All In The Family Part 5
With ACORN Paying The Salaries, The Progressive America Fund Providing The Framework And The Working Families Organization Paying For Lobbying, The Working Families Party Expands NationwideBy Edward-Isaac Dovere
UPDATE: Click here to read the government jobs which Dan Cantor just announced that two Working Families staffers--Emma Wolfe and Deirdre Schifeling--will be taking next year with Bill de Blasio and the Senate Democrats.
With the 2009 New York City election results, the Working Families Party proved itself the most potent new political force in the city and state. But the success has been building for years—as has an ongoing effort by leaders of the Working Families in New York to expand the party’s reach around the country.
Together with like-minded activists in other states, they have poured money, effort and inspiration into the Missouri Working Families Committee, the Connecticut Working Families Party, the Oregon Working Families Party, the Washington Working Families Coalition, the Massachusetts Working Families Organization, the South Carolina Working Families Party, a Maine Working Families effort, the Delaware Working Families Party, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, the California Working Families Party and the Nevada Working Families Party—all of which have risen and fallen in various forms in recent years. And the Vermont Working Families Party is about to start coming together, with several town caucuses already underway.
According to multiple interviews with the people involved in other states, the expansion of Working Families parties has been overseen by Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party and Working Families Organization, and Larry Moskowitz, the national labor coordinator for the New York WFP.
Moskowitz also serves as a WFP state committeeman from Upper Manhattan and has been listed as a contact for the Progressive America Fund on tax forms filed with other organizations.
Moskowitz was also one of the people listed as assisting a January 2008 report by the Progressive America Fund’s subsidiary, the National Open Ballot Project, entitled, “Technical and Cost Considerations of ‘Fusion Voting’ in Oregon and Maine.” Listed with him as assisting with the report are Joanne Wright, a former ACORN employee who was the treasurer of the Progressive America Fund, and Clare Crawford, the ACORN deputy political director for national organizing who not long after the report came out identified herself in government testimony in Oregon as the national director of the National Open Ballot Project.
That report lists a National Open Ballot Project advisory board which includes Bertha Lewis, who is the CEO of ACORN, a co-chair of the Working Families Party, an initial director of the Working Families Organization and a former treasurer of the Progressive America Fund. Also on the advisory board is Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former Service Employees International Union (SEIU)organizer who had WFP and ACORN support in her 2005 election and 2009 re-election bids to the New York City Council.
The National Open Ballot Project appears to create another set of deep connections and staff overlap between the Working Families Party, Working Families Organization and the Progressive America Fund, complete with money going back and forth between the Working Families Party in New York and the Working Families parties elsewhere in America. And these start-ups often include collaborative efforts between ACORN, SEIU or former staffers for both.
Still, in response to questions posed to Cantor about the relationship between the New York WFP and other states’ Working Families parties, WFP communications director Dan Levitan insisted that the connections were loose, at best. While Moskowitz does supervise New York WFP staff dispatched to build operations in other states and raise money for them, he said those all have their own organizing committees or boards.
“The New York Working Families Party does not govern Working Families coalitions around the country,” Levitan said. “State coalitions and parties have their own organizing committees or board depending on the organization’s status within the state that make decisions about day to day operations and local strategy.”
Nonetheless, the Working Families Organization in New York has been an important force behind the efforts in other states, Levitan said.
“We are extremely keen to see them succeed and quite openly and publicly have invested time, energy and resources in helping them do so. That includes recruiting and deploying WFO staff to build and staff coalitions in states as well as raise money for local parties and coalitions,” he said, adding, “Larry does supervise the operations of that WFO staff.”
But this should not be mistaken for a collaborative effort, according to Levitan.
“The parties are supportive of each other but there is not yet a national party,” he said. “There is no formal relationship between the parties, but we hope someday that there might be a federation of state parties. … We provide advice, guidance and support when we can. The New York party does not pay salaries for any of these groups.”
Lenny Jones, then the political director of Missouri SEIU, remembered finding out about the Working Families Party from a panel discussion he attended featuring Cantor, then-New York SEIU political director Patrick Gaspard and then-New York SEIU executive vice president Jennifer Cunningham. The topic was expanding the WFP to other states.
Intrigued by the potential power of cross-endorsement, Jones tried in 2005 to get steam behind an effort to get a fusion voting amendment into the Missouri constitution by ballot initiative. Working with Moskowitz, he said, he helped weave together union support and other basic groundwork, while the Progressive America Fund paid for polling in Missouri and other states to gauge interest in the idea.
