus numbers 18 members, and the speaker is a former caucus chair named Melissa Mark-Viverito.
New York is now being steered by a progressive mayor and progressive-driven council.
- In place of debates between Republicans and timid, triangulating Democrats, the fight in New York is now largely between moderates and activists on the left. (Even de Blasio now finds himself to the right of the progressives on the council, particularly on criminal-justice issues.) This is what WFP would like to accomplish nationally—on city councils and county boards, in stage legislatures, and in Congress.
“Here’s what I’d say is the bottom line about the Working Families Party,” Patrick Gaspard, the former White House director of political affairs who now serves as the Ambassador to South Africa... As a young New York activist, Gaspard was a founding board member of the WFP. “They have values, they have high capacity for a relatively small organization, and unlike many on the left, they have a habit of winning.” 
The party relies on traditional labor- and community-organizing techniques. It maintains an army of paid canvassers year-round who can quickly mobilize voters for elections or initiatives. And it recruits and trains candidates at the ground level, seeding low-level local offices with sympathizers.
Many New York politicos say the WFP is more organized and effective than the state Democratic Party, and Democratic candidates routinely draw on WFP staff for their campaigns.) In the municipal elections across New York State in November, 71 of the WFP’s 111 downballot candidates won.
In 2014, when Cuomo stood for reelection, the party had recruited a candidate to challenge him in the Democratic primary—a law professor and Occupy Wall Street leader named Zephyr Teachout. But when it came time for the WFP to make an endorsement and bestow its ballot line, the party was badly divided. Its old ally de Blasio, now the city’s mayor, brokered a deal whereby Cuomo would get the WFP endorsement in exchange for a series of promises, such as campaigning for Democratic state-senate candidates and backing ethics and campaign-finance reforms.
Cuomo took the deal. But once he got the endorsement, he brazenly reneged, flouting his former promises and even seeking to undermine the WFP by starting a new ballot line called the Women’s Equality Party to confuse voters. In retrospect, WFP insiders view the Cuomo endorsement as a damaging miscalculation. But they take some encouragement from more recent developments: In a deviation from his usual fiscal conservatism, the governor recently came out in favor of a statewide $15 minimum wage.
Analilia Mejia, is a longtime union organizer who actually postponed her wedding to work on the Obama campaign, Mejia had previously served as New Jersey political director of the powerful SEIU 32BJ. The daughter of a Colombian garment worker and a Dominican laborer, Mejia, along with her younger sister, spent several early-childhood years with relatives in Venezuela after their father injured his back and could no longer support the family. “It was better to live on poverty-level wages in a shantytown in Venezuela than on a garment-worker’s salary in Elizabeth, New Jersey,” she told me as we inched forward in traffic. “That’s crazypants.”
Union work was satisfying but limiting for Mejia. Given the dramatic contraction of the labor movement, which has fallen to just 7 percent of private sector workers (in 1984, it was 16 percent), she longed to improve the lives of all workers, not just those lucky enough to be in a union.
“We’ve found ways of electoralizing our issues,” Mejia told me. “We make politicians walk the walk—and pay the price if they don’t.” The idea is to make Democratic politicians more accountable to their liberal base through the asymmetric warfare party primaries enable, much as the conservative movement has done to Republicans. “The rules are rigged against working people, so we have to think outside the box to find different ways to win at this game,” Mejia said.
When the Democratic-controlled New Jersey Legislature wasn’t advancing a statewide paid-sick-leave bill, the WFP went to the municipal level to find a workaround; 10 New Jersey cities have now mandated paid sick leave. And when Governor Chris Christie vetoed a set of voting reforms—including automatic voter registration and restoring felons’ voting rights—the party set out to collect signatures to put it on the ballot instead, hoping to put the issue before voters in November 2016.
Mejia has also spearheaded the party’s role as Christie’s chief harasser. The WFP’s protests, ethics complaints, and calls for Christie’s resignation helped put the Bridgegate scandal on the map, severely wounding the presidential hopes of the man once considered a top 2016 GOP contender. The party also worked to elect Ras Baraka, an opponent of education reform, to succeed Cory Booker as mayor of Newark over a better-funded candidate.
