The Power of Fusion Politics

The Power of Fusion Politics

Two political lines could be better than one: Consider the successful tactics of the Working Families Party.


Last election day, as thousands of New Yorkers bused out to Ohio on a mission to stop George W. Bush from being re-elected, a few dozen stayed behind in Albany and made sure David Soares won.

The volunteers knocked on doors street by street; in the housing projects, hall by hall. The day John Kerry lost, the Working Families Party helped Soares take the job of Albany District Attorney away from a machine Democrat notorious for condemning drug offenders to extreme prison terms. With the rallying cry “Reform Rockefeller Drug Laws Now,” the Soares campaign got voters to the polls by tapping into public outrage at seeing lives destroyed and billions wasted by the justice system. Soares had won the primary as a Democrat. In the general election he was still a Democrat, but on the ballot he was something else, too: the candidate of the Working Families Party.

A few months earlier, the WFP operation hit Westchester County. Volunteers trawled suburban streets delivering the message: “We’re telling State Senator Nick Spano that New Yorkers need a raise in the minimum wage.” A few residents cursed and slammed doors. But more often than not they agreed, and received a sheet of paper, a pen and a chance to handwrite a plea to the Senator. “It’s about time!” exclaimed an expensively groomed woman as she took a clipboard.

That wasn’t the first or last time Spano, a high-ranking Republican, heard from his constituents–and the greeting wasn’t always so polite. A few weeks earlier, Spano had endured an “accountability session,” a public event community organizers use to extract commitments from elected officials. In a YMCA hall packed with some 150 union members and other activists, filled with cries of “$5.15 is not enough!” Spano expressed surprise at the turnout–and, knowing he had little choice, signed a poster-size pledge to push legislation raising New York’s minimum wage to $7.10. “I am on your side,” Spano declared. “I will deliver this personally to the majority leader.”

But it was not just because he was caught on the spot that Spano came around on this issue–he knew that the Working Families Party, which organized the session, had a card to play: the ballot line in elections throughout New York State that it has wielded since 1998. In New York, election laws allow “fusion”–candidates for any public office can run as the nominee of more than one political party. The votes candidates receive are tallied separately by party, then combined. Like many candidates in New York State, Spano was hungry for the extra boost of that additional ballot line, which could make all the difference on election day. With the WFP’s progressive seal of approval, Spano could expect some votes from people who might never otherwise support a Republican.

Fusion is powerful. Voting in the Working Families column is no wasted gesture–every ballot counts. It sidesteps the Nader Effect, since voters can show their support for a progressive party agenda without spoiling the chances of a candidate–usually a Democrat–who has a shot at winning. And if there’s an opportunity to take out a bad Democrat, like former Albany DA Paul Clyne, Working Families can run its own candidate.

Fusion politics also gets complicated, and occasionally controversial.

The Working Families Party gave Spano its ballot line–and with it the race. It turned into a contest so close that it had to be sorted out in court. Spano prevailed against Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a progressive African-American Democratic county legislator. He got 1,800 votes on the WFP line, and held on to his seat by just eighteen votes. This, in a state where Democrats have been laboring to retake the majority in the State Senate.

But the Working Families leadership was satisfied. In exchange for the endorsement of Spano and other Republicans in a tight race, state Republicans relented after years of opposition and hiked the minimum wage, which raised pay for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. By wielding the power to make or break one of its top leaders, Working Families pushed the Republican Party to take a progressive stance.

Much more often, that ballot line goes to a Democrat. The expectations are no different. Last November US Senator Chuck Schumer ran as both a Democrat and a Working Families nominee, and votes on either counted equally toward his re-election. But he got nearly 169,000 of his votes on the WFP line–3.6 percent of his total. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, running for governor in 2006, solicited Working Families as his first endorsement. “What this is about,” said Spitzer as he accepted the party’s support, “is embracing progressive politics. It’s about embracing the ideas and the values that will change the lives of citizens across the state; being willing to challenge the status quo; being willing to say, If it’s broken we will fix it…. You have proven that substance matters in politics.”

It’s also about Spitzer buying into the WFP’s sophisticated organizing apparatus. In acknowledgment of his cash contributions–the Attorney General was a keynote speaker at a party fundraiser–Spitzer can expect Working Families canvassers to go door to door or hold rallies in key districts he needs to win. And it’s understood that Spitzer will have an obligation to deliver on Working Families’ demands.

Spitzer’s a radical by Wall Street standards, but not by the WFP’s. Items on the party’s legislative agenda include universal healthcare, rent regulation, a living wage and closing the income gap through progressive taxation. Founded and led by a coalition of labor unions and community organizations–including the Northeast regions of the United Auto Workers and the Communications Workers of America (CWA), locals of the garment and hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE and the service workers’ SEIU, ACORN and Citizen Action–Working Families claims an organized bloc of voters committed to economic populism, and the party uses them to get major-party politicians to follow the Working Families agenda. Its organizers strive to appeal simultaneously to Nation-reading liberals, people of color alienated by the Democrats, and working-class whites.

The WFP’s ability to reach that third group, which Republicans have so successfully wrested from the Democrats, says a lot about what fusion can accomplish. A poll of New York State CWA members found that non-Democrats were likelier than Democrats to use the WFP ballot line to cast a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2000–of the 38 percent of that group who went for Clinton, eight in ten cast their vote under Working Families. Votes on the WFP line helped Democratic challenger Tim Bishop beat a conservative incumbent Republican Congressman on Long Island–in a district that went overwhelmingly for Republican Governor George Pataki on the same ballot.

