Working Families Party emerges as a force in local elections 

click to enlarge Working Families Party of Rochester Chairperson Stevie Vargas speaks with canvassers. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Working Families Party of Rochester Chairperson Stevie Vargas speaks with canvassers.
Sarah Clark knew her Democratic primary race for the state Assembly last year would be tough.

Despite cultivating powerful allies in Democratic politics as an aide to Sens. Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand for nearly 20 years, Clark had lost the backing of the Monroe County Democratic Party for her bid for the 136th Assembly District seat to one of her opponents, Justin Wilcox, a county legislator whose political star appeared to be rising.

So Clark leaned into values and positions she already embraced, such as healthcare for all, building more affordable housing, and paying workers living wages, and sought the endorsement of another party that shared those values: the Working Families Party.

She got it, and with it, a bundle of resources. The progressive-backed party isn’t particularly well funded, but it has boots on the ground that excel at campaign logistics. Party volunteers helped Clark with phone banks, social media, and digital operations that were crucial to reaching voters when the pandemic sidelined traditional door-to-door canvassing and glad-handing at public events.

Clark won the primary and, later, the general election. She is currently serving her first term.

“I knew that if I got their designation, it would show to Democratic voters that those were my priorities as well, and that those would be the things I’d be fighting for,” Clark said in a recent interview.

For years, the Working Families Party in New York clung to its standing as a distant third party by glomming onto candidates backed by one of the two major parties. While the party mostly favored Democrats, it was known for endorsing Republicans on occasion, too.

But Clark’s victory, and others like hers, reflect a turning point for the Working Families Party, particularly in the Rochester region. No longer content to leech off of establishment candidates, Working Families has made a concerted effort over the last two elections to support candidates its members think can oust Republicans and Democrats they consider not progressive enough.

The effort has paid off, and nowhere were the fruits of the party’s labor more evident than in this year’s June Democratic primaries.
click to enlarge City Council candidate Kim Smith, Working Families Party of Rochester Chairperson Stevie Vargas, her son Payton Vargas, and volunteer Matthew Witten hit the streets of downtown Rochester to spread the word about a free Labor Day weekend cookout the party is helping to host. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • City Council candidate Kim Smith, Working Families Party of Rochester Chairperson Stevie Vargas, her son Payton Vargas, and volunteer Matthew Witten hit the streets of downtown Rochester to spread the word about a free Labor Day weekend cookout the party is helping to host.
Three Working Families-backed candidates effectively dismantled the Monroe County Legislature’s four-member Black and Asian Democratic Caucus when they defeated two caucus members and a key ally, each of whom had the backing of the county Democratic Party. Those three candidates are now all but certain to win the general election in the fall.

The party also endorsed and provided substantial support to the successful primary campaigns of Free the People Roc co-founder Stanley Martin and VOCAL-NY organizer Kim Smith.

The party also backed Malik Evans, who beat the embattled and Democratic-party endorsed mayor, Lovely Warren, in the Democratic primary. The same scenario unfolded in Buffalo, where nurse and activist India Walton, who is a democratic socialist, toppled four-term incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in that city’s Democratic primary with the aid of Working Families operatives.

Stevie Vargas, the chairperson of the Working Families Party of Rochester, reflected on her party’s string of victories recently over coffee at New City Cafe & Roastery on Parsells Avenue, where she made her office for the morning.

“Our winning track record shows that our candidates resonate with the people regardless of if they were an incumbent, regardless if they got the Democratic nomination,” Vargas said.

‘From the streets to the seats’

Vargas, 29, is the upstate campaign coordinator for the Alliance for Quality Education. As an organizer used to leading rallies, she has a strong voice that really carries when she uses a bullhorn. But her tone was welcoming and friendly as she explained that the Working Families Party wants to back fighters.

Specifically, she said, the party wants to support candidates who will push the city to redirect funding for police to community programs, services, and institutions “actually bring about true public safety.”

