The Women’s Equality Party of New York, created by Governor Andrew Cuomo to provide him with an extra ballot line in the 2014 election, has long been criticized for its lack of credibility. It has rarely shown any sign of genuine grassroots political support, and only recently it endorsed a male candidate in New York’s 2nd Congressional district race without even interviewing the only female candidate in the race.

While regularly characterized as a cynical electoral tactic, Cuomo has faced no real pressure to disband the party. There is no evidence that the Women’s Equality Party is actually helping women, but up till now there has been no evidence it was disadvantaging women candidates either.

But News Growl has now discovered that the Women’s Equality Party wasted the time and resources of progressive women running for office in New York in the 2017 election. And, if current patterns continue, may do so again in 2018.

In 2017 the party encouraged candidates to spend hours filling out complex endorsement application forms. On at least two instances, these applications were ignored. And, as the Women’s Equality Party ignored all please to publish details about their endorsement process, there is no way to know how many women candidates were similarly disadvantaged.

Women candidates ignored in New Paltz

Celeste Tesoriero
Celeste Tesoriero, used with permission

Celeste Tesoriero is an immigration attorney based in the village of New Paltz, 80 miles north of New York City. In addition to her paid legal work, Tesoriero also represents renters in court pro bono. She was motivated to run for one of two New Platz town judge positions when a group of female tenants she was representing were given what she thought was an unfair ruling by a male judge.

The group of female renters had their deposit withheld to pay for plumbing repairs. According to the landlord’s testimony in court, the women were at fault for the plumbing problems because they had used “too many tampons.” As evidence, the landlord testified that previous male tenants had never caused any plumbing problems. Much to Tesoriero’s surprise, the judge sided with the landlord.

Tesoriero decided to run against incumbent judge Jonathan Katz when he came up for reelection in November 2017. She ran on the Green Party line, but as candidates in New York can run on multiple lines because of fusion voting laws, she also applied to represent the Women’s Equality Party.

At the time, the Women’s Equality Party were actively soliciting candidates to apply for endorsements on their Facebook page. The 2017 application for endorsement is 18 questions long. Five are yes/no questions, but the rest are all open-ended questions that demand complex, thorough answers (for example, “How would you suggest enforcing pay equity legislation?” and “Describe why you feel campaign finance reform is important to women candidates.”).

After spending close to two hours of valuable campaign time filling out the application, Tesoriero sent it to the Women’s Equality Party and hoped for the best.

On paper, Tesoriero appears to be an ideal WEP candidate: an immigration lawyer who donates her time to help those in need and wants to topple a male incumbent she thinks was disadvantaging women. She even minored in Women’s Studies at college.

But Celeste Tesoriero was not endorsed by the Women’s Equality Party. In fact, the WEP never even replied to her application. Five months after the election, Tesoriero still feels let down.

“It was definitely disappointing that they didn’t even give us the chance for an endorsement but took up our time submitting applications that were likely never viewed,” she told News Growl.

“If I had won I would have been the only woman judge in New Paltz.”

Tesoriero was not the only candidate to apply for WEP endorsement from New Paltz in 2017. She was also joined by Conor Craig who was running for Town Supervisor. According to Tesoriero, Craig also sent in his application but received no reply.

Following their disappointment, Tesoriero discouraged other candidates from investing their time in the application process.

“There were two other candidates we were running with, both Town Board candidates,” she explained. “One was an African-American woman and would have been the first African-American to be elected to a position in the town’s history. After [Craig and I] didn’t get a response, we didn’t have the town board [candidates] go through the process.”

While two hours wasted may not be the biggest setback a campaign can endure, running for office at any level requires rationing of time. Less than 3,000 votes were cast in the campaign so every phone call and personal visit counts. And unlike Andrew Cuomo, Tesoriero did not have access to a full-time campaign staff or a $30 million warchest.

“In a campaign you are so spent for time. I probably [should] have spent it reaching out to civic groups that would actually reply.”

Who did get the Women’s Equality Party endorsements?

It is impossible to say how many other women candidates across New York took the time to apply for Women’s Equality Party endorsements and never received a reply.

