09/19/2019 14:36 EDT | Updated 09/19/2019 23:09 EDT

How Elizabeth Warren Got A Big Progressive Endorsement — And Why It Matters

“I really feel that Elizabeth Warren would have a better shot at unifying the left and the center," said one Working Families Party leader.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) beat out Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for the endorsement of the Working Families Party, one of the country’s most influential progressive organizations. The decision came down to three main factors, according to six people who participated in the WFP’s endorsement process: her more aggressive outreach to key decision-makers, her strong commitment to racial and gender equity, and the perception that she has broader national appeal.

Warren “has a long track record of working with our folks on issues from the foreclosure crisis to the sale of homes to Wall Street,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of the low-income activist group New York Communities for Change and one of two people who cast votes for Warren on behalf of the New York WFP state committee. “A lot of it stems from how she has run her campaign. From the beginning, she centered racial inequality in her campaign. She went to Jackson, Mississippi, and talked to these issues head on. It was not an addendum.”

Since announcing its endorsement of Warren on Monday, the Working Families Party has been bombarded with complaints from Sanders supporters questioning whether the outcome of the vote reflected the views of WFP leaders — who they suspect put Warren over the top — or the group’s more numerous dues-paying members and supporters.

The votes of the former were represented by 56 delegates on the WFP’s national committee, including Westin, and were weighted to make up half of the total endorsement vote. An estimated 10,000 of WFP’s dues-paying members and other progressive activists who participated in the online ballot made up the other half.

HuffPost spoke with Westin and five other WFP state and regional leaders whose votes in state-level plebiscites determined the way their national committee delegates voted. The goal of HuffPost’s inquiry was not to assess the fairness of WFP’s endorsement process, but to get a sense of why many delegates chose Warren.

In addition to Westin, HuffPost spoke with Andrea Serrano, executive director of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, nonprofit Olé; Stephanie Zucker, a WFP activist from near Morgantown, West Virginia; and three other New Yorkers: education activist Billy Easton, organized labor official Sandra Cuellar Oxford and fair housing advocate David Schwartz. Easton, Oxford and Schwartz cast votes that bound New York’s delegates to Warren; Zucker and her fellow West Virginia WFP committee members voted to have their national delegates endorse Warren as well. Serrano would not say how the New Mexico WFP affiliate voted, but described what people who participated in the process found attractive in Warren’s candidacy.

Joel Sheakoski/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
Elizabeth Warren speaks at a campaign rally in New York's Washington Square Park on Monday, hours after earning the endorsement of the Working Families Party.

‘A Lost Opportunity’

As with the four other candidates the WFP considered endorsing, Sanders sat for a public, live-streamed endorsement interview, where he was questioned by WFP national organizing director Nelini Stamp and WFP activists.

But Sanders did not participate in a later video conference call with WFP national delegates and members of the WFP’s state committees. On that call, presidential candidates could make their case for an endorsement directly to the people with a say in the matter. Warren and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro availed themselves of the opportunity; Sanders did not.

“It was an opportunity for Bernie and his people to make their pitch. It’s a lost opportunity,” said Oxford, a WFP leader in upstate New York.

Sanders’ absence did not sway Oxford per se, who cited other reasons for her vote for Warren.

But for other WFP leaders, it reflected Warren’s greater affinity for the political art of courting allies, an activity that critics and supporters alike say Sanders has been less invested in over the course of his career. 

“This is the thing about Warren, you see it in her selfie lines: She’ll put in all of the work to try and connect with a voter, to try and secure an endorsement ― like she was trying to do in the WFP process ― and to make her case,” said Westin, who voted for Sanders in the WFP’s endorsement process for the 2016 election cycle. “And I think it’s actually a quality that we need in terms of somebody who is going to beat Trump.”

Supporting progressive Black and other women of color for office is always a positive thing.Andrea Serrano, executive director of Olé

Prior to the endorsement process, Warren had likewise exhibited a knack for politicking that was unmatched by Sanders. A week before the WFP revealed the results of its endorsement process, she endorsed Kendra Brooks, a WFP candidate for one of two at-large Philadelphia city council seats that are effectively reserved for non-Democrats, and currently occupied by Republicans. Warren also endorsed Stephen Smith, the WFP-backed progressive running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in West Virginia. 

Sanders, whose political director Analilia Mejia previously ran the New Jersey Working Families Party, could have one-upped Warren by endorsing both Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke, the second WFP candidate for Philadelphia city council. Instead, he endorsed neither of them.

“Supporting progressive Black and other women of color for office is always a positive thing,” Serrano said.

The Sanders campaign did not immediately provide an explanation for Sanders’ decisions not to participate in the video conference call, or endorse in the Philadelphia city council races.

DON EMMERT/Getty Images
Bernie Sanders, right, speaks at a conference held by Rev. Al Sharpton in April. Sanders' critics say his efforts to focus more on race are too little, too late.

The Intersectional Capitalist

Sanders has worked hard to dispel the perception, formed during his 2016 presidential run, that he is insufficiently committed to addressing injustices like racism and sexism on their own terms, rather than strictly as manifestations of economic inequality. He hired a more diverse contingent of senior campaign staff; featured race more prominently in his stump speech; took pains to court influential Black leaders in early primary states like South Carolina; and produced, among other things, a far-reaching criminal justice reform platform that seeks to redress racist practices.

But several of the WFP leaders who spoke to HuffPost still consider Warren to be more genuinely committed to combating racial inequity, in particular, as a form of injustice that must be addressed independent of structural economic problems.

Warren’s remarks in Detroit in July about countering the effects of historic housing discrimination in Black neighborhoods stood out to Easton, who runs the Alliance for Quality Education in Albany, New York, and considers racial justice the most important issue in the race.

