Working Families Party Supports Progressives Where They Find Them

By Nate Pedersen

The Working Families Party (WFP) began in New York under the simple and effective premise that in order to bring progressive change, you need to win elections. Therefore, instead of running as a traditional third party, the WFP mostly endorses progressive members of the major parties. This process, called “fusion voting” is legal in about a dozen states, but only really active in two: New York and Connecticut.

I recently exchanged a phone interview with Dan Levitan, the party’s spokesman in New York:

Could you run me through how fusion voting works?

Fusion voting used to be very common across the United States in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century but then Republicans started to outlaw it, basically because it’s really effective. The theory here is that a candidate can run for an office and be endorsed by more than one party. So in New York you’ve got candidates who are both Democrats and endorsed by the WFP. What that lets us do is have a third party which has a distinct set of policies and goals but can actually win … And we win a lot. New York is definitely a Democratic state and by putting the progressive Democrats in a bunch we’re able to influence Democratic primaries and help elect Democrats we like to office. Fusion voting gives progressives a way to make the Democratic Party more progressive and have a distinct independent institution that can actually be quite relevant.

Which states allow fusion voting?

A dozen states still permit it legally, but there are only a couple states where it’s an active part of the political culture. Right now, that’s New York and Connecticut … We are, however, trying to replicate the model elsewhere. In Oregon, they just passed a bill to legalize fusion-voting which is a big victory … [and] you should definitely expect some activity there. We’re also active in a couple states where fusion voting is legal, but hasn’t been used in awhile: Delaware and South Carolina.

Do you ever endorse Republicans?

Sure, in New York there still exists some remnants of the liberal wing of the Republican party. People who are pretty good on economic justice issues, which is hard to believe considering the direction taken by the national party, but here in New York there are some of the so called “labor Republicans” and there are races where they are actually the best candidate in the state. We’ve had no problem in the past bucking the Democrats when we thought the better person was the Republican. It’s not that common though.

Do ever run candidates exclusively under your own banner?

It happens from time to time, especially when we feel like the Democrat and the Republican in the race are both candidates we just can’t support … and we think we have a reason to believe we can actually win the race, which is very hard to do for a third party, although we’ve done it ... Tactically, it’s much better to put a progressive in the Democratic primary and support them there rather than to run on our line alone.

How would you characterize your relationship with the major parties?

The Republicans hate us and see us as having played a big role in the Democrats taking over the state … Progressives in the Democratic party think we’re incredibly important in passing progressive legislation and making sure the Democrats stay true to their word. Holding people accountable though, means you have to poke them a bit when they do the wrong thing, so sometimes, you know, they’re not too happy with us, but for the most part it’s actually pretty good.

How about the third parties?

We’ve got nothing against them, like the Green Party here in New York has a different strategy than we do and that’s okay. We think that this is the way [fusion voting] that progressives can actually wield power. We’re not that interested in speaking truth to power and losing. We think if you really want to improve people’s lives, if you really want to make change, you’ve got to have a strategy that includes actually winning. So that’s our take and other people are more purist and we respect that, even though we disagree.

What are the party’s goals over the next 5-10 years?

A couple of things: We want to expand the model to other states…. We want to continue to elect progressives to Albany who will actually make stuff happen and that’s a big challenge … We want to see Obama win the health care fight and we’re very actively working to make sure the New York State Democratic delegation is with him strongly and not with the centrists who are trying to water down reform … And we’ll continue to look for opportunities to expand progressive legislation.

Nate Pedersen is a Minnesota native, Wisconsin-educated librarian now living in Scotland. See See

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2009

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