Will Spitzer Shun Independence Party?

article bruder Will Spitzer Shun Independence Party?As
a rising tide of controversy engulfs Lenora Fulani, perennial nominee of the Independence Party, candidates seeking the party’s nod for state and local office face an increasingly awkward courtship.

Ms.
Fulani, who recently refused to repudiate her statement from the 1980’s calling Jews “mass murderers of people of color,” is now being investigated for child abuse by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The result is a game of electoral Twister, with politicians contorting themselves into precarious poses, trying to woo the party and boo Ms. Fulani, all at the same time. As party games go, it’s a tough one to play, and the pressure is mounting for major politicians to abandon it altogether.

Take
Mr. Spitzer, who ran for his current office in 2002 on both the Democratic and Independence Party tickets.

“When
Ms. Fulani said the things that she said recently, people came to Eliot saying, ‘You accepted the Independence Party line in the past. Will you accept it again the next time around?” said Darren Dopp, a spokesman for Mr. Spitzer, in an interview last week. “If she is indeed in a leadership role and viewed as a top leader in the party, Mr. Spitzer would not accept the line,” he added firmly.

For
some political observers, however, Mr. Dopp’s words rang hollow. “You have to be kidding me: ‘If she’s a leader of the party’?” said Doug Muzzio, a political-science professor at Baruch College. “I mean, come on! The heat’s getting hotter, and now they’re retreating to ‘If she’s a leader of the party’?
Talk about circumlocution. It’s like ‘If a bear shits in the woods and the Pope is Catholic.’”

Not
surprisingly, Ms. Fulani, a member of the Independence Party’s state executive committee, feels differently. “It isn’t about me,” she countered, arguing against what has become her de facto role: the big lightning rod atop a small party. “I think that politicians make moves during the political season that they think will get them five more votes, and generally that’s unfortunate for the people of the city.”

When
it comes to getting votes, however, the Independence Party offers a powerful lure. As the third-largest party in the state, the Independence Party holds Row C on the state’s ballots and offers a powerful insurance policy for politicians who have already signed on with one of the two major parties. Throughout its unconventional history, the Independence Party has sheltered beneath its wings an unlikely assortment of candidates, from Ralph Nader to Pat Buchanan, opening itself up to courtship by politicians who hold widely divergent—and often seemingly incompatible—ideologies.

In
the 2001 Mayoral elections, the Independence Party delivered 59,000 votes to Michael Bloomberg, providing his narrow margin of victory over Mark Green in a tight race. Perhaps hoping for a repeat performance, the Mayor has accepted an Independence Party endorsement for his re-election bid this year. And though Mr. Bloomberg has publicly denounced Ms. Fulani’s remarks, his administration continues to look after her interests.

Two
weeks ago, the All Stars Project—a nonprofit youth organization run by Ms.
Fulani that has ties to the Independence Party—was awarded a $215,000 grant from the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development to start a new after-school program for high-school kids. The grant was the most recent in a series of City Hall windfalls for Ms.
Fulani and her party. Last year, Mr. Bloomberg donated $250,000 of his own money to the Independence Party. After he took City Hall in 2001, Mr.
Bloomberg
campaigned heavily, albeit unsuccessfully, for nonpartisan elections, a strategy that was widely viewed as a love letter—or at least a thank-you note—to the Independence Party. What’s more, the city approved an $8.5 million tax-exempt bond in 2002 so the All Stars Project could finance the construction of a theater and headquarters complex on 42nd Street.

“By
virtue of this Mayor’s relationship, the party has grown stronger and stronger and stronger—by virtue of those resources that he has provided, either through his own personal wealth or the largesse of the public till,” lamented City Councilman Bill Perkins, a Democrat who is running for Manhattan Borough President. “The patronage that has flowed to them obviously is in return for what they have done for him,” he added. “And that patronage has obviously made them stronger and stronger and given them even greater credibility.”

Other
Council members have taken a stance opposite the Mayor, refusing to dissociate Ms. Fulani’s remarks from Independence Party endorsements. “As a Jew and an Anti-Defamation League regional board member, I find these comments to be offensive and anti-Semitic. It is unfortunate that these comments have become synonymous with the Independence Party,” said Eva Moskowitz, a Democratic Councilwoman who also is running for Manhattan Borough President. Though she had run on the Independence Party line in the past, Ms. Moskowitz said that she wouldn’t seek the group’s endorsement in this year’s race.

Last
month, City Councilman Lew Fidler, a Democrat, introduced a resolution, buoyed by two dozen co-sponsors, condemning Ms. Fulani’s remarks and “[urging] all public servants of good conscience to dissociate themselves from any public or political endeavors with which she may be integrally involved.” Despite the threat of a lawsuit from Harry Kresky, an Independence Party attorney, Mr.
Fidler hopes that the bill will be addressed in a hearing this summer and approved before the fall primaries.

Manhattan
Borough President and Mayoral hopeful C. Virginia Fields added to the discordant chorus last week, calling on the Mayor to investigate a recent charge that Ms. Fulani was verbally and emotionally abusive to children during an All Stars session last year. “If the accusations regarding the abuse of children have merit,” she said in a strongly worded statement, “Bloomberg must sever his ties with Ms. Fulani and withdraw all city funding provided to Fulani for the All Stars Project.”

Washing
Hands?

Joel
Levy, the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, proposed that the Independence Party might atone for Ms. Fulani’s offense by washing its hands of extremist entanglements. “I think that the Independence Party needs to itself reject the unacceptable views of Lenora Fulani,” he said. “People in any political party have a responsibility to be sure that its leaders stand for views that they support. And I believe that the Independence Party membership doesn’t support anti-Semitism.”

In
an interview on July 5, Ms. Fulani said that none of her Independence Party colleagues have pressed her to withdraw her inflammatory comments, despite the potential for collateral damage to the party.

Currently,
Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Spitzer and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer are the most influential New York politicians who have appeared on the Independence ticket.
It’s still possible, however, that the State Attorney General will keep his promise to shun the party if Ms. Fulani stays in power. In time, it’s possible that such a move would create a domino effect and spread across the political landscape.

“How
long can it last? Until somebody of major note stands up and says no, it will go on,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant. He added that, regardless of how the Independence Party fares, New York politicians will keep seeking extra ballot lines. A flight of candidates from the Independence Party could favor the Working Families Party or the Conservative Party. In some circles, rumors of a revived Liberal Party have been rumbling, but it’s late in the day for Mr. Bloomberg to attempt that kind of alchemy. Depending on what news surfaces over the next few months, he could end up wishing that he’d tried it, or at least cast his lot with someone other than Ms. Fulani.

“If
more revelations come out on her, everybody is going to run as if it were a plague, because they can’t afford to alienate the Jews and others,”
concluded
Mr. Sheinkopf. “I don’t think it can take much more heat. It will become a wedge issue.”