In West Orange, Mejia pulled up to the venue for the evening’s New Jersey Working Families gala, a banquet hall with a strong Jersey vibe: mirrors, marble, patterned carpet. Bumper stickers reading “Kicking Ass for the Working Class” were available at the check-in table. The evening’s speakers included Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey lawmaker the WFP has championed since she was in the state assembly, and Representative Keith Ellison, the Minnesotan who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. One testament to the party’s growing local clout was that attendees included the chair of the New Jersey Democratic Party, John Currie, and the mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop, whom many local observers expect to be a top Democratic prospect for governor when Christie leaves office in 2017.
Until the party came along, Steven Fulop said, Chris Christie had largely succeeded in a strategy of “divide and conquer.”
Just as even mainstream Republican politicians now feel obliged to kowtow to the Tea Party, the WFP, in the states where it is strongest, has begun to bend the Democratic establishment in its direction. “There has been a changing of the guard,” Currie, the chairman, said. “Many more of our elected officials are very progressive now.”
Fulop, whose city was the first in New Jersey and the sixth in the country to adopt paid sick leave, told me the WFP represented the first “collective voice for the middle class” that New Jersey had seen in his memory. Until the party came along, he said, Christie had largely succeeded in a strategy of “divide and conquer” to “get Democrats to give up on our core values in the name of compromise,” such as by agreeing to pension reform. Though he declined to tell me whether he was running for governor, it was clear that he saw cozying up to the WFP as the best way to signal his progressive allegiances in a potential Democratic primary.
“The Working Families Party provides a balance,” he said. “That was missing, very much so.”
"A new progressive moment"
Inn late 2011, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement erupted across the country. This was another eye-opening jolt for Cantor: “It raised the possibility of a new progressive moment,” he said. The energy, he saw, was there to be tapped—it just needed organizers who knew how to channel it. Organizers, perhaps, like the WFP.
“Every good idea in American history started with a third party.”
The WFP, Cantor explained, doesn’t expect to overthrow the two-party system—nor does it want to be a hopeless cause like the Greens or the Libertarian Party. “Every good idea in American history started with a third party: abolition, the eight-hour day, women’s suffrage, child-labor laws, unemployment insurance, Social Security,” he said. “These didn’t start with the Democratic or Republican Party—they started with the Free Soilers and the Liberty Party and the Populist Party and the Socialist Party. That’s where these things germinate, and then when you do well, they get adopted by one of the major parties, or in very rare cases the major party collapses.
“So we’re not naïve,” he continued. “The Democratic Party is not about to collapse. But we think there’s a huge number of people inside the Democratic Party that actually agree with us, and we want the Democratic Party to be feistier, tougher, and more focused on the needs of ordinary people, not the preferences of their donors.”
When WFP endorsed Bernie Sanders, in December 2015, it was a move "that had even some WFP allies scratching their heads": Why align themselves with a presidential candidate who is likely to lose, prompting questions about the WFP’s clout and potentially alienating Hillary Clinton, who has tacked to the left in ways that satisfy many progressives? Clinton has also been endorsed by some of the WFP’s stakeholder unions, putting them in a difficult position. The WFP risked coming across as the Bernie Sanders of political organizations: loud and angry, but ultimately a sideshow.
The WFP’s stated goal is to help Sanders win. It decided to back Sanders after a vote by its governing board and an online survey of rank-and-file members, 87 percent of whom chose Sanders. But internally, party members see an upside to the endorsement even if he doesn’t prevail. It’s about expanding the party by tapping the energy Sanders has roused—and giving those new activists somewhere to go once the Sanders campaign has ended.
In 2013, the WFP was active in just four states—New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Oregon. Since then, it has opened chapters in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island, with New Mexico expected to join this year. “We wait for people to call us,” Jon Green, the deputy director, who is spearheading the national expansion, told me with a laugh. Usually, they’re people who feel abandoned by their local Democrats.
