Ithaca Journal: Hawkins says WFP failed to push Democrats to the left

Cuomo's rejection of Working Families ballot line a blow to the movement

By Nick Reisman
Albany Bureau
Ithaca Journal


ALBANY - Andrew Cuomo's rejection of the Working Families Party ballot line has called into question the viability of the labor-backed organization's future in electoral politics.


"Somepolitical parties are more like social movements," said Hank Sheinkopf,a Democratic Party strategist. "Their time may just have passed."


Formed in 1998, the Working Families Party was meant to push mainstream Democrats to support left-leaning policy stances favored by unions.


The party normally grants its gubernatorial ballot line to a Democrat in New York, where candidates can run on multiple lines.


But now, as the party faces a federal investigation and lacks a big name tolead its ticket in the gubernatorial election, its spot on the ballot -and its ability to encourage a leftward tilt to Democrats - could be in danger.


A political party's gubernatorial candidate must receive 50,000 votesto automatically appear on the ballot in the following election.


Not meeting the threshold forces the party to petition its way backonto ballot with 15,000 signatures. The party must also collect 100 signatures each in at least 15 Congressional districts.


In a statement,Working Families Party Executive Director Dan Cantor left open the possibility Cuomo would eventually take the line. At its recent nominating convention, the party endorsed Legal Aid lawyer Kenneth Schaeffer, a candidate widely seen as a placeholder.


"We're confident that we can get the 50,000 votes we need," said party spokesman Dan Levitan.


The party also maintains a large organizational structure and support from rank-and-file state lawmakers.


This year, however, things are particularly difficult for the Working Families Party. Its for-profit arm, Data and Field Services, is under investigation by the U.S. attorney's office for charging candidates lower-than-usual fees for its services during the 2009 New York City elections.


The party also has ties to the controversial community-organizing groupACORN and unions during a time when labor groups are experiencing declines in both membership and popularity among mainstream voters.


Cuomo's rejection comes as he pledges to reduce government spending and waste.


He has the endorsement of the Independence Party, a third party that has backed bothRepublicans and Democrats. That party is under investigation for its work for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his 2009 re-election campaign.


Getting the needed signatures is no easy task, said Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for governor.


It takes about six weeks and hundreds of volunteers to collect the signatures - valuable time in an election season.


"We can spend those six weeks campaigning and not spend those six weeksexplaining why we should be on the ballot," Hawkins said.


The last time the Green Party's gubernatorial candidate received more than 50,000 votes was in 1998, when Al Lewis - an actor best known for his role on the 1960s sitcom "The Munsters" - was the candidate.


The Green Party successfully petitioned its way on the ballot in 2002 -Lewis was again the candidate that year - and in 2006, when author Malachy McCourt ran.


Part of the problem for the WFP is the party never cultivated itself asone that was independent of Democratic Party politics, Hawkins said.


"They're supposed to push the Democrats to the left," he said. "They never threaten to take their votes anywhere else. With Cuomo rejecting the line this year, the chickens are coming home to roost."


A party without a ballot line is toothless, said Robert Ward, deputy director at the Rockefeller Institute of Public Policy.


"Once you have that automatic ballot line, it's an asset you can use to advance your agenda, if you have one," Ward said. "Without it you're really reduced to the status of an interest group."


Sometimes a party is reduced to nothing.


In 2002, Cuomo had the endorsement of the state Liberal Party and was on the November ballot for governor, but he dropped his primary bid against then-state Comptroller Carl McCall for the Democratic nomination days before primary voting.


With Cuomo out of the race but still on the ballot, the Liberal Party failed to receive the necessary 50,000 votes.


The Liberal Party has not appeared on the ballot since.


Other parties that have wilted over the years include the Right to Life Party and the Socialist Workers Party.


Still, 2010 could be a crowded field again for independent parties.


New York City Councilman Charles Barron, a Democrat, said on Friday he would form a third-party line to challenge Cuomo.


Barron decided to form theyet-to-be-named party because Democrats are running an all-white slateof candidates for statewide posts.


"To me that's a slap in the face, like a political black out for blacks in the state," Barron said.


But none of those organizations have sought to shift the priorities ofthe mainstream parties the way the Working Families or its ideological counterpart, the Conservative Party, has.


"We don't change our principles because of the time of year," said Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long when asked about his party's longevity. "We have taken endorsements away from people, we have stripped endorsements from people."


Though different in ideology, both the Working Families and the Conservatives have exerted influence on the two main parties.


"Both the Conservative Party and Working Families Party have had a big impact," Ward said. "If the Working Families Party goes away, it probably becomes easier for Democrats to move to the center and for instance, deal with budget problems the way Andrew Cuomo says he wants to deal with them."

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