Candidates who stand with working families and the LGBTQ community, push for more school funding, and have been supportive of cannabis legalization and moratoriums on pandemic-related eviction evictions are also priorities. Many of those issues reflect the calls of activists who galvanized thousands of people to march through Rochester’s streets in 2020.

“Our mantra is from the streets to the seats and we actually mean that,” Vargas said.

The Working Families Party was founded in New York in 1998 by a coalition of labor unions, progressive organizations, and advocacy groups to push for a higher minimum wage. But over time, as the party grew, so too did its tactics and priorities.

These days, the party fashions itself as a champion of progressive causes and the needs of everyday New Yorkers — working class people, marginalized groups, single parents, communities of color, and the poor — and now has chapters in 11 states.
click to enlarge Working Families Party of Rochester Chairperson Stevie Vargas talks with Kim Smith, a City Council candidate the party endorsed. - PHOTO BY JAKE WALSH
  • Working Families Party of Rochester Chairperson Stevie Vargas talks with Kim Smith, a City Council candidate the party endorsed.
In New York, the state party functions as sort of a central hub for party leaders in counties and smaller communities. Those leaders and their members make the calls on which candidates to back, and they have become increasingly bold in their choices, unafraid to move from out of the shadow of the Democratic Party and stand alone.

The party has been active in Rochester and Monroe County for a long time, but there was no official chapter until the chaotic year of 2020, when COVID-19 put a spotlight on longstanding health and social inequities and demonstrators packed streets to protest those disparities as well as the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police.

Not long before, the state party saw a shakeup at its highest levels. Sochie Nnaemeka became its director in 2019, and she has said that she wants the WFP to be a home for the political left.

Rynn Reed, elections manager for the state Working Families Party, said party organizers saw promise in Rochester because of its successful push to establish a Police Accountability Board and the momentum of groups such as Free the People Roc, which organized the Prude protests and Black Lives Matter rallies, and the Rochester City-Wide Tenants Union, a housing activism group.

“There’s this kind of hum that we picked up on and I think we were right and have had a lot of progressive energy and movement,” Reed said. “WFP can’t take credit for all of that but I do think we were able to realize that activist power.”

Working Families Party leaders embrace the notion of their party as small-but-mighty. Its wins are outsized, given finances and that the number of voters on its rolls are dwarfed by those of the major parties.

In Monroe County, for instance, the number of registered voters enrolled in the Working Families Party has hovered around 1,500. In the last year, however, the rolls have swelled to about 1,700 — a roughly 13-percent increase. By way of comparison, roughly 206,000 registered voters in the county are enrolled Democrats, and another 128,000 are Republicans.

Statewide, 44,358 registered voters are Working Families Party members. They are notoriously loyal to their cause and selective of their candidates.

Before state Sen. Samra Brouk, a Democrat, won her seat in the 55th District last year, she sought the endorsement of the Working Families Party. To get it, she recalled, she filled out an extensive questionnaire and sat before members for a thorough grilling. The goal, she said, was to see if her values aligned with the party’s.

Brouk knew what the Working Families Party was about and had been voting on its line for several years, she said. The party’s focus on building a government and society where everyone has access to quality education and equal opportunity struck a chord with her.

“They have a different, more inclusive, more prosperous vision of our world and I want to build that with them,” Brouk said during a recent phone conversation.

Once it was settled that she and the party shared the same values, the WFP mobilized volunteers for Brouk’s campaign. She had a lot of ground to cover. The seat stretches from Irondequoit to Naples in Ontario, and had been a Republican stronghold. Winning it would be expensive.

Its incumbent, Republican Rich Funke, had decided not to run for re-election, and Brouk, a first-time candidate, found herself against another political newcomer in Republican Chris Missick.

She beat him handily, garnering 90,410 votes to Missick’s 67,083. Nearly 6,900 of her votes came on the Working Families line.