Ultimately, the effort failed. Not long after, Jones put together the Working Families Committee, a 527 political action group that supports candidates for state offices. The Committee draws its resources from local Missouri unions, including SEIU. (In addition to his ongoing role as secretary treasurer of the Committee, Jones is now the regional director for SEIU’s Change to Win campaign.)
Even without the power of a party structure or help from New York, though, the Committee has proven an increasingly potent political force, Jones said.
“The Working Families moniker just works with people,” Jones said. “When you do mailings and things, trying to get people to vote for your candidates, it helps to have, not paid for by the Democratic Party, not paid for by the Republican Party, not paid for by a labor union—paid for by the Working Families Committee. It’s a good way to cut through and get people to read your stuff.”
The WFP has had more luck in Connecticut. Founded in 2002, the Connecticut WFP—which the New York WFP refers to as “our affiliate” on its website—won an important change in state law in 2007, removing an old requirement that third parties win a minimum of 1 percent of the vote in a district to earn the right to cross-endorse.
At this point, the party has a ballot line in all 169 of Connecticut’s towns. Operations are so robust that late last year, state party executive director Jon Green filed an affidavit in defense of the state’s campaign finance laws in response to complaints from the Green and Libertarian parties about requirements most third parties in the state say are too steep for them to meet.
“I believe that for an effective minor party with a developed electoral strategy, like the Working Families Party, the requirements are quite attainable,” Green wrote in the papers filed with the court.
The people make this electoral strategy happen for the Connecticut WFP are seven listed staff members who work in canvassing, organizing and administrative positions for the party. All have email addresses @workingfamiliesparty.org, the same as one of several email extensions used by the New York WFP.
Asked who pays the Connecticut WFP’s bills, communications direction Joe Dinkin explained by email that “the party engaged the services of individuals and consultants to support candidates endorsed by the party and pays for those services from the appropriate committee.”
Though he said the Connecticut WFP is governed by a volunteer board, as for the staff salaries, Dinkin said that he, Green and the party’s organizing and political director Lindsay Farrell “are all employees of Citizens Services, Inc.,” adding “Connecticut Working Families Party does not have full-time, year-round staff, but contracts with CSI for our services and pays for them through the appropriate committees.”
An entity called Citizens Services, often under the name New York Citizens Services, also appears to have an office at 2-4 Nevins Street in Brooklyn, the same address as ACORN and the Working Families Party in New York. Appearing this year for the first time as a consulting company offering a wide range of services, New York Citizens Services was known among the candidates who used it to be the entity through which ACORN services were bought. Nine WFP-backed candidates, including Public Advocate-elect Bill de Blasio and failed Manhattan district attorney candidate Richard Aborn paid the company a total of $189,000 reported so far this year.
Dinkin and Farrell, both former New York WFP employees, have also received money over the years from the New York WFP’s state account, including $3,400 for professional services in July 2008 and $2,700 in November 2008 for communication services for Dinkin and $4,500 for professional services in July 2008 for Farrell.
All this money is in addition to the cash that went directly to the Connecticut WFP from the New York WFP, including a $3,400 consulting fee sent to Hartford in July 2008 and several contributions, the largest of which was for $15,000, made in November 2008, according to New York State campaign finance records. A $2,700 payment made to the Connecticut WFP in December 2008 is marked as “Joe Dinkin COMM” on these records, indicating that the New York WFP made at least one direct payment for the Connecticut WFP’s communications director.
But despite the common name, numerous former employees now among its ranks and similar mission, Dinkin said there is no formal connection between the Working Families Party in New York and the one in Connecticut.
“The founding of the CT WFP was in some ways inspired by the success of the NY WFP, but the CT WFP has its own distinct leadership and decision making,” he wrote in an earlier email. “We help each other when we can.”
On the other side of the country, WFP enthusiasts celebrated this summer as Oregon Gov. Ted Kuglonski signed a long-sought change in the law that re-established fusion voting in the state.
The New York WFP cheered on its blog, announcing the news with the headline, “The WFP is growing.”
The new Oregon law is a weaker version of fusion voting in New York, with third parties able to cross-nominate candidates, though without a separate ballot line.
