Friday, July 11, 2008

Working Families Party gets out the vote

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Cif America
Winning the Working Families vote
In New York, the Working Families party lends crucial support to Democrats who support progressive economic policies

Ian Williams, Wednesday July 9, 2008

Hidden from view by the fossilised Democratic and Republican juggernauts, smaller political parties in the US are often ignored. Ralph Nader's Green party candidacy made a mark in 2000, but not necessarily a good one in the eyes of those who blame his 100,000 votes in Florida for handing the presidency to George Bush.

In New York, the Working Families party (WFP) is different. It offers progressives the chance to voice their opinions without risking disastrously reactionary results. The Green party has, in fact, lost its spot on the ballot in New York for failing to hit the 50,000-vote mark, almost certainly because many of its previous supporters transitioned to the WFP. Founded by unions, consumer groups and community activists in line with the Empire State's tradition of fusion voting, in which multiple political parties nominate the same candidate for office, the WFP has focused on the all-too-often-overlooked economic issues in American politics, leaving the cultural issues to others. The party offers critical support to Democrats who advocate progressive economic policies and is prepared to do battle with those that do not.

New York has traditions other than fusion voting. Corruption, boss-politics and electoral laws designed to stop third parties from getting on the ballot have given rise to the perennial political sport of challenging the signatures on opponents' nomination papers. To make the ballot line, candidates therefore need to get three or four times as many signatures as are nominally required. The WFP's activists, union money and members have risen to the challenge, ensuring that the party makes the cut-off and gets its endorsed candidates on the ballot.

In contrast to the Democratic party, in which anyone with a chequebook can run, the WFP questionnaire demands that all of its endorsees espouse progressive standards. Across the state, the WFP's renowned oligarchic party bosses have been instrumental in forcing candidates to declare their support for issues affecting working people. Its endorsement can be crucial in small, local primaries with a slew of little-known candidates.

The party worried its larger rivals enough to trigger a unsuccessful lawsuit against the WFP for "interfering" in its primaries. Two years ago, the WFP put up a successful candidate for District Attorney in Albany County to challenge the incumbent, a nominal Democrat supporting New York's Draconian Rockefeller drug laws. David Soares, the WFP candidate, was black, but he won the majority of an overwhelmingly white electorate by accusing his rival of being too tough on crime. The party then also elected a New York City councillor, Letitia James, on a straight WFP ticket against an incumbent, conservative Democrat.

As an activist organisation, the WFP membership chooses which candidates to support and can then deliver the type of grassroots canvassers and organisers that the Democratic Leadership Council long replaced with big-donor-driven advertising.

This year the WFP registered thousands of young black voters that will vote for Obama in November in accordance with the party line – and presumably for other progressive Democrats as well. Politics is a messy business, and most members understand that compromise is sometimes necessary to achieve the desired effect. The party endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Senate, even though many of its activists felt that the former Wal-Mart director had a less than stellar record on labour issues. "We did allow people who objected to Hillary's corporate policies to vote realistically, since she was a shoo-in," commented one activist, "but tried to send her a message, and she had to come to our state committee interrogations in person, as do other candidates for re-election."

The WFP model only really works in states that allow fusion voting, so the party has sister organisations springing up in Connecticut and some other states - even South Carolina. It has also mounted campaigns in other states to bring back the fusion voting common a century ago but killed as the two major parties consolidated their grip.

Any party attacked by Giuliani and the Murdoch media has to have something going for it. With all the media attention focused on the big two parties, it will be worth watching this grassroots organisation as it helps overthrow Republican control of the gerrymandered state Senate and further reduce the GOP congressional delegation from New York.

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