All In The Family Part 2
Money Into The Working Families Organization Buys Influence Over Ballot Lines For The Working Families PartyBy Edward-Isaac Dovere
Click here to read Part 1
Nothing demonstrates the connection between the Working Families Party and the Working Families Organization like the power the non-profit has over the Party’s political decisions. The Organization’s confidential New York City Coordinating Council Constitution & Rules and a not-for-distribution voting memo obtained by City Hall—backed by interviews and other documents—lay out a system which directly ties Working Families Party’s endorsements and nominations to the size of unions’ contributions to the Working Families Organization, which are not subject to campaign finance regulations or limits.
No political party that election law experts cite has any similar process for having money buy power over endorsements. Neither those election lawyers nor any non-profits experts had heard of any situation where money paid to a legally separate non-profit had any direct role in even influencing, let alone determining, what a political party would do.
If the weighted votes that determine party action are tied to money, election law experts say there may be constitutional issues, and tax law experts say that there would then be additional issues because of the involvement of a non-profit.
Party spokesman Dan Levitan said that final decisions for nominations to the ballot rest with the state committee members, who are weighted by turnout in the last gubernatorial election in the areas these members represent, identical to the system used by the Democratic and Republican parties.
But at least for city elections, each union and other member group of the Working Families Organization gets a number of votes weighted directly according to the amount of money it pays: the more money paid, the more votes; the less money paid, the less votes—in a very exact and clear formula. All this is laid out in the Constitution & Rules and confidential voting memo of something called the New York City Coordinating Council. Though candidates cannot buy nominations, this arrangement gives the higher-paying unions more control over who gets the Working Families endorsements and nominations.
In the Working Families family, then, the power is not in the people so much as in the pocketbooks.
Many experts were surprised to hear that unions pay into a non-profit and get weighted votes in a political party.
“It’s certainly not the way one would expect an organization committed to the public interest to do business,” said Tom Halper, the Baruch College political science department chairman.
The New York City Coordinating Council is identified in its own Constitution & Rules as part of the Working Families Organization. But even by top staffers, it is treated as a part of the Working Families Party, such as in an email that went out to public advocate candidates at the beginning of the endorsement process from elections campaign director Emma Wolfe, who referred to “the Working Families Party’s New York City Coordinating Council, which is our citywide decision-making body.” The comptroller campaigns received a similar email from Wolfe, informing them that the endorsement interviews would take place “at a meeting of the WFP's New York City Coordinating Council.”
Party spokesman Dan Levitan acknowledged that votes in the Coordinating Council are weighted based on dues paid, but said there was nothing unusual about the vote allocation, explaining that it is “identical to the practice of international unions and numerous chapter-based organizations where voting strength is based on per capita count of local dues payers.”[Click here for sidebar: A Look At The WFO Constitution & Rules]
Levitan acknowledged as well that the Coordinating Council did conduct the candidate screenings which most candidates themselves take as the official Working Families process. But he rejected the idea that the votes in this Working Families Organization sub-entity were the same as votes for the endorsement or ballot nomination decisions made by the Working Families Party.
“Voting strength in the WFP does not depend on contributions to the WFO in any way,” Levitan said, explaining that the Working Families Organization vote is simply an “advisory recommendation to the WFP for use in its endorsement process.”
All final decisions, he said, rest with the full state committee or state executive committee.
But—as happened through this election year—candidates believe that the Coordinating Council is part of the Working Families Party, and usually announce that they received the Party’s support as soon as they cleared the Coordinating Council.
Even the Working Families Party’s own press releases support this, such as the one issued announcing that the Party had chosen Bill de Blasio in the public advocate’s race a few hours after he and the other candidates went to 1199 SEIU headquarters to make their appeals, declaring, “the endorsement of de Blasio came after a two-thirds majority vote by the WFP’s New York City Coordinating Council.” A similar release was issued when the Party announced the “endorsement of Councilmember John Liu for New York City Comptroller following a vote by the party’s New York City Coordinating Council.”
