Little Election, Big Union

The candidates were out and about, but it didn’t feel much like an election day.

On the corner of 11th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, Councilman and Democratic mayoral contender Tony Avella competed for attention from a modest flow of passersby with the son of district attorney candidate Leslie Crocker Snyder.

Mr. Avella, who had just returned from a lunch break at home in Queens, said things were going “all right.”

A moment later, a bald man marched up to the lamppost next to Mr. Avella and tore down posters for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Mr. Avella looked at the rest of the signs stapled around the pole, and said, “It’s illegal to put up signs anyway. Plus, I can’t afford any.”

Mr. Avella said he hoped that many people would make the same calculation that he did, that there was no way on earth the polite but unthreatening Bill Thompson could beat Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But he didn’t sound all that optimistic.

He did, however, warm to the topic of the Working Families Party, the increasingly powerful labor-backed entity that has become the talk of the relatively small percentage of New Yorkers closely following the races for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, City Council and Manhattan district attorney.

“It’s clearly wrong,” said Mr. Avella, who was not endorsed by the WFP. “It’s a way to get around the campaign finance laws.”

He was referring in particular to the party’s neat, game-changing trick of founding a for-profit field-operations arm, backed by union money and staffed by union operatives, that candidates—most notably comptroller candidate Bill de Blasio—could then “hire” to organize and get out the vote. It has been a way for the party to avoid the restrictions of the city’s campaign finance rules by directly coordinating with candidates they endorse, providing field services, possibly at cut-rate prices subsidized by their union donors, and basically supplying a shadow campaign for their political friends.

The low turnout guaranteed by the suspenseless mayoral primary at the top of the ticket would only magnify the advantage of whichever candidates could count on the party’s ability to knock on thousands of doors to identify supporters and then pull them to the polls on primary day.

Eric Gioia, a councilman for Queens who is running for public advocate against Mr. de Blasio and front-runner Mark Green, and trails both men in the polls, has made the WFP field operation his eleventh-hour campaign issue.

Another citywide candidate said—on background, for fear of offending the WFP before knowing how the primary would turn out—that a state senator had been scared out of endorsing the candidate’s campaign when the WFP threatened a primary.

“They are the new political machine,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who is working for comptroller candidate David Weprin, who also happens not to be endorsed by the Working Families Party.

 

ON THE LEAFY corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue in Park Slope, where the green garbage cans bear the name of Councilman Bill de Blasio, the candidate and his wife did some primary-morning campaigning in front of a church that had temporarily been converted into a polling place. A dozen volunteers, including Mr. de Blasio’s brother and cousin, hoisted placards at the passing cars and parents jogging behind their strollers. As his supporters solicited interest, Mr. de Blasio, who has a basketball player’s stature and taste in pinstriped suits, joked at the “spontaneous outbursts of popular energy.”

“Can’t hold them back, Bill,” said his spokesman, Matt Wing, playing along.

“Matt, I told you to hold down these public outpourings of support.”

When a Times photographer he had been waiting for showed up to take pictures, the volunteers formed a “Bill de Bla-Si-O”–chanting corridor that the candidate and his wife walked through as though newly married.

Mr. de Blasio doesn’t look like a machine guy. He lives in brownstone Brooklyn, and his wedding was an interracial affair in Prospect Park presided over by a gay, interdenominational pair of ministers. He is a former pro-Sandinista academic and Dinkins staffer and he managed Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign. The New York Times editorial board loves him. He has an unthreatening beard.

But ask him or his campaign about the work being done for them by the WFP’s for-profit arm—the innocuously named Data and Field Services—and things get tricky.

On primary day, Mr. Wing refused to say where the canvassers were knocking on doors. And in the days leading up to the primary, the WFP declined to provide details about what the company would be doing, explaining that the de Blasio campaign asked them not to make the information available.

In a phone interview on the eve of election day, Mr. de Blasio tried to play down the importance of the WFP for his campaign, saying it was “reductionist” to boil all of his support down to the party, and argued that he had a broad coalition that included endorsements from elected officials, The New York Times and unions. 

“I think there is a little bit of mythology going on about the WFP,” he said.

But Mr. de Blasio also acknowledged that he stood to benefit from the services of DFS. “They are very efficient at finding out who is voting and then reaching those voters repeatedly,” he said, though he insisted that he paid market rate for those services and blamed the now widely held suspicion that he perhaps hadn’t on mudslinging opponents. The party, obviously, also stood to gain from his winning.

“They have a lot of influence,” he said, “and if they keep electing good people they will keep getting more influential.”

According to Dan Cantor, the executive director of the WFP, that moment may have already arrived.

Citing their success in influencing the agenda in Albany, Mr. Cantor, said that the party had accreted power slowly over the years, and that it only seemed like they had come to prominence overnight.

Nevertheless, he added, “we’re definitely stronger,” and, “I think we’re definitely up a couple of notches.”

Mr. Cantor said that the party believed passionately in its agenda, and was not interested in making excuses for the tactics it pursued to get its candidates into office. “We’re idealistic and pragmatic at the same time,” he said. “And that’s a good combination.”

Inside the church–turned–polling station, Mr. de Blasio pulled the black plastic curtain closed at the polling booth, and election workers laughed at the sight of Mr. de Blasio’s head, which, because of his height, poked out above the stall.

“There’s no privacy,” Mr. de Blasio shouted, probably joking.

 

DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES without WFP support, even well-established politicians like David Yassky, who hired high-powered political consultant Josh Isay, and whose palm card points out newspaper endorsements and tributes from former boss Chuck Schumer, were running operations that seemed homespun and quaint by comparison. 

In Brooklyn Heights on primary morning, Mr. Yassky walked out his local polling place with his wife and daughter and said to a volunteer, “All right. What’s the response so far?”

She said she hadn’t gotten much response at all.

“All right,” he answered flatly. “Keep working.”

At the green market by the Borough Hall subway stop, he said he would reserve judgment on the importance of the WFP endorsement until after the primary, and said whatever they did in the field was fine with him “as long as they played by the rules.” It was the strength of the message, and not those getting the message out, that mattered, he said, stopping to eat a free sample of a sliced apple. His phone rang.

“Josh!” Mr. Yassky said as he walked over to a parked bicycle, upon which he hung his coat. “On the West Side, I felt that people were coming in to vote for me.”

The family then proceeded to sample tomatoes and peaches. They didn’t engage many more voters, most of whom simply walked by them as if they were statues of forgotten statesmen. His spokesman, Danny Kanner, said Mr. Yassky would be heading back to the campaign office, where he’d be his “own personal phone bank.” He said he didn’t know how many people were working in the phone banks for rival comptroller candidate John Liu, who was endorsed by the WFP, but, unlike Mr. de Blasio, didn’t formally hire the ostensibly separate field-ops arm. 

Mr. Kanner didn’t accuse Mr. Liu of doing anything illegal in his relationship with the WFP. But, he added on second thought, it was a shame the press hadn’t looked into it more vigorously.