(CNN)The progressive Working Families Party is facing what might be its weightiest decision since emerging on the New York political scene two decades ago. As early as this weekend, the party's New York state committee could vote to endorse Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist challenging two-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September's Democratic primary.
The Working Families Party is ready 'to pick a fight.' But first it has a decision to make.
Launched in 1998, the WFP is growing in size and influence, with operations in 19 states and reach well beyond that. In the last election cycle, the party endorsed more than 1,000 candidates up and down the ballot, notching victories everywhere from Mississippi to Wisconsin and across its Northeastern power base.
Now, as the movement coalesced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign looks to solidify its foothold in Democratic Party politics, the WFP's ambitions are broadening. What began as a small coalition of unions, community organizers and activists is rallying support for candidates like Randy "Iron Stache" Bryce, a Democrat running to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who could become the state's first African-American governor.
Earlier this week, before Ryan announced his decision to retire at the end of the year, the WFP introduced Maurice Mitchell, a 38-year-old activist and leading organizer from within the Movement for Black Lives, as its next national director. He'll take the reins from longtime leader Dan Cantor this summer.
CNN spoke to Mitchell, a New York native, this week about the fight for its gubernatorial endorsement and his vision for the party and national progressive movement.
The interview that follows has been edited and condensed.
Krieg: The New York WFP has a pretty big decision to make. Have you been in touch with the state committee about the Nixon-Cuomo primary? Are you encouraging them in any way?
Mitchell: There's a lot of debate currently happening. I think what is shocking to a lot of folks is the fact that the state committee actually votes to make this decision. We pride ourselves on having real democratic processes. This isn't a top-down organization. So, both Gov. Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon have their work cut out for them -- to present the best case to our membership and our leadership. I'm confident that they're going to make a decision based on the values of the party and what New York really needs.
Krieg: I tried.
Mitchell: (Laughs) I mean, of course.
Krieg: Paul Ryan is on his way out. The Wisconsin WFP has been a really big booster of Randy Bryce's Democratic primary campaign. How much credit do progressive organizations like WFP -- as opposed to the reasons Ryan gave -- deserve for his decision to go?
Mitchell: There's no doubt that the decision that we made to identify Randy and support him and endorse him, and his amazing race and what he's brought to the table, was a significant contributing factor to Ryan's decision. I'm really proud of the WFP identifying real progressives and running them in districts that people think progressives shouldn't run in. This is a clear example of what happens when you support real progressives in all communities. The status quo is afraid of that fight. It doesn't want to engage these questions. Somebody like Paul Ryan, who presided over the largest transfer of wealth in our generation, doesn't have an appetite to engage his constituents, especially when there's a true progressive, union member, real economic populist like Randy challenging him. It was too much to bear. We would've loved that fight; it would've been great if he stuck around. But he didn't have the political courage to stand behind some of the really deplorable policies that he supported and pushed through Congress.
Krieg: Working Families has been pretty clear it doesn't view itself as a third party in the traditional sense. It's not interested in acting or being viewed as a spoiler. Given that you're not going to be running candidates against Democrats in general elections, what's your leverage?
Mitchell: We, and you saw this in the last cycle, we're not afraid to pick fights.
And when we win in primaries, we have a lot of momentum for those general election cycles. We've been doing that in every region of the country and in a lot of places where progressives and liberals and leftists aren't supposed to win. The South, the Midwest, in Republican-leaning districts. We're very much interested in that ideological fight, and settling this argument, that doesn't bear out, that (says) during these wave moments, we need to identify the most bland, small business owner, white guy to run for Congress in a Republican leaning or working class district.
We think that is a recipe for the sort of collapse we saw, especially down ballot electorally of the left. We want to pick fights, but the thing we pride ourselves in is being strategic. We're not interested in moral victories, we're not running people across the board without being able to win in very real ways that help us build upon a story of left populist multiracial politics that is viable and necessary and able to win against right-wing nationalists.
Krieg: How do -- and forgive me for framing it this way -- but how do you get the Clinton liberals and the Sanders movement progressives on the same page. Should that be the goal, and what can the left, broadly, do to get together and win national races?
Mitchell: The question that you pose here is one of the things that I'm most excited about in taking on this job. I also think it's a false debate, a false choice, it's a false binary -- and it's actually really dangerous, the idea that you have to choose between racial justice and economic justice.
