Is Party Over For Working Families Before It Starts?

Just a few days after the Boss of Brooklyn, Clarence Norman, put on a three-piece suit and surrendered to the District Attorney on corruption charges, another Brooklyn boss could be seen in a windbreaker and sneakers, passing out flyers at the Prospect Park Green Market.

Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party, has been handing out flyers for much of his 48 years-“George McGovern ’72!” “Jackson ’88!” “No More Aid for the Contras!”-and he’s good at it, showing passersby a little smile beneath his beard to assure them he’s not a fanatic. “The tricky thing is if they have both hands full,” he confided, his brown hair a just-out-of-bed mohawk. “Then you’ve got to see if there’s room in the bag.”

But after a lifetime of working on mostly lost causes, Mr. Cantor stands to win one on Election Day, Nov. 4. For most politicians, it’s an insignificant off-year election, but the stakes for the labor-backed Working Families Party couldn’t be higher. It could win a historic victory, or perhaps lose its strengthening grip on municipal politics.

The party has a clear shot at electing a City Council member in Fort Greene, something no minor party has done since the 1970’s. The party is also running its own slate of judges for State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Victory in either race would enhance the party’s reputation as the successor to the storied Liberal Party, which finally collapsed last year after half a century of influence. It also would propel Mr. Cantor into the shoes of the Liberal Party’s legendary power broker, Alex Rose.

“This is huge,” Mr. Cantor said. “We’re going to win this one.”

But the party also faces a serious and perhaps mortal threat: Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s referendum on nonpartisan municipal elections. Under the proposal, third parties like Working Families would lose their most valuable piece of leverage, their ballot line, for all municipal elections. “The Mayor is aiming a Scud missile at us,” the party’s leaders wrote in a recent e-mail to members.

A political consultant, Hank Sheinkopf, summed up the party’s predicament more bluntly. “If nonpartisan passes, they’re worthless,” he said.

The threat to third parties like Working Families and the Conservatives is an unintended consequence of Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal, which is aimed at ending the influence of Democratic Party primaries. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city like New York, elections are generally decided in the party’s primary-if there is one. If not, the winning candidate emerges not from the ballot box, but from the county Democratic Party convention.

Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal would do away with party lines altogether, putting an unlimited number of candidates from each party together in an open primary.

Under the current system, parties win a permanent ballot line by getting 50,000 votes on their line in a Governor’s race.

Third parties in New York accumulate power far beyond their numbers by cross-endorsing major-party candidates, often providing them with their margin of victory. Republicans like Alfonse D’Amato and George Pataki initially won thanks to the votes they received on the Conservative Party line. Rudolph Giuliani defeated David Dinkins in 1993 with the help of the Liberal Party line. Often, third parties allow voters to support a mainstream candidate while still sending an ideological message.

For decades, the Liberal Party was the state’s most dominant minor party. Founded in 1944 by anti-Communist labor leaders in the American Labor Party-garment workers’ leader David Dubinsky and Alex Rose, the chief of the hatmakers’ union-the party liked to say it kept “Republicans liberal and Democrats honest.” Rose’s most celebrated coup came in 1969, when he helped Republican Mayor Lindsay win re-election on the Liberal Party line alone after Lindsay lost a Republican Party primary to John Marchi of Staten Island. But by the 1990’s, the Liberals’ mission seemed exhausted. Its boss, lawyer Raymond Harding, got his sons jobs with the Giuliani administration and became a prominent city lobbyist.

The Working Families Party was founded in 1998 by liberal Democrats trying to salvage some good from Peter Vallone’s hopeless challenge to Mr. Pataki. Mr. Vallone lost, but 51,325 of his supporters voted for him on the new party’s line, pushing working class families past the 50,000 vote minimum they needed for official recognition. The party survived to see the Liberals fall apart.

Mr. Cantor and his allies, like former Mayor David Dinkins, worked hard to crush the Liberal Party during last year’s gubernatorial campaign. They persuaded City Comptroller H. Carl McCall, the eventual Democratic nominee, to snub the Liberals. That maneuver forced the Liberals to put Andrew Cuomo on their line, a move that ended in disaster when Mr. Cuomo aborted his candidacy a week before the Democratic Party primary. The Liberal Party was left with a candidate who was no longer running a campaign and, as a result, fell far below the 50,000 votes necessary to win an automatic spot on the ballot.

Now the Working Families Party hopes to fill the void left by the Liberals.

“They are clearly the new Liberal Party,” said Michael Long, state chairman of the Conservative Party, in a grudging piece of praise. “I don’t agree with what the Working Families stands for, but from their standpoint they see it as a vision, as many conservatives see what they’re trying to accomplish from a visionary point of view-that philosophy is worth fighting for. If one is true to their philosophy, I think you develop a following, you develop a hard-core group of followers, and you can stay in business.”

