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Can This Third Party Makes a Difference

This Third Party Makes a Difference

	The Working Families Party sets aside pipe dreams in
	favor of candidates and legislation with a chance in
	hell.

by Josh Harkinson

Mother Jones
May. 24, 2012

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/05/third-parties-working-families-party-oregon-new-york

In recent years, Oregon state Rep. Mike Schaufler spent some
$6,000 from his campaign coffers on more than 90 separate
visits to Magoo's Sports Bar in Salem. A five-term Democrat
known around the capitol as "Bud Man," Schaufler was tight
with Republicans and corporate donors, who helped him raise 60
percent more money than progressive challenger Jeff Reardon in
the lead-up to last Tuesday's Democratic primary. So Schaufler
must have awoken with an epic hangover on the morning after
the election, because he somehow managed to lose his seat.

Reardon, a high school teacher with limited resources and
minimal political juice, says he never could have dispatched
such a powerful incumbent were it not for the help of a
relatively new political force in Oregon: the Working Families
Party. Since its founding in New York 14 years ago, the WFP
has expanded into four other states and logged a string of
high-profile political victories - from reforming New York's
drug laws to providing the extra votes needed to clinch the
election of Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, a liberal leader in a
fairly moderate state. Many progressives believe the WFP could
eventually become the left's answer to the tea party.

"They are extremely valuable allies, and they are one of the
most effective progressive political organizations I know,"
Adam Ruben, political director of MoveOn.org, told me in an
email. "The WFP has a model for building progressive political
power that's outside the Democratic Party. The Reardon race
shows how it can work, and we need more of it."

Unlike the better-known third parties such as the Greens or
the Libertarians, who tend to field their own extremely long-
shot candidates, the Working Families Party typically endorses
like-minded Democrats and campaigns on their behalf. The five
states in which it operates (New York, Connecticut, South
Carolina, Vermont, and Oregon) all have enacted "fusion
voting" - a system in which each party that qualifies gets a
spot on the ballot - in some states its own line with a check
box - where it can list the candidate it favors, regardless of
party. (For instance, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg,
who ran for reelection as an independent, appeared on the
GOP's ballot line.) "That is an incredibly valuable piece of
real estate," says Steve Hughes, director of WFP's Oregon
chapter, which convinced state legislators to establish fusion
voting in 2009. "It serves as a stamp of approval."

The Working Families Party was founded in 1998 by labor unions
and community groups that were upset by the rightward shift of
the Democratic Party. It made a name for itself that year by
garnering 50,000 gubernatorial votes on its ballot line for
Democratic candidate Peter Vallone - enough to ensure the
party a place on future ballots. (To get on the ballot in the
first place, a registered party must collect a given number of
petition signatures.)

In the following years, the WFP elected a raft of progressives
to the New York City Council, including one of its own,
Letitia James - the first third-party candidate in 30 years to
win a council seat. In 2010, the party's ballot line delivered
nearly 200,000 votes to Democratic New York State Comptroller
Tom Dinapoli - not an enormous number for a statewide race,
but enough for the WFP to be taken seriously.

But the WFP is perhaps best known for pushing legislation,
including a recent Connecticut bill requiring employers to
offer paid sick leave. "They had a big impact," says Chris
Donovan, Connecticut's speaker of the House, who is running
for Congress this year with support from the WFP. "They were a
real boost to providing energy to the campaign, and not only
convincing people it was a good idea but also electing people
who would support it. Both things have to happen for a bill of
that magnitude to pass."

In many respects, the WFP is a hybrid of a traditional third
party and a group like MoveOn.org; in addition to rallying
behind legislation and throwing its weight to candidates, it
builds grassroots campaign operations at the local and state
levels, and nurtures a farm team of progressive contenders.
The party played a leading role in the Reardon-Schaufler race,
bringing in support from its union members and enlisting its
own paid canvassing and phone banking operations. It later
convinced MoveOn to pile into the race with a fresh shot of
volunteers, fundraising, and online organizing.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision,
WFP organizers argue that progressives can be more effective
in state and local races than congressional contests. The
Oregon Legislature, for instance, is evenly split between
Republicans and Democrats, and Schaufler would often cross the
aisle on key votes. Yet his district was too small to win
using mailers and TV ads; only about 4,000 people even
bothered to cast ballots. "It was the kind of race where
strategically speaking, a party such as ours knocking on doors
and making a lot of phone calls could have a lot of impact,"
Hughes says.

As with any political party, the WFP has its share of dissent
from within the membership. For instance, the Service
Employees International Union Local 32BJ, representing 120,000
workers in eight Eastern states, has sometimes supported
candidates the party opposes. But Alison Hirsh, the union's
political director, calls the WFP "one of our most important
political allies when it comes to moving our political agenda
forward." For one thing, the party gives union members the
chance to work on issues too large for the union to tackle
itself. And it gives everyday citizens a way to get involved
and take leadership roles.

Given the WFP's community roots and support for "99 percent"
issues like New York's "millionaires tax," it was perhaps
inevitable that the party would have some crossover with
Occupy Wall Street. WFP organizer Nelini Stamp has played a
big role in the Occupy movement, particularly its anti-bank
and anti-foreclosure campaigns, and while some occupiers view
the party with suspicion, others see it as the closest thing
to the movement's electoral arm. The success of the party,
says Oregon WFP director Hughes, will ultimately depend on the
degree to which it is seen as "a legitimate and effective
expression of social-movement organizing."

So can the WFP further expand its reach? Party leaders believe
that the success of the tea party movement shows that they can
- and without waging costly campaigns to enact arcane voting
laws. In Oregon, which has closed primaries, the party didn't
appear on the Reardon-Schaufler ballot, yet it clearly
affected the outcome. "What the WFP has done a decent job of
is learning how to build a cohesive and durable coalition that
then injects itself into primaries against corporate
Democrats," says New York WFP director Dan Cantor. "The main
obstacle is: Do we have the talent? Do we have the resources?"

[Josh Harkinson is a staff reporter at Mother Jones. He was
born in Texas and based in San Francisco, and covers the
economy, the national Occupy movement, and a wide range of
political issues in California and the West.]

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