By Peter Szabo
When the bill to create a "living wage" in New York is
introduced into the City Council later this month, Bertha
Lewis will be smiling. Lewis is one of three chairmen
of the Working
Families Party, which, though only three years old,
is the third largest political party in New York City.
Thanks to the Working Families Party, dozens of members
of the City Council have promised to support the legislation,
which would require companies with government contracts
to offer their employees a salary of at least ten dollars
an hour plus health insurance ($11.50 an hour without
If Bertha Lewis does not seem at first glance like your
typical party boss - she is the executive director of
an advocacy group for poor city neighborhoods - she certainly
sounds like one when talking about City Council support
for the living wage. "If you're not on this," she says,
"you're dead, as far as we're concerned."
The Working Families Party is the latest example of the
power of third party politics in New York City, a tradition
that includes the American Labor Party of the 1930s and
the Liberal Party of the 1960s and 1970s.
Independent party politics play an occasionally potent
role nationally as well, with the most recent examples
being Ralph Nader's run for president last year on the
Green Party ticket arguably tilting the election to George
W. Bush; Senator Jim Jeffords defection from the Republican
Party to become an independent resulting in a Democratic
majority in the U.S. Senate; and the recent talk of Senator
John McCain's consideration of an independent run for
president in 2004.
But in New York City, third
parties have had more consistent impact. The Liberal
Party gave a place on the ballot for Mayor John Lindsay
to win reelection in 1969 after he lost the Republican
primary, and accounted for the margin of victory for Rudy
Giuliani in the 1993 mayoral race. Its endorsement of
Alan Hevesi this month was seen as giving the comptroller
a boost in this year's mayoral race because it guarantees
him a place on the November ballot.
Similarly Republican Michael Bloomberg sought out the
endorsement of the Independence Party, and received it
in May, guaranteeing him a spot in the ballot in November
a month before he even announced he was running. The Independence
Party, the New York offshoot of the now-fractured national
party founded by H. Ross Perot, was for a time the third
largest party in the state (now fallen after last November's
elections to sixth). Mainstream Democrats such as Hillary
Clinton and the major Democratic candidates for mayor
shun New York's Independence Party because of the involvement
of Lenora Fulani, whom the Daily News likes to identify
as "perennial fringe candidate," and who has been accused
of anti-Semitism, a charge she denies.
A measure of how valuable the backing of the Working
Families Party is considered to be is the large number
of Democrats who have been lining up for its endorsement.
WORKING FAMILIES AGENDA
The major difference between Working Families and the
other major third parties in the city is that it is built
around other institutions. This is the conclusion of Micah
Sifry, who is a senior analyst at Public
Campaign (a nonprofit group that advocates for campaign
finance reform), and who wrote an article
in The Nation on the Working Families Party . He is also
the author of the forthcoming Spoiling for a Fight: Third
Party Politics in America. Leading members of the Working
Families Party's coalition of unions and community groups
include the Communications
Workers of America (District 1 and Local 1180), the
United Auto Workers (Regions 9 and 9-A), and ACORN.
"Somebody has to extol a progressive movement to those
of us who work for a living," one union official told
the Village Voice when the Working Families coalition
was forming. "If it's not us, who's it going to be?"
The common interests shared by this coalition make up
a specific agenda that is on the left, but hardly far
out, at least in New York. At the top of their agenda
is the living wage legislation, both in the city, and
throughout the state. A recent effort to pass a living
wage measure failed in Rockland County, though a similar
effort in Suffolk County passed
the local legislature 17 to 1 on June 5th. Working Families
also has pressed for an increase in the state minimum
wage to $6.75 per hour, indexed to inflation. The party
advocates one billion dollars a year for affordable housing
for ten years, and an investment in school facilities
of five billion dollars over the next five years. Highly
critical of the tax-reduction packages that keep big corporations
in the city, Working Families calls for redirecting economic
development resources to companies that provide low and
middle-income jobs, City Council oversight of these deals,
and provisions for punishing companies who renege on their
Over the long term, the party wants to redefine the political
debate in New York. Its model is the Conservative Party.
No New York Republican in 25 years has won statewide office
without Conservative Party votes. The result: state Republicans
have been pulled to the right.
"Our goal is to yank New York politics as a whole back
in a humane and progressive direction," says Dan Cantor,
the executive director of the Working Families Party.
To pull off its strategy, Working Families is focused
on increasing the number of votes on its ballot line by
organizing African Americans and Latinos, especially those
who have not participated in the political process, and
by engaging white working class Republican and conservative
Democratic voters. With these constituencies as a base,
Working Families hopes to regularly capture five to ten
percent of the vote on its ballot line
The third-party strategy of endorsing candidates from
another (usually major) party, known as "fusion," is practiced
in earnest only in New York. Today, fusion is illegal
in all but seven states. The reason for this is largely
the result of lobbying by the two major parties that goes
back a century.
HISTORY OF THIRD PARTIES IN NYC
After the national rise of the Peoples' and Progressive
parties in the 1890s and early 1900s, the Democrats and
Republicans worked hard to curtail the influence of third
But in New York City, it was different. In the 1920s
and 30s the Socialists and Communists were major forces.
Back in the 1930s and 40s when there was proportional
representation in the New
York City Council, four and five parties, including
the Communist Party, were regularly represented on the
Council, according to Rob Richie, executive director of
for Voting and Democracy. Potent among them was the
American Labor Party a leftist, labor-based party that
was powerful enough to elect Vito Marcantonio to Congress
in 1938, according to Immanuel Ness, political science
professor at Brooklyn College and editor of The
Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America
But Cold War politics ended proportional voting and drove
most of these parties out of business. Only the Liberal
Party gained strength over the next several decades.
