ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking aim at the union-backed Working Families Party, which initially endorsed Cynthia Nixon, his 2018 primary opponent, in a bid to end a voting practice in New York that often benefits third parties, according to people who spoke to POLITICO about Cuomo’s actions.
Cuomo has been publicly dismissive of rumors that a push to end so-called fusion voting, which allows candidates run on multiple party ballot lines, stems from his desire to wreak vengeance on the WFP, which plays a major role in New York state Democratic politics.
“There are a lot of rumors, right?” Cuomo said. “If we’re going to go rumor by rumor, we’ll be here all day.”
In private, however, Cuomo has taken a much harsher tone against the WFP. Seven people — elected officials and other individuals prominent in state politics — told POLITICO that the governor or his top staff have told them or their close associates in private conversations that he wants to destroy the party. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
“He alternates between ‘we have to kill these people, they’re destructive, they have no ideology … they’re undermining what we’re trying to do’ [and] that they’re completely useless,” one union leader said. “If they’re so useless, you probably wouldn’t want to kill them so much.”
Not all the people who spoke to POLITICO are part of the wing of New York’s political left that is reflexively anti-Cuomo, and only one of them endorsed his opponent, Cynthia Nixon, in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. But they all characterized his administration’s comments similarly.
“He has personally told me multiple times that ‘the WFP is bad, we should all work together and damage them, they’re shady,’” one individual said. “He’s thrown every epithet at them in the book.”
“Folks around the governor always say that sort of stuff,” said one legislator, who recounted conversations with various administration officials at places such as bars in Albany. Those officials argued that “the WFP was not a real party, that they didn’t really help Democrats, that we need to be loyal to each other,” the legislator said.
The debate over fusion voting was reignited when a commission primarily focused on campaign finance reform was potentially given the power to change the laws governing cross-endorsements. New York is one of a handful of states that lets candidates run on multiple party lines, which is often perceived as elevating the influence of third parties whose ballot lines are sought by major-party candidates.
Several sources said they were aware of efforts by the Cuomo administration to directly influence a public debate surrounding the Public Financing Commission, which the governor and state legislative leaders appointed to devise a system of financing political campaigns. Three of the people who spoke to POLITICO had direct knowledge of top administration officials working to discourage officials from participating in a pro-WFP rally before a commission hearing in Manhattan last month.
The Cuomo administration says accusations that it is attempting to destroy the party are false.
“We’ve had political disagreements with the WFP but they were resolved when the Governor became the endorsed candidate,” Cuomo adviser Rich Azzopardi said in an email. “Fusion voting has many opponents like The New York Times and Newsday editorial boards and proponents who support the minor parties. We have no position and it’s up to the commission to propose for the Legislature and to the public how many lines and how many parties are eligible for taxpayer-financed funds. Your nameless faceless gossip suggesting our opinion are lies — when the Governor has an opinion he voices it.”
The WFP has been an official party in New York for over two decades. In recent years, it has solidified its position as an organizational home for much of the state’s resurgent left. The party gained national attention in September when it endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president, snubbing Bernie Sanders, who had the party’s support in 2016.
Cuomo has been asked at least four times since March whether he’d like to see the WFP damaged or simply end fusion. On each of those occasions, he’s reverted to talk of fictional characters and “rumors” or to the past tense.
“I think that Santa Claus is real and the Easter Bunny is real. Doesn’t make it so,” Cuomo said on WAMC radio last Tuesday.
At a September news conference, he declined to answer whether it was true that he was personally invested in killing fusion.
“I have run for office and accepted different party lines and different party endorsements, which is fusion voting. I think that I’ve done that every time that I have run,” he said then. “So I have participated in fusion voting.”
The state’s top unelected Republican said he sees the Public Financing Commission as a means to harm the Working Families Party.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Cuomo, who has long wanted revenge on that Working Families Party for endorsing Cynthia Nixon, is using [the Public Financing Commission] to kill off that party,” state GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said last week.
The governor has run on the Working Families Party’s ballot line in each of his three successful campaigns for governor, but the party’s decisions to give him its line have rarely been pretty.
After spending much of his first term bickering with the left, the WFP’s decision whether to endorse Cuomo or the then-unknown Zephyr Teachout in 2014 was left in doubt until the night of its convention. Cuomo wound up winning the line after receiving 58 percent of the WFP committee’s vote, but that only happened after he agreed to back a list of liberal demands in a taped message now universally known as “the hostage video” for the degree of enthusiasm he displayed.
Tensions between Cuomo and the WFP remained high during his second term. After the feuding over its 2014 endorsement as well as the WFP’s decision to back Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016, several major unions close to the governor ended their financial support for the party.