[Click here for sidebar: On Confidential Questionnaires, WFP Priorities—Based On Center For Working Families Papers And Ultimately Voted On At The WFO—Made Clear]
In other words, Working Families may argue that there is a technical line, but in practice, according to many people involved in both giving and getting the endorsement and the Working Families’ own previous public statements, to get the backing of the pay-to-vote Working Families Organization’s New York City Coordinating Council is to get the backing of the Party. Even senior people involved in the leadership of the Coordinating Council have trouble telling the difference between whether it is part of the Party or the Organization. But they have no trouble telling that it is what makes the decisions for the Party.
“It was always presented to me that this was the vote,” said one prominent labor official, “and that anything which happened afterward was just a formality.”
Apparently, this relationship between the non-profit and political party caused some confusion among members. This past February, in advance of the votes that gave unusually early endorsements and ballot nominations to public advocate candidate Bill de Blasio and City Council candidate Brad Lander (by contrast, John Liu was endorsed in April and the other Council candidates in June), a confidential memo was sent to the affiliates, chapters and clubs from top staffers Alex Rabb, Emma Wolfe and Bill Lipton. The memo was entitled “Voting on the WFO NYCCC and SC,” using the acronyms for the Organization, the Coordinating Council and the State Committee. This alone indicates how close the ties are: there is no Working Families Organization state committee, though there is a Working Families Party state committee.
“This memo will hopefully answer the questions some of you have been asking about voting on the WFO NYCCC,” the memo begins.
Following an explanation of the relationship between locals and parent unions in terms of the votes on the Coordinating Council, the memo lays out the distribution of power in very clear terms: “After May 1, an affiliate’s voting strength is based on its payment (or compliance with an approved payment plan) as of 60 days prior to the vote. Before May 1, an affiliate’s voting strength is based on its dues paid during the previous year.”Voting Memo Electronic Version
The process seems to have prompted further discussion of how many votes each dues-paying member could get on the Coordinating Council. An earlier draft of the memo addressed this, though Lipton appears to have deleted several paragraphs on the topic from the final version, visible through an electronic version of the memo in which the Microsoft Word “track changes” function has been used.
These examples, Lipton added in a note on that electronic draft, “assume that the affiliates are paid up and current.”
The memo proceeds to explain that “an affiliate’s votes on the NYC Coordinating Council are the same as its votes on the State Committee, but limited by the number of members it has in New York City,” citing as an example, “an organization that has affiliated 10,000 members statewide (at a dues level of $15k) but has only 4,000 members in NYC will have 5 votes on the state committee but 3 votes on the NYCCC.”
But, if a union chooses not to pay the full corresponding dues for its number of members, its weighted vote is smaller, according to those with knowledge of the situation. For example, a union that might have enough members to earn eight votes on the Coordinating Council but declines to pay the $25,000 dues for this level would only get the number of votes which its payment buys, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
The Coordinating Council rules state that Organization members—who are not elected, are not required to be enrolled WFP voters and are not required to even live in New York City or State—get to essentially decide the Party endorsements and nominations, representing their unions’ interests at levels determined by the amount of money paid. Power is not tied to the individuals, but to the unions, with no clear procedure for how those unions decide who has standing to vote on behalf of the union in the Coordinating Council. In fact, in order to keep leadership control over which candidates got the endorsements and nominations—and thus, access to the extremely powerful field operation—the leaders changed the internal rules to consolidate who was able to name and be named a proxy to make sure their predetermined choices got the nod, according to a person with knowledge of the changes.
Many candidates supported by the member unions in the Working Families Organization for the Party nomination got more help as well, including separate endorsements and campaign contributions.