WFP executive director Dan Cantor and a leadership circle of labor union political directors, community organizers and staff hunt for practical legislative and policy campaigns that will resonate with the party’s target constituencies. “What issues do you want to move?” asks Cantor. “What moral disgrace brings issues into the electoral moment?” They then put those issues into play with a one-two punch: a grassroots field operation anchored by local chapters in the state’s biggest counties, coupled with the ability, through fusion voting, to cross-endorse Democrats or Republicans for public office. Targeted politicians can’t afford to ignore the party’s agenda.

Less splashily, Working Families has become a fixture in local political races in the state’s bigger cities and in the suburbs of New York City, delivering a get-out-the-vote apparatus and its progressive WF brand label in exchange for influence over candidates’ policy agendas. Some of those relationships spawn legislative breakthroughs, including a 2002 living-wage law in Westchester. Many others simply rubber-stamp an undistinguished major-party favorite.

The party has held off on this year’s New York City mayoral race, where Democratic candidates are struggling. Republican Mayor Mike Bloomberg leads them in the polls–among Democratic voters. Some of the WFP’s member unions have already endorsed Bloomberg, while others can’t agree on which Democrat to support. The party is showing its influence in subtler ways–for example, in candidate Fernando Ferrer’s proposal to revive a stock-transfer tax to increase funding for schools, an idea the WFP actively promoted.

Starting with a campaign this year against Social Security privatization, Working Families has also begun targeting members of Congress in between election cycles. And it’s not just assaulting Republicans: In August party leaders called for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to remove two black Democratic Congressmen, Greg Meeks and Edolphus Towns, from their respective positions on the Financial Services and Energy and Commerce committees because they voted for CAFTA and other bills benefiting corporate powers. Prodded by Working Families, unions are sending letters to members in the Congressmen’s districts informing them about the votes. They’re doing all this on a shoestring; the WFP’s entire budget is about $1.6 million a year, just $300,000 of which, according to the WFP, represents dues from its union affiliates. Revenues from door-to-door canvassing are growing steadily, a sign of broader public support.

Even the party’s opponents acknowledge its influence. Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the business-lobby group Partnership for New York City, fought the WFP’s ultimately successful effort to require some companies under contract with New York City government to pay employees a minimum of $10 an hour. “When it comes to bringing resources, bringing influence to bear on important public policies,” says Wylde, “their political success, in terms of electing and supporting people in key positions, makes them a force to be reckoned with.”

Working Families made 2004, of all years, a moment for progressive political gains in a state, governed by a Republican and a divided state legislature, that hasn’t recently been out front on social and economic reforms. Now that it’s proving its power to make things happen, the WFP is looking to export fusion voting to other states. “Common-sense progressivism is actually popular, but you need a way to make it visible,” says Cantor. “Nothing’s more powerful than a ballot line.”

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.”

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.

But building strong local chapters that bring citizens more deeply into power has been an uphill climb. “There are no resources put into New York City chapter and club organizing,” says Dorothy Siegel, a longtime Brooklyn civic activist who three years ago decided to focus her energy on building citizen participation in the Working Families Party–“to make it less of an alliance of labor unions, ACORN and Citizen Action, and more of a partnership organization with real grassroots chapters and clubs.” In Brooklyn, she says, she’s been doing the work herself, as a volunteer. “There’s just one organizer for all of New York City,” Siegel points out.

“This is a party that does not have a lot of resources,” notes Democratic State Senator Eric Schneiderman, whose campaign committees have contributed to Working Families. “They have to raise money to put out the troops.” Schneiderman is the former chair of the New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and he put aside his misgivings about the Spano endorsement to make an appearance with Working Families in Massachusetts, supporting the move to bring fusion voting there. He believes the party is important to progressives’ national prospects. “There’s a lot of concern among progressive activists that the Democratic Party is too much in the grip of consultants who are always suggesting that they slide to the right and take conservative positions to accommodate swing voters, rather than exciting our own beliefs and animating people,” says Schneiderman. “The hope is that the Working Families Party can empower progressive Democrats within the Democratic Party.”

Working Families’ distinction from the likes of the Independence Party, whose ballot line Bloomberg is counting on to draw New York City voters who just won’t pull a lever for a Republican–or New York’s Liberal Party, which started out as just that but deteriorated into a patronage factory–is its commitment to engaging citizen-activists at the local level and building power from there, much as conservatives did a generation ago. Political consultant Ethan Geto ran the Howard Dean campaign in New York State. When Dean dropped out weeks before the New York primary, Geto found himself with thousands of volunteers who had nothing to do. Though many Deaniacs didn’t know or care about local politics, Geto and others convinced some to put their energies into the WFP’s nominees for state office. “A new generation of activists responded to that in New York: We have to build here,” says Geto. “It’s a way of supporting a national resurgence of the Democratic Party.”

The experience of watching organized labor go all-out for John Kerry left John Murphy of Boston’s Teamsters Local 122 wondering what else labor could do in states where it’s strong (in Massachusetts, 28 percent of workers are in unions).

“How many times do we have to pour millions of dollars into the Democratic Party, and thousands of volunteers? And then hoping even if they win, we still have to get them to pay attention to us?” asks Murphy, who is a member of the Teamsters’ executive board. He has become a leading advocate for fusion voting in Massachusetts.

“If we do nothing and hope to simply influence the Democratic Party, that’s doomed to fail,” says Murphy. “How many times do you have to lose before you make a change?”

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