Who Will the Working Families Party Be Working For?
No candidates. No money. No staff. No clear agenda.
On the face of it, the newly launched Vermont Working Families Party seems like a sorry excuse for a political party. But its leaders hope to score big victories on “kitchen-table” issues at the Statehouse next year — all without putting a single WFP candidate in office.
The Vermont Working Families Party is the Green Mountain State’s newest political party.
Like Working Families parties in New York and Connecticut, the Vermont chapter won’t run its own candidates, but instead will “cross-endorse” candidates who support its prolabor agenda. Republicans, Democrats or others who are cross-endorsed will get a “Working Families Party” label next to their name on the election ballot.
That strategy and the backing of powerful labor unions have made the Connecticut and New York Working Families parties increasingly influential political players, able to sway close elections with their money, political organization and armies of campaign workers.
Inspired by that success, a coalition of labor leaders, farmers and others gathered at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier on December 14 to form a Vermont chapter. Party leaders narrowly met a state filing deadline that will let them cross-endorse candidates in next year’s statewide election, from the governor on down.
“It’s time for a party that will always stand up for average Vermonters on kitchen-table issues — and make sure politicians deliver on their promises,” says Rick Russell, a farmer and cabinetmaker from Fletcher who is one of five newly named WFP cochairs. “That’s why we’re starting a Working Families Party.”
What are kitchen-table issues? Dan Brush, former president of the Vermont AFL-CIO and a WFP co-chair, says the party will back candidates who support universal health care, green jobs and paid sick days. Fundraising, hiring a staff and defining the party’s platform come next.
Brush believes Vermont voters are “disgusted” with Democrats, Republicans and Progressives — as well as all the political finger pointing.
By focusing exclusively on pocketbook issues, Brush believes the Working Families Party will attract the type of voter who agrees with Democrats or Progressives on economic matters but doesn’t vote for them because they think, as Brush puts it, “These guys in Birkenstocks aren’t my kind of people.”
Founded in New York in 1998, the Working Families Party has expanded into Connecticut, Oregon, South Carolina and now Vermont. Labor unions are its backbone, and union members make up about half of the Vermont chapter’s membership, Brush says. Martha Allen, the newly named head of the state’s 11,000-member teachers’ union, is a WFP cochair.
Vermont’s election rules make cross-endorsing candidates far easier than in other states. But there’s a notable drawback in Vermont law that undermines one of the WFP’s key strategies. Candidates endorsed by the WFP in other states get their name on the ballot twice: once on the major-party line, and once on the WFP line.
That tells the WFP exactly how many votes it contributed to the candidate — and, if it’s large enough, that number can be used to bolster the argument that a WFP endorsement pushed a candidate over the top.
Convince a candidate your votes represent the margin of victory, the logic goes, and your influence grows dramatically. Suddenly, those kitchen-table issues get a closer look.
That won’t happen in Vermont — at least not without changing the law. Here, when a candidate is cross-endorsed by a second party, both parties appear on the same ballot line, a system called “aggregated fusion.” There’s no way to track which label motivated the vote.
Just who will benefit most from the WFP’s endorsements — and, more importantly, their money, campaign workers and advertising — remains to be seen.
In two-party states, it is almost always Democrats, who are generally more supportive of the WFP’s agenda. But in Vermont, where Progressives and Independents hold elective office, it may play out a little differently. The heads of both the Democratic and Progressive parties believe their candidates are the clear favorites.
“Their message almost completely is our message,” says Robert Dempsey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. “We want the same thing in nine out of 10 situations.”
Progressive Party executive director Morgan Daybell predicts a different outcome. “We expect most of our candidates will get their endorsement,” he says, even when they’re running against Democrats.
Republicans aren’t expecting much love from the WFP.
“I wouldn’t completely rule it out,” Republican Party chairman Steve Laribee says, “but I think they’re more apt to support the Progressives.”