This generally results in more money being sent to the Working Families Party, this time, by the candidates, who are allowed to use Data & Field Services only once they have the Working Families Party endorsement and nomination. Together, city candidates spent $750,000 with Data & Field Services over the course of 2009 so far, according to campaign finance records that have been filed to date. Many of the same candidates spent nearly $200,000 with Citizens Services, the company based in the same building at 2-4 Nevins Street, and that is tied to ACORN. In past cycles, Working Families backed candidates also contracted ACORN Associates, a political consulting company owned by ACORN based in the same building—Bill de Blasio, for example, spent almost $36,000 with ACORN Associates in his 2001 Council race. Candidates elected with Working Families Party support on the city and state level in the past have also, once in office, directed member items to the ACORN affiliate known as the New York Agency for Community Affairs.
[Click here for sidebar: Unlike In Court Of Appeals Ruling, No County Chairs Decide WFP Wilson-Pakulas]
For those who may have been struggling to get their money paid to the Working Families Organization in time to vote on the Coordinating Council, the voting memo sent out by top Working Families staff in February offers a provision for payment plans: “Affiliate dues shall be paid on or before the last day of February. Affiliates that are unable due to budgetary or organizational constraints to comply with this deadline shall, on or before the last day of February, declare their dues level for the year and develop a payment plan with the Executive Director. The Executive Director must report all payment plans to the Executive Committee. Any affiliate whose payment plan is rejected by the Executive Director may appeal to the Executive Committee.”
If approved, they would be eligible to vote according to the Constitution & Rules of the Working Families Organization Coordinating Council, revised in April 2006—three months before paperwork filed with the New York Department of State officially established its parent, the Working Families Organization—which delineate four categories within the Coordinating Council: affiliate, chapter, borough committee or club. This confidential document was obtained by City Hall.
Revised WFO Rules The rules go on to explain that “an affiliate shall have the same number of votes on the Council that it has on the WFO State Committee, taking into account the amount it pays in affiliate dues, its participation in specific, approved party-building work, and the voting strength of its parent organization or of other affiliates of the same parent organization.”
For affiliates, the voting memo outlines that 100 dues-paying members get 1 vote, 1,000 paying members get 2 votes, 4,000 paying members get three votes, and upwards, to the level at which 25,000 paying members get eight votes.
Chapters and borough committees “are borough-wide WFO organizations,” the Coordinating Council rules explain, outlining the proportions: one vote for 100 dues-paying members, two votes for 200 paying members, 3 votes for 250 paying members and 4 votes for 300 paying members.
Clubs are “neighborhood-based WFO organizations within each borough,” with those being given one vote for 50 dues-paying members, two votes for 100 paying members, 3 votes for 200 paying members and four votes for 300 paying members.
But there is no such thing as the WFO state committee, and there are no WFO chapters, borough-wide organizations or clubs. There is a WFP state committee and there are WFP chapters, organizations and clubs, but these are affiliated officially with the political party—not with the tax-exempt non-political organization. The state committee, chapters, organizations and clubs are the one which are empowered by the Party rules filed with the state Board of Elections to make endorsements and nominations to the WFP ballot lines.
The allocation of power in this process is outlined in the official Party rules: “At such joint meeting every vote taken shall be by each county executive committee casting the total number of votes equal to the vote cast in such County for the candidate of the Working Families Party for Governor in the last preceding gubernatorial election.”Working Families Party Rules
Those Party rules, which do not include the words “New York City Coordinating Council,” were adopted at an organizing meeting of the Working Families Party State Committee on Sept. 15, 2008, signed by WFP co-chair Bob Master (an initial director of the WFO, according to the incorporation forms) and WFP non-voting assistant secretary Alexander Rabb (a lobbyist officer of the WFO, according to city records, and now a lawyer representing Data & Field Services). Kevin Finnegan, the 1199 SEIU political director who signed the Organization certificate of incorporation as the incorporator, notarized their signatures.
