The Progressive Candidate's Secret Weapon

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It’s pretty easy to get
depressed about this year’s elections. Super PAC noise is already drowning out
a lot of conversation in the presidential race, and voters on both sides are
having a hard time getting excited.

But in Oregon, things look very different. Last
week, a group called the Working Families Party led a campaign to unseat a
centrist Democrat from his post in the state house. Mike Schaufler has
represented district 48 for 10 years, and in that time has built a reputation
for siding
with the GOP
on everything from corporate taxes to environmental politics
to health care. By 2012, many voters–including the Oregonian‘s editorial board–were ready for a big change. Until very
recently, this proved difficult, what with Schaufler’s cozy relationship with big
corporate donors, like the Koch

That’s why his defeat in last
Tuesday’s primary was such a big deal, and why the Working Families Party is increasingly
a group worth watching
, says Mother
. Tellingly, the winner last week, Jeff Reardon, was everything his challenger
was not–especially when it came to raising money. To counter big donors, the
party combined old-fashioned grassroots organizing with a once-popular
electoral practice called fusion
, which is a little like instant runoff. Now in most U.S. elections,
getting votes is a zero-sum game, so third parties tend to hurt their closest competitors.
But in the handful of states where fusion voting is allowed, multiple parties
can endorse the same candidate. This means Working Families can lend its name
to a candidate from a bigger party. It also means candidates from both major parties
may want to compete over Working Families’ progressive agenda.

That’s exactly what happened
in a New York
state senate race back in 2004, reports The
. Instead of trying to convince the Democrats’ nominee, Working
Families focused on her high-ranking
GOP challenger
, Nick Spano. Well aware that Working Families had major
clout in his district, Spano agreed to the party’s most pressing demand–a
promise to raise the minimum wage. A few months later, having (narrowly) won
the election with the party’s support, Spano led a successful campaign at the
state capitol to do just that. The move was no doubt controversial, but effective,
says the Nation‘s Alyssa Katz: “By wielding the power to make or break one of its
top leaders, Working Families pushed the Republican Party to take a progressive

A century ago, fusion
voting was a lot more popular–and legal in most states. This allowed populist groups
like the People’s Party to ally with both Republicans and Democrats in state
and national races to press for voting rights, education funding, and other
issues outside the political mainstream. In 1894, an alliance of Republican and
People’s candidates took over the state
in North Carolina and sent
several Congressmen and Senators to Washington.
Two years later, the two parties controlled all statewide offices, and
introduced sweeping reforms like county home rule and badly-needed election
monitoring. The alliance even helped elect George H. White in 1896, the last
black member of Congress from a southern state until 1972.    

North Carolina was not alone. The People’s Party had grown out of
the Farmers Alliance, a much larger movement of radical farmers and co-ops that
was active in 43 states by the early 1890s. Within a decade of its start in
1891, People’s candidates unseated dozens of U.S. Congressmen and won
governorships in nine states (five by fusion voting). And while it wasn’t the
only key to populist success in the 1890s, fusion voting was a big factor. Then
as now, it allowed a third party to compete in larger races, and enter the
electoral debate in a big way. It’s that success that groups like Working
Families would like to repeat today, though the process has become a little
more complicated.

Today, fusion voting
is banned in most states–more than a dozen passed bans by 1907, and now the
list stands at more than 40. But in most places where it is allowed, Working
Families has gained a foothold. In Connecticut,
the party recently championed a law to enforce paid sick leave for all
–the first in the nation. In New
York, it helped pass a statewide green
jobs program
, among other successes.
Like People’s, Working Families has big ties to organized labor, and now, to parts
of Occupy. While Working Families can boast nowhere near the success of earlier
fusion parties, it stands out in an era of strict two-party politics and unprecedented

And interest is
growing. Fusion voting was actually banned in Oregon until 2009, when third parties and
activists made enough noise to reverse the ban. Since then Working Families has
fought for single-payer, workers’ rights, and fair trade laws in Oregon. And in another
parallel with older populism, the party has also championed a public state bank,
modeled on North Dakota’s–itself
a populist holdout of the radical farmers’ movement.

Reardon’s victory is a
big win for the party. For most of its short history, Working Families has been
an East Coast thing, so the fact that it’s now making waves out west could be
significant. But what seems even more important is the idea that third parties
could have much more of a voice in major elections. If other states follow in Oregon’s footsteps, elections
could have much more to do with issues and voters and much less to do with politics.

Sources: The
, Mother
, The
Brennan Center for Justice
, The
, North
Carolina History Project
, American Prospect.

Image by whiteafrican,
licensed under Creative

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