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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Working Families Party is Transforming the Democratic Party

At The Atlantic Molly Ball profiles “The Pugnacious, Relentless Progressive Party That Wants to Remake America,” a.k.a. the Working Families Party. In one part of her article, Ball focuses on the activism of one of the WFP’s top leaders, Analila Mejia, director of New Jersey Working Families:

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 mid-Atlantic janitors’ union, SEIU 32BJ, whose 145,000 members can be found everywhere from Yankee Stadium to the Pentagon…
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. (In this sense, the WFP represents a stab at an American labor party, a common feature of European democracies that the U.S. has historically lacked.)
The WFP gives activists like Mejia an outlet for their frustration with national politics. It channels their anger at the constricting terms of the national debate into ground-level organizing–where the politics may seem unglamorously small-time, but there’s a chance to make a difference in people’s lives.
“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–a task the state’s sclerotic, Christie-co-opted Democratic Party originally hesitated to take up. 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. (WFP-style liberals generally side with teachers’ unions in viewing education reform, which the Obama administration and many Democrats have championed, as a corporatist plot to undermine public education.

Ball details many other WFP accomplishments, which leads readers to conclude that this is the progressive vanguard role the Democratic Party should be embracing and supporting to expand its voter base. The Democratic Party clearly needs more progressive activists with strong working-class roots, like Mejia, who would likely find traditional Democratic Party structures and too limiting, slow and timid. Yet when presented with the stark two party choice on the ballot, most WFP members will likely vote Democratic, instead of sitting it out or casting votes for a third party candidate who have no chance.
Ball quotes WFP National Director Cantor:

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.”

Ball adds “The WFP’s victories to date have been numerous but small-bore–a far cry from the Tea Party’s attention-getting mass rallies and defeats of veteran U.S. senators. But the WFP would argue that, with Congress gridlocked and in Republican hands, more effective policymaking happens at the state and local level.”
The WFP, which distributes “Kicking Ass for the Working Class” bumper stickers, endorsed the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders in December. But Clinton, or any other Democrat, would likely get an overwhelming share of their votes if nominated.
Although many WFP members are quick to criticize the Democratic Party, many see themselves as advocates for the reforms Democrats must pursue to become a stable, majority party. Thus the Working Families Party is a significant plus for the Democratic Party, and it will become an even more influential force in the future.

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