Sundown on the Patronage Party

Liberals Sink as Working Families Rise

Like the early Liberal Party, which was launched by garment workers leaders Rose and Dubinsky, labor unions played a key role in founding and funding the WFP when it was launched in 1998. They were joined by Lewis's organization, ACORN, a membership group based among public housing tenants, low-wage workers, and others.

"We put up a challenge to Ray Harding, and we chipped away at him, and now we've won," said Lewis. "We won because we are a real working party. We knock on doors, we phone-bank, we ID each and every voter. This is what distinguished us. Ray Harding had back rooms and cash; we had nothing but our sweat."

The party's situation was complicated this year after many of its largest member unions, including the state's biggest labor organization, health care workers local 1199/SEIU, opted to endorse Republican George Pataki. That was a sign of strength, argued Lewis, demonstrating that the party can have severe internal disagreement about key races and still survive.

The party faces a weightier problem, however, in the perception that it operates as little more than an echo of the Democrats, cross-endorsing candidates in exchange for consideration of the pro-worker issues it champions.

Indeed, the WFP ran its own candidate in just seven races this year, endorsing Democrats and an occasional Republican in the rest. The party's own candidates finished with predictably woeful numbers. Lewis said the WFP's real influence will be felt when it backs Democrats who are out of favor with the county leaders, as it did in several primaries this year.

"The [Democratic leaders] don't really care for us," said Lewis. "We turn out the vote and that makes them uneasy."

Meanwhile, Ray Harding was on TV last week, gamely answering questions from the Times' Sam Roberts about his political misfortunes, acknowledging that his is now a party without a ballot line, a house without a home. He has shrunk physically as well. Once an enormous and imposingly rotund figure, Harding has shed 140 pounds this year, according to friends, the result of a rigorous diet. The weight loss came as he and his family tried to cope with an ongoing city and federal investigation into actions of his younger son, Russell, who, after being rewarded with a sinecure atop a city housing agency, spent more than $250,000 in an extravaganza of travel and fine dining, as revealed in a Voice series earlier this year.

Giuliani, who, as mayor, appointed Russell Harding to that post, may ultimately be the one to feel the absence of the party the most keenly. Should he run for governor in 2006, as many expect him to, the Liberal line won't be there for him as it was in his mayoral races, unless the party somehow reconstitutes itself.

"Those are the guys this hurts the worst, conservatives like Giuliani who want to try and look moderate," said political consultant Richard Schrader. "The Liberal Party offered camouflage. There wasn't anything there except the name, but it worked."

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