Among the prime motivators behind the bill were members of the Oregon WFP, a product of discussions that began in November 2005 between members of 13 unions and eight community groups, including local branches of some of those deeply involved with the New York WFP, like ACORN and the Communications Workers of America. Like the Connecticut WFP, the Oregon WFP aligns entirely with the issues being promoted by the New York WFP. It also uses the same logo that WFP-endorsed candidates in New York usually call the “political equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”
With the ink still fresh on the fusion voting law, the Oregon WFP has yet to have a chance to demonstrate strength at the polls, despite nominating an attorney general candidate last year.
Nonetheless, the Oregon WFP does have a steering committee, complete with two co-chairs. One of them, Barbara Dudley, gave $10,000 to the Progressive America Fund on the very same day in July 2006 when she gave the New York Working Families Organization a $15,000 donation. A reliable Working Families Party donor over the years, Dudley also wrote a $5,000 check to the Party’s federal account on Oct. 10, 2006.
Money has moved the other way as well: in September 2007, the New York WFP’s state campaign finance records show $856 being sent to the Oregon WFP, care of secretary treasurer Marilyn Elder, for professional services.
Helping oversee the complicated task of putting together a new party in the state was Rachel Berkson, who, according to her official bio on the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, was a lead organizer with the New York WFP for six years and “was sent to the Northwest Region by the Working Families Party to explore the possibility of establishing chapters in Washington and Oregon.”
Berkson is the only listed officer of the Working Families Coalition, a Seattle-based 527 political action committee. Reporting working eight hours per week for no pay as its treasurer, Berkson signed 2008 tax returns listing $55,000 in total donations from the Pacific NW Regional Council of Carpenters, UFCW Local 21 PAC and the Service Employees International Union Washington Political Action Fund, which Berkson helps oversee through her current position as the executive director of the SEIU Washington State Council.
The Coalition has recently gotten active in Washington State politics, last year backing several candidates for state races and the incumbent Washington governor, and this year funding mailings and robo-calls attacking candidates for Seattle mayor and county executive, according to records available with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
Dudley was not the only out-of-state Working Families supporter to send money to the New York Working Families family. On July 14, 2006, an entity called the Working Families Organization based in Boston wrote the New York WFP a $13,240 check. Then, according to tax records filed with the New York attorney general’s office, Massachusetts Working Families Organization gave a $35,000 contribution, and then a $29,000 contribution to the New York Working Families on Sept. 1, 2006. Nine days later, on Sept. 10, the $29,000 contribution was apparently refunded. Then on Sept. 27, the Massachusetts-based Working Families Organization sent another check to the New York WFP, this one for $8,000.
However, no Working Families Organization was ever filed with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. There is a Working Families Party on file at that office, though there are only filings from 2007 and 2008, after the checks to the New York WFP were received. Both the 2007 and 2008 filings show $0 received, $0 spent and a balance of $0. These reports also list a different address from the one on the New York WFO tax returns reported for the Massachusetts Working Families Organization.
The Massachusetts WFO was based at the same address and related to a group called MA Citizens for Ballot Choice, the sponsors of something called the Mass Ballot Freedom Campaign, a now-defunct political group that worked with Massachusetts ACORN to get a fusion voting question on the ballot in 2006. According to contemporary accounts available on the web, this effort was being spearheaded by Jim Fleischmann, who is now the treasurer of the Progressive America Fund. On at least one occasion, according to posted web announcements of the visit, Cantor traveled to Boston to talk up the idea of fusion voting and explain to people how well it had worked for the Working Families Party in New York.
In 2006, a candidate named Rand Wilson, a former employee of several unions, did win 19 percent in the state auditor race that year, earning the Massachusetts Working Families Party statewide ballot status.
But ultimately, Bay State voters rejected the idea of legalizing cross-endorsements by a 65-35 margin. Two weeks later, on Nov. 19, MA Citizens for Ballot Choice filed a dissolution report with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The South Carolina Working Families Party uses the same logo and issue list, as well as material on its website common in many states’ Working Families websites which lays out the logic of fusion voting.
This includes a simple chart explaining that if “Steady Sue” gets 42 percent on Major Party 1’s ballot line, “Fat Cat Bill” gets 48 percent on Major Party 2’s ballot line and Steady Sue gets another 10 percent on the Working Families Party’s line, “Steady Sue wins with 52% and knows where her votes came from.”
