On Oct. 1, the labor-backed, ascendant Working Families Party helped organize a rally in Foley Square, ostensibly to urge city lawmakers to pass a law requiring employees to get paid when they call out sick to work. It was also a show of brute force: the party’s first high-profile rally since the Sept. 15 primaries, when six of their candidates won Council races, sweeping four incumbent Democratic lawmakers out of office, and their two endorsees for citywide office finished first in competitive, multi-candidate fields.
That same day, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic organization, made an unusual announcement: He planned to support the Working Families Party’s Council candidate in Bushwick over the Democratic Party’s nominee.
And so it ends.
Despite having nearly every seat in the City Council, two of the three citywide offices, both houses of the State Legislature and every statewide office, New York City Democrats are finding out it’s not actually their party anymore.
“To a certain extent, there’s been a long process of transformation where local organizations have been losing power,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat from Manhattan. “We entered a much more candidate-centered age a long time ago.” He said the job of “putting together grass-roots operations have shifted away from party organizations and towards individual candidates.”
And toward the Working Families Party, which has filled a vacuum left by the receding Democratic organizations.
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who worked for two non-WFP citywide candidates in the primaries, said that both the Democratic and Republican parties are essentially relics.
“The parties are not in a position to turn out anybody because nobody associates with them anymore,” said Mr. Sheinkopf. One solution, said Mr. Sheinkopf, was to “try to create the clubs as social entities.”
Assemblyman Rory Lancman, a Democrat from Queens, said the WFP has learned to take a ruthless strategic approach to elections, whereas the Democratic Party is tramelled by custom.
“The Democratic Party is somewhat constrained in who it must support by respect for incumbency and an organizational process that’s more ‘bottom up’ than outsiders understand, or that the party gets credit for, in terms of local district leaders driving the process,” he said.
And, he said, “at the operational level, where the rubber meets the road, Democratic Party candidates are responsible for building their own operation.”
In Jackson Heights, for example, Councilwoman Helen Sears was challenged by the WFP-supported candidate Danny Dromm, a Democratic district leader. Mr. Dromm had run in low-level, intraparty races that few ordinary voters would ever have heard about. Ms. Sears had been in office for eight years, relying on the Democratic Party to help build her field operation.
Which was the problem.
“What kind of operational support does an eight-year incumbent really need or expect from the Democratic Party?” asked Mr. Lancman, skeptically. “It turns out, Helen needed it more than he did.”
The Democratic county leaders in the other boroughs—even ones, like Representative Joe Crowley of Queens, whose influence has very plainly suffered as the WFP’s has increased—publicly laud the WFP’s efforts, saying they’re all working toward the same progressive goals.
“I think they have some advantages in terms of their operation that they can look at not the whole picture, but influence things here and there,” said Mr. Crowley, the Queens county chair.
“I don’t look at the Working Families Party as a threat,” said Assemblyman Carl Heastie, the county leader in the Bronx, who, in a purge of his predecessor’s allies, has supported WFP candidates. “They’ve been an ally to me in the Bronx. I don’t look at things in an antagonistic way.”
“When you have a winning formula, you try to stick to that winning formula. The winning formula has been you win low-turnout elections with the army and the army is the ground force, and they’ve shown they’ve been good at that. And that’s how you win races—door to door, voter contact is how you win races.”
“County organizations don’t do elections,” said political consultant Joe Mercurio. “They prevent elections, or they set someone up to be in a position to win without an election.” That’s because organizations have “no money, no infrastructure,” so “they don’t really get into structurally running people’s elections.”
Which means, in essence, that the WFP has no competition.
Mr. Schneiderman said, “If you want to complain about the Working Families Party, go out and build a field operation