When the Working Families party first asked Luis Cotto to run for Hartford city council, Cotto's response was concise.
"I'm not a politician, so I said, 'No, thank you,'" Cotto recalled last month.
But as Cotto observed the state of affairs in Hartford, he said he realized he had to change his answer.
On Nov. 6, he and another candidate became the first members of the Working Families party elected to Hartford's city council. The two are the only members of the party to successfully run for local office statewide. Across the state, though, 13 candidates that the party cross-endorsed were elected.
The party hopes its success is a harbinger of future influence in the Land of Steady Habits.
Working Families obtained "minor party" status in every race in which it endorsed or cross-endorsed candidates because those candidates received at least 1 percent of the vote. Thanks to a new law, Working Families — and any other minor party that met the 1 percent benchmark — can endorse local candidates in successful districts in 2009 without having to first petition them onto the ballot.
The party fielded its own candidates in Hartford's race for city council and cross-endorsed candidates from the Democratic Party for seats in New Britain, Norwalk and Waterbury. In Bristol and Bridgeport, the party's own candidates were unsuccessful but received enough votes to win minor party status.
Jon Green, Working Families director, said his party is still small but is growing and becoming increasingly effective at running campaigns and cross-endorsing candidates. The party plans to play a major role in politics in Hartford, New Britain and Norwalk, where it cross-endorsed seven successful candidates.
"I think it means that there are a number of places where, at the local level, we now have a much stronger voice to advocate for issues that are important to working class folks," he said. "We know that there will be people in the state legislature looking to work with us as partners both on issues and in future elections."
Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz said Working Families is the only minor party she knows of that took advantage of the law during the municipal elections Nov. 6. The legislation, she said, gives voters more choices by expanding the political field in a state where 44 percent of registered voters are unaffiliated.
"We find that the more parties that field candidates and the more parties that are active, the better the voter turnout and the more choices voters have," Bysiewicz said.
It was the first time the party had provided a margin of victory in some of the races in which it participated, Green said. He said the party's influence was felt most in New Britain, where Greg Gerratana won a common council seat by 22 votes.
Gerratana, a cross-endorsed Democrat who now represents the first ward, agreed that Working Families helped him, but only to a degree. Gerratana said people who voted for him on the Working Families line would have voted for him even if he had appeared on the ballot only as a Democrat.
But "being a student of political science, you can see that whenever you're cross endorsed, it improves your chance of winning," he said.
Receiving the Working Families party seal of approval meant that voters who saw Gerratana's name associated him with the minor party's goals: affordable health care and advocating living wage ordinances, among other things.
But being cross endorsed provided Gerratana and candidates like him with a more tangible benefit: boots on the ground. The party went door-to-door to spread its message and win political seats, sent out campaign mailers and spoke with potential voters over the phone.
In Hartford, Cotto said, the atmosphere was overwhelming. He hopes the excitement will continue to build.
"It's so important that people get out of the two-party mentality," he said. "We hope that ... these two candidates that we have here in Hartford are just the beginning."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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