A Working Third Party
Over the past two years, I have watched the WFP take shape. I have stood in a cold, pouring rain at Union Square in New York City with hundreds of WFPers gathered to kick off the party's minimum-wage campaign. At the high point of the party's state convention last spring, inner-city dwellers and comfortable suburbanites linked arms to sing "We Shall Overcome" after absorbing an emotional speech from party co-chairman Bob Master, political director of District One of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), expressing outrage at Mayor Giuliani's reaction to the police killing of Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed and innocent black man. Meanwhile, the party's Rockland County chapter has pushed and prodded and ultimately forced the Democratic-controlled county legislature to pass a bill instituting a living-wage baseline of $8.25 an hour, plus healthcare, indexed to inflation.
That Rockland story illustrates what is clearest and best about the WFP's politics. As Bob Master notes, "Our ability to operate independently increases the lower on the ballot you go." In Rockland the party started early, getting involved in a special election for an open State Senate seat in May of 1999. It endorsed the Democratic candidate, a county legislator named Ken Zebrowski, and in five weeks managed to pull nearly 2,000 votes for him on their line, almost 5 percent of the total cast. "This showed us there was a market for the WFP in Rockland," says Ericka Bozzi Gomez, the 27-year-old organizer working the county.
Early on, the WFP in Rockland joined with the local Liberal Party in cross-endorsing a Green candidate for county legislature. "That was a district where we knew a Republican couldn't win," says local activist Irv Feiner, "and we felt it was important to take a stand. You can't be a populist party if you support people who raise their salaries $7,000 and throw in a dental plan when so many people lack healthcare." The Democratic incumbent won with 53 percent, but the Green-WFP-Liberal lines combined got 17 percent. "Afterward," recalls Gomez, "Paul Adler, the chairman of the Democratic Party in the county, told us that this three-party coalition could tip a lot of elections. He noticed that we got more votes than the Conservative Party did. 'This could help push the Democrats back to the left,' he told us."
Gomez and the Rockland WFP chapter put much of their energy into building a living-wage coalition, signing up twenty-three local organizations and building a database of 6,000 likely supporters. Aware of the 2,000 votes the WFP had pulled for him, Zebrowski acted as the lead sponsor of the party's bill. But even though Democrats control the county legislature 11 to 6, getting it passed wasn't easy. "This bill was almost killed five separate times in the legislature--the only thing that saved it was that we refused to go away," Gomez says. Party members picketed regular legislative meetings, demonstrated at the county executive's home and, most important, turned up the heat in lawmakers' districts. That's how two conservative Democrats were tilted into the Yes column. "We did a postcard campaign in one of these guys' districts," recalls Tom Stoner, a key Rockland WFP member. "When you get several hundred postcards from people in the poor, Latino section of your district that's been organized by the WFP, and where you aren't particularly strong, you'll pick up the signal."
Now that the Rockland chapter has won the living-wage fight (an override of the county executive's veto of the bill is considered all but certain), it's setting its sights on building an affordable-housing coalition. "First we're going to try to get four to six thousand votes for Zebrowski [who's running for State Senate again] and [Hillary] Clinton on our line," Gomez says. "Just as the 2,000 votes we got before set up our living-wage work, our victory on that issue is drawing in new support. I'm getting calls from Haitians, blacks and Latino folks who have always been hard-core Democrats. Hopefully we'll be able to boost our electoral showing in November, which will then set up our next cycle of issue work."
The WFP's Rockland success shows how being able to offer a ballot line or withhold it can amplify the voice of a small, organized group. To achieve this leverage, the party has used sophisticated voter canvassing, populist appeals and lots of shoe leather to draw double-digit support in many races, frequently boosting turnout in key precincts well above normal expectations.
A few weeks ago the party's organizers helped insurgent Barry Ford in his primary challenge to incumbent Democratic Congressman Edolphus Towns, a Giuliani supporter who is a shameful friend of the tobacco lobby. Ford lost, but he received 43 percent of the vote, compared with 36 percent in 1998. Earlier this year, in an important Nassau County legislative race, the WFP got 5 percent of the vote for Craig Johnson and 20 percent in the white, working-class community of Manor Haven, where it had focused its resources. And in a special State Assembly election in Far Rockaway, a working-class corner of Queens, the WFP got as much as 61 percent of the vote in some election districts, where turnout was three times higher than elsewhere.
"We feel like we have some momentum, and we're determined not to screw it up," says Dan Cantor, the party's executive director. Cantor, who conceived the New Party along with Joel Rogers in the wake of the 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, is one of the WFP's many midwives. He's hired and guided the party's youthful staff of organizers, and under his leadership its annual budget has grown to $800,000. The party's internal spirit bears his mark--spunky, hard-working, pragmatic and honest.