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Republicans move to ‘hijack’ the Working Families Party line in primaries

Two people hold a banner reading 'New York Working Families Party'
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The Working Families Party has been a growing leftist force in New York politics. But this year, Republicans in Monroe County have moved to take the party for themselves.

The Facebook page of Ron Bajorek, an insurance agent and candidate for Pittsford Town Council, is a deluge of fringe right-wing talking points.

In one recent post, he implied that social justice protesters in 2020 were “rioting” for George Soros. In another, he pontificated that “White, Straight and Conservative doesn’t get you any press, … that’s why everybody is a freak now.” In yet another, he accused the FBI of engaging in a smear campaign to discredit former President Donald Trump. Consistently, his posts are paired with the phrase,: “Vote. Every. Democrat. Out. Of. Office.”

So, it may come as a surprise that Bajorek, a former registered Republican, is looking to run for office on the Working Families Party line. Board of Elections records show he officially changed his party affiliation last year.

Bajorek is among a handful of conservative-leaning candidates for office whom the head of the local Working Families Party is accusing of attempting to steal the party’s ballot line in the upcoming primary elections. The tactic is known as a “ballot-line attack” or “ballot hijacking,” and involves candidates running a primary against the party’s endorsed candidate despite a track record that suggests they have nothing in common with the party.

A successful hijacking serves two purposes. At the very least, it undermines the opposition. At its most effective, it can give a hijacker who is already running for office on another party line, like the Republican or Conservative ticket, the advantage of having his name on the ballot under another line that allows him to potentially draw votes from a portion of the electorate to which he would otherwise not appeal.

“We have some candidates that we strongly believe in and are values-aligned facing challenges from people we’ve never heard of,” said Stevie Vargas, local chair of the Working Families Party. “They never reached out to us, they never filled out our questionnaire, they have not engaged with our members in any way shape or form.”

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Stevie Vargas (center) canvasses for the Working Families Party in 2021, alongside then-City Council candidate Kim Smith (left).

The Working Families Party is an overtly progressive, labor-backed party that has pushed Democrats to the left and, in the process of doubling down on its progressive roots, has sought to strengthen its alliance with the likes of the Democratic Socialists of America. The party describes its mission in part as being to “defeat an authoritarian Republican Party that seeks to accomplish through dividing us and attacking our freedoms.”

In this month’s primary, there are four races in Monroe County in which candidates are fighting for the Working Families Party designation. One of them is in Pittsford, where Bajorek is challenging the party’s preferred candidates, Naveen Havannavar and Cathy Koshykar. Another candidate in the same primary is George Buck, who recently changed his party affiliation from Republican to Working Families.

The other three races involve candidates for judicial seats.

Vargas believes that the primary challenges are a coordinated effort by local Republicans to hijack the Working Families Party for an extra ballot line in the general election.

It may be easier than it sounds.

In Pittsford, there were just 14 voters enrolled in the Working Families Party as of 2020. By May, that number swelled to 40.

Vargas and endorsed Working Families candidates believe the increase was not the result of organic party growth, but an effort by Republicans and conservatives to masquerade as Working Families Party members to elect hijacker candidates.

The signatures required to get Bajorek and Buck on the Working Families Party primary ballot were filed by Matthew O’Connor, the treasurer for the Pittsford Republican Committee.

All the Working Families Party signatories on the petition to get Buck and Bajorek on the ballot were either Republicans or unaffiliated in 2020.

Bajorek, in a phone interview said he believes the Working Families Party, which he referred to as “Working Class Families,” does not have any strict values, and can be bent to fit any candidate.

“I think right now that party is pretty flexible, what you can make that party into, that’s kind of the way I’m looking at that one thing, that one political group,” Bajorek said. “I don’t think it’s set in stone what they intend to do.”

David Dunning, chair of the Monroe County Republic Committee, denied that there was any coordinated effort from the Republican party to hijack the Working Families Party line, calling it an “individual choice” of candidates.

“I think part of it is taking every opportunity they can to get elected,” Dunning said.

Most of the Working Families Party challengers are vying for judgeships.

In the race for two Monroe County Family Court judge seats, Kristine Demo-Vazquez and Dandrea Ruhlmann, both registered Republicans, are mounting a primary against Maroun Ajaka and Maria Cubillos-Reed, both of whom are endorsed by the Working Families Party.

In Perinton, Vincent Merante, a Republican, is challenging Working Families-endorsed Gary Muldoon for town justice. Patrick Russi, a Republican, is doing the same to Brian Green, the Working Families candidate, in the Irondequoit town justice race.

Russi defended his pursuing of the Working Families line, deferring to his long-running support of labor unions, of which the party is a strong proponent.

Last year, Demo-Vazquez ran a failed bid for family court judge on the Republican and Independence party lines. She lost to Deral Givens, who ran on the Democratic, Conservative, and Working Families Party tickets.

In a phone interview, Demo-Vazquez said it should be irrelevant what party a judge runs on, given a judge is meant to be apolitical.

“If you think about it, on the bench, we are meant to be impartial, we can’t even discuss policy,” Demo-Vazquez said.

Kristine Demo-Vasquez Monroe County Family Court Candidate
Jacob Walsh
Kristine Demo-Vasquez, Monroe County Family Court Candidate

Joan Kohout is a former Monroe County Family Court judge who now works to support Working Families Party-backed judicial candidates. She sees the strategy of the Republicans as taking advantage of an off-year election, which typically has low turnout, to snag an extra ballot line.

“That’s one possibility, they’re just trying to get more votes,” Kohout said. “But the other possibility is they’re simply trying to neutralize the Working Families Party...the Working Families Party, at least upstate, doesn’t seem to have the means to dissuade its members from voting for candidates who are not endorsed.”

On the judicial races, Vargas said that if a judge is meant to be impartial, playing political games to get on the ballot speaks volumes about the ethics they may bring to the bench.

The Working Families Party has gained momentum in Monroe County over the past couple of years. Its enrollment grew 23% between fall 2020 and May 2023, and the party delivered 4% of last year’s gubernatorial votes.

But its enrollment is still small, accounting for less than half a percent of registered voters. That means that in a primary election in an area with a small Working Families Party enrollment, a candidate could conceivably win the ballot line with just a handful of votes.

Earlier this month, three high-ranking county officials in Rensselaer County were indicted on charges that they allegedly conspired in 2021 to secure the Working Families Party line for Republican County Executive Stephen McLaughlin, alongside other key races. The scheme included county officials pressuring employees to register absentee ballots under the party to secure the primary.

Vargas said the Working Families Party should not be expected to educate the public on which candidates are legitimate party members, and which are attempting to steal the ballot line. She said it comes down to holding honest elections.

“It’s very unfair, and it’s by design,” Vargas said. “We live in a two-party society where we cater to the two-party system, we don’t live in a place that’s inclined to third parties. But they give people a voice, and they give people a choice, and that’s critically important to the political process.”

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.
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