Young and Active, the Working Families Party Shows Muscle in the Primaries
By JULIE BOSMAN and KAREEM FAHIM
Published: September 16, 2009
Eric N. Gioia, a city councilman from Queens and a candidate for public advocate, was in a great mood Tuesday as he walked to his car after voting in the Democratic primary.
Until he spotted a lone young man who stood on the sidewalk, holding a stack of fliers.
“See him?” said Mr. Gioia, his face darkening. “He’s from the Working Families Party.”
Much to the chagrin of candidates like Mr. Gioia, the still relatively little-known 10-year-old party had dispatched a small army in the weeks before the primary, selling voters on its candidates in the mayoral, City Council, public advocate and comptroller races.
Organizers knocked on 227,928 doors and talked to 62,112 voters, a party official said. On Tuesday, more than 350 workers were stationed throughout the city, most working for a day rate of $100.
Their efforts resulted in the party’s best electoral showing yet. In the public advocate’s race, the Working Families endorsed Bill de Blasio, a city councilman from Brooklyn. Coming from behind, he forced Mark Green into a runoff on Sept. 29, even though Mr. Green was the presumed front-runner based on pre-election polls and had already held the position.
In the comptroller’s race, the party backed John C. Liu, a councilman from Queens, who won 38 percent of the vote, more than any other candidate, and will face the second-place finisher, David Yassky, a Brooklyn councilman, in the runoff.
Of the four incumbent council members who were toppled, three faced challengers supported by the Working Families Party.
“To say that it has vastly exceeded expectations would be an understatement,” Dan Cantor, the party’s executive director, said of the primary results. “Nobody saw this coming.”
The party also supported Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. in the mayor’s race, though its endorsement did not make much difference since he had long been expected to win.
The party was founded a decade ago as a progressive party whose members favor a living wage, paid sick days, universal health care and affordable housing. In the ensuing years, it has developed a reputation for having a formidable field operation and sophisticated voter databases.
And it is allied closely with powerful labor unions, whose members tend to be reliable voters, even in low-turnout primary elections like the one on Tuesday.
That has resulted in a history of success in local races, as in 2003 when its endorsement and field work helped Letitia James win a City Council seat. But it has never been so deeply involved in citywide races and has never had so much to show for its work.
But as the party’s profile has grown, it has attracted detractors who question why the party chooses sides in elections such as the public advocate’s race, where all the candidates were progressive Democrats.
The party has also drawn scrutiny because of its for-profit arm, Data and Field Services, which provides staff members to knock on doors, call potential voters and hand out campaign flyers.
The city’s Campaign Finance Board has warned the party that it would be watching its finances closely, prompted by critics who say that the service charges fees lower than such campaign services typically cost. The board also determined that the Working Families Party and Data and Field Services, which share an office and staff, are virtually indistinguishable.
To comply with campaign finance laws, campaigns must reimburse Data and Field Services for their work. This election, candidates have paid about $600,000 so far for the use of the service, said Dan Levitan, a party spokesman.
Mr. de Blasio’s campaign has paid Data and Field Services more than $90,000 for the campaign consulting, canvassing and field work that pushed him past the first round on Tuesday.
In June, three Working Families staff members started working for the de Blasio campaign, helping recruit volunteers and contact voters. Data and Field Services provided field managers, who organized the 200 people hired to canvass on primary day.
Prof. John Mollenkopf of the City University of New York Graduate Center credited their success, in part, to their ability to harness election data, build voters lists and schedule field operations.
Beyond that technical proficiency, the legion of young workers the party dispatched to campaigns around the city spoke of a particular devotion, Mr. Mollenkopf said. “A lot of campaigns have people hanging on for one reason or another — maybe their union told them to go,” he said. “The W.F.P. is very good at recruiting people, field workers who are Obama campaign-types, who want to change the world and learn how to organize.”
Mr. Liu said he had worked hard to win the party’s endorsement. But unlike Mr. de Blasio, Mr. Liu said he did not hire Data and Field Services, and instead relied on volunteers from the many unions who supported his candidacy, as well as neighborhood residents.
But like the other candidates, Mr. Liu said he realized the benefits of being associated in voters’ minds with the Working Families. “I hope they claim credit for my campaign,” he said.
The three City Council candidates supported by the party were Jumaane Williams, a housing advocate from Brooklyn who beat Councilman Kendall Stewart; Daniel Dromm, a public school teacher who defeated Helen Sears in Queens; and Deborah Rose who defeated Kenneth C. Mitchell and could become the first black member of City Council from Staten Island.
“Getting their endorsement was a tremendous help,” Mr. Dromm said, who won the party’s support months ago after a rigorous round of interviews by members of its Queens chapter and others at the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers. Mr. Dromm sat alone at a table in the middle of the room, he recalled, as his questioners formed a horseshoe around him.
Like Mr. Williams, Mr. Dromm used Data and Field Services and got help from local party members.
In the end, he said, the greatest service the party provided was “legitimacy.”
“They validate you as a candidate,” he said.