Outer-Borough Battler

A Labor Leader Challenges His Own

That November, many of the same union leaders, including McLaughlin and Hart, endorsed Giuliani for re-election. An angry Hanley quit the Democrats and helped to form the new Working Families Party. The idea was to promote progressive labor issues and pressure Democrats from the left. "I thought we could win back Reagan Democrats," said Hanley. The party won its ballot line by backing Democrat Peter Vallone for governor and worked hard for Hillary Clinton in 2000. It was also instrumental in the election of several of last fall's new crop of city councilmembers.

This month, plumbers union leader Hart decided to run for a vacant Staten Island assembly seat, one long held by conservative Democrat Eric Vitaliano. Hart won the Democratic nod and also told local papers that he expected to receive the nomination of the Working Families Party. To Hanley this was a vivid reminder of what he viewed as the betrayal at the county's Democratic party committee. He decided to challenge it.

As head of the Working Families Party's Staten Island chapter, Hanley convened a meeting where a member of his own union local was nominated for the assembly seat by a vote of 19-4. Chapter nominations are only advisory, however, and at the party's convention in Albany this month, the executive committee—composed of representatives of several unions close to the plumbers—overwhelmingly reversed the chapter vote, giving the nomination to Hart.

Staten Island bus drivers union leader Larry Hanley
photo: Pak Fung Wong
Staten Island bus drivers union leader Larry Hanley

Hanley protested—loudly. Party leaders responded that other unions with Staten Island members supported Hart and that Hanley was stubbornly refusing to accept a matter of simple democratic procedures.

"Larry Hanley wants to run the Working Families Party on Staten Island on Larry Hanley's terms, without regard to other affiliates. We set things up so that shouldn't happen, so that no one individual can dictate policies," said Bob Masters, co-chairman of the party and a leader of the Communication Workers of America.

To Hanley, the issue was more basic. "I feel like we are back to where we started. This is what drove me out of the Democrats. The party is saying, 'The heck with you members.' It's incremental, but there is a drift here towards becoming a Ray Harding-type party."

What's most unclear, however, is whether the state's most liberal but still fragile party can tolerate a good old-fashioned battle.

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