Today, for the first time in years, the political center of gravity in New York State is shifting. The conservative Senate Republican majority, which has held state politics in thrall to its agenda of low taxes, budget cuts and prison-building, has passed a hate-crimes bill covering gays and lesbians (after blocking same for more than a decade), expanded healthcare coverage for the working poor and, most telling, opened the door to a sizable increase in the state minimum wage.

From where has the impulse for these changes come? Not from regular Democrats, who have had a cozy understanding for years with the Republicans. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York almost 2 to 1, but until recently state Democratic leaders have done little to upset the balance of power. Rather, the pressure for change has come from outside the Democratic establishment, centered on a group of progressive labor unions (the United Auto Workers, the Communications Workers, various transportation, building trades, teachers and Teamsters locals), community organizations (especially ACORN and Citizen Action) and maverick politicians who together have been building the Working Families Party. It is the WFP, in existence for just over two years, that has pushed the goal of raising the state minimum wage to $6.75 per hour and indexing it to inflation, which would make it among the highest in the nation. (Assembly Democrats passed the bill this past summer, albeit without covering restaurant workers.) What’s given Working Families real muscle is the party’s demonstrated ability, in a series of lower-level elections over the past year, to mobilize blacks, Latinos and other minorities, along with white blue-collar workers and suburban independents, around an economic populist agenda as well as the concept of a new independent political party.

One sign of the party’s influence: This past summer all of the vulnerable Senate Republicans from Long Island, New York City and Westchester County were practically begging for the WFP’s endorsement, offering in exchange their support for boosting the minimum wage. That deal never occurred–the WFP’s executive committee insisted that it would take a lot more than that to get their line on the ballot, and the state’s business community came down hard against any deal as well. Weeks later, these same Republicans retaliated by trying, futilely, to knock the party off the ballot altogether.

New York is unique in that it is the only state where political parties regularly cross-endorse candidates from other parties (known as “fusion”). As a result, instead of being marginalized as “spoilers,” third parties have played an important role in state politics going back to the 1930s, with the Liberals giving FDR his margin of victory in 1944 and Conservatives averaging 300,000 votes in state elections. With the decline of the Liberals in recent years–since their endorsement of Mayor Rudy Giuliani it’s been clear that they’re little more than a law firm with a ballot line for sale–the founders of the WFP saw an opportunity to fill a void.

Now, having passed its second birthday, an evaluation is in order. Unlike most third-party efforts, the WFP has real resources–a paid permanent staff of sixteen, the support of major labor and community institutions, and hundreds of politicians seeking its endorsement. The question is: How independent is it? Is it just an adjunct of the Democratic Party, as some critics allege? Or is it a genuine hybrid, an inside-outside play that makes sense for progressives to support and try to copy elsewhere?

The answer is complicated. So far, the party has not been afraid to cross-endorse Green candidates in a few cases when it wanted to send a clear message to Democratic incumbents who had moved too far to the right. But because it is not independent of the institutional interests of the organizations that created it, this party is nowhere near as freewheeling or oppositional as the Greens.

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.

“There are two models for building a third party in New York State,” Cantor says. “There’s the Liberal Party model, where you wield the ballot line for your benefit, to leverage jobs and patronage. The older model is the American Labor Party, which was more organic. You also wield the line, but you try for the party to have some life outside the line, with meetings, clubs, trainings, retreats.” So far, the WFP has established a dozen chapters and clubs with nearly 4,000 dues-paying members.

“Already we’ve begun to have an impact,” Cantor says. “In Hempstead, where we helped get two people elected to the town council, they’re hiring a tenant to be the Tenant Advocate. The living-wage ordinance in Rockland is a huge victory. The minimum wage will be first up for us after November. But one of our biggest problems is, we have to figure out how to wag the dog and not just be the tail that gets wagged.”

How not to be a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party, especially in the top-of-the-ballot races, which draw most public attention, is a complicated problem that is rooted in the forces that birthed the WFP, and it is not an issue that is about to go away. Certainly the party’s early and enthusiastic endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the US Senate race puts the matter front and center. What kind of progressive third party gets into bed with a First Lady who once said, “There is no left in the Clinton White House”? The honest answer: one that is not strong enough yet to do anything different without blowing up its coalition, and whose leaders and members have chosen instead to build for the day when they can act more independently.

“We don’t have a huge amount of leverage right now, and we just don’t have the track record and political power to begin dictating whether this candidate is acceptable or not,” Master of the CWA acknowledges. Nationally, the CWA is run by Morton Bahr, a big supporter of the Clinton Administration, and whether or not Master likes to admit it, for that reason alone he had no wiggle room on the Hillary endorsement. “But in the process of our interviewing her for the endorsement, she’s heard from UAW people on how her position on trade is no good, and there’s been some impact on her speaking out for the right to organize and the need to raise the minimum wage.”

Still, the Hillary pill has not gone down easily. “One-third of our members think she’s a hero,” said one of the WFP’s staffers, referring especially to its African-American and Latino members in places like Brooklyn and Queens. “One-third are just ‘eh’ on her, but agree that she’s better than Lazio. And one-third probably think she’s a dyke, and I don’t mean that in the positive sense.” Ericka Bozzi Gomez agrees with this picture. “I definitely have a separate column for my Yes votes for Zebrowski and for Hillary. But I tell the one-third who don’t like her to put the 880,000 minimum-wage earners in the state ahead of whatever they think of her personally.”

For Jim Duncan, party co-chairman, this was a no-brainer. “If we draw 150,000 to 200,000 votes that help elect Hillary Clinton, every politician in the state is going to stand up, take notice and want those votes in the future,” he told the thousand delegates who came to the party’s state convention earlier this year. “And I can promise that we will deliver those votes only to those candidates and elected officials who deliver for us–on raising wages, improving workers’ comp benefits, funding healthcare, childcare and education.” This argument has even convinced some notable supporters of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign (ironically, since the WFP is backing Al Gore for President). “If people are going to vote for Hillary over Lazio, which certainly makes sense,” says Jim Hightower, “what better way to put your vote to work for the long-term progressive agenda, which the WFP represents in New York, than by voting on the party’s Line H?”

For most WFPers, the real question is not whether they should take ideologically pure positions on races in which they are still but a small player. It is to figure out how to keep their multicultural coalition growing while acknowledging that the party’s membership has divergent interests. Co-chairwoman Bertha Lewis of ACORN says, “If this is not going to just be a labor party or a community-organization party, we are going to have lots of conversations where race, class and gender matter.”

The next year will be a proving time for the Working Families Party. It has its eye on a number of forty-odd seats on the New York City Council opening up, thanks to term limits. In several of these races, it will fight to have its candidate win the Democratic primary, although in a few white working-class districts in the outer boroughs the WFP hopes to be decisive in the general election. Yet, while those races provide opportunities, the mayoral battle among the Democrats could strain the party’s internal alliances. And the hard work of building local chapters and screening local candidates will never end.

But an infectious sense that working people can stand together against larger forces in order to claim some justice and security seems to be on the rise. The WFP’s small victories and savvy organizing are rebuilding hope at a time when cynicism and withdrawal from politics seem like the only options to many. “This is what people my age have been looking for–a movement,” says twentysomething activist Alan Van Capelle. “A way to bring community and labor together.”

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