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Inside Agitators

The Working Families Party is making serious inroads into the Liberal Party base, which could have an impact on the Democrats' chances in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

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In 1991, Dan Cantor called me up and made the following immodest claim. "We're starting a new political party," he said. "One day, it's gonna change New York politics. I want to tell you about it."

Then, it was a rump confederation of various liberal-leftish activists calling itself the New Party, a name I always liked for its future potential as a quaintly interesting anachronism (after all, we live in 340-year-old "New" York, right?). But by 1997, the New Party had fizzled. Cantor hooked up with some other activists to try again. This time, they put their heads together, and I suppose did some polling, and decided they needed a name that delivered some idea of what they stood for (e.g., living wage, minimum wage, health care for poor people, federal dollars out of Washington). They amassed some institutional -- that is, union -- backing. They became the Working Families Party.

Eleven years later, Cantor's prophecy might come true. One of the WFP's long-held goals has been to become the small-l liberal alternative to the big-L Liberal Party -- the domain, lo these many years, of the sui generis Ray Harding, New York's last political boss. The gubernatorial election will take place on November 5. And it's possible that when the cockerel crows on November 6, one of these parties will find its power enhanced, and the other will cease to exist.

I'll explain.

First, the law, and some background. A group becomes an official political party in this state, with its own ballot line, when its candidate for governor receives 50,000 votes, a feat the group must repeat every four years to continue being an official party. The Liberal Party first accomplished this in 1946. The WFP first did so in the last gubernatorial election, 1998, when it endorsed Democratic nominee Peter Vallone, spent seven weeks rustling up votes everywhere it could, and -- after several fitful days of waiting for the absentee votes and the paper ballots to come in -- delivered Vallone exactly 51,325 votes. The WFP finished eighth out of eight, earning the last row on the ballot, Row H.

Since then, things have improved. Both the WFP and the LP gave Hillary Clinton their lines in 2000 -- minor parties typically cross-endorse the major-party candidates, though they sometimes run their own people -- and while she drew 80,000 votes on the Liberal line, the WFP delivered her more than 100,000. Last March, in a special election for the Suffolk County Legislature, the WFP backed the Democrat and produced a result that is the minor-party cadre's fantasy: The 210 votes William Lindsay got on the WFP line provided his margin of victory. For a small party, that means leverage, which the WFP converted into the passage of living-wage legislation in Suffolk.

This last point -- an electoral result leading to a policy result -- is what makes the WFP unique. Most minor-party leaders want two things: patronage for a few of their people and a commitment from the candidate they back to hold the line on a few litmus-test issues. "American politics is totally candidate-centered," Cantor says. "We want to be values-centered. We're more ideological."

This notion that a party should be more about its ideas than its stars is a European thing, really; the WFP is, literally, the labor party (its main backers are the communication and auto-workers unions, and health-care workers, along with acorn, the housing-and-poverty-advocacy group).Strangely enough, pols and voters are listening. "They're having impact," says Brooklyn councilman Bill DeBlasio. "When they call a meeting now, people go." Adds West Side councilwoman Gale Brewer: "They're organized, they have good briefing papers, and the meeting starts on time." On the left, these conditions could not always be taken for granted.

Of course, when things gain power, they also gain critics. Some of the state's major labor leaders regard the WFP as an upstart nuisance, even if they won't say so on the record. Last month, the WFP angered one of its most committed members, Staten Island transit-union leader Larry Hanley, by backing a conservative Democrat in a special State Assembly election. In the process, the party overturned the endorsement recommendation of a local committee that Hanley headed. Hanley feels betrayed. "I had all these friends for four years," he says, "and lo and behold, they turn around and give me a royal screwing."

Cantor counters that the candidate the party ultimately backed, Jimmy Hart, was the only one with a chance of winning, and "if he had won, and we'd been the margin, it would have been very valuable for the party as a whole." Such intramurals may simply be growing pains, or they may be symptomatic of a deeper problem -- that as the party rises in influence, it will become so hungry for big labor's money and approval that it will lose the very independence that has been its most appealing trait.

Back to the governor's race. The liberal Party will probably endorse Andrew Cuomo. Carl McCall is clearly making a heavy play for the WFP. However, local tea-leaf readers note that the communication workers, a major WFP constituent, just endorsed Cuomo, so the WFP's intentions aren't easy to divine.

If both parties back the same Democrat, will there be enough faithful voters around the state for that candidate to get 50,000 votes on both lines? Hillary did, but there was a consensus behind her candidacy among liberal activists, which might not be the case for this year's Democratic gubernatorial nominee if the primary is fractious (besides, 2000 was a presidential-election year, and more people voted). If they back different Democrats, then the party whose candidate loses the primary will be forced to persuade people to vote for its nominee anyway, even though such votes will diminish the Democratic nominee's chance of beating George Pataki.

How do you choose? When do you choose? Do you go out on a limb for one or the other early? If you do, and he wins, he'll owe you more (but if you do and he loses . . .). Or do you go with a placeholder candidate at first, then dump him or her after the primary and hand your line over to the Democratic nominee? That's the safer strategy, but then the candidate knows you weren't really with him, and he doesn't come to your rallies and fund-raisers. It's one of the great games of chicken, really, in all of American politics.

Ray Harding has always had to make these calculations, and he does so with exceeding cleverness. But until now, he's never had to make them with another party breathing down his neck. Now, small-l liberal voters who prefer voting on a minor-party line have an alternative to the Libs.

Harding will not be easily outfoxed (there is a school of thought afoot that he could end up with Pataki). He is well aware of the WFP volleys aimed at his capacious person, but he refuses to return serve. "Let them find a niche, and good luck to them," he says. "I shrug my shoulders when I read these pejorative statements."

Dan Cantor will never be Ray Harding. He's not Falstaffian; he's not a sardonic quipster. When I ask him to tell me interesting things about himself, the best he can offer is that he loves the Band. It's mathematically impossible for any human being to love the Band more than I do, but that's not exactly a fascinating personal tidbit.

He can't be as interesting as Ray. But by November, he could be more powerful.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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