Her victory, along with that of Democrat Jeremy Cooney, another Working Families Party-endorsed candidate who flipped a previously Republican seat, subsequently paved the way for several progressive policy victories in the Legislature, with the legalization of recreational cannabis being the most visible.

With attention comes opposition

The Working Families Party owes its outsized influence to New York’s peculiar fusion voting system, which allows candidates to run and collect votes on multiple party lines, sometimes representing divergent political philosophies.

Most states do not allow such crossover, but supporters of fusion voting argue it allows for more political ideas to percolate and more voices to be heard with each major-party candidate who seeks the support of small parties, like Working Families.

Zach King, the chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee, whose candidates often seek the endorsement of the Working Families Party, said they do so to show they have appeal beyond a mainline Democratic base.

“I think it adds a little bit more dimension to candidates,” King said.

The relationship was reciprocal, especially when it came to the race for governor.
For decades, state regulations guaranteed any party that could garner 50,000 votes on its line in an election for governor a ballot line in elections for the next four years. Any party that couldn’t make the cut was banished, killing its influence and, in some cases, the entire party itself.

It was for that reason that the Working Families Party has historically piggybacked on Democratic-endorsed candidates, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and not run its own candidates.
click to enlarge Canvassers reconvene after hitting Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Midtown Manor apartment building - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Canvassers reconvene after hitting Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Midtown Manor apartment building
But the regulations changed last year when New York imposed a new threshold for third-party ballot access — a standard backed, and some say orchestrated, by Cuomo — that required small parties to garner 130,000 votes in a presidential election, or 2 percent of the total vote, whichever was greater, to retain its automatic ballot line.

Cuomo and the Working Families Party had sparred in recent years, after the party endorsed the governor’s opponent, Cynthia Nixon, in the Democratic primary in 2018. (In an example of fusion voting, the party gave Cuomo its line in the general election, where he got more than 100,000 votes and the party retained its ballot access.)

In any case, the Working Families Party went on to overcome the new barriers backed by Cuomo when more than 283,000 New Yorkers voted for President Joe Biden on its line.

A candidate winning a seat — any seat — solely on the Working Families line remains a longshot.

But Working Families has begun to insert itself into Democratic primaries by backing candidates shunned by the Democratic Party. The effect in Monroe County and elsewhere around the state has rocked the Democratic establishment.

King, the Democratic Party chair in Monroe, acknowledged that the Working Families party is exceptionally good at helping candidates organize their ground games. He added that many of the WFP-backed candidates who won their races enjoyed strong support from organized labor.

That’s no accident. Statewide, unions are among the Working Families Party’s biggest funders, and labor representatives play a key role in endorsement decisions.

But as the WFP has gained clout, locally and statewide, so too has it gained enemies.

In the spring, Republican leaders in 14 counties across the state, including Monroe, sued to kick the Working Families line off the ballot. They argued that the party failed to properly file paperwork. A state judge dismissed the cases.

At the same time, many Republicans, whose values do not align with those of the Working Families Party, have sought the party’s line.

In Pittsford, Republican Town Justice John Bernacki ran a primary against Scott Green on the Working Families line. Despite Green having the endorsement of the party, Bernacki easily won the primary by a vote count of 23 to 6, after an inordinate number of Republicans in the town switched their enrollments to the Working Families Party.

Green, who has the Democratic nod, will run against Bernacki in the November election.

In Irondequoit, County Legislature President Joe Carbone, a Republican, ran a write-in campaign in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the Working Families line away from West Irondequoit school board President Dave Long, the Democrat trying to unseat him. Long prevailed in that primary.

The trials the Working Families Party has endured, its leaders said, have galvanized the party. They said they expect their sphere of influence to grow in the absence of Cuomo, who resigned from office last month after the Attorney General’s Office substantiated sexual harassment claims against him made by 11 women.

“WFP has been waiting for a post-Cuomo world for 10 years,” Vargas said. “He definitely put us through the wringer with those guidelines for us maintaining the line. It backfired in a big way. It only strengthened us.”

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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