The Power of Fusion Politics
Wherever it goes next, Working Families will be highly dependent on its friends in labor for funds, person-power and political muscle. Lately, of course, those friends have been preoccupied with the decision by SEIU, the Teamsters and other unions in the Change to Win Coalition to leave the AFL-CIO. It's too soon to say what the departure bodes for the WFP. Still, there may be a growth opportunity: As labor works to figure out how to maintain undivided political influence, Working Families, with fusion voting, has found a way to build just that, pulling together unions for common strategic purposes. Bob Master, co-chair of the party and one of its founders, is Northeast political director of the CWA, which remains part of the AFL-CIO, as does the UAW, another pivotal WFP player. But quite a few of the WFP's most active union affiliates are with Change to Win: large and influential locals of SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Teamsters and the Laborers.
Master's co-chair, Bertha Lewis, executive director of ACORN's New York City chapter, has to insure that her members--poor people, mostly black and Latino--get their interests represented in a party dominated by organized labor. ACORN buys power through its organizing acumen, and through its communities' sheer numbers. Election turnout shows spikes in areas in Brooklyn and elsewhere where ACORN worked to get out the vote (though not always on the Working Families line). "In certain neighborhoods," says Lewis, "we are the machine." Fusion voting, she declares, "is the political tool of brown America."
Recruitment into an unknown cause didn't go down easily for ACORN members. "There ain't no way people are going to give up being a Democrat in order to be something they never heard of," Julia Boyd, a Brooklyn ACORN veteran, remembers saying. "There's no track record. Who are you? People felt like it was just another scam to get publicity or get your name in the papers. It was a difficult job to convince me."
Working Families showed its ability to turn out large numbers of minority voters with the election of David Soares as Albany District Attorney. The party sought out this race. It had interns call every county in the state to see which incumbents were up for re-election, then singled out Paul Clyne as especially vulnerable. Working Families handpicked Soares, who at the time was an obscure prosecutor in Clyne's office.
"When I went out and sought the endorsement, people laughed at me!" says Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York and a leader in Soares's campaign. "There was a strong Democratic Party. The candidate was completely unknown to the public, not politically active. It's a majority-white district, with no history of electing people of color." As a prosecutor, Soares had founded a project that promoted alternative sentencing for young offenders, and the core of his support came from civil rights groups and progressive religious institutions. Working Families and Citizen Action turned out throngs of volunteers--culled from sources ranging from church choirs to defunct Howard Dean meetup groups. Some of them are now running for local public office for the first time.