By the mid-1960s the Liberal Party was a key player in
city and state politics, positioning itself as a party
on the left. But critics say the party has since lost
most of its emphasis on issues, becoming primarily a patronage
Indeed, many still remember 1980 as a textbook case in
what critics cite as the largest downside of third-party
politics. When Senator Jacob Javits lost the Republican
primary in 1980, but stayed on the Liberal line for the
general election, he siphoned votes from the Democratic
nominee Liz Holtzman, and is thus "credited" with electing
Working Families has its roots in the New
Party, which was founded in the early 1990s. The New
Party launched a challenge to bans on fusion that went
all the way to the Supreme Court (Timmons v. Twin Cities
Area New Party). In its 6 to 3 ruling against the New
Party, the high court's conservative majority (plus Justice
Breyer) held that states could limit the free speech and
association rights of political parties if states thought
that unrestricted exercise of those rights would cause
voter confusion or unacceptable disruption of the two-party
system. "Ballots serve primarily to elect candidates,
not as fora for political expression," wrote Chief Justice
William Rehnquist in his majority opinion. After the ruling
it was clear that, for a long time to come, there would
be only one state where a fusion strategy was feasible,
New York. And that's where new efforts were focused.
The Working Families Party was created in June 1998.
But to gain a "permanent" spot on the ballot, the party
needed 50,000 votes statewide in the 1998 gubernatorial
election. To try and get these votes Working Families
endorsed Peter Vallone, reflecting from the start the
party's pragmatic approach to politics. On election night
Working Families appeared to be just 2,000 votes short
of what it needed. But as absentee and paper ballots were
counted and recounts were completed, it went over the
top, officially netting 51,325 votes.
WORKING FAMILIES FUTURE
Since then, the party's most tangible accomplishment
has been simply its own growth as an organization. State-wide,
the party now has 16 full-time staffers, 18 local chapters,
and 5,000 donors who contributed about $1 million last
year. Party organizing reflects a strong desire to exist
in-between elections as well as for them. "You can go
to a Working Families Party chapter meeting or event any
night of the week in this state," says Cantor.
Since it was launched in 1998, votes on the Working Families
line doubled in many white working class neighborhoods
in New York City, and nearly tripled in African American
and Latino neighborhoods. For example, Bushwick and Bedford
Stuyvesant (Assembly District 54) and East New York (AD
40) yielded respectively four and seven times as many
votes on the Working Families Party line in 2000 as in
1998, while the general turnout merely doubled.
Working Families also doubled its votes in all three
Staten Island Assembly Districts. While in 1998 Conservative
Party votes outnumbered Working Families votes 13 to 1
on Staten Island, in 2000, this narrowed to three to one.
Still, the party registered only slight gains in historically
progressive and reliably Democratic areas such as the
Upper West Side, Greenwich Village, and Park Slope.
Working Families is using endorsements and organizing
to play a role in this year's citywide elections. The
party's endorsements range from fresh, activist progressives,
to front-running liberals, to conservatives and products
of the Democratic machine. (They have yet to agree on
an endorsement for mayor, or even if the party should
endorse someone for mayor).
Despite its growth, to some on the left Working Families
has failed to become a real alternative party. They say
the party's agenda is driven by big labor and they chide
the party for endorsements of machine-Democrats and for
not running its own candidates. "More often than not,"
liberal columnist Doug Ireland wrote in a recent issue
of The Nation, the Working Families Party "functions as
little more than a liberal adjunct of the Democratic Party."
"What are they doing to distinguish themselves as something
other than a Liberal Party with a more ethical approach
to giving out their ballot line?" asks Micah Sifry. "I
don't think they've quite gotten there yet. Being an endorsement
machine is not why they got into this business."
To date the Working Families Party ballot line has been
used mostly to reward, rather than to punish. The party's
hundreds of endorsements in all manner of races around
the state have gone overwhelmingly to Democrats. "The
question really becomes are you really willing to endorse
a Republican," says one political observer. "Sooner or
later, if your line means anything, you've got to be willing
to do that."
"The task is how can we be both independent and relevant,"
says Cantor, summing up the party's challenge going forward.
It's basic strategy, fusion, poses daunting problems.
Endorsing mainly Democrats breeds dependence. Running
little-known home-grown candidates results in irrelevance.
It remains to be seen whether Working Families can succeed
in achieving relevance and yet be an independent party
that is, in fact, independent.
Working Families Party Endorsements
Bill Thompson - Comptroller
Manhattan City Council Districts
- District 1 Rocky Chin
- District 2 Margarita Lopez
- District 3 Christine Quinn
- District 5 Gifford Miller
- District 6 Gale Brewer
- District 7 Robert Jackson
- District 8 Phil Reed
- District 9 Bill Perkins
- District 10 Ydanis Rodriguez
- Borough President Adolpho Carrion
- City Council District 16 Michael Benjamin
- Borough President Helen Marshall
- District 19 Arthur Cheliotis
- District 20 John Liu
- District 21 Hiram Monserrate
- District 23 David Weprin
- District 25 James Van Bramer
- District 26 Joseph Heaphy
- District 28 Patrick Jenkins
- District 29 Melinda Katz
- District 30 Elizabeth Crowley
- District 31 James Sanders
- District 33 Ken Diamondstone
- District 35 Letitia James
- District 40 Jean Vernet
- District 42 Charles Barron
- District 43 Joanne Seminara-Lehu
- District 47 Joseph Hochhauser
- Borough President Jerome X. O'Donovan
- District 49 Michael McMahon
- District 50 Libby Hikind
- District 51 Janey Moran
Civil Court Judge Eric Vitaliano