Political Party Of Outsiders Has Come In From the Cold

Political Party Of Outsiders Has Come In From the Cold
Diane Hardwell

Long dismissed as a ragtag collection of outsiders, a psychosocial cult or worse, the Independence Party is suddenly poised to become a potent force in New York politics.

Despite its associations with eccentric, controversial and wildly divergent public figures, the party has maneuvered itself into positions of influence in both the governor’s race and on the city’s Charter Revision Commission.

And that, political analysts say, is something of a neat trick, given that the party, an amalgam of Reform refugees, New Alliance converts and a host of others frustrated with conventional politics, is not really a party in the traditional sense.

It does not exactly lean to the right or left. It does not take positions on issues like education, housing, crime or taxes. Indeed, its own literature acknowledges that many of its members sign up believing they are registering as unaffiliated with any party.

Even that phenomenon sits just fine with Independence leaders, who have worked to create a tent so big, in their description, that it verges on the metaphysical.

”The people who wanted to be independent are as much our constituency as the people who wanted to be in the Independence Party, because we’re kind of an antiparty party,” said Jacqueline Salit, a city party spokeswoman.

Nevertheless, of late it has been acting every inch the political player. A longtime supporter of nonpartisan elections, the party endorsed the candidacy of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, after he committed himself to their position, and brought him more than 50,000 votes in last November’s election — well over his margin of victory.

Now, Harry Kresky, the party’s legal counsel, sits on the Charter Revision Commission, which on Friday decided to limit its work to considering nonpartisan elections and mayoral succession as ballot questions this fall.

But even more important is the party’s role in the governor’s race, which is crucial to its existence. In the spring, a majority of its leaders voted to endorse Gov. George E. Pataki, but a large-enough group supported Tom Golisano to force a primary. Mr. Golisano has run for governor on the Independence line twice, winning enough votes in 1994 to create the party and then enough in 1998 to bring it a coveted position on the ballot. Under state election law, if a party’s nominee gets 50,000 votes on its line in a gubernatorial race it is assured a line for every state or local election for four years, freeing it from the onerous task of filing petitions in each race. At the same time, the total votes a party’s line gets in a gubernatorial election determines its ballot position. The more votes, the higher the ballot position and the greater chance to catch a voter’s eye.

For Mr. Pataki, the Independence nomination could mean a stronger chance of siphoning votes from a Democratic rival come November. For Mr. Golisano, it represents not only his most credible shot at a candidacy but also winning back the party he established.

Thus the two campaigns are battling. Last week, the city’s Board of Elections began an internal investigation, which will be reported to commissioners today, over new Independence registrations, thousands of them potentially bogus, filed by the Pataki campaign.

On Friday, Mr. Golisano and an elections lawyer announced that they would challenge the registrations at the board and in court, as actors dressed as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Manuel Noriega, the jailed Panamanian leader, autographed copies of registrations filed in their names.

Yesterday, Mr. Kresky, the party’s counsel, acting on behalf of the Manhattan and Brooklyn chapters, sent letters to the Board of Elections and to the Justice Department to head off the registration challenge from Mr. Golisano’s camp, arguing that it required preclearance under the Voting Rights Act because it involved newly registered voters, many of whom are black and Latino and live in boroughs being monitored by the Justice Department.

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Many Democrats fault Mr. Golisano for failing to build the party organization after his campaigns, allowing it to be snatched up by Lenora Fulani and her supporters.

Referring to Mr. Golisano and his allies, Evan Stavisky, a consultant, said, ”They spent money, they created a party, but they didn’t have the grassroots, local structure to maintain it.” In the breach, Ms. Fulani seized a power berth in state politics that she would not otherwise have had, several Democrats said.

Ms. Fulani says she is merely an Independence Party member and holds no formal position (though she is running for its state committee).

”All of those people participate and put in their two cents,” Ms. Fulani said of the party’s members, adding, ”I’ve been doing this for 25 years, I’m a national leader, people hear what I say, but I don’t sit in a room and make decisions about the party — back room, I should say.”

Officially created in New York in 1994 by Mr. Golisano’s gubernatorial run, the party’s roots connect to Ross Perot’s national Reform movement as well as to Ms. Fulani’s involvement with Fred Newman, a psychotherapist and the founder of the New Alliance Party, experts and analysts say. The New Alliance Party was heavily criticized because of its connections to Mr. Newman’s therapy practice, which held that emotional problems could be overcome through political activism. Because so many of the therapy clients worked in the party, critics charged it was really a cult.

Ms. Fulani has been a Marxist and at various times has aligned herself with political figures ranging from Al Sharpton to Pat Buchanan to the eccentric developer Abe Hirschfeld, convicted in 2000 of conspiring to kill a business partner. Today she calls herself a progressive and says she is maligned because she offers black and Latino voters an alternative to the Democratic Party.

Ms. Fulani and her supporters parlayed her New Alliance connections into registering enough new Independence Party voters to oust the Golisano forces.

Since then, the group has continued to grow, and has become the state’s strongest minor party, with more than 220,000 registrants, according to Ms. Salit. Its platform, such as it is, includes electoral reforms to enhance citizen participation, like nonpartisan elections, allowing voters to register on election day and permitting people to petition propositions onto the ballot. It has also endorsed Democrats, including United States Senator Charles E. Schumer and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, and Republicans, including State Senator Guy J. Velella and City Councilman James S. Oddo.

Helping traditional party candidates get elected is the party’s best chance to become a lasting part of New York’s political scene, experts say. ”The reward for providing the margin of victory is patronage and a voice on policy,” according to an e-mail message from Douglas Muzzio, a professor at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College.

It is already paying off. This year, for example, Mr. Pataki pushed a bill through the State Senate that would create a system of voter-sponsored ballot initiatives; the bill was stalled by the Democratic majority in the Assembly. In the city, the nonpartisan-elections proposal wends its way through the charter revision process.

”Their chief policy-program goal seems to be the creation of a multiparty system or at least creating the conditions for the emergence of such a system,” Mr. Muzzio wrote, adding that the system influenced not only the type of political parties that exist but also the type of candidates voters have to choose from. ”Ultimately, they determine the political stability and the legitimacy of the system itself,” Mr. Muzzio continued. ”He who determines the rules, rules.”

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