The Working Families Party is building a third party that matters
November 20, 2008
Jon Green never got the memo about third parties being whiny, irrelevant spoilers. He was too busy building a third party that mattered.
Green is the brains behind the Connecticut Working Families Party, a coalition of labor unions and affordable housing advocates that didn't exist six years ago. Almost overnight, Green and his band of left-leaning activists have built the WFP into the most influential third party Connecticut's seen in a decade (sorry, Connecticut For Lieberman).
Not by running candidates, mind you. But by running issues. The same ones that rocketed Barack Obama to history-making stardom: universal health care, a living wage for workers, tax relief for the middle class and help for homeowners trapped by subprime mortgages.
Rather than run its own candidates, the WFP traditionally cross-endorses major-party candidates who support its agenda of workers' rights and health care for all. This year, all five candidates elected to Congress and 58 sent to the state legislature fit that bill, which meant their name appeared on the ballot twice: once on the major party line (usually Democrat) and again on the Working Families Party line.
The big winner this election year was the Democratic Party, which increased its supermajorities in the state legislature to numbers not seen since the post-Watergate era. The second-place winner might be the Working Families Party.
As Republican Gov. Jodi Rell warns of massive state service cuts to close a budget gap that's climbing into the billions, Democrats elected with the biggest mandate in a generation are pledging "unprecedented bi-partisanship." It could take the Working Families Party to remind them why they were sent to Hartford, and to keep them from caving if the governor demands cutting programs for the needy without raising taxes on the wealthy.
Numbers tell the story of the WFP's dramatic rise in 2008:
• Close to 75,000 people voted the Working Families Party line in Congressional races this year. That's around one in five.
• For the first time, WFP was on the ballot in all of the state's 169 towns, after cross-endorsing all five congressional Democrats.
• WFP canvassers logged 500 hours door-knocking for Democrat Jim Himes, who bounced New England's last Republican congressman, Chris Shays of Fairfield County.
• The Working Families Campaign Committee raised and spent $43,000 in support of candidates.
• WFP elected the first third-party registrar of voters in state history, Hartford's Urania Petit.
Can WFP translate its electoral feat into actual pull at the Capitol? Only time will tell, but the party faithful believe they already have.
Working Families didn't land on every ballot in the state this year by accident, Green says. It took a bit of legislative derring-do. Working with Democratic allies, Green shepherded through a state law in 2007 that removed the largest hurdle to the WFP becoming a real force in state politics.
Under the old state law, winning the right to cross-endorse a candidate required third parties to first run their own candidate in that district and win at least 1 percent of the vote. That took the most important races out of play, ones where a WFP candidate winning 1 percent could tip a close election to the candidate they were working against, say, someone like Chris Shays.
So Green's allies changed the law to allow third parties to win the right to cross-endorse by signature petition. Submit signed petitions equal to the number it would take to actually place your own candidate on the ballot and you win the right to cross-endorse a major party candidate in that district.
That's how WFP expanded its reach from just one congressional cross-endorsement in 2006 (Democrat Chris Murphy in the 5th district) to all five. And that's how the party could vastly expand its reach into local and state races in years to come.
Still, Green is modest about his party's gains.
"It's not much of a boast to say we're the most effective third party," Green says over coffee at Tisane. "In the grand scheme, it's relatively small. But the scale and the depth of the work is different than what other social justice organizations do, because of the ballot line."
Green and the WFP unsheathed a new secret weapon this year: the Working Families Party candidate.
Deb Noble, a party activist from Simsbury, and Cicero Booker, a retired police officer from Waterbury, ran for the legislature as WFP candidates challenging Democrats with bad records on labor and health care.
Both Noble and Booker lost. But both made trouble for candidates who otherwise would have had an easier race, and in the case of Booker's opponent, would have cruised to re-election unopposed. The prospect of losing the WFP's endorsement or facing a Working Families opponent will push incumbents to take pro-WFP positions, Green hopes.
State Democratic Party boss Nancy DiNardo isn't convinced that the WFP is swaying Democrats on anything.
"I don't know if their voters would have voted for the Democrats anyway," DiNardo says. "Right now, I don't think [they've had] a significant impact."
Of course, you never know how people would have voted. But as Working Families Party's spokesman Joe Dinkin says, "People don't vote minor party lines by accident. They do it to send a message about their values. People wanted their vote to do something, mean something, send a signal."
The proof will come in 2009, when WFP-endorsed lawmakers are thrust into the worst economic crisis the nation has seen in decades. Jon Green believes that's just the time to get something done.
"We didn't get Social Security and the minimum wage when everything was peachy," Green says. "The crisis is also an opportunity because the need for something to happen becomes more and more inescapable and undeniable."