via the Connecticut Post by Brian Lockhart and Keila Torres Ocasio
Ed Gomes just wanted to return to the state Senate after a loss three years ago.
The veteran Bridgeport politician and union warhorse was never focused on making history.
“I’m not looking to upset the world, man,” Gomes, 79, said late last week.
But during Tuesday’s special election in Bridgeport and Stratford, Gomes became the first candidate in the nation elected to a state legislature solely on a Working Families Partyballot line.
“The win is a very big deal for us,” said Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Connecticut Working Families Party.
The party’s victory was somewhat accidental — Gomes lost the preferred Democratic endorsement for the 23rd District Senate seat by one vote — but the win cast Connecticut in a surprising new light. Suddenly a state known as the home of hedge fund managers and finance bigwigs, became the poster child of a political party known for its pro-union, progressive stance.
Close observers say that divide has been developing for some time.
“For a long time New York was considered the flagship,” Daniel Cantor, the party’s national director, said. “But I have to say a case can be made Connecticut has eclipsed New York in its ability to win elections and get stuff passed in the state legislature.”
Stuff like a hike in the minimum wage and a paid sick leave bill, which Cantor said emboldened the paid sick leave movement across the country.
“We are really impressed,” Cantor said. “Connecticut is a state other chapters look to for inspiration.”
The Working Families Party was established in New York in the late 1990s by a coalition of organized labor and community action groups that wanted to further economic justice goals like affordable health care and higher wages.
Besides the Connecticut branch, which is now one of the older chapters, the party also operates out of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Oregon, and Wisconsin.
“We’re new in some states — a year old here, two years there,” Cantor said.
The party in and outside of Connecticut has typically worked with Democrats and cross-endorsed their candidates, though Republicans have sometimes garnered support.
In Connecticut, Working Families has cross-endorsed all of the state’s congressional delegation, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his fellow Democratic Constitutional officers, and 54 sitting members of the General Assembly.
The party has gained a foothold in local Hartford and Bridgeport politics.
“You might think of us as an ally (of the Democrats),” Cantor said. “But one that has its own view and wants to yank the Democratic Party in what we think is a sensible, progressive direction.”
The state, though a Democratic stronghold, has an affluent reputation, with Fairfield County in particular nicknamed “the Gold Coast.”
Where there is great wealth there is “plenty of inequality” to help rally supporters, Cantor said.
“We feel like it’s our job to elevate the non-corporate wing of the Democratic Party,” Cantor said. “They have plenty of money and power in Connecticut. What we are trying to do is strengthen and amplify the voices of the non-wealthy and the non-well connected.”
Louis Bevilacqua, who has been involved in politics in Trumbull and statewide and calls himself a “blue collar Democrat” said it particularly makes sense the Working Families would grow in a state dominated by Democrats.
“This is bound to happen because when you’re in office, you’re bound to create some dissension,” he said. “You’re not going to make everybody happy all the time. The growth of the Working Families (here) is a huge story.”
A quirk of Connecticut law also helped the party to gain strength. Many Connecticut municipalities prohibit one political party from holding all the seats on locally elected boards and require representation by a minority-party.
Those rules have helped the Working Families capture seats on Bridgeport’s Board of Education and on Hartford’s City Council and school board. One of Hartford’s Registrars of Voters was elected on the Working Families ballot line.
“The rules in Connecticut are actually a little bit more open to minority parties,” Farrell agreed.
But it’s the Working Families’ interest in representing the needs of the everyday worker that has allowed it to take advantage of those laws, said Cynthia Jennings, one of three Working Families members on Hartford’s nine-person council.
“People rally around the Working Families Party because it does specifically address the needs of the regular working families that need to get their voices heard,” she said. “The issues that affect whether people can feed their families and breathe clean air and live without having to work two or three jobs. These are all issues that resound with voters. That’s the only way a minor party could come in and take seats away from a major political party.”
She noted there are no longer Republicans on the Hartford council. And in Democrat-dominated Bridgeport the party is becoming an alternative for voters who are not attracted to a severely out-gunned GOP.
Farrell said the Working Families has also made inroads in Norwalk, East Haven and some suburbs “where there are a lot of unaffiliated voters who don’t feel like they are represented by the two major parties.”
Cantor also credited Farrell and her team for the Connecticut Working Families Party’s success and for getting behind good candidates.
“Nothing gets done by itself in politics,” Cantor said. “And when you’re a minor party without the money the major party has, you depend on the skill, determination and creativity of your staff.”
Maria Pereira was elected to Bridgeport’s school board in 2009 as the Working Families candidate, then a few years later became the city’s first party chairman.
She resigned over the party’s support of Malloy’s 2014 re-election. The governor helped orchestrate a state takeover of the Bridgeport school board, which was ultimately determined to be illegal — and, for Pereira, unforgiveable.
Pereira said the party provided solid campaign support, from voter outreach to advertising.
“They’re good at all the requirements of filings, paperwork,” she said. “And they’re use of current technology — Facebook, Twitter, phone banking — is something the average municipal campaign is not great at.”
The party’s cross-endorsements make more election support available, state Sen. PresidentMartin Looney, D-New Haven, said.
“That has been helpful to our Democratic candidates, frankly,” Looney said.
The Working Families helped Malloy secure a narrow win over Republican Tom Foley in 2010. Malloy received 26,308 votes on the party’s line. And U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy garnered 35,778 Working Families votes to win his contentious 2012 race against millionaire Republican Linda McMahon.
Despite its influence, the Working Families cannot claim many actual registered members — 307 statewide, according to the Secretary of the State, and just 10 in Bridgeport.
Bridgeport Democratic Chairman Mario Testa has called the Working Families a bigger threat than Republicans.
“They showed us they have some roots in the city of Bridgeport,” Testa said.
With Gomes’ victory behind them, the Working Families Party plans to get involved in Bridgeport’s 2015 mayoral and City Council races.
“That seems likely,” Farrell said. “We’ve been involved pretty heavily in municipal politics in Bridgeport for the last five years. We’ll definitely be taking a look at all the candidates. The question is whether or not we find folks who match our values and have the same vision for government that we do.”