Finally, a Progressive Party

Working families party forges a left-liberal coalition

In the aftermath of his unsuccessful 1997 run for mayor, Sal Albanese hooked up with Bob Master, political director of the New York­New England arm of the Communication Workers of America. Albanese came across an article Master wrote for the labor publication Working USA, and liked what he read: an eight-point plan for revitalizing progressive politics in America. One of Master's ideas was the creation of a new, labor-based party, one that could possibly run candidates in tandem with Democrats and thus give organized labor a greater say in electoral politics. "The basic argument was that we needed an aggressive approach to issues that challenged the corporate agenda," Master says.

They found a willing audience--from the Buffalo Teachers Federation to the upstate United Auto Workers to the New Party and the community development group ACORN. Liberal-left politicians such as David Dinkins, Ruth Messinger, and Congress members Nydia Velázquez and Major Owens also came on board. After collecting some 57,000 signatures, the Working Families Party (WFP) was born. Like other minor parties, the WFP is campaigning diligently this election to secure 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate and thus ensure a line on the ballot for the next four years. The candidate on whom the party is pinning its hopes is Peter Vallone, the Democratic nominee almost certain to lose next week to George Pataki.

It wasn't easy for leaders of the party to convince the ideological faithful to back Vallone, a centrist machine politician known more for running a staid City Council and punishing dissident Democrats like Sal Albanese. But Daniel Cantor, a longtime activist with the New Party who is now a WFP organizer, says people came to understand that there were bigger issues at stake than Vallone. "This is not about a candidate," he says. "This is about voting for a party. Candidates come and go, but if we build something durable, City Council 2001 looks pretty interesting." There will be at least 39 open City Council seats in 2001, when term limits take effect, in addition to open seats for comptroller, public advocate, four borough presidents, and, oh yeah, mayor.

WFP organizer at last week's phone bank drive
Mayita Mendez
WFP organizer at last week's phone bank drive

Endorsing Vallone was also a tactical move, removing the albatross that has traditionally hampered third party movements--the prospect of electing Republicans by taking votes away from Democrats. More important, WFP leaders are looking to establish a genuine progressive presence in electoral politics, supporting Democrats who back their issues but running independents against those who don't. The party's core issues--living-wage laws, massive investments in public education, campaign finance reform, day care, health care, and affordable housing--represent what Cantor calls "sensible progressive" politics.

"We have to bring the Democrats back into line," says Gwendolyn Jacobs, president of ACORN. "They forget where they came from, and this party will refresh their memory, because they have neglected the grassroots," she says, alluding to last year's defection of union leaders and politicians such as Stanley Hill and Ed Towns to Giuliani's camp.

However, some have suggested that the Working Families Party's real agenda is to destroy Liberal Party boss Ray Harding by depriving the Libs of their 50,000 votes. "The key objective is not to knock out the Liberal Party," Sal Albanese told the Voice. "If that should happen, all the better. But this is an effort to move the Democratic Party back to its base."

For a party that has only been in existence since last spring, Working Families has already gotten some impressive results. By endorsing Vallone, WFP activists were able to push sweeping campaign finance reform through the City Council, a move that will limit the influence of big money in city elections. The Council is also considering grievance procedures to protect workfare workers. But some recent developments have hurt their cause. The removal of the Yankee Stadium referendum from the ballot will take some votes away from Vallone and, by extension, the Working Families Party. Even more worrisome is the party's placement on the ballot--below the Green and Marijuana Reform parties line. Still, the optimism is there. "We are geared up as strongly as we've ever been for an election," says Bob Master of his union. "This campaign has a galvanizing energy that would ordinarily not be there for the Democratic nominee. It's a tough road, but I think we're going to get there."

 
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