By Albert Samaha
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It was after 10 p.m. on Thursday when the delegate assembly of the Professional Staff Congressthe union representing more than 20,000 faculty and staff of the City University of New Yorkvoted 34 to 20 (with one abstention) to endorse Carl McCall for governor. By the time the votes were cast, the meeting had gone on for more than three hours and custodians trying to close the building had come to take the podium microphone away. Delegates had already narrowly defeated a recommendation by the union's executive council that the divided PSC lend support to two candidates in the race.
Neither of those candidates, however, was George Pataki. The Republican incumbent has garnered support from the United Federation of Teachers, the garment workers of UNITE, and the hospital workers of 1199 (or at least from their leadership). But at the PSC, the challenge to McCall came from the leftfrom Green Party candidate Stanley Aronowitz, who also happens to be a CUNY professor and PSC activist. Even the PSC endorsement of McCall came with a radical imperative: that voters select the Democratic candidate on the ballot line of the grassroots Working Families Party.
In recent years, left-wing third parties have been treated as a joke in precincts of power. But nowadays, economic populism plays well across the state. Voter disaffection over big-money influence is deeper than ever, and the impact of the fiscal collapse amid the scandals of corporate greed is being felt from Buffalo to Bensonhurst. In such a climate, rhetoric once dismissed as hippie, commie, or pie-in-the-sky is finding new resonance. Tax and spend, the Greens urge. Provide universal health care. Decriminalize drugs. And the Working Families Partyits retro-sounding name notwithstandinglooks forward by railing against politicians, their "corporate allies," and their disregard for the working class.
Led by a progressive insurgency that took power two and a half years ago, PSC delegates were trying to respond at their Thursday meeting to the crisis that has decimated the university's finances (and left its board of trustees packed with Pataki's political pals). So they were debating the age-old question: whether to seek change from outside the system or from within. In short, whether to go with the Greens or the WFP. It's the problem plaguing progressives all over the state as Election Day draws nigh: In a system where both major parties are sewn up by corporate interests, what is the best way to make votes meaningful? How can lefties both express their dissatisfaction with Democratic business as usual and make a practical impact? Does a vote for the WFP really send a message or does the party merely function as a donkey in progressive clothing? Will a vote for the Greens play into the hands of conservatives? "I'm agonizing over it," admits Brad Lander, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community-based organization working on jobs and housing in Brooklyn.
Familiar though the conundrum may be to progressive voters, it has taken on far greater urgency this election year as disgust with the Democrats has deepened, not least because senators Clinton and Schumerand most of New York's House Democratssupported the president's permanent-war resolution, as well as such over-the-top "anti-terrorism" legislation as the USA Patriot Act. Meanwhile, the party has been nearly silent on civil liberties, the poor, the catastrophe that passes for health care. "The Democrats have got to stop listening to the conservative creeps of the Democratic Leadership Council who say they have to keep moving to the right," insists historian and CUNY professor Blanche Wiesen Cook, who still has not decided whether to vote Green or WFP next week. "Can't they see the right is already occupied? Didn't they take elementary physics in high school?"
For his part, McCall is running a centrist campaignto the extent he's running a campaign at all. He's barely talking to his own base. Even Estevan Nembhard, a 21-year-old organizer with Uptown for Peace and Justice, who is advocating voting for McCall on the WFP line, laments that "the people in Harlem and Washington Heights are not getting mobilized. We're all engaged on issues like funding for schools and dropping the Rockefeller drug laws and the campaign doesn't seem to see the urgency of getting McCall in there. I don't get it." Adds another community organizer, "McCall can't walk out of his house without stepping in shit."
Still, on housing, education, minimum wage, jobs, and a slew of other bread-and-butter issues, grassroots activists find McCall far more reliable than Pataki. With war expenditures sucking federal money away and the state and the city already facing colossal budget shortfalls, that difference counts for a lot, says Richie Perez, leader of the Justice Committee of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. Angry as he is at the Democrats for "collapsing in front of jingoism," he worries that supporting the Greens "is a kind of luxury for those of us who aren't facing starvation and homelessness." Besides, McCall offers the historic possibility of electing New York's first African American governor. Green candidate Aronowitz is not impressed. "Carl's a corporate guy," he shrugs.