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Who's Afraid of Progressive Power?

The Working Families Party faces down the corporate backlash.

New York's Democratic nominee for attorney general prevailed in a hotly contested primary this September in a way candidates aren't supposed to these days: by running to the left of his rivals. Under the banner of "economic fairness, social justice and real reform"—and reminding voters that he wrote last year's legislation undoing New York's wildly punitive Rockefeller drug laws—State Senator Eric Schneiderman edged out Kathleen Rice, a former homicide prosecutor.

Schneiderman won with a surge of votes in his native New York City, where at lunchtime on primary day he made his way to downtown Brooklyn, flanked by a pack of elected officials and volunteers. From Governor David Paterson and Congresswoman Yvette Clark to the young City Council aides handing out fliers, Schneiderman's campaigners had one thing in common: an affiliation with the Working Families Party, the most influential progressive force in the state.

Schneiderman came into office in 1998, the year the Working Families Party first secured a spot on New York ballots. Since then, the party has put progressive candidates in office and given the state legislature its first Democratic majority in generations through aggressive outreach to voters—and an unusual feature of New York elections. Under "fusion" voting, candidates in a general election can run as the nominee of more than one party, upending the usual dynamic of third-party politics that curses minor-party candidates with the Nader effect, in which a vote on their party line denies it to a major party nominee. In fusion states, third parties "cross-endorse" major-party candidates so that every vote counts. By tallying voters on their own ballot line, third parties influence turnout—and the agendas of the candidates they support.

Under normal circumstances, Schneiderman, an important Working Families Party ally, would have been a shoo-in for the party's early endorsement. But unlike in every other election he's run in, Schneiderman was not the party's nominee on primary day this year, and his campaigners took great pains to note that they were not there at the party's behest.

The shadow hanging over the race, and the Working Families Party itself, was cast by the current attorney general, Andrew Cuomo. In order to maintain its ballot line, the party needs to win at least 50,000 votes in the governor's race in November. To survive, it has hitched itself to Cuomo as its nominee.

In exchange for his support, Cuomo demanded that the Working Families Party hold off on endorsements for governor and attorney general until after the September primary. He then insisted that the party sign on to his entire policy agenda, which includes a property tax cap, a freeze on state budgets and worker pay, and a reversal of one of the party's signature successes—a tax hike on households earning more than $250,000 a year.

Cuomo was emboldened by a loose coalition of conservatives and business leaders deeply opposed to the Working Families agenda and threatened by the elevation of labor unions and progressive allies to such heights of influence. Opponents have mounted increasingly vicious attacks seeking to maim—or kill—the party. A federal investigation, subsequently withdrawn, and a lawsuit alleging campaign finance violations in the party's canvassing operation forced the party to divert funds and energy to the cause of defending its existence.

The voice of opponents has been amplified by hostile media. The editorial page of the Daily News called the possibility of the party's demise a "pleasing prospect"—pleasing, certainly, to owner and Boston Properties CEO Mortimer Zuckerman, whose nemesis is building workers local 32BJ, a major player in the Working Families Party. The Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post called Working Families a "squidlike party" "expert at growing tentacles to stay one step ahead of the law" and "a clearinghouse through which elected officials are bought and sold by New York's public-employee unions." The Post repeatedly called on Cuomo to renounce the party's "corrupt" ballot line.

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