New Party offers voters a choice

As we inch ever closer to the Democratic and Republican national conventions, it is increasingly obvious that whatever political differences that once separated the two major parties have all but disappeared.
The unspoken ideological consensus that unites the two parties is especially evident in the presidential campaign. Clinton and Dole share the same pro-big business views on the economy and trade, the same animosity toward social assistance to the poor, the same shrill rhetoric on crime, the same clap-trap about “family values” (whatever those are) and the same hostility toward campaign finance reform. Sure, Clinton cares a bit more about the needs of working people than his mean-spirited, money-grubbing counterpart from Kansas. But at bottom, both are the candidates of big money. Contrary to what some news journalists might claim, the race between Clinton and Dole is more like Coke vs. Pepsi, than liberalism vs. conservatism or left vs. right. In the end, what distinguishes them is not so much content as packaging.
If substantive disagreement and discussion about the issues is largely absent from the presidential race, it’s even harder to find in most congressional and state legislative races taking place around the country. The sad fact is that from Maine to Alaska, the vast majority of Democratic and Republican candidates for offices at all levels of government are running as “fiscal conservatives” promising to “cut spending” and “balance the budget.” The climate of opinion has become so stiflingly homogeneous that one almost welcomes the ranting of fake populists like Pat Buchanan as a change of pace. It’s enough to make people who are concerned about the social and economic justice turn their backs on the political process altogether (which might explain the steady decline in voter turnout in the United States during the past three decades).
Luckily, voters in Minnesota might not have to settle for pseudo-choices at the polls for much longer. That’s because on Saturday, Progressive Minnesota/New Party, a local political formation known for its work on the “living wage” ordinance that was narrowly defeated in St. Paul’s recent elections, held its founding state convention. In doing so, they took a crucial first step toward becoming an officially recognized minor party in the state.
Progressive Minnesota’s principles — which include support for proportional representation, expanded worker’s rights, universal single-payer health insurance, a shorter work week, and deep cuts in the military budget — stand in stark contrast to the corporate-friendly policies promoted by most politicians associated with the dominant parties. Moreover, it is working to bring together constituencies like trade unions, community organizations, environmentalists, civil rights advocates and women’s groups whose interests and issues are routinely ignored by the major parties. Although Progressive Minnesota is bent on reversing the nation’s current drift to the right, their best quality is that they are nothing if not pragmatic. They refuse to waste people’s votes, running only in races where they stand a reasonable chance of winning. And they’re willing and eager to work with progressive candidates from other parties (Democrats, Greens, Grassroots, etc.) who help advance their agenda.
Toward that end, the group has fought hard to revive “ballot fusion” or “multi-party nomination,” the practice of nominating a candidate to run simultaneously on more than one party line. Widely practiced in the 19th century but banned in most states today, fusion gives minor parties the option of nominating (and exerting influence over) like-minded yet competitive major party candidates without sacrificing political independence. And since major party candidates usually have a better chance of winning than independents, selective use of fusion can do a lot to enhance the credibility and win record of a third party that’s just starting out.
Multi-party nomination was illegal in Minnesota until January of this year when the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided a lawsuit challenging the ban in Progressive Minnesota’s favor. As a result, the 100 people who attended the group’s state convention this weekend were able to make history by nominating the first slate of fusion candidates in Minnesota since the 1890s.
At the top of its ticket, Progressive Minnesota “cross-nominated” progressive DFLer Paul Wellstone as its candidate for U.S. Senate. Rounding out the slate were DFL state Reps. Andy Dawkins and Karen Clark, and state Sens. Ellen Anderson and Sandy Pappas — all of whom have solid records of representing the interests of poor and working people. Wellstone has yet to accept the group’s nomination, but Dawkins, Clark, Anderson and Pappas have all agreed to run with the Progressive Minnesota designation. All the state legislative candidates nominated by the group have pledged to work for political reforms that will empower third parties as well as for “living wage” legislation requiring corporations who receive state subsidies to pay their employees a decent wage.
The next step for the budding party will be to collect the 30,000 signatures needed to qualify their fusion slate for ballot status. They also plan to use the July signature-gathering drive to register hundreds of voters in the inner-city districts represented by Dawkins et al. With more than 400 activist members in the metropolitan region, the group’s leaders believe the party is more than equal to the task. All of this, party leaders say, is a way of building toward 1997, when the group plans to field candidates of its own for library board, city council and school board.
Progressive Minnesota’s “start local” strategy is inspired by the electoral victories of the national New Party, a 7500-member organization with which it is affiliated. To date, New Party candidates have run in 139 races in eight states and have won 94, achieving above a 60 percent win rate. Most of the offices are local-level stuff — school board, county board, city council and mayors’ races. But New Party chapters in Wisconsin, Illinois, Montana, Maryland, New York, Washington, D.C., Arkansas and elsewhere have quickly earned a reputation for injecting energy and progressive ideas back into electoral arena. In Maryland, the New Party affiliate is leading the fight for a more equitable school system. In Wisconsin, New Party-connected Progressive Milwaukee campaigned for and won a “living wage” ordinance like the one Progressive Minnesota put on the ballot in St. Paul.
Who knows? Perhaps by the time the next presidential election rolls around, Progressive Minnesota and the New Party will have succeeded, if not in capturing a substantial number of elected offices, then at least in pulling political debate in America somewhat to the left after decades of conservative hegemony. By presenting a clear alternative to the status quo, the progressive third party is already helping to expand and clarify people’s range of political choices.
Whether Progressive Minnesota will ever become powerful enough to mount a credible campaign for president is anyone’s guess. But we can dream, can’t we?

Steve Macek’s column will appear in the Daily every other Monday.