a former community and union organizer who is now executive director of the Working Families Party, a third party that began in New York and has now spread to five others states.
Tuesday’s election signaled a political sea change in New York City as voters chose a candidate who repeatedly emphasized his progressive vision. The city’s public advocate, Bill de Blasio, crushed Republican Joe Lhota in the mayoral race to replace billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg. De Blasio is set to become the first Democrat to lead the city in two decades. During his campaign, de Blasio’s signature message focused on what he called a "tale of two cities" and challenge the police department’s controversial "stop-and-frisk" program. Mayor-elect de Blasio rose to power with the help of the Working Families Party, an independent political coalition sponsored by labor unions and focused on reducing social and political inequality. The party’s grassroots organizing efforts are not limited to New York. It recently won landmark legislation to tackle the student debt crisis in Oregon; fought the corporate education reform agenda in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and won paid sick days in Jersey City, New Jersey. Voters in New Jersey also approved a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage by a dollar to $8.25 an hour and add automatic cost-of-living increases each year. "We are living in the world Occupy made," says Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party. "We are the beneficiaries of what they did in terms of making this [about] inequality, which is from our point of view the core issue of our time."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today with a look at how Tuesday’s election signaled a sea change in New York City as voters chose a candidate who repeatedly emphasized his progressive vision. The city’s public advocate, Bill de Blasio, crushed Republican Joe Lhota in the mayoral race to replace billionaire mayor, Mike Bloomberg. De Blasio is set to become the first Democrat to lead New York City in two decades.
During his campaign, De Blasio’s signature message focused on what he called a "tale of two cities." Last year, the poorest 20 percent of New York’s households earned about $9,000, and the richest 5 percent earned an average of nearly $437,000. During his victory speech in Brooklyn, de Blasio vowed to tax the rich to pay for universal pre-kindergarten classes.
MAYRO-ELECT BILL DE BLASIO: The best and the brightest are born in every neighborhood. We all have a shared responsibility and a shared stake in making sure their destiny is defined by how hard they work and how big they dream, and not by their zip code. So, when we call on the wealthiest among us to pay just a little bit more in taxes to fund universal pre-K and after-school programs, we aren’t threatening anyone’s success. We are asking those who have done very well to ensure that every child has the same opportunity to do just as well as they have. That’s how we all rise together.
Public safety is a prerequisite for the thriving neighborhoods that create opportunity in this city, and so is respect for civil liberties. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we must have both. We must work to promote a real partnership between the best police force in the world and the communities they protect from danger, be it local or global. New Yorkers on both sides of the badge understand this. We are all hungry for an approach that acknowledges we are stronger and safer as a city when police and residents work hand in hand.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: From taxing the rich to challenging stop-and-frisk, Mayor-elect de Blasio rose to power with the help of the Working Families Party, an independent political coalition sponsored by labor unions and focused on reducing social and political inequality. Since it launched 15 years ago, the party helped elect progressive candidates throughout the state and worked to increase the minimum wage and raise taxes on the rich. Of 21 new City Council members elected this week, more than half were backed by the Working Families Party.
AMY GOODMAN: The party’s grassroots organizing efforts are not limited to New York. The group recently won landmark legislation to tackle the student debt crisis in Oregon; fought the corporate education reform agenda in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and won paid sick days in Jersey City, New Jersey. Voters in New Jersey also approved a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage by a dollar to $8.25 an hour and add automatic cost-of-living increases each year. They voted this despite the veto of the governor, Chris Christie.
For more, we’re joined by Danny Cantor, executive director of Working Families Party, former community and union organizer.
Dan Cantor, welcome to Democracy Now! So, in New York, you could vote for, for example, Bill de Blasio either on the Democratic line, or you could vote on the Working Families Party.
DAN CANTOR: That’s correct. New York has this unusual voting system, legal in a half a dozen states or so, in which a candidate can appear twice on the ballot under two separate lines. It’s a way for the minor party to add a little oomph to its vote. Vote for de Blasio, we say, or our City Council candidates, but send them a message about taxes or healthcare or housing, whatever the issues are. And then the votes are added together for the final tally. It’s just a way to put a little extra message into the vote.