For all the formalities, those who have participated in the Coordinating Council meetings say that they are effectively run by the leaders of the groups with the most votes: Bob Master of the Communication Workers of America (also a Party co-chair and an initial director of the Organization), Jon Kest of ACORN, Finnegan of 1199, Peter Ward and Neil Kwatra of the Hotel Trades Council, Peter Colavito of 32 BJ (a Party at-large executive committee member) along with Lipton, Rabb and WFP/WFO executive director Dan Cantor. Karen Scharff of Citizens Action (also a Party at-large executive committee member and Organization president, according to tax forms) also has a strong voice.
According to those same sources, endorsements are often all-but-made in advance through coordinated action by this bloc of the Organization’s largest voting members, who then exert pressure on other members to make deals for backing the candidates they want. And even then, there were constant questions about member groups getting properly notified of when votes were taking place, with several unions left suspecting they were perhaps being excluded from the process because they were not going along with the leading members.
Party spokesman Dan Levitan, though, said that any supposed link between the Working Families Organization Coordinating Council vote and the Working Families Party is “inaccurate,” adding, “WFP endorsements are made according to the party’s rules and the state’s election law.”
He called the Coordinating Council “the Working Families Organization candidate screening and recommendation process whereby coalition members of the WFO have weighted votes depending on the number of members the chapter, club or affiliate has enrolled.”
Levitan continued, “this is identical to the practice of international unions and numerous chapter based organizations where voting strength is based on the per capita head count of local dues payers.”
He called the WFO vote an “advisory recommendation to the WFP for use in its endorsement process,” asserting that all final power remains with the state executive committee, on which there is no weighted vote.
On Confidential Questionnaires, WFP Priorities—Based On Center For Working Families Papers And Ultimately Voted On At The WFO—Made Clear
What were the candidates for public advocate, comptroller, Council and district attorney who sought Working Families support asked to agree to?
Quite a bit.
On March 12, all the candidates for public advocate filed into the headquarters of Organization member 1199 SEIU for their screening interviews, which, as the invitation emails from WFP elections campaign director Emma Wolfe stated, was to take place “at a meeting of the Working Families Party’s New York City Coordinating Council, which is our citywide decision-making body.”
Before coming, the candidates had already filled out Working Families Party questionnaires, obtained by City Hall, looking for their positions on major policy areas like transportation, education, affordable housing and taxes, with “background documents” provided from, among others, the Center for Working Families, to use as guidance. Also included was a question asking if they would promote the “Working Families proposed Green Jobs/Green Homes NY Residential Retrofit Investment Fund” (which was signed into state law this fall after intense lobbying by the Working Families Party and the Progressive America Fund’s Center for Working Families, though only the Working Families Organization reported any efforts) and, for public advocate candidates, “if they would pledge to “commit to consulting with Working Families and our affiliates on development before deals with the developers are struck.”WFP Public Advocate Questionnaire
To prepare for the questionnaires and interviews, candidates were directed to a series of “background documents for endorsements” on the Working Families Party’s website. Those who logged on found, among others, the Center for Working Families’ policy papers on Green Jobs/Green Homes, property tax relief and paid family leave. In other words, candidates looking to be endorsed and nominated by the political party were to prepare for their screening process by a 501 (c)4 by using 501(c)3-produced briefing papers. All of these entities are legally separate.
Just after 9 p.m. that night, a press release went out from the Working Families Party announcing that it was endorsing de Blasio “after a two-thirds majority vote by the WFP’s New York City Coordinating Council,” and Lander too.
Comptroller candidates who went before the Coordinating Council on April 22 at the 1199 headquarters were also given Party questionnaires asking them to support the Green Jobs legislation, in addition to delving into their opinions on stemming foreclosures, fair economic development and other budgetary issues.
