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.