The Independence Party Tries a Buttoned-Down Appeal

It’s been two years since the chairman of the New York State Independence Party, Frank MacKay, cut his hair and removed his earrings. At the time, he was traveling around the country, trying to lay the groundwork for a potential presidential campaign, and he realized that he’d be taken more seriously if he looked less like the nightclub owner he had been on Long Island, and more like a political player.

In those days, New York’s Independence Party was a quirky, shoestring operation—and in many ways it still is. But now, for the first time, it’s trying to professionalize and show that it stands for something more than simply being a third-party alternative at a time when the country is sharply split.

Not surprisingly, the party’s new push is tailored perfectly to its source of newfound cash. Business groups are pouring money in, partly as a reaction to the rapid rise in influence of the pro-labor Working Families Party. Mayor Michael Bloomberg ran part of his enormously expensive reelection campaign through the party, and the Real Estate Board of New York has tentatively embraced the organization to run candidates that will be friendly to business interests.

And next month, for the first time ever, Mr. MacKay plans to hire staff: a full-time fund-raiser and an executive assistant. The highlight of Mr. MacKay’s new standing will come in early July, when he hopes to conduct a few private screenings of a 48-minute documentary showing what went right, but mostly what went wrong, with the independent presidential campaign of Ross Perot. The goal, Mr. MacKay said, is to show the film to a number of influential people (billionaires, celebrities, etc.) in the country and convince one of them to run for president in 2012.

It’s a serious undertaking for a party that has seemed, at times, less than serious.

“There’s no one in the Independence Party who’s normal,” said Frank Morano, a party state committee member from Staten Island. “Everybody is a bit eccentric, a bit odd, a bit colorful—and not in a negative way,” he said. “Mostly in a very entertaining and positive way.”

Party leadership is split into two factions, the result of a legal battle over who had the authority to allow nonmembers to run on the party’s line—arguably the most powerful tool they can offer. On one side are Mr. MacKay and his state committee, on the other side is the city organization.

The best known New York City party member is probably Lenora Fulani, who has run for president and who once made a brief alliance with conservative Pat Buchanan.

Among Ms. Fulani’s allies are Fred Newman, the founder of what is called “social therapy.” Mr. Newman is 75 and in a wheelchair, and during an interview with NY1 in 2005, he said he did not object to therapists having sexual relationships with their patients.

Mr. MacKay’s allies are only slightly less colorful. Mr. Morano, for instance, takes to writing public declarations every now and then, imploring well-known citizens to run for office—Lindsay Lohan, for example.

Another, Bob Kumar, once faked his own kidnapping (something he shares in common with Mr. Morano’s employer, radio host Curtis Sliwa).
The Independence Party has seen riches before. After Mr. Perot, billionaire Tom Golisano, who founded PAYCHEX and co-owns the Buffalo Sabres NHL team, used the party to run for governor three times.

In all three of his mayoral campaigns, Mr. Bloomberg ran on the Republican and Independence Party lines. With financing from Mr. Bloomberg, the city party printed fliers, staged rallies and manned phone banks. Mr. Bloomberg, who is not registered in any party, but has been held up as a model by the Independence Party, has not been shy about opening his wallet. He gave $1.2 million to the state party last year and $400,000 to the city organization, the party said.

(Newfound riches, of course, can come with questions. The Manhattan district attorney has begun looking into a $750,000 payment made to a firm run by consultant John Haggerty from an Independence Party account that received a $1.2 million donation from Mr. Bloomberg. Mr. Bloomberg has been unusually mum on the topic.)

“Doing the job is what [being] independent is all about,” Bloomberg said at an Independence Party rally. “It is about pragmatic problem solving, not partisan warfare.”

In addition to Mr. Bloomberg’s support, the Real Estate Board of New York has tentatively embraced the party as a way to counter the influence of the labor-backed Working Families Party, which demonstrated enormous influence in the 2009 elections.

The new plan, according to numerous executives familiar with discussions, is to dump money into a third party that can cross-endorse a set of candidates who espouse a few general beliefs that have a Reagan-esque ring to them: low taxes, fiscal restraint and limits on government regulation on issues such as rent regulation.

The backers of the effort, which is not fully formed and is still under discussion among REBNY members, see 2010 as a key year, and REBNY president Steven Spinola has said he hopes to raise $5 million.

There have been numerous meetings of the inner circle of REBNY membership about the longer-term strategy, and leaders are searching for both full-time staffers for the effort and part-time consultants. (Former Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk, for one, has interviewed as a potential consultant and made a presentation to members.) [Clarified]

Mr. MacKay bristles at the notion that his party is synonymous with any one particular industry in the business community, which is what his counterpart in the labor-backed Working Families Party, Dan Cantor, is saying. Mr. Cantor even has a nickname for Mr. MacKay’s organization: “The Landlord Party.”
Mr. MacKay doesn’t appreciate it.

“When he talks about landlords, he’s probably referring to our relationship with business groups,” Mr. MacKay said. “There are business groups all over the state that are coming to us,” he said. “The LIA is a group that we’re working with and talking with, constantly. Certainly they don’t have anything to do with landlords,” he said, referring to the Long Island Association, a business membership organization.

“We’re the party of business,” continued Mr. MacKay. “We’re proud to say we’re the party of small business. Half the jobs in New York State are created by small business, and we would love to be known as the party of small business,” he said.

But not the party of big business?

“The party of business. ‘Business’ is not a dirty word in our book. But small business are what we’re attracting,” he said.

“We’re getting a dialogue together with businesses, and we’re attracting more voters who are concerned with business and economic issues, and fiscal responsibility,” said Mr. MacKay. “And they’re looking at both major parties and not seeing that, but it’s a dialogue.”

“The Independence Party is a counterbalance to the Working Families Party,” said a real estate executive familiar with the plans. “They don’t care about social issues, they care about business issues.”

The rise of the WFP in last year’s city election has only strengthened the resolve of business groups looking for an alternative. (Mr. Bloomberg, for his part, has in the past butted heads with WFP members.)

On June 5, the party’s executive committee will hold its convention in Albany to select their nominees for statewide office. In years past, they’ve often endorsed candidates from other parties; now that they have more support, there’s an even greater chance they will be able to put up their own.

Currently, the Independence Party stands in good position to be the strongest third-party organization in New York, something they’ve never before had a shot at.

“In Frank’s case, he sees this as an opportunity to take this to that level,” said Mr. Morano. “To be more credible, not a third party, but a third major party. His desire to partner with Bloomberg, Golisano, REBNY, RSA [Rent Stabilization Association] is motivated not by anything untoward, but to see party building, to the extent that the Independence Party can be a party that competes with Republicans and Democrats.”,

The Independence Party Tries a Buttoned-Down Appeal