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Tiny Working Families Party A Coalition Pushing Labor Agenda

By MARK PAZNIOKAS | Courant Staff Writer

August 04, 2008

Of the 1.9 million voters in Connecticut, only 15 are registered with the Working Families Party.

"I don't know who any of them are," said Jon Green, executive director of the party.

Is he one?

"No," he said, laughing.


What the Working Families Party does have is a progressive economic agenda and a valuable asset: its own line on every ballot in Connecticut.

The party practices fusion politics cross-endorsing supportive candidates from other parties, typically Democrats on a broad scale.

A change in state law last year eased the rules for cross-endorsements, setting up the Working Families Party as potential kingmaker in close races, such as Democrat Jim Himes' challenge of U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, R-4th District.

Himes and the state's four Democratic congressional incumbents will appear twice on the ballot this fall on the Democratic and Working Families lines.

So will about 50 state legislative candidates, including two Republicans, Sens. John Kissel of Enfield and Leonard Fasano of North Haven.

Two years ago, when Democrat Chris Murphy unseated U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-5th District, he garnered an extra 5,794 votes on the Working Families line.

That was more than Shays' 5,747 plurality.

Working Families was founded 10 years ago in New York, where fusion voting is common. After a slow start in Connecticut, the party is establishing a reputation as an important ally for Democrats.

The increasing role of Working Families in Connecticut, one of the relatively few states that allow fusion voting, provokes concern among Republicans.

"They've taken a loophole in the law and, with 15 people, they have managed to establish themselves as a fringe party whose sole purpose is to confuse voters that Democrats have support from a phantom party," said Chris Healy, the Republican state chairman.

Composition Of Party

Working Families is less of a party than a coalition of labor unions and community activists who are trying to convince politicians that support for their causes can translate into measurable votes.

Their causes include universal health care, mandatory paid sick days and a livable wage.

With its own ballot line, the party is hoping to get credit for electing progressive, pro-labor candidates, just as Ralph Nader's presence on the presidential ballot in Florida earned him blame for Al Gore's narrow loss in 2000.

Green said the party's polling shows that many of the votes on their line come from voters who could not bring themselves to vote for a Democrat or a Republican.

"It's a protest vote that actually counts," he said.

Maura Keaney, the campaign manager for Himes, said Working Families is composed of groups that are mainstream, unlike some other minor parties.

"Working Families is about coalitions," Keaney said. "The Green Party is about being on the outside, rather than forming a strong progressive coalition."

Working Families is backed by elements of major unions, including the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Art Perry, the political director of an SEIU local that represents janitors, said Working Families is a consistent voice for labor causes of great import to his members, including paid sick days.

Causes are more important than party loyalty, he said.

And that attitude is the cause of tension between the Working Families and Democrats.

Backing A Republican

Although the party tries to influence most races by cross-endorsing major party candidates, it occasionally backs a Republican.

In one race this year, it is trying to be a spoiler, fielding its own candidate in an effort to draw votes away from a Democratic incumbent.

The target is Linda Schofield, a Democrat from Simsbury who was cross-endorsed two years ago in her successful challenge of a Republican incumbent, Robert Heagney. Schofield, who won by 180 votes, got 167 votes on the Working Families line.

But Schofield, a former director of the state Medicaid program, became a voice of opposition within the Democratic caucus to a health care pooling bill that the Working Families Party favored.

She is facing a rematch with Heagney.

Green said the party decided that it would be better off with a conservative Republican sitting harmlessly with the GOP minority than an unfriendly Democrat inside the majority.

"It is a compliment," Schofield said. "They deem me as intelligent and effective, and they want to take me out."

House Majority Leader Christopher G. Donovan, D- Meriden, said the Working Families overlooked Schofield's casting a key vote in support of another labor cause: overriding Gov. M. Jodi Rell's veto of a minimum wage increase.

"She's been there when we've needed her," Donovan said.

Schofield said the Working Families Party was trying to establish a progressive litmus test, which could limit the ability of Democrats to win in Republican-leaning districts.

"I think they are trying to intimidate Democrats into being more in tune with the Working Families' left-leaning policies," Schofield said. "There is an inherent threat here, 'If you don't vote our way, we'll run someone against you.'"

Working Families sees one of its roles as forcing the large Democratic majorities in the legislature to deliver on issues. For that, Green makes no apologies.

"You have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies," Green said. "It's just about the issues."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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