“They’re organizations that used to feel like they had power, mostly labor unions,” Green said. “Public-sector unions used to feel like the Democratic Party had their back. Maybe that wasn’t ever really true, but they’re certainly seeing it’s not true now. And low-income communities that once felt that the Democratic Party was the logical place for them to situate their politics—they see the Democratic Party drifting ever rightward, and being fine with the oppression of black people.”
Green has firsthand experience with this process. In 2003, he was the director of the newly formed Connecticut WFP, the party’s first foray outside New York, when leaders of the Democratic-controlled state legislature teamed up with Republican Governor John Rowland on a budget that resulted in layoffs for 2,300 unionized state workers. For the state employees’ union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, “it was an awakening,” Green told me. It was one thing for the Republican governor to float such a proposal, but the unions had counted on the Democrats to block him. “They felt like, ‘These are the people that have our back. They’re Democrats—they’re going to be there for us.’ And they weren’t.”
Elsewhere in the country, the Tea Party is a model for what the WFP is trying to do. But in Connecticut, the WFP predates the Tea Party—and its clout is such that in 2010, when the Tea Party was rising nationally, a Connecticut Tea Party affiliate cited the WFP as an inspiration. The current majority leader of the state House launched his career with WFP backing. In 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, New York and Connecticut were two of the only states to fill their state budget holes by raising taxes on the rich rather than merely cutting spending.
In Connecticut’s 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary, an underdog mayor named Dannel Malloy attacked the front-runner, Ned Lamont, for his opposition to paid sick days, making it the subject of a blitz of TV ads. Lamont, formerly a liberal darling for his 2006 primary defeat of Senator Joe Lieberman, led in the polls right up to the eve of the primary—but Malloy ended up beating him by 14 points. Paid sick days had been proposed but blocked by the Democratic legislature in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. Once Malloy took office in 2011, he quickly signed the nation’s first statewide paid-sick-days mandate.
Pushing their agenda
These days, Green gets a lot of calls from frustrated liberals looking for a way to pressure the Democratic Party from the left. In Wisconsin, the newly formed WFP wants to oust the Milwaukee County executive, Chris Abele, a wealthy businessman and ostensible Democrat who opposes tax hikes and supports privatizing government services. In Baltimore, the party is training candidates to take on city-council incumbents; in D.C., it is working to put a $15 minimum wage on the ballot. In Chicago, the same election that forced Emanuel into a runoff saw the council’s progressive caucus increase from seven to 11 members. Now, Emanuel faces mass protests and a recall threat for his handling of police violence in the city.
The WFP has also succeeded in pushing its pet issues to the forefront of the Democratic agenda. One signature cause is government-mandated paid sick leave, a once-fringe idea that in the past year was mentioned in President Obama’s State of the Union address, presented as a centerpiece of Hillary Clinton’s economic agenda, and championed by Nancy Pelosi. Similarly, the party was an early champion of the $15 minimum wage, once considered unthinkable but now a reality in several large cities.
In mid-November 2015, WFP staffers from across the country gathered for their first-ever national gala. Held in a dimly lit foyer of the national AFL-CIO headquarters, two blocks from the White House, the event featured a modest bar and forlorn-looking cheese tray. To one side, an imposing, 1950s-era, gilt-heavy mural of heroic laborers with a motto from Virgil (“Labor Omnia Vincit”); to the other, a canvas banner color-printed with WFP activists, carrying signs like “The Seas Are Rising & So Are We,” “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” and “I Am a Woman.” A plaque identified the venue as the Samuel Gompers Room.
Heather McGhee, the president of the leftist think tank Demos, kicked off the proceedings. “You ain’t seen nothing yet from the Working Families Party,” she said. “We’re electing leaders, we’re winning on issues, and most importantly, we’re changing what’s politically possible.”