“I haven’t seen a white candidate for major office be crystal clear and direct and so effective, breaking down the concept in a way people can understand,” he said.

Serrano argued that, by contrast, Sanders’ attempts to broaden his message outward from the economy had been inadequate.

“It is not OK to separate class from race and gender … People have tried to say, ‘Do better on this subject,’ and it just doesn’t seem to last,” she said.

My membership is low-income people of color and my membership absolutely loves Elizabeth Warren.Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change

Conversely, some of the WFP stakeholders cited Warren’s identification as a capitalist seeking to put a check on the economic system’s most oppressive features, rather than replace it, as both more in line with their own thinking, and evidence of her broader national appeal.

Zucker, who is a part owner of her family’s veterinary hospital, described Warren’s vision as “capitalism with a conscience” and said she shares that view. “I’m fully in support of [Sanders’] policies in the vast majority of areas. But I think Elizabeth Warren is doing a better job of communicating what I believe is their shared vision of a just economy.”

Others spoke more generally about what they see as Warren’s success expanding beyond a core group of left-wing supporters. 

“I really feel that Elizabeth Warren would have a better shot at unifying the left and the center. We can’t just think we’re going to go as far left as we can and bring the center along with us,” Oxford said. “I feel that Elizabeth has been somewhat more conciliatory and offered a larger tent to those who definitely won’t vote for Bernie.”

Sanders supporters point to polling that has shown higher levels of support for Sanders than Warren among working-class voters and, until recently, Black voters, as evidence that he is better equipped to build a winning, national coalition.

But Warren’s supporters in the WFP believe that her base of support will continue to diversify as more Americans pay attention to the primary race.

“My membership is low-income people of color and my membership absolutely loves Elizabeth Warren,” Westin said. “[Former vice president] Joe Biden and Bernie have been big names for years. People are just tuning into the race.”

Heidi Gutman/Getty Images
Progressive activists agree that either Warren, right, or Sanders, left, would be a better Democratic nominee than former Vice President Joe Biden, center.

Anger At The Process ― Or The Outcome?

Given the complexity of the WFP’s endorsement process, it is not surprising that it has generated some skepticism. Sanders partisans — acting with some encouragement from the Sanders campaign — have urged the WFP to release a breakdown of the vote that would show whether Warren won the endorsement thanks to the national delegates or had enough support to win among the dues-paying members and associated activists who voted.

“Why don’t they want to release it?” wrote Matt Bruenig, a founder of the People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank. “You hate to speculate about such things, but the only answer is because the member votes went for Sanders while the leadership votes went for Warren, and the organization is embarrassed to reveal the degree to which the leadership overruled the membership.”

The WFP says it is refusing to release the figures because to do so would create an artificial division in the status of different voters, when all of the votes cast are equally legitimate. In some cases, the distinctions might be hazy anyway. Schwartz, Zucker and Easton all voted in the online general membership ballot in addition to casting their state committee votes.

More broadly, the WFP defends its practice of granting its most committed activists and partner organizations an outsize say in its endorsement, particularly given the grassroots constituencies they each represent. By contrast, an assortment of sympathetic progressives who were not previously involved in WFP were free to participate in the larger membership vote if they affirmed the WFP’s values through the completion of an online form by Sept. 6. Some Sanders supporters mobilized people to participate on Reddit. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee leveraged its considerable email list to encourage its activists to cast votes for Warren.

The WFP also noted that in the 2016 endorsement process, the votes of national delegates were weighted to make up 87.5% of the total vote share ― far more than in the 2020 endorsement process. Those national delegates represented a group of WFP stakeholders that was less diverse and more conservative, including a number of labor unions that departed the organization in 2018 in protest of its endorsement of Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy for New York governor.  

The split is between people who came into politics long before 2016 and have been doing progressive politics as a profession for a long time, and the movement that was sparked by the Sanders campaign.Michael Kinnucan, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America

The WFP only ended up endorsing Sanders in the 2016 election cycle, over many of those stakeholders’ protestations, because 87% of the dues-paying members and other activists — who got the remaining one-eighth of the vote not held by national leaders — backed Sanders. Part of Bruenig’s argument for the WFP to release the breakdown of its vote, is precisely that the organization released a breakdown of Sanders’ share of the non-leadership vote when it announced its endorsement in Dec. 2015. But the WFP released the figure in the 2016 election cycle as a show of force for Sanders amid deep skepticism from within the WFP’s national stakeholders.

The fury expressed by many Sanders supporters toward the WFP endorsement reflects the realization of socialists who got involved in politics thanks to Sanders’ 2016 campaign that they are not as closely aligned with the national WFP as they previously thought. In New York City in particular, members of the Democratic Socialists of America have worked closely with the WFP. New York City DSA, which endorsed Nixon at the WFP’s urging over the objections of many of its members, provided an essential army of door knockers for her ultimately unsuccessful campaign. 

But while there is considerable overlap, DSA members are more uniformly socialist in their political outlook than the average WFP activist. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is the most conservative presidential contender for whom they are willing to consider mobilizing their membership to support. For example, Sanders has been far more consistent and emphatic than Warren in his support for “Medicare for All,” which is perhaps the single highest policy priority of DSA members. 

“The split is between people who came into politics long before 2016 and have been doing progressive politics as a profession for a long time, and the movement that was sparked by the Sanders campaign,” said Michael Kinnucan, a member of the NYC DSA. “His campaign got thousands of people involved in American politics at the rank-and-file level, in DSA and elsewhere, and that movement has begun to reshape American politics. Those folks do feel betrayed that the power and potential of that movement is not recognized by some people in the Working Families Party.”