The South Carolina WFP was founded by Erin McKee, who now serves as state chair. A former official of the Association of Flight Attendants who is currently with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, McKee said she was inspired to start the Working Families effort in South Carolina after reading an article in The Nation that touted the New York WFP’s success and mentioned that hers was one of only two other states where fusion voting was already legal. A few weeks later, at an AFL-CIO convention at Myrtle Beach, she met Larry Moskowitz.
The two struck up a conversation.
Moskowitz began by briefing McKee on the mechanics of fusion voting and the kinds of people to whom the Working Families effort might appeal. Once the idea gained traction, Moskowitz provided additional help in the crafting of bylaws and rules for the new party.
Several candidates for state legislature and Congress have run on the WFP line, but McKee said bigger plans are being laid.
“We’re trying to figure out who’s running, who we might be able to help that believes in our issues and go from there. We’re trying to form clubs in Charleston and Columbia and Greenville and start getting people motivated, and educating them about the Working Families Party,” McKee said, adding, “we’re going to the unions and educating.”
A notice on the website encourages South Carolina candidates interested in running on the WFP line to contact organizer Joe Berry, reachable via at that same @workingfamiliesparty.org email extension that New York and Connecticut WFP employees use.
Berry did not return a call and email requesting comment, but McKee confirmed that he is the same Joe Berry who spent years on staff at the New York WFP as an organizer before returning to his native South Carolina. Now the only paid employee of the South Carolina WFP, Berry also served as an organizer for the separately incorporated Suffolk County Working Families Party, and was an authorized New York Working Families Organization lobbyist for 2007, 2008 and 2009.
As is the case for the Connecticut WFP, there does not seem to be a visible in-state means of support for Berry’s salary. According to the report filed with the South Carolina State Ethics Commission dated July 10, 2009, the party had a balance of just $200, thanks to a $100 contribution from the Columbia Central Labor Council and IBEW Local 772. The South Carolina WFP also got a $500 donation from the New York State PAC of 1199 SEIU, a key WFP/WFO member union, in October 2006.
Though there is no Maine Working Families Party, a woman named Ann Mitchell reported being a lobbyist receiving a monthly retainer from the Working Families Organization in New York, complete with the 2-4 Nevins Street address in 2006. Over the course of 2007, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices, Mitchell received $28,250 in compensation from the New York WFO. She did not receive Working Families Organization money in 2008, but two other lobbyists did, for a combined $9,900 in compensation.
One of those two lobbyists, Joe Mackey, confirmed that he and a grassroots organizer had been hired by people in New York to rally support for fusion voting legislation that was considered, but ultimately voted down, in the Maine legislature.
“It was trying to get the New York system into Maine,” Mackey said, remaining optimistic that the concept might fare better in the future. “It was kind of the first round. It’s the kind of thing that might take a few attempts before people get comfortable with it.”
Mackey could not remember all the details of his work in 2007, but two names still rung out to him: Dan Cantor and Larry Moskowitz. Mackey said he had been in close contact with both throughout his lobbying.
Other WFP groups have been less active. The Delaware Working Families Party, which uses the same logo and is geared toward the same goals (and refers on its website to the New York, Connecticut, Oregon and South Carolina “sister parties”), ran candidates for the first time in 2008, cross-endorsing with Democrats under the leadership of a state chair.
Dan Charlton, who was the organizer and sole employee of the Delaware WFP, said that the idea behind the party never seemed to quite catch on in the small state.
Others in the Working Families leadership knew they were struggling, Charlton said: Lindsay Farrell at the Connecticut WFP acted as his day-to-day supervisor and Dan Cantor regularly received reports from him on status and progress. Most press questions, he said, were handled by Levitan out of the New York office.
But Charlton got his paychecks while at the Delaware WFP from the same place as those working for the Connecticut WFP got theirs: ACORN’s political consulting firm.
“I was employed by a consulting firm called Citizens Services, Inc.,” Charlton said. “To be honest, I know that money was changing hands between that consulting company and the Working Families Party, but insofar as where that money came from, that just wasn’t something that I dealt with.”
Charlton left his position with the Delaware WFP over the summer. He is now on staff in Virginia with Project Vote, an entity which has in the past worked with ACORN to conduct non-partisan voter registration activities, though it “is not,” according to the group's communications director Michael McDunnah, “owned by ACORN or affiliated by ACORN.”
