Working Families Party picks up political steam

Friday, November 28, 2008 5:24 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

While many voters may still be unfamiliar with the Working Families Party, the small third party is celebrating after seeing a bounce in its vote totals this year.

Focusing on a strategy of cross-endorsing candidates from the major political parties, rather than running its own candidates, the party netted nearly 75,000 votes in the state’s five congressional races this year, and more than 150,000 including state and local races.

After a change in the state’s election laws last year made it easier for parties to cross-endorse candidates, a Working Families line appeared on every ballot this year. The party endorsed the Democratic candidate in each of the five congressional districts, as well as 75 candidates in races across the state.

“We’re ecstatic with the outcome,” said Jon Green, the party’s executive director.

In 2006, by contrast, Working Families endorsed a candidate, Chris Murphy, in only one congressional race, receiving about 5,800 votes. Statewide, it recorded more than 37,000 votes that year in about 70 state House races.

The party was founded in New York about 10 years ago, and came to Connecticut early in this decade. It also has chapters in Oregon and South Carolina.

The cross-endorsement system allows the Working Families Party to throw its support behind candidates who share its goals, which include raising the minimum wage, implementing affordable health care and guaranteeing workers sick and family leave. It also avoids the potential for a third-party candidate to act as a spoiler in tight races, Green said.

The cross-endorsement is why some candidates’ names appeared twice on each ballot this year — once under their own party and again under another, such as Working Families or the Independent Party, which cross-endorsed in a handful of races. Each line is tallied separately and then added together for the candidate’s total.

Working Families does run its own candidates in some races. In the last municipal election, voters chose two Working Families candidates for Hartford City Council, and this year Urania Petit won one of the Hartford registrar positions on the Working Families ticket.

But while the vote increases this year are heartening for party leaders — who hint that the numbers should make the 2010 gubernatorial candidates sit up and take notice — they and others say it can still be difficult to tell whether voters filling in the Working Families bubble would have voted for the same candidate without the cross-endorsement.

Green said that in the party’s top-priority race this year, Democrat Jim Himes’ successful challenge to Republican incumbent Christopher Shays in the 4th Congressional District, the Working Families Party focused on reaching unaffiliated voters. Volunteers knocked on 18,000 doors, concentrating on the towns of Shelton, Trumbull, Monroe and Norwalk.

While Shelton was one of the few towns in the state to vote for U.S. Sen. John McCain for president, Green noted, Himes also carried the town in his victory.

“When you look beyond Bridgeport, in the majority of the towns and districts, Himes actually did worse than (Democratic candidate) Diane Farrell had done two years ago, and among the exceptions to that trend are the four towns that our canvassing took place in,” he said. “I think the work that was done appealing to unaffiliated voters in the suburbs around Bridgeport had a measurable, clear result.”

Sal Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4 and a member of Working Families’ state committee, said he think the fact that voters have to pass over the major party candidates to vote Working Families means many are actively seeking out a third-party option.

“People went further than that, they skipped over their candidate either on the Republican line or the Democratic line and went down to the bottom and voted for that candidate on the Working Families line, so I would say that it’s harder step,” Luciano said. “I think it pulled from more people than would have voted for that person.”

John Orman, a professor of politics at Fairfield University, said that the cross-endorsement process could make small parties “look like they’re more powerful than they are.” Orman is a member of the Connecticut for Lieberman party, which U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman used to run in the 2006 Senate race after losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont. It has now become an anti-Lieberman party and organizers hope to run a candidate against Lieberman in 2012.

Orman said he thinks cross-endorsed candidates this year would have received many of the same votes without the Working Families line.

“The people that voted for the Working Families Party, they would probably vote for that person, so if there was no Working Families Party they would have voted for the cross-endorsed person,” he said. “If all they do is cross-endorse, then it’s really not a choice.”

Although Working Families tends to cross-endorse Democratic candidates, it did support a handful of Republican and independent candidates this year and in 2006. State Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said that many of his values line up with those of the Working Families Party.

“For Connecticut to survive, we need to make sure that the working person is taken care of and I think that especially in this economy you’re going to see an outreach more of the Republican party towards the working people,” he said. But he added that he does not always vote in line with the Working Families Party, for example voting against a raise in the minimum wage last year.

Fasano, who ran unopposed this year, said he thinks the Working Families line draws voters.

“I think it brings more votes to the table,” he said. “But I think the second thing is it’s nice to get recognized that, hey, look, I’m not a one-party-system guy. I believe if it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea; if it’s a bad idea, it’s a bad idea.”

Matthew Lesser, who unseated Republican incumbent state Rep. Ray Kalinowski in the 100th House District Nov. 4, was one of a few candidates whose votes on the Working Families line pushed them beyond their opponents’ vote totals. Lesser, a Democrat, received 5,704 votes on the Democratic line and 431 from Working Families voters, to Kalinowski’s 5,787 on the Republican line.

“I am a Democrat and I think of myself as a Democrat, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how much support I received on the Working Families line,” Lesser said.

But he added that he heard from some constituents who were confused about the cross-endorsement and the fact that his name appeared on the ballot twice.

“I think ideally (the Working Families Party) and the secretary of the state would just help get the word out about the cross-endorsement system,” Lesser said. “I think it’s great. I think it shakes things up, I think it enlivens the process and my guess is if the Working Families Party is successful in electing more candidates that you might see other parties trying to copy them.”

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