And the relationship got worse in 2018, as the party decided to go all-in on backing Nixon’s challenge against Cuomo. WFP State Director Bill Lipton said at the time that Cuomo told the remaining unions they could “lose [the governor’s] number” if they continued to fund the WFP, and indeed, those unions immediately withdrew their support.
After Cuomo trounced Nixon in the primary, the WFP begrudgingly gave the governor its line. Not long after he ensured that his vote wouldn’t be split by the appearance of an additional liberal candidate on the ballot, rumors began to circulate that a new movement to do away with fusion voting was underway and may be dealt with as soon as the new Legislature convened.
That didn’t happen, but the state Democratic Committee in March passed a resolution supporting ending fusion voting. The governor’s office characterized attempts to connect that vote and any animosity with the WFP as “conspiracies.”
A few weeks later, the state budget contained a clause that seemingly gave the campaign financing commission the power to end fusion voting. There’s no guarantee the commission will act on this issue, and third parties like the WFP and Conservatives have argued such a change would be unlikely to hold up in court, but that they would certainly be dealt a body blow if fusion ended.
Three legislative sources have said since March that the inclusion of this language was a surprise inserted by the governor’s office at the last minute. Cuomo rejected requests from the Senate to remove it, leaving legislators with no choice but to accept it or torpedo the entire budget.
One of Cuomo’s two appointees was state Democratic Committee Chair Jay Jacobs, who had publicly opposed fusion in the past.
“[Jacobs] has a position on how election law should be handled,” Cuomo said in September. “That’s why he’s on the panel.”
Jacobs has said he’s approaching his work with an open mind. He has already introduced a procedural maneuver that critics see as a way to force fusion into the commission’s end product, and some local Democratic officials said Jacobs had encouraged opponents of fusion to speak at the commission’s hearing in Albany in September.
Three of the people who spoke with POLITICO described efforts to discourage officials from participating in a pro-WFP rally before the commission’s hearing in Manhattan. One had knowledge of a call in which a top Cuomo administration official boasted that New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer had already been dissuaded from attending the rally.
Stringer did attend the hearing where, as one of the earliest speakers, he spoke in favor of public financing and told commissioners to keep their hands off the “constitutionally protected right” of fusion voting. But he did not attend the WFP-organized rally that preceded it by a few minutes.
The comptroller’s office initially declined to comment on whether it had been contacted by the Cuomo administration, saying he never planned to attend the rally. On Friday, spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays said “In no uncertain terms, no one called him.”
“The Comptroller was never able to attend the pre-testimony press conference but, as planned, testified forcefully in support of maintaining New York’s constitutionally protected fusion voting system,” Crampton-Hays said in a statement previously.
“We are disappointed that Stringer did not join us,” Lipton said.
“No one from this administration told anyone not to attend,” Azzopardi said. “It’s a lie to suggest otherwise.”
The governor’s history with fusion goes back as far as 1977, when, as a 19-year-old, he created the Neighborhood Preservation Party as an additional line that his father Mario Cuomo used for his New York City mayoral campaign. Thirty-seven years later, the younger Cuomo created the Women’s Equality Party to help round up his own margins in his bid for a second term. (Numerous skeptics noted at the time that if somebody wanted to create a party that might trick people who wanted to support the WFP, the WEP was the best acronym that could have been put on the ballot.)
In both of those instances, Cuomo had complete control over the lines that were created simply to get his father or himself more votes. That’s in stark contrast to his now longstanding bickering with the WFP, where he’s been forced to compromise and spend down his campaign account to ensure he didn’t lose a line.
Several people who have spoken with Cuomo about the WFP said that he dislikes the party because it represents a wing of leftist politics in New York that he hasn’t been able to dominate. That would explain his previous attempt to undermine third parties: In 2013, he publicly pushed for ending the Wilson Pakula law, which gives party leaders significant control over the ability of candidates who aren’t members of their party to obtain their party lines. Had that ended, Cuomo could have feasibly been the WFP nominee even without the blessing of the WFP’s leadership.
Cuomo also attempted to use fusion voting during his aborted 2002 gubernatorial campaign, when he accepted the Liberal Party nomination but did not take steps to remove his name from the ballot after he ended his Democratic candidacy. He failed to receive 50,000 votes, meaning that a party that had spent 60 years occupying the spot in state politics somewhat akin to what the WFP has now faded into irrelevance.
“He killed the Liberal Party pretty effectively years ago,” said Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar. “I guess his next victim’s going to be the Working Families Party. And there will be collaborative damage if he succeeds, which he won’t.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine