Building the Perfect Political Party: Oregon's Working Families Party

Kyle Curtis Facebook

Building the Perfect Political Party: Oregon's Working Families Party

This story has nothing to do with Don Henley. Though it would be a lot cooler if it did.

For many people, the two-party system behind our country’s political system is a disgrace and actually is an impediment to the democratic process. The recent debt “stand-off” in Congress provides an excellent example of how the two-party system fails American voters. As each party is beholden to the extreme partisans that wield tremendous weight during the primary process, there is little reason not to stick with ideological stances and refuse to budge. Is it any surprise that the more polarized the two-party system has become, the more frequently these particular “crises” results in the