This is because, ten months after the application period closed, the WEP has yet to publicly announce on any of their official communications channels who they endorsed for the 2017 elections. The most recent blog post on the party website is dated September 6th 2015, and the most recent Facebook post (June 28th, 2017) was an announcement that the endorsement application period had been extended to June 30th.

The Women’s Equality Party also ignored repeated emails from News Growl, sent both to the email address on their website ([email protected]) and the email address listed on its Facebook page ([email protected]).

News Growl has found evidence of only one candidate from the 2017 New York elections claiming a Women’s Equality Party endorsement – New York City Council candidate Marjorie Velazquez. Several other women candidates for City Council who would be expected to have the WEP endorsement make no mention of one, however. These include Diana Alaya, Amanda Farias, and Carlina Rivera. Each of these candidates proudly display endorsements by women’s rights groups, like the National Organization for Women, but either did not receive or could not be bothered to apply for the Women’s Equality Party endorsement.

A conspiracy or just shambolic?

With next to no information forthcoming from the Women’s Equality Party it is hard to know whether the harm they are doing to women candidate campaigns is deliberate or just what happens when a party has so little infrastructure it cannot even update its website.

An example of WEP shambolicness emerged in January, when campaign finance information revealed that the party had only one donor in 2017, Lucy Waletzky. A member of the Rockefeller family, and niece of former Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Waletzky appeared to have no knowledge of the $15,000 donation made in her name.

As reported in Crain’s, “Waletzky seemed unaware she had made the recent contribution to the party, saying she had ‘not been involved in a while.’ She declined to discuss why she began donating in the first place.”

There are currently only 3,603 registered party members. One member, former State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, recently spoke to POLITICO and was decidedly unhappy. Tkaczyk joined the WEP in an effort to gain control of it after the 2014 election, but has stayed on the party rolls since her court challenge.

“I find no infrastructure whatsoever with this party, and I just find it offensive,” she said. “Clearly, this was a party that was created by Cuomo for his own personal political agenda, and I didn’t think women needed to be told what to do by a man.”

POLITICO also spoke to the person who is reportedly the new WEP chairman, Susan Zimet. Amazingly, Zimet continues called for candidates to apply for endorsement in the 2018 election, saying, “Anybody who wants to be interviewed for our line and wants to fill out a questionnaire, we’re open, we’re going to consider everybody.”

As there is no information available on the party website, Facebook page, or Twitter account about accessing the 2018 questionnaire, it is unclear how Zimet expects candidates to apply. The only official communication News Growl could obtain, an auto-reply message from the parties Gmail account, contradicts Zimet. It says, “The endorsement request period is now closed.”

On the plus side, Zimit does have a track record of standing up to Cuomo from a previous role, so it is possible the WEP to take a more independent line under her chairmanship. Her previous role was, ironically, Supervisor of New Paltz – the town where aspiring town judge Celeste Tesoriero was ignored by the WEP last year.

Why does it matter?

The Women’s Equality Party regularly receives criticism in the media, but this mostly centers on the hypocrisy of a party funded and founded by men using the women’s rights issue to further their own political careers.

Soaking up valuable time in local campaigns, where ever free hour is of tremendous value, does actual damage to the prospects of women candidates, however. And this is just one of several problems created by the WEP that are mostly ignored by those in power.

One ongoing problem is that the WEP’s cynical exploitation of fusion voting rules is bringing the State of New York into disrepute. Expect another round of negative national press coverage when this year’s crowded ballots appear.

But most damaging of all, the limited amount of ballot “real estate” is increasingly dominated by parties like the WEP, the Conservative Party, the Independence Party and others who simply nominate Republicans or Democrats already on the ballot. In some 2014 ballots the Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidate was forced to share his ballot line with another small party candidate while Cuomo enjoyed four ballot lines above all by himself. Not only does this look ridiculous, but it damages New York’s democratic legitimacy.

Will Cuomo finally call an end to the Women’s Equality Party charade? As the Working Families Party has recently announced in favour of his rival Cynthia Nixon, it seems unlikely Cuomo will be willing to lose another ballot line in this election. But, whether in 2022, 2026 or 2030, some day Andrew Cuomo will no longer be running for Governor of New York. When that day arrives, will anyone be bothered to fund the Women’s Equality Party? Only time will tell.

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