Spurred by term limits involvement, grassroots group looks to tip targeted racesWhen word first broke that Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Ind.) and Council Speaker Christine Quinn were considering overturning the city’s term limit law, the voices of protest were strangely muted and scattershot. A few earnest good-government types raised their voices in protest and some bizarre ads featuring a crying baby were posted online, but not much of that was heard above the din.
It was not really until the Working Families Party picked up the cause—or as Council Member John Liu (D-Queens) put it, “the cavalry arrived”—and their army of canvassers took to the streets that backers of the mayor’s bill had a real fight on their hands.
“When they are committed to something they go to the mat for it,” said Letitia James (WFP-Brooklyn), the only member of the Council elected on the party’s line alone (in her 2003 special election) and one of the leaders of the anti-extension fight. “They have done it before and they will do it again. People thought the electorate wasn’t paying attention. They didn’t realize the hunger the Working Families Party had tapped into.”
If the WFP ultimately lost that round, it was setback from a group of community organizers who have not seen many of them. They had just disposed of Martin Connor, a Democratic state senator not seen as sufficiently progressive or energetic (and had over the summer contributed to the pressure on John Sabini to step aside for Hiram Monserrate), and days later their support would prove instrumental in flipping Senate control to the Democrats for the first time in 40 years.
The final vote on the floor of the Council was far closer than most observers could have predicted. To some, that meant that in a political universe ruled by Planets Bloomberg and Quinn, an alternative power source had emerged, ready to whack back city pols who step out of line.
The results left many wondering who the Working Families Party would target next.
“The terrain has shifted,” said WFP executive director Dan Cantor on the steps of City Hall immediately following the vote.
“Good people will still emerge and want to challenge incumbents, and if we think they are more progressive and more accountable than the people they are running against, even incumbents, they are likely to have a good shot at winning our support,” he said. “I can’t predict it. But it’s certainly a live option.”
Party officials and members predict that the WFP could be involved in as many as a dozen races next fall, and political observers say they could wreak havoc for council members who thought the safest thing to do was to go along with the mayor’s plan.
The Working Families Party has been careful to pick their spots in past campaigns, and are likely to focus on incumbents who are running in areas where the party is strong and are receiving strong challenges, especially in low-turnout primaries where they can have a proportionally bigger impact.
In the term limits fight, the WFP was methodical and unflagging. On their website, they kept a running tally of where Council members stood, and then flooded the zone with mailers in certain undecided member’s districts, storming into district offices and alerting voters to what they saw as a betrayal.
“Aw, that was good stuff, wasn’t it?” recalls Cantor, a hint of mischief in his voice. “That was Organizing 101. How do you make decision makers aware of how their constituents feel? It was the kind of thing that happens when you have a bunch of creative, young organizers hanging around.”
One-by-one, they picked off undecideds, hardly endearing them to opponents on the Council.
Weighing in on the term limit dispute was something of an odd battle for the WFP to pick. Most of their energy up until now has been focused on achieving tangible results on major policy issues like a living wage and rent control reform at Albany, where tangible results on these issues can be easier to come by.
“We think term limit rules are silly and undemocratic, but we have much less money than the other side, so we want clean elections,” Cantor said. “At the end of the day, what was clear to us was that the water was warm and that the public was really on our side here and our job was to make the public’s incipient views find expression.”
If they are successful in this fight, say close observers, their advantage will be twofold. The party has grown in its decade of existence—an enormous climb over the years in prominence and power since the first city race it weighed in on, a February, 1999 election in which they helped propel a former chief of staff named Christine Quinn to her old boss’s Council seat—and they expect that more open elections will mean more of what they want to see passed becoming law, which, they believe, will add to their power in the city and state.
“They like to have these incremental kinds of victories, but ultimately they want to get people elected and become kingmakers,” said Alyssa Katz, a professor of journalism at New York University who has written frequently about the party. “Instability is good for them. They can come in then and wield power and tip it to one side or the other, which ultimately helps their agenda.”
Party officials know that in the city they could never yield as much influence as the mayor or some of the entrenched party players. But still, members are quick to point out, the WFP made out okay on Nov. 4. Not counting Daniel Squadron, the one candidate they agreed with the mayor on, Bloomberg’s boys were 0-4.