But the real work is almost always inside the Democratic Party primary, and that’s where Working Families has focused its efforts both in New York and in other states trying to get progressives elected. You know, that’s how you do it. And it’s hard and messy, but it—when it works, as it did this last week in New York, it’s a very exciting moment.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Dan, one of the things I raised in my column in the Daily News earlier this week, that this is perhaps the most—not only is it the first Democtratic mayor in 20 years, but it’s really perhaps the most progressive overall government the City of New York has seen in maybe 50 years. You have to go back to the time of John Lindsay, the liberal Republican, to see a comparable situation, because it’s not just the mayor, but it’s the public advocate, Letitia James, that you also supported. It’s the—all of these members in the City Council—
DAN CANTOR: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that there is really a potential here for precedent-setting legislation and governance now.
DAN CANTOR: Yeah, well, I mean, that’s—what are elections about? They’re about—they’re supposed to be about the society pausing and saying, "How are we doing?" And, in fact, what de Blasio and his team did, and the councilmembers and Tish James and so on, is they recognized that things were not going so brilliantly for everybody. There had been the Gilded Age of Bloomberg, in which certain things really worked well for certain parts of the society. The real estate crowd really understood they were on a major roll. But de Blasio, to his credit, said, "No, it really is not working well for everyone, and we need to pause and say that." And what was beautiful about this election is that people heard it, and they responded overwhelmingly.
So now the hard part starts. Getting elected is easy compared to governing. But de Blasio has the wind at his back, and he has a council, a city council, that is not as prominent, obviously, but is really made up of some first-rate people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But interestingly, you have a Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who right out of the gate said he is not going to necessarily back de Blasio’s signature call for—
DAN CANTOR: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —raising taxes on the rich to fund pre-K. So what’s going to be now the—
DAN CANTOR: Well, this is—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the tension—
DAN CANTOR: I mean, if I knew, I’d be in your chair.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —between the mayor now and supposedly a fellow Democrat in Albany?
DAN CANTOR: Yeah. This is going to be the big battle, the big question mark, going forward. Obviously, we favor what de Blasio has been saying about the need both to make these investments in children and other things, and transport and housing, and we also favor obviously progressive taxation. The governor, for whatever reason, has come out against it. We think that’s not the right place to be. And that’ll be—you know, we’ll fight that out in Albany. I like our chances.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s very interesting the way de Blasio put it. You know, all over the country candidates get defeated when they say, "Tax the rich, tax the rich," but he made it very specific and inclusive. I mean, when he talked about taxing those who have the greatest wealth to help children in kindergarten.
DAN CANTOR: Yeah, right. He’s a pro—
AMY GOODMAN: It was hard for even those who will be—who will have their taxes increased to oppose that.
DAN CANTOR: Yeah, and in reality, even rich people know that they’re not being taxed quite enough if we’re going to have a society that works for everyone. We’re probably underdoing it, you know? I know the conventional wisdom is it’s death for any candidate to ever say they’re in favor of higher taxes, but it’s actually not true, particularly when you say the money is going to be used in ways that, you know, provide broad social betterment. That’s what de Blasio did. That’s what his allies are talking about. Again, he still has to deliver. He has to combine the need for people to see the government being efficient and effective with the more visionary things he wishes to accomplish.
AMY GOODMAN: He won by 73—
DAN CANTOR: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —against Joe Lhota, who was 24 percent. This 73 percent, this is one of the largest margins in the country.
DAN CANTOR: Yeah, I can’t remember one this large in a long time in a major race. Now, you know, it is New York City, and it’s got a pretty progressive-minded electorate. And we have a public financing system. And that’s one of the things that—all the candidates had the same amount of money. And when the candidates have the same amount of money, it means the best ideas have a better chance of being heard.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, to what degree do you think the relative success of the past few years of the Working Families Party can be replicated in other parts of the country? I know you’ve had some victories in a few states that you may want to talk about a little bit more.
DAN CANTOR: Sure.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But how is the lesson of what you’ve been doing here possible to extend to other municipalities and other states?
DAN CANTOR: You know, the core idea is that people actually like commonsense progressive ideas. And if you can actually get them heard, over the money din and over the media din, they will respond. That’s the lesson of the de Blasio and the council victories, is that people actually like what we’re talking about when we say,wages ought to be higher, people’s lives ought to be a bit more secure, transportation ought to be a massive investment, so on and so forth. These are not crazy ideas; these are commonsense, quite popular ideas.
