The Political and Organizational Problem of Imperfect Incumbents


Detroit    The Working Families Party is a ballot line party in New York State that ACORN helped found and with different hats has supported consistently as a way to count our members votes more vividly and express our issues in a political form more powerfully.  In New York and several other states fusion is legal, and it allows different political parties to endorse the same candidate for office and candidates to seek the endorsement of multiple parties.

Recently a donnybrook broke out in the party and publicly when the WFP announced that its leadership was recommending an early endorsement for actress Cynthia Nixon, best known for her role in the HBO show and movie, “Sex in the City,” as a challenger to two-time incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo in his efforts to seek a third term.  The WFP in a contentious convention process that left bruised feelings and some disappointed members had endorsed Cuomo in his last election and some felt he had not measured up as sufficiently progressive during his recent stint in office.  For his part, Cuomo has championed his record, citing progress on raising the state’s minimum wage, his work to advance women, and a number of other reforms.  Worse for the WFP, some of its major union members, including the giant building service union, SEIU 32BJ and CWA District One, who with ACORN and New York Citizen Action, was a founding member of the party, supported Cuomo’s record with labor and have resigned from the party, threatening its future in some ways.  What a fine mess we have ourselves in!

Regardless of the merits, this presents a classic political and organizational dilemma:  what do we do with imperfect incumbents?  Especially ones that have delivered real wins for our people, but have come up short on other parts of our agenda?

For years when I was a member of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO first as an executive board member and then as Secretary-Treasurer for six years, we confronted this issue repeatedly and unsatisfactorily.  The central body, like many others in the labor movement, had what they called an “incumbent rule.”  If we had endorsed the incumbent in a previous race, there was a default presumption that unless there had been an extraordinary problem, they could assume we would endorse them again.  In the political world our rule was well-known.  Every cycle as candidates presented themselves from mayors to countless judges and legislators and lesser offices, incumbents would tout their bonafides to labor, and challengers would point out their weaknesses, sometimes which were major.  Not infrequently the challengers were closer to our positions than the incumbents, had a history of delivering more, and always promised more, yet we were harnessed, especially by the exacting calculations of the building trades locals of what they had added up in their “favor” bank.

Politically the advantage of the rule was that it made decisions simpler.  The disadvantage is that it diluted our power to both reward our friends and punish our enemies.

Organizationally, the rule had an advantage because it generally kept unions together on the endorsements.  We were bound to the decision as members of the central body of the GNO AFL-CIO.  Union leaders who went rouge often did so individually outside of their organization and could count on being shamed and shunned for it.  Some offered “name only” support.  As distasteful as the rule felt, it prevented the WFP problem of key supporters leaving over disagreements about a politician rather than general party principles.  It put the organization first which is appropriate.

We needed a rule, which I could never win, that added an extra layer and forced what I’m calling “imperfect incumbents” – and certainly Cuomo would qualify in that category – to go past the leadership and be forced to fight for the endorsement before the entire membership on the merits of their performance.  Open meeting and convention fights are messy and fraught with risks as well, but at least challengers and incumbents both are forced to measure up, and when it is over and done our unity is at least protected by our democracy rather than some questionable rule or obedience to our leadership.