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David Sirota

David Sirota

Posted: September 23, 2009 10:05 AM

The Rare Political Party That Is a Movement

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a newspaper column pointing out that traditional political parties are not the same as successful political movements because they are far more loyal to their own power than any kind of ideological/legislative agenda. If I had had the space in that column, I would have put an asterisk in there, noting that there is one political party that is very clearly a successful movement -- although that party, the Working Families Party (WFP), is not at all traditional.

In my most recent book, The Uprising, I devoted a whole chapter to the formation and operation of the WFP, and how it has used fusion voting systems in New York and Connecticut (once legal in every state in the nation) to build one of the most significant instruments of raw progressive power in America. What do I mean by "raw progressive power"? Not just an ability to ram progressive tax and economic policies through one of the most dysfunctional legislatures in America, but a proven track record of winning major elections. Check out this effusive New York Times story about what happened just last week:

Young and Active, the Working Families Party Shows Muscle in the Primaries


The still relatively little-known 10-year-old party had dispatched a small army in the weeks before the primary, selling voters on its candidates in the mayoral, City Council, public advocate and comptroller races.

Organizers knocked on 227,928 doors and talked to 62,112 voters, a party official said. On Tuesday, more than 350 workers were stationed throughout the city, most working for a day rate of $100.

Their efforts resulted in the party's best electoral showing yet. In the public advocate's race, the Working Families endorsed Bill de Blasio, a city councilman from Brooklyn. Coming from behind, he forced Mark Green into a runoff on Sept. 29, even though Mr. Green was the presumed front-runner based on pre-election polls and had already held the position.

In the comptroller's race, the party backed John C. Liu, a councilman from Queens, who won 38 percent of the vote, more than any other candidate, and will face the second-place finisher, David Yassky, a Brooklyn councilman, in the runoff.

Of the four incumbent council members who were toppled, three faced challengers supported by the Working Families Party.

These are not glamorous races -- but they are where some of the most important policy is made. And that's exactly the WFP's formula -- they focus their work not on glam or celebrity politics, but on the local races where the rubber hits the road.

Just as important, they have succeeded in a crucial task for progressives: Holding Democrats accountable once we help elect them. From its inception, the Working Families Party has used the power of fusion to improve the lives of the non-wealthy -- minimum wage, reform of the racist Rockefeller drug laws, tax reform, paid sick days and a groundbreaking green jobs bill, to name just a few.

What they have done on the state level in New York and now Connecticut has real lessons for the rest of us.

We need to hold the president and congressional Democrats accountable to the people who elected him. Whether it is the fight for real universal health care or reforming the broken financial regulatory system, progressives have learned the hard way that electing Democrats is not enough. We have to work just as hard -- and be just as strategic -- about what happens after they win.

It might be tempting to think of the Working Families Party's fusion model as an anomaly that's only real in New York. But that would be wrong. Connecticut Working Families is thriving, and there are WFP's a-forming in the two other states where "fusion" voting remains legal (South Carolina and Delaware). And just two months ago, the Oregon legislature passed a law re-legalizing fusion in that state -- the first time in nearly 100 years that any state has reinstated this voting system.

For years, liberal funders -- like the millionaires and billionaires who control the Democracy Alliance -- have put too much money and effort into electing Democrats, and not nearly enough into strategies that can actually shift the Democratic Party in a progressive direction. The good news is that operations like Act Blue, Firedoglake, the Accountability Project and, yes, OpenLeft are working to change the progressive funding model, as are groups like WFP themselves.

And that really is the key: The more groups like the WFP build capacity, the more likely we are to see significant legislative and political results. Indeed, the WFP -- despite flying under the radar and not getting lots of big D.C. headlines -- is perhaps today's most encouraging model for achieving those results over the long haul. You don't have to look at its successes to know that - you just have to look at the intensifying vitriol being aimed at it by the right-wing. The fact that Big Money Republicans and Rupert Murdoch's media machine are now constantly railing on the WFP and trying to manufacture controversies about it shows how frightened the political establishment is of genuine progressive power.