It was after 10 p.m. on Thursday when the delegate assembly of the Professional Staff Congress—the union representing more than 20,000 faculty and staff of the City University of New York—voted 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 left—from 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 Party—its retro-sounding name notwithstanding—looks 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 Schumer—and most of New York’s House Democrats—supported 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 campaign—to 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.
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.
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?”
Aronowitz turns the question right back: Looking at Pataki’s double-digit lead in the polls, he says that choosing McCall is the wasted vote in this election. He rejects on principle the idea that alternative candidates are spoilers: if the Democrats lose elections by running for the holy center, he says, that is not the fault of the Greens. But that’s not even relevant in this contest, he says: If McCall has no prayer the charge has no teeth.
Not everyone trusts the polls, however. If the black and Latino turnout gets mobilized and if conservative rags-to-riches billionaire Tom Golisano keeps hacking away at Pataki, McCall might not embarrass himself. From Aronowitz’s point of view, Golisano demonstrates exactly the power of an insurgent candidate. If the Greens aren’t as effective, it’s because electoral politics all come down, egregiously, to cash. Golisano has been spending a million dollars a day on TV and radio ads; the Greens have spent $6000—and managed to get only on cable.
Third parties have long had significant impact on American politics—so much so, in fact, that in the 1890s fusion was outlawed in almost every state. Today, New York is one of only seven states that still permits it, and the only one where anyone takes advantage of it. Until anti-fusion laws spread across the country some 110 years ago, groups like the People’s and Progressive parties ran their own candidates and also used cross-endorsements of both Democrats and Republicans to hold mainstream politicians’ feet to the fire. As those pols began to bristle under the third parties’ growing power, the two major parties teamed up to outlaw the central means by which both were being influenced by the left. “Industrialization was creating class conflict that manifested itself politically,” explains political scientist Ron Hayduk, co-editor of Democracy’s Moment and of From ACT UP to the WTO. “The elites were really threatened by labor and socialist movements and didn’t want to see them gain power.”
In the 20th century the Socialist Party and, later, the American Labor Party played significant roles, even without the fusion option in some states. Thanks to them, such concepts as the weekend or the progressive income tax, once considered absurd, became mainstream. In New York, the American Labor Party, founded in 1936, soon sent a communist to Congress and a decade later put 500,000 votes in Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace’s column. An anti-Communist wing split off from the ALP in 1944 to form the Liberal Party, which would help give John F. Kennedy his margin of victory in 1960 and also provide John Lindsay with a sizable shove into City Hall.
The party eventually became a personal patronage mill for Ray Harding—who parlayed the margin of victory the party supplied Giuliani into a cushy job for his son—and recently has been withering away. That’s not just a matter of dubious leadership. Progressive third parties are truly effective, says Hayduk, only when they respond to real mass pressure for change. Populism powered the People’s and Socialist parties; civil rights brought forth the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party. “Efforts that are tied to social movements have had a huge impact on moving things that were marginal front and center,” Hayduk says. Today’s third-party progressives are hopeful that dire economic need, chronic Democratic disappointment, and rising anti-war sentiments might generate a new movement that will give more momentum and shape to both the WFP and the Greens.
While PSC members debated their endorsement on the ninth floor of the CUNY Graduate Center on Thursday, a teach-in on the pending war in Iraq was coming to a close in the basement auditorium. There, the African American scholar and activist Robin Kelley told the crowd that the Democrats have become entirely irrelevant, and thus, presumably, not worth voting for under any circumstances. Playwright Tony Kushner, on the other hand, challenged them to consider whether the left has fallen in love with its own powerlessness and thus given up on securing whatever foothold they can among the Democrats. “Why is there only one Barbara Lee in Congress?” he asked. “Why is the progressive voice silent in the corridors of actual political power?”
Back upstairs, WFP co-chair Bertha Lewis was making the party’s case before the PSC’s delegate assembly. (Aronowitz had been given the platform at the previous meeting.) She spoke stirringly of the poor and working-class members of her party and their children who were reaching toward a better life in CUNY classrooms and reminded the faculty and staff that no matter whom the assembly endorsed, no matter what the outcome of the election on November 5, “there’s a relationship between us and the folks sitting in this room” that would have to form the basis of a movement for the future. “No matter what happens,” she promised, “we’re gonna wake up together on November 6. That’s what’s scary to those other guys.”
On her way out, she ran into Aronowitz. They threw their arms around each other. And then argued strategy for half an hour.