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Commentary & Opinion

Liz Benjamin: The Future of Wilson Pakula

Liz Benjamin
YNN, Capital Tonight

Why is Governor Andrew Cuomo trying to neuter the leaders of New York’s most prominent minor political parties?

The governor has so far not heeded calls for a campaign finance reform overhaul in the wake of the latest round of corruption scandals to rock the state Capitol.

But he has proposed doing away with an obscure 1947 law that would end the ability of third party officials to hand pick which candidates get to run on their ballot lines.

Rescinding or amending what’s known as the Wilson Pakula law would not end so-called fusion voting, which allows parties to cross endorse candidates.

New York is one of just eight states to allow that practice. And critics suggest it might be time to do away with that, too, forcing candidates to pick a single ballot line and stick with it.

Under Cuomo’s plan, any member of any party could petition his or her way onto any ballot line, as long as they collect a sufficient number of valid signatures during the petition process.

Minor party leaders are crying foul, saying Cuomo’s proposal would create chaos - effectively setting up a primary free-for-all in which voters have no idea which candidate stands for what. 

Complaining the loudest are, not surprisingly, the leaders of the state Conservative and Working Families parties, who have accused Cuomo of trying to put them out of business.The labor backed WFP and Cuomo would seem to be natural allies. But the two have had a rocky relationship that dates back to 2010.

At the time, the WFP was under investigation by the US attorney’s office in connection with work done by its now defunct for-profit arm, Data & Field Services, in the 2009 election cycle, and then-state Attorney General Cuomo was running for governor on a platform that included an anti-corruption plank.

Cuomo initially took a pass on running on the WFP line - a real problem for the party, which, like all third parties, needed to attract 50,000 votes for a gubernatorial candidate or lose its automatic ballot status for the next four years.

Some suspected what Cuomo really wanted was to weaken the WFP, which did not agree with some key elements of his 2010 platform - including a state employee pay wage freeze and the property tax cap.

In the end, Cuomo got what he wanted. The WFP opted for survival over ideology and agreed to support his entire New New York Agenda.

In return, the governor agreed to run on the party's line, netting it enough votes in the November general election to bump its ballot position up to Row D.

As a result, however, the WFP largely had to sit on its hands while its liberal allies waged war against Cuomo during his first budget, which included large spending cuts to education and health care.

The left wanted Cuomo to ease the cuts through a straight extension of the so-called millionaire's tax - a major issue for the WFP.

Instead, Cuomo worked out a deal with the Senate Republicans that continued only a modified version of the millionaire's tax on the state's wealthiest residents and gave middle-class New Yorkers a tax cut.

In 2012, the WFP sided with the Senate Democrats in their quest to win back the majority.

Cuomo refused to endorse his fellow party members as a whole. Instead, he doled out support on a case-by-case basis and even, in one case, backing a Republican.

But the WFP and its allies believe they scored a significant victory in the skin-of-her-teeth win by Democratic Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk. Party leaders insist her win was a referendum in favor of campaign finance reform - specifically, creation of a publicly-funded system.

That just so happens to be the WFP's biggest agenda item for this legislative session.

As for the Conservatives, their alliance with the Senate Republicans is largely what’s standing between Cuomo and agreements on a host of so called progressive post-budget agenda items he proposed to win back the left in advance of his 2014 re-election campaign.

So far, it looks like neither Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver - an ally of the WFP - nor Senate GOP leader Dean Skelos, protector of the Conservatives - are willing to go along with the governor's Wilson-Pakula idea.

Their members rely too much on those party’s cross-endorsements, which can provide the margin of victory in a close election.

Cuomo must have known this proposal was DOA with the Legislature when he floated it. So the real question remains: What message was his trying to send when he did it?

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at capitaltonight.com.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.


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