Which Third Way?

Greens and the Working Families Party Try to Make Progressive Votes Count

Though their platforms and some of their organizing tactics have much in common, the Greens and WFP represent two contrasting approaches to wielding third-party power (though on some occasions, the two have backed the same candidates). One in five New Yorkers statewide consistently pulls the lever for a minor party line and, under state law, each of these parties needs to snag at least 50,000 votes in the governor's race to stay on the ballot for the next four years. That means, says Norman Adler, president of the lobbying and political affairs firm Bolton St. Johns, that progressive third parties have only one agenda in this campaign: "to keep themselves alive." But of course they want to stay kicking in order to boot out some bastards—and in the meantime, at least, to shove Democratic candidates leftward.

The Greens run alternative candidates to push an agenda grounded in environmental justice, but also hammer such issues as electoral reform. The Greens are crusaders for overhauling campaign finance rules; they lobby vociferously for instant runoff voting, which would allow third parties to mount aggressive campaigns without functioning as spoilers. Stereotypically fractious, the Greens are divided into competing organizations in New York City—a measure of their decentralized democracy, party stalwarts insist. At the state level, they've got some 18,000 registrants and they've been on the ballot since 1998. They oppose the war in Iraq, support gay marriage, and brazenly call themselves "feminist."

With 55 chapters throughout New York, the Greens have won seats in Ithaca, Woodstock, and Perrysburg. On the larger canvases of statewide and national races, the Greens have put forward candidates to articulate progressive analyses that otherwise wouldn't get a dime's worth of the discourse.

Green Party candidate Stanley Aronowitz calls the WFP’s endorsement of Carl McCall (above) "a politics of despair."
photo: Julia Xanthos
Green Party candidate Stanley Aronowitz calls the WFP’s endorsement of Carl McCall (above) "a politics of despair."

The WFP, created in 1998 and built around progressive unions like the Communications Workers of America and grassroots advocacy groups like ACORN, exploits New York's allowance of "fusion"—which permits different parties to cross-endorse the same candidates. At this early stage, the WFP hardly ever puts forward its own candidates, but endorses Democrats in an effort to hold them accountable to the progressive ideals the WFP stands for. Among them: living wages, affordable housing, investment in schools. When asked, WFP will avow support for gay rights and reproductive freedom, but you have to search long to learn that on the WFP Web site; economic justice is the party's essential cause.

With nearly 15,000 registrants, the WFP is the smallest of New York's third parties (which, apart from the Greens, also include the Independents, Liberals, and Right-to-Lifers.) But the WFP has been building steadily, employing old-fashioned, shoe-leather door-to-door campaigning to build a party of upstate blue-collar whites, urban people of color, and suburban liberals.

The different strategies mean, of course, different ideologies. Greens say repeal the Rockefeller drug laws; WFP says reform them. Greens want to abolish the death penalty, WFP to declare a moratorium. That the Greens are less cautious about staking out genuinely leftist territory leaves them pretty much talking to themselves with little capacity to grow, critics charge. The WFP's detractors wonder how long it will take that party to develop any independence at all. What progressive value, they ask, could there possibly have been in endorsing Hillary Clinton, as the WFP did in the Senate race of 2000? (She chalked up more than 102,000 votes on the WFP line; the Green candidate pulled about 41,000.) "The Democrats are lousy because the left is weak," WFP executive director Dan Cantor replies. "If we want them to be better, we have to be stronger." In the last 25 years, no New York Republican has won statewide office without the Conservative Party, he notes, and Pataki ponied up the tax cuts they demanded again and again. Shouldn't there be an at least equal and opposite force on the left? Cantor asks.

Both progressive parties have scored some meaningful victories lately. Aronowitz forced issues into the gubernatorial debates that mainstream candidates would not touch—chiefly, the massive budget shortfall the state and city are facing that will require significant new sources of revenue. (His fix: Tax the rich.) What's more, the recent New York Times series about Albany's gridlock that seems to have shaken loose some long-stalled legislation offers an analysis that sounds just like Aronowitz's stump speech and campaign lit, characterizing state legislators as lobbyists appealing to three powerful men who control everything.

Meanwhile, the WFP, helped sweep some dozen progressive City Council members into office last year, and provided a significant margin for Kevin Parker's upset victory in the Democratic primary for state assembly over machine candidate Noach Dear in Brooklyn. The party was also instrumental in winning living-wage legislation in Suffolk and Rockland counties.

Greens say that the strategy of cross-endorsing Democrats is eternally doomed to fail because the party's more radical views never get publicly expressed by the mainstream candidates. They claim that WFP merely provides voters the clothespin with which to hold their noses while they vote for the old lesser evil. "It's a politics of despair," charges Aronowitz. For the WFP, such reasoning misses the pragmatic point. To those Greens who still justify voting for Nader in 2000 by saying there's negligible difference between Bush and Gore, they have two words: John Ashcroft. What's more, explains Cantor, "We are saying, 'Don't vote the candidate, vote the party.' True, McCall isn't saying everything we would like to hear, but we're saying it and in a practical sense, it's important to beat Pataki even as you declare more progressive values. Why is it more pure or inspiring to always vote for someone you know can never win?"

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