So the trick is, can—are we patient enough to build the political organization and power and infrastructure and candidates and training sessions and all the things that over the last decade have produced this change in New York? Turns out we can. In Connecticut, very important elections, not nearly as prominent, in Bridgeport, very poor city in Connecticut, around school privatization, in which parents and working families and teachers sort of rebelled against the, you know, "no child left untested" crowd that really wanted to privatize, and they won. A shocking victory. And it’s going to have—I think it’s going to reverberate in at least the school reform wars around the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Oregon?
DAN CANTOR: Oregon wasn’t an electoral moment; it’s an off year. But in the legislative session, there have been some great victories there. The most prominent one, which you mentioned, has to do with this notion of debt-free higher education, in which students go to public college tuition-free and then pay back out of their income afterwards 1.5 percent if they went to a two-year college, 3 percent if a four-year college—the idea being it’s an obligation, but it’s not a legal debt. It allows young people to get going with their lives instead of being saddled with these enormous debts that currently—
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the effect of Occupy, what it—the changing the conversation, even on the Working Families Party. Yes, New York’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, visited Occupy Wall Street in October of 2011. At the time, he was New York City’s public advocate.
BILL DE BLASIO: Bill de Blasio, New York City public advocate. It’s my job to make sure the city government of New York is treating people properly. And it’s all of our jobs to protect the First Amendment and to honor a movement, a meaningful, heartfelt movement that’s speaking to what people are feeling all over this country.
I say to the mayor: This is not the right way to proceed. We need negotiation. We have seen for weeks—I want to show equal respect to the police department of New York City and to the protesters, who for weeks have worked together, have kept this peaceful, have shown respect to each other and the surrounding community. That’s how we need to proceed. We need negotiation. And there’s still time to do it. It’s up to the mayor and everyone at City Hall now to change course, to sit down with the people from Occupy Wall Street and find a peaceful way forward. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bill de Blasio visiting Occupy Wall Street in 2011, also got arrested protesting a hospital closure. Dan Cantor?
DAN CANTOR: Yeah, I think I was next to him when he said that. We are living in the Occupy—in the world Occupy made, for sure. Whether or not they’re still in Zuccotti Park—they’re not—we are the beneficiaries of what they did in terms of making this inequality, which is, from our point of view, the core issue of our time—economic inequality, racial inequality, environmental inequality, and so on. So, that’s a magnificent accomplishment by the young people who did that. And now it’s our task to sort of bring that into the electoral moment, into governing, and so on, and try to redress some of those things. So I think, yeah, it’s impossible to overstate what that 99 percent meant in terms of people’s consciousness.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dan, I wanted to ask you about the role of the organized labor unions in terms of helping to spawn and nurture Working Families Party. There’s a handful of unions, like the Communication Workers of America, SEIU, that have sort of been like the pivotal groups who have been help to finance and get Working Families going. How is that relationship in terms of the governance of the Working Families Party?
DAN CANTOR: So, we describe ourselves as a community-labor coalition and, as such, have—we have a rule: You don’t get to sit at the Working Families table if you don’t represent someone other than yourself. We think it’s important that people be—you know, have a base. What are leaders? Leaders are people who have followers. So that’s community activists. It’s labor leaders. It’s green—you know, environmental organizations, issue activists. You know, the unions are integral to our—both our culture and our structure. We—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But not all the unions, right?
DAN CANTOR: Certainly not all. It’s a very—it’s a fraction of them, the more progressive-minded ones. They’re under attack. I think they realized they needed a political voice, as well. But I wouldn’t say it’s a labor party. It’s a party of labor, but not a labor party; a party of blacks, not a black party; party of greens, not a green party. You can’t do any of those things in America. It’s too complicated of a country to just be one constituency. You have to try to build the big tent, but, in our case, imbued with progressive values and ideals.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much, Dan Cantor, for joining us. Dan Cantor is former community-union—a community and union organizer, who’s executive director of the Working Families Party, a third party that began in New York state and has now spread to five other states. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a moment talking about "Change the Mascot" movement. Stay with us.