THE BLOG
06/10/2010 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York's Third Party Mess

For the last few weeks, city politics has been obsessed with nominating conventions. The Democrats' Cuomo coronation. The Republicans' fractious fighting. And then there were the Independence Party and Working Families and the Conservatives ...

Say what?

Every state has third parties, but in New York they are particularly important and powerful because they don't nominate their own candidates. They cross-endorse the Republicans and Democrats, under a system known as fusion voting.

New York is one of the few states in the country that allows fusion voting. Advocates say it lets voters express their support for a third party's values without having to waste their votes on a third party candidate.

So if you're a Republican who wishes the state Republican Party was more conservative, you might toss your vote for governor to Rick Lazio on the Conservative line. If you were a Democrat in 2006, you could have voted for Eliot Spitzer on the Working Families Party line if you wanted to tell Eliot to tax the rich and support the unions. (Unfortunately, there was no Keep It in Your Pants party on the ballot that year.)

That's the theory. In the real world, these parties tend to devolve into a legal extortion system - demanding patronage or financial support from the Democratic and Republican nominees in return for giving them a second, or third, or fourth line on the ballot.

The classic horrible example is the now-defunct Liberal Party, whose leader, Ray Harding, who helped Rudy Giuliani get elected mayor by giving Giuliani a ballot line for people who didn't want to vote Republican. In return, Harding managed to place two of his sons in top positions in the Giuliani administration. One wound up convicted of stealing city money, and Harding himself is now under indictment on political corruption charges.

To survive and prosper, a third party in New York needs only one thing - a gubernatorial candidate that can draw at least 50,000 votes. Get that, and the party has an automatic right to dole out its ballot line for every other state and local election for the next four years. The Liberals came to their end in 2002, when their candidate, Andrew Cuomo, ran a race so disastrous that he had to drop out before the election.

The Liberals have been replaced by the Working Families Party, which has far more of a genuine liberal agenda. Then there are the Conservatives, who are pretty much what you'd think, and the Independence Party, which imagines itself as reformist but whose only genuine unifying philosophy is election reform. Some Independence members appear to believe that if you reform elections often enough, voters will get so confused they will actually elect Independence Party members into office.

The Conservatives held their convention before the Republicans, and nominated former Congressman Rick Lazio for governor, helping to prod the big party into doing the same. Score one for the Conservatives, who appear to mainly be the friends and associates of Mike Long, a Brooklyn liquor store owner.

The Working Families Party wanted to cross-endorse Cuomo. Actually it had to cross-endorse Cuomo. Nobody else can get it the magic 50,000 votes. The party can't pick a candidate of its own because it isn't that kind of organization. It exists to endorse, and help get out the vote, and then sit back and demand things. Unless George Clooney decides to move to New York and run for governor as a third party candidate, Cuomo is the only hope.

Cuomo declined to let his name be put in nomination at the party convention because, according to a spokesman, he was concerned about "several open issues," including "an ongoing federal investigation." (Dan Cantor, the WFP's executive director, declined to discuss Cuomo's decision to leave the party hanging.)

That investigation involves the question of whether the party broke state campaign finance laws in the last city election by steering its endorsees to its for-profit election consulting company, Data and Field Services, which might allegedly have done the work at prices so low it would constitute a campaign contribution.

The party vigorously denies the charges, but it really doesn't matter. Rejecting the Working Families line would have been a good, reformist move because the whole cross-endorsement system is an invitation to corruption.

At the minimum, it allows a group of political operatives to legally shake down candidates for money. The Independence Party, which gave Michael Bloomberg a second, non-Republican line on the ballot, got more than $1 million from the mayor during the last campaign.

It would have been a great reform move, but that doesn't seem to be what Andrew has on his mind. After all, he's already accepted the endorsement of the Independence Party, which is also embroiled in a legal investigation, and which is far crazier than Working Families.

The Independence Party, which was born out of the Ross Perot movement in the 1990s, is currently divided between an upstate and a New York City faction. The New York end is run by Fred Newman, a psychotherapist who spent years as the head of the New Alliance Party, which began as Marxist, flirted with Lyndon LaRouche, and was frequently accused of being a cult centered around Newman's psychotherapy.

Chances are much better that Cuomo was trying to bully Working Families out of nominating either of their favorite candidates for attorney general, neither of whom is on Cuomo's favorites list. And it apparently worked. The party nominated unknown lawyers as placeholders, and appears ready to wait until the Democratic primary picks an attorney general nominee, hoping that Andrew will then say all is forgiven.