Like Mr. Long, Mr. Cantor and his allies have discovered a balance between ideology and pragmatic power politics. Mr. Cantor is one of a triumvirate steering the party’s New York City operations. Another co-chair is Bob Master, the political director of the Communications Workers of America, one of several unions that provide most of the roughly $1 million annual budget for a party with just 19,000 registered members. Mr. Master and Mr. Cantor went to Hebrew school and high school together in Levittown, Long Island, and both now live in Park Slope.

The party’s third visible leader is Bertha Lewis, the executive director of ACORN, a community-organizing group with political aspirations and roots in Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods. It was another ACORN official, John Kest, who brought the party together in 1998 from the remnants of the liberal New Party and several unions. But Ms. Lewis, a familiar figure around City Hall in her brightly colored robes and dangly earrings, is the party’s loudest public voice and, chagrined politicians say, its chief enforcer. “She’s probably yelled at every elected Democrat in this town,” said one official.

“It really kind of boggles my mind, how far we’ve come,” Ms. Lewis said.

Council Clout

So who are these people, still unknown to most New Yorkers, who hope to move city and state politics to the left? Their base of strength is the City Council, where 33 of 51 members are running on the Working Families line this year. There, the party has pushed through legislation on issues like this year’s living-wage law, which guaranteed a $10-per-hour minimum wage to some city workers.

“It has made the Council more progressive,” said a West Side Council member, Gale Brewer.

The party played a key role in pushing the Council to impose tax hikes, like the controversial 18 percent increase in the city property tax, to help close the city’s budget deficits. “The W.F.P. was an active force pushing the Council in that direction,” said Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky.

The party owes much of its clout to its close relationship with powerful labor unions. Local 1199 of the health-care workers’ union recently became the Working Families Party’s biggest financier, contributing more than $100,000 already this year, according to public records. The union backing, however, can be a source of weakness as well as strength: The unions can be used to jerk the party’s chain if it steps too far out of line.

“When they get too pain-in-the-ass about something, we have to deal with their bread and butter, which is the labor folks,” said an aide to one elected official, who was nonetheless concerned enough about the party’s influence to ask that neither his name nor his employer’s be used.

Now the party has a chance to consolidate its influence in the City Council by electing a member on its own line. The vehicle for this ambition is Letitia James, a statuesque lawyer and career Democratic operative whose selection reveals more about the party’s pragmatism than its ideals.

Ms. James is challenging Fort Greene’s sentimental favorite, Geoffrey Davis, the brother of slain Councilman James Davis. Her campaign has some of the trappings of an “outsider” run-most of all, the fact that she switched her registration to the Working Families Party-but Ms. James is anything but an outsider: She has close ties to the embattled Democratic Party leader, Mr. Norman, and has worked for Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green.

So Ms. James stood on the steps of City Hall in a light drizzle one recent Sunday, surrounded by a chanting crowd of so-called “Men for Tish.” They had a familiar look to them, a cross-section of the neighborhood’s Democratic establishment, from district leaders to officials like Mr. Green and Congressman Major Owens.

“I hope this rain is a sign that the Lord will rain blessings on us,” Ms. James told a small, nonplused group of reporters. Then she and Mr. Green found themselves dodging questions about Mr. Norman’s indictment. “I’m not here to talk about anything other than my campaign,” she said.

It was a far cry from Mr. Cantor’s appearance at the Prospect Park Green Market the day before. There, he approached shoppers with lines like “Have you heard about the corruption in the Brooklyn court system?” and “Help clean up the courts” for his slate of reform judges.

But Mr. Cantor shouldn’t be mistaken for a reformer. “We’re not trying to pick a fight with Clarence Norman,” he said. Indeed, Mr. Cantor isn’t trying to do away with political machines: he’s trying to build one of his own.

“Is there something innately wrong with a machine? It depends what a machine is for,” he mused recently. “We’d like to build a competent machine, as it were, so that we can advance a set of values in public life.”

Given those values-higher taxes, better services, stronger unions-it was something of a surprise when Mr. Cantor stopped a reporter on his way out the door to hand him a book about Barry Goldwater. The book is Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein’s 2001 look at how the failed 1964 Goldwater campaign spawned a political revolution. Mr. Cantor, it seems, takes a long view.

“Thanks also to my friends at the Working Families Party,” reads the book’s acknowledgment page. “Knock wood, a book like this will be written about them thirty-five years from now.” Is Party Over For Working Families Before It Starts?