The Power of Fusion Politics
Franchising fusion is an undertaking somewhere on the highway between ambitious and quixotic. Most states abolished cross-endorsements more than a century ago, as the major parties consolidated their power. Besides New York, fusion remains legal only in Connecticut, Delaware, Vermont, South Carolina, Mississippi and Utah, and in none is the ballot line so accessible and useful as in New York. In 1997 the US Supreme Court ruled in Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party that states cannot be compelled under the First Amendment to allow candidates to run on multiple party lines.
So Working Families and its labor and community allies are bracing for a state-by-state slog. In Connecticut the party is already up and running. It has to qualify in each legislative district, by first running candidates exclusively on the Working Families line and getting at least 1 percent of the vote. If it passes the threshold, in subsequent elections in that district it can cross-endorse candidates from any other party, in any race. Working Families is now on the ballot in sixty-five out of the state's 187 districts.
The party made a move for influence last fall: Leaders sat down with Connecticut State Representative Jim Amann, a Democrat who was enmeshed in a fight for House leadership, and agreed to pull Working Families nominees out of races where the Democratic candidate was an Amann ally, in exchange for Amann's support on the WFP's Connecticut agenda. "Even in districts where we couldn't cross-endorse, we could withdraw our candidate, and that gave us some leverage," explains party organizer Jon Green. Amann won, although that hasn't yet produced any legislative gains for the WFP.
Next up is Massachusetts. Starting September 21, a Working Families-led coalition will be collecting signatures to get a referendum on the ballot legalizing fusion voting. It is likely to be a difficult fight. In Massachusetts, state legislators have ways to thwart the results of a referendum. Fusion is unlikely to hold much appeal for them, since the Statehouse is solidly Democratic. And some of the state's progressive political organizers are balking at joining the emerging fusion coalition. They say they've already won some of the same gains WFP has--including a minimum-wage hike. "We win so much in the legislature just by going to the legislature," says Harris Gruman, director of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, a grassroots organizing group. "We don't need to change the rules. The rules are working for us, now that we are working them."
"It's only natural that there would be a healthy dose of skepticism and nervousness," says Patrick Gaspard, vice president of politics and legislation for 1199SEIU and a veteran strategist with Working Families. "But look at what's been made possible in New York State as a result of people coming in and saying, 'I want to do a chunk of my work through this political institution.'... Having that flexibility has been a benefit to [1199's] membership."
The Maine legislature held a hearing earlier this year on a bill that would bring New York-style fusion to the state. There's interest in fusion, explains State Representative Hannah Pingree of North Haven, who introduced the bill, because the Green Party has repeatedly spoiled races for Democrats, siphoning off enough votes to let Republicans win. Democrats control the Statehouse, but by a slim margin. As she works to acquaint her colleagues with fusion, Pingree also has to acknowledge that the benefits may not flow just to Democrats. "People look at this as a way to promote the left, but it also could be a way for conservatives to advance as well," she notes. That concern is particularly acute among progressive leaders considering adopting fusion in Oregon, a state with an active radical right.
Cantor and partners are also sowing seeds in Delaware and exploring litigation in New Jersey, where they plan to argue that fusion voting is protected by the state Constitution. And Cantor is particularly excited about Ohio, under consideration for a 2006 ballot measure legalizing fusion. Cantor sees the presidential election results--where voters in a state with huge job losses went for the Republican--as an opportunity. Working Families' target constituency, he says, is "people who do not want to vote on the Democratic line but want to vote for the more progressive candidate. That's how you get somewhere in Ohio."