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Fusion's Third-Party Path to the Center

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WHEN ALAN GREENSPAN makes predictions, the political establishment listens. So eyebrows raised last month when the former Federal Reserve chairman said we may see the rise of a third party that appeals to America's "center." Though he acknowledged that our system is rigged against third parties, there is evidence Greenspan may be right. That evidence is not Ross Perot, Ralph Nader or Jesse Ventura: it's the Working Families Party (WFP), and it provides a model for centrist third-party power everywhere.

Based in New York, the WFP has become a major force in one of America's largest states. That's no small accomplishment. New York may have a liberal reputation, but it sports deep hues of both urban blue and rural red. The WFP's platform almost exclusively promotes kitchen-table economic positions, such as supporting higher wages, preventing outsourcing and expanding health care. The WFP does not focus on forcing voters to make impossible choices between minor and major parties. Instead, it takes advantage of New York being one of eight states allowing minor parties to cross-endorse major-party candidates.

In this "fusion" system, candidates appear on the ballot lines of all the parties that endorse them. The WFP, thus, leverages power by selectively awarding its line to candidates who support its agenda. So, for example, Hillary Clinton in 2000 received 102,000 votes for U.S. Senate on the WFP line, meaning 102,000 people sent her a message that their support was contingent on her supporting the WFP's agenda. According to WFP Executive Director Dan Cantor, this message gets louder down the ballot. "We brand our endorsed candidates right on the ballot so that voters who might not know the candidate still know how to vote on the important issues," he says.

In its eight-year existence, the WFP has substantially increased its vote count, meaning candidates now compete for the party's endorsement by trying to out-do opponents in supporting the WFP's agenda. The result is real third-party power -- not just aspirations. In 2004, for instance, the WFP used a strategic endorsement to get Republican lawmakers to override GOP Gov. George Pataki's veto of a minimum-wage increase. Similarly, last week the WFP successfully pressured both major parties to introduce legislation forcing businesses such as Wal-Mart to provide better benefits to workers.

Major parties usually hate third parties. But major-party, WFP-backed candidates don't because they get a boost. In 2002, for instance, Democrat Tim Bishop upset U.S. Rep. Felix Grucci, a New York Republican, by 2,700 votes. Bishop received 2,900 votes on the WFP line, meaning the WFP provided the margin of victory. That included 1,600 votes from people who simultaneously supported Bishop on the WFP line for Congress, and either Republican Pataki or right-wing billionaire Thomas Golisano for governor. These were conservative voters, who the WFP convinced to ticket-split in the race. "We're trying to help candidates win," Cantor says. "But, we're trying to help them win by defining the center as the place where common sense and progressive ideas live."

Greenspan, a conservative, probably wasn't envisioning Cantor's "center" when he made his comments. But a February WFP poll shows the public certainly sees the WFP's agenda that way. Voters in two of the most closely-decided Bush states were read a description of the WFP as a party that fights on "pocketbook" issues "like the outsourcing of jobs to other countries, the cost of prescription drugs and increasing the minimum wage." Voters then rated the party on a scale where 1 was extremely liberal and 9 extremely conservative. Fifty-seven percent of voters labeled the WFP at 5 or above.

Clearly, fusion parties can unify culturally diverse constituencies around an economically populist agenda. That's why, at the end of the 19th century, monied interests opposed to that agenda outlawed fusion parties in most states. As one industry-backed anti-fusion legislator said back then, "We don't mind fighting you one at a time, but the combination we detest."

It is this "combination" that must again be legalized everywhere if we expect to see a national, sturdy -- and yes, centrist -- third-party movement in America. If those laws aren't changed, the naysayers are correct: Third parties will likely remain locked out of power. But if those laws are reformed, the WFP shows that third parties can finally start having a serious impact.
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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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