In New Jersey, a 501 (c)4 called the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, which uses the same Working Families logo, filed an initial return with the IRS in 2007 claiming the same vague “civic participation” mission that appears on the returns of the New York Working Families Organization and the Progressive America Fund. The return was prepared by Steve Short, the same South Carolina-based accountant who prepared the New York WFO’s 2007 returns and performed an audit of the Progressive America Fund’s finances in 2006.
Records with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission reveal a NJ Working Families Alliance PAC founded in 2007 and based at the same address as the New Jersey offices of the Communications Workers of America. The records list a woman named Eva Bonime as the project director, though the New Jersey Working Families Alliance website now lists her as the executive director.
Bonime is also the director of the New Jersey Grassroots Institute, a group affiliated with State Voices—for which Progressive America Fund treasurer Joanne Wright works as a fundraising consultant. But before that, according to her own biography, Bonime “spent six years as an organizer and special projects director for the Working Families Party,” where her projects included “forming the South Carolina Working Families Party in 2006.”
The New Jersey Working Families Alliance is the only listed political client from outside of New York of Berlin Rosen, the public relations firm which works with the Working Families Party in New York. And there are more New York connections as well, with state campaign finance records showing that the New Jersey Working Families Alliance drew $1,176 from across the Hudson for professional services fees from the New York WFP in May 2008, and two contributions totaling $130,000 from the Local 32BJ SEIU NY/NJ American Dream Fund made this year. The New Jersey Working Families Alliance also received another $2,000 from the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) in December in 2008.
“This payment was for an individual who did GOTV for Kevin Parker,” said a DSCC spokesperson who asked not to be named, when asked about the $2,000.
Though Parker, who was facing a competitive primary for his State Senate seat last year, had a contract with Data & Field Services—as did the DSCC—the DSCC spokesperson said the payment had nothing to do with the campaign committee’s work with the Data & Field Services.
But there was an expectation that the Working Families Alliance and the New York WFP were financially linked.
“We assumed that the NJ WFA was linked somehow to WFP, but never explored the specifics because that wasn’t relevant to us,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson could not explain why the money for the Parker staffer was paid to New Jersey.
Then there are a conglomeration of 14 Working Families groups launched by a man named John J. Wheeling, who is the treasurer and chair of the Working Families Party of California, which attempted to qualify for the June 2008 California primaries. Other groups with paperwork submitted by Wheeling to the Federal Elections Commission include the Working Families Party of America National HQ Building Fund, the Working Families Party of America Nat’l News Web Blog Site Media Broadcast, the Working Families Party of Nevada and the 2008 Draft Sen Barrick [sic] Obama for President WFP Working Families Party of America National Committee.
All 14 except the Nevada committee, based in Reno, report the same P.O. Box in Fort Bragg, California as the official address. All were dissolved in December 2008 with a series of nearly identical handwritten letters which Wheeling sent to the Federal Elections Commission.
“Please accept our termination report; there was no activity, 0, zero, none,” he wrote at the outset of each letter. “In good faith, we created entities in hope of an opening, due to the split of AFL-CIO and SEIU, however, the need for a new third party was insufficient to organize a new national movement since Obama and Hillary Clinton changed the scenario for reform.”
“We are quite happy Barrack [sic] won and we can retire, we have hope again (for 4 years?)!!I … so we will suspend efforts until we see results in 2012?” the letter continues, “Although 57% still want a new third party, however, it won’t be W.F.P., yet we have demonstrated the legal precedents structural requirements to create a new natl. third-party for others to build upon, if need arises.”
But the effort continues in Vermont, where in mid-November, former state AFL-CIO president Dan Brush helped organize 14 town caucuses in the preliminary stage for getting a new political party on the books with the secretary of state. New York WFP co-chair Bob Master headed to Vermont to drum up support for the effort, which Brush says will be focused purely on economic fairness issues.
Brush did not return calls from City Hall for comment, but discussed the effort with the local Burlington Free Press in mid-November.
“We have no ACORN,” Brush told the paper, adding that his Working Families effort “is run by Vermonters. It is grassroots. … Our platform will be up to us.”
The first state meeting of the Vermont WFP will be held Dec. 14 at a Unitarian church in Montpelier. That same night, the New York WFP will hold its 11th annual gala at the 32 BJ/SEIU building in downtown Manhattan, honoring John Liu and Bill de Blasio—the new city comptroller and public advocate elected this year with its support, who will take office on Jan. 1.