The next day, the Working Families Party issued a press release about its decision, announcing “the endorsement of Councilmember John Liu for New York City Comptroller following a vote by the party’s New York City Coordinating Council.”WFP Comptroller Questionnaire
That night, political organizers Saba Debesu and Melody Lopez (both of whom are authorized Organization lobbyists) sent out the questionnaire for Council candidates. Over 11 pages, the Party looked to delve into candidates’ positions on personal income taxes, small business protections and expanding child care. There were also Working Families-specific questions: “Will you work with the WFP, its affiliates, and the Administration to make sure that labor peace requirements are employed when they will protect the City’s proprietary interest?” This was expanded on in the “Support for Labor” section: “The Working Families Party expects candidates receiving its endorsement to support unions in their efforts to organize workers and win fair contracts. It is not enough to support the right to a union in the abstract; WFP candidates must be prepared to publicly support unions in conflicts with employers.”WFP Council Questionnaire
The public advocate questionnaire also included a final “Support for Working Families” section, asking candidates to:
- Consider the advice of the Working Families Party regarding your appointments.
- If you are endorsed by Working Families, will you mention the Working Families Party on all your campaign literature?
- If you are elected, will you meet regularly (once every six months) with Working Families Party leaders and members to follow up on issue concerns?
- If you are elected, will you participate in an annual Working Families policy forum for elected officials?
Candidates for district attorney were asked a series of questions specific to their office, looking for commitments to Rockefeller drug law reform and opposing the death penalty, in addition to working against racial disparities and wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system, and whether they would support the unionization of assistant district attorneys.
They were also asked, with the answer marked as mandatory, “Will you pay for a targeted mailing informing voters of the WF endorsement?”WFP District Attorney Questionnaire
Veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said he believed that interrogating prospective candidates on the issues was “what a political party is actually supposed to do.”
“They present themselves as a political party with a very particular ideology,” he said, “and they want to see conformity from the people they support.”
And, he said, the presumption of donations or use of favored donors often goes hand-in-hand with endorsements—“it’s just more overt here,” Sheinkopf said.
“Patronage is one way to think about a party as a business,” he said, “but not necessarily as a condition of support.”
Several months later, Wolfe—the WFP operative who had sent out the questionnaires and is also an authorized lobbyist for the Working Families Organization—took a leave of absence to serve as de Blasio’s field director. Debesu became a communications staffer for Brooklyn Council candidate Jumaane Williams and Lopez became Queens Council candidate Danny Dromm’s campaign manager. Debesu and Lopez, according to Working Families executive director Dan Cantor, were part of the respective campaigns’ contracts with Data & Field Services.
The Members Of The WFO, And All Their Votes
Membership has grown over the years. By the time the 2009 voting memo was sent out, the breakdown of Coordinating Council votes was:
- 6 for ACORN
- 2 for the American Federation of Musicians Local 802
- 3 for Citizen Action New York
- 8 for Communications Workers of America District 1
- 3 for Communications Workers of America Local 1180
- 1 for Teamsters Local 813
- 1 for Teamsters Local 111
- 1 for Teamsters Lithographers Local
- 2 for Teamsters Local 808
- 1 for Laborers International Local 147
- 6 for Laborers International Mason Tenders District Council
- 8 for the NY Hotel & Motel Trades Council
- 2 for the NY Professional Nurses Union
- 4 for the Public Employees Federation
- 5 for Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union International
- 2 for Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union International Local 338
- 8 for Service Employees International Union local 1199
- 6 votes for Service Employees International Union local 32BJ
- 1 for Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association Local 137
- 4 for Transit Workers Union Local 100
- 1 for United Auto Workers Local 2110
- 1 for United Auto Workers Local 2320
- 1 for United Auto Workers Local 2325
- 8 for the state United Auto Workers
- 4 for United Food and Commercial Workers
- 2 for the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters
- 8 for the United Federation of Teachers
- 6 for the New York State Council of UNITE HERE
- 1 for United Steel Workers Association Local 9265
In addition, the Brooklyn Chapter/Borough Committees had 3 votes, and the Manhattan Chapter/Borough Committee had 1, while the South Brooklyn club had 2 and the North Brooklyn Club had 1.
That total vote count, then, was 113 within the WFO Coordinating Council to deliver the Party endorsement and nomination to the ballot line. Votes are by organization, not by person, with no clear rules governing which members of the organizations get to vote or who within each organization makes these decisions.