The New Party held its first national leandership conference in Sep 1994, with 150 party members from 12 states in attendance. The party, which is made up largely of progressives, is taking its cue from the religious right and building its political base at the local levels.
Don’t get them wrong, but New Party members have a healthy respect for the Christian Coalition. It’s not that the labor union and community activists who form the left-leaning New Party’s core admire the government-bashing or the antigay rhetoric generated by evangelist Pat Robertson’s favorite political vehicle. But as Ellie Greenwood, New Party member from Missoula, Montana, says, “We’ve learned from the religious right that there are certain entry points into the system.” One of more than 150 party activists from twelve states who gathered here over the weekend of September 23-25 for the New Party’s first national leadership conference, Greenwood says “our job is to get progressives on the map in the way that the religious right has gotten itself on the map. The difference, of course, is that we have better ideas than they do about where America should be heading.”
Like the Christian Coalition, me New Party has adopted a “local first” strategy, which emphasizes building from the grass roots. “Traditionally, when progressives have tried to build parties, they have started by running someone for President,” explained New Party national organizer Dan Cantor. “Of course we want to be a national party with the power to shape the country. But we know we have to start with school board races and city council races.”
New Party activists are convinced that their group, with its multiracial membership and support from progressive unionists, will eventually have a far greater impact than the Christian Coalition. “Republicans are moving to the hard right, Democrats are occupying the extreme center,” says Cantor. “There’s a real vacuum. American populism can go sour, or it can go progressive. We’re building the progressive alternative.” The failure of the Democratic Party to distinguish itself boldly from the ever more conservative Republicans remains a prime motivator for a great many of the New Party’s 3,500 members.
“We are here because the Democratic Party is bankrupt,” Jim Cavanaugh, president of Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor, told the conference. Cavanaugh was one of a number of union officials and neighborhood activists in attendance. Organizers made no bones about the fact that this is a base they have sought.
“We like unions. We like community organizations,” declared Joel Rogers, chairman of the party’s interim executive council. “We intend to use government to support those things and we’re not embarrassed to say it.” That sort of talk may be uncommon at a time when attacking government is the rage. But it has struck a chord and made the New Party what many believe to be the most successful progressive third-party initiative since the 1930s.
Since its founding a little more than two years ago [see Sandy Pope and Joel Rogers, “Out With the Old Politics, In With the New Party,” July 20/27, 1992], New Party-backed candidates have won school board, city council, county board and state legislative posts–a total of thirty-nine of the fifty-nine races in which they have run. Party leaders expect to add significantly to that total in this fall’s elections, and with term limits opening up thousands of positions around the country in the next several years, they see many opportunities.
The party’s greatest strength is in Wisconsin, where at least twenty candidates backed by local branches of the New Party-affiliated New Progressive Party have been elected to city council, county board and school board seats in Madison and Milwaukee. Other bases of New Party strength are more surprising. For instance, four of the twelve members of the Missoula, Montana, city council are either New Party members or candidates who won with its support. In Little Rock and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, New Party-backed candidates have been elected to school board seats, and this fall New Party-supported candidates are expected to win a Little Rock city board seat and an Arkansas state legislative seat. Most New Party victories have come in nonpartisan races. But there have also been victories in Democratic primaries by socalled “New Party Democrats.”
A critical component of the New Party is its willingness–and ability–both to back progressive Democrats and to mount third-party challenges. “It’s important to have that flexibility,” Cantor explained. “We want to be able to run in Democratic primaries, but we also want to be able to run on our own.” Currently, only ten states allow candidates to “fuse” their votes from two different party lines, an option the New Party hopes to expand. If more states allow fusion voting, then New Party affiliates could use their ballot lines to run their own candidates and to endorse progressive Democrats–thus avoiding the “spoiler” image that haunts third parties.
While the conference dealt with big-ticket issues such as creating programs to promote sustainable development and redevelopment of urban areas, it also devoted a significant amount of time to the problems facing local school boards. New Party activists see school board elections as a key battleground in shaping the nation’s course. They also believe that they provide a vehicle to build the party organization and to form coalitions.
“There’s nothing people care more about than their kids and how they are educated,” says Cantor. “Obviously, the Christian right agrees. They’re organizing all over the place for school board elections. What we’re talking about is getting in there and beating them.”