This is born from my experience building movements through the Movement for Black Lives and, previously, working on the ground as an organizer in those black, Latino and white communities, and working class and middle class communities on Long Island, as well as in urban communities. The reality is that racial and economic justice are intertwined. You can't resolve one without the other.
Ultimately, what will settle this debate is us consistently winning in working class communities, urban communities, rural communities on a progressive, multiracial populist brand of politics. And on a visionary, inclusive mission. I think people are hungry for that.
Krieg: You're very optimistic.
Mitchell: Well, like you pointed out, among young people party identification is decreasing. If you look at all of these movements that have come up, from Occupy to the Movement for Black Lives, to the Women's March and Never Again, these are young people who are very hungry for a political home -- and they don't have it.
This either/or politics, it's not working for people. So (the WFP) actually wants to be a political home where people can bring their full self into the room. They could bring their racial identity and their class background and their other identities into the room and feel like their full selves can be expressed politically. I think that's the conversation and debate we're trying to engage in and settle.
Krieg: I've seen, especially with the progressive movement's influence growing, people more focused on electoral politics getting frustrated with activists, saying they need to learn to compromise more. And on the flip side, activists get frustrated with politicians who, in order to be effective, have to sometimes make compromises. Can there be peace there -- should there be?
Mitchell: Again, I think we're often presented with false choices, false binaries, false dichotomies. Social movements are designed to make what was previously considered impossible, possible. To shift the tectonic plates that we operate under politically, to change the meaning of and how we understand basic concepts and to resolve issues that seem intractable.
Now, what I'm excited about is aligning a political apparatus with social movement, so social movements can fully do their jobs. Then to have a political apparatus that can take full advantage of the space that is carved out by the social movement. When we as principled folks in social movements -- leftists, liberals, progressives and other folks on the left -- cede the political space to the political institutions, and only focus on outside power and only focus on protest power, what we do is carve out all of this space so that the conversation is the right conversation, but the wrong people, the wrong actors are left to settle it electorally.
So, for example, with the Movement for Black Lives, the specific issues of state violence against black people are on the forefront of the political agenda. But if we don't engage in the questions of governance at all, then what we do is effectively push on the structures but then allow the Republicans and Democrats to settle the issues electorally. I'm not interested in ceding that to the Republicans and Democrats.
Krieg: Putting that together, I'm sure you'd say, requires trust. But there seems to be a trust gap between voters and Democratic or otherwise progressive politicians. How does that get fixed?
Mitchell: Well, we move at the speed of trust.
Everything I've talked to you about during this conversation is impossible without a foundation of deep trust and authentic relationships. You can't phone that in. There's no amount of political contractors that people hire that can fabricate that. It's there or it's not. It's legitimate or it isn't. What excites me about the WFP is that I'm working with members and party leaders around the country and a staff that gets that. The traditional political hack thinks that our brand of politics is naive. And I think they're wrong -- things like trust, things like care, things like our values, where we want the world to go, these things matter.
If you're simply concerned with the proximal fight of winning elections every cycle, you'll run yourself through this transactional, electoral hamster wheel, where you change every election to fit whatever political winds blow. I want to build a party that's interested in the generational fight, versus the proximal 2018, 2020 fight. Absolutely we need to win elections, but to what end?
GK: What is the issue Democrats -- liberals and progressives and so on -- should run on in this particular election cycle?
MM: I think, actually, it's a misstep for people on the left to reduce this conversation to any particular issue. State by state and district by district, there are issues candidates should be running on, absolutely, I think absolutely we have a conversation around economic inequality, and around systemic change and our economic system, that we need to be engaged in.
But I also feel, apart from that, we need to see this as an existential fight for what country we want to live in. We need to elevate and expand the nature of what we're fighting for. That's one of the reasons why so many people, on the left and the right, were moved last election cycle -- because you had people who were engaging larger battles and bigger conversations than some of the narrow policy conversations that can be wonky and reductive.
I'm excited, with the WFP, to lay out the case for a generational vision and contrasting that with apocalyptic vision the right is offering, where we have to batten down the hatches and isolate ourselves and turn on the rest of the world and turn on anybody who might not fit a very narrow, white, male, right, or center-right identity. That's where want to go and we think people are hungry for that.