McGhee, a black woman with long light-brown dreadlocks, ticked off the party’s victories, starting with minimum-wage hikes and paid sick days. “We took down the Rockefeller drug laws, we won police body cameras, and we helped stop the abuse of stop-and-frisk,” she said. “We stood up to the hedge funders who look at our schools and see dollar signs, from Bridgeport to Newark, from Philadelphia to Chicago.
“We’ve been working day in and day out to win on these issues and change the debate,” she added. “And this here, tonight, what you’re at, is our coming-out party. Because we are the people who believe that our economy should be measured in the health, happiness, and security of our families, not in corporate profits. We are the people who believe that democracy is for the people, not the super PACs. We are the people who know that economic inequality in America has always been built on the scaffolding of racial injustice.”
At this, there was applause and shouts of “Amen!” “We are the people who believe that the future of our planet is worth more than the profits of oil and coal executives,” she added. “And you know what? We deserve a political party, too.”
Later, Diana Richardson, a member of the New York State Assembly from Crown Heights, Brooklyn; in a May special election, she became the first-ever New York state legislator elected solely on the WFP ballot line. Her campaign hinged on railing against gentrification and the “greedy developers” leaving the neighborhood’s historic residents behind.
Speaking in a Brooklyn accent of Rosie-Perez-in-White-Men-Can’t-Jump proportions, Richardson proclaimed, “The local Democrats didn’t want someone like me. Listen to my voice—it’s very strong! You can’t push me around.” The audience laughed and cheered. “But another party did want me,” she added. “The Working Families Party.”
As of January 2016;
- Martha Acero, Chief Financial Officer
- Rudy Blay, Controller
- Holly Clements, Human Resources
- Joe Dinkin, National Communications Director
- Dylan Easterday, Operations Manager
- Talya Epstein, National Phone Canvass Director
- Jon Golbe, National Membership Engagement Coordinator
- Jon Green, Deputy National Director
- Gaby Guilmart, National Development Associate
- Reuben Hayslett, National Online Campaigner
- Stephen Brown, National Canvass Administrator
- Amanda Johnson, National Digital Director
- Mike Boland, Managing Director
- Jen Kern, National Issues Director
- Anton Medvedev, National Online Campaigner
- Lionel Neptune, Director of Institutional Advancement
- Sen Onishi, Bookkeeper
- Jasmin Oppenheimer, National Field Director
- Kathleen Purcell, Accounts Receivable Development Assoicate
- Rafael Shimunov, National Creative Services Director
- Brenden Stepien, Informations Systems Associate
- Hannah Taube, Informations Systems Associate
- Jason Youngclaus, Staff Accountant
- Charly Carter, Maryland State Director
- Karly Edwards, Oregon State Director
- Lindsay Farrell, Connecticut State Director
- Bill Lipton, New York State Director
- Analilia Mejia, New Jersey State Director
- Delvone Michael, Washington DC Director
- Kati Sipp, Pennsylvania State Director
National Advisory Board
The National Advisory Board of the Working Families Organization is comprised of representatives from national progressive organizations and from each of our state organizations. Board in January 2016;
- Brandon Davis, SEIU
- Ilya Sheyman, Moveon.org
- Rafael Navar, CWA
- Brian Kettenring, Center for Popular Democracy
- Ana Maria Archila, Center for Popular Democracy
- Pat Lippold, SEIU 1199
- Kim Propeack, CASA de Maryland
- Jane Henderson, Communities United (alternate)
Representing New Jersey
Representing New York
Representing Washington, DC
- John Boardman, UNITE-HERE Local 25
- Rev. George Gilbert, Holy Trinity United Baptist Church
- Jacob Feinspan, Jews United for Justice Fund (alternate)
- The Atlantic, The Pugnacious, Relentless Progressive Party That Wants to Remake America Molly Ball Jan 7, 2016
- The Atlantic, The Pugnacious, Relentless Progressive Party That Wants to Remake America Molly Ball Jan 7, 2016
- The Atlantic, The Pugnacious, Relentless Progressive Party That Wants to Remake America Molly Ball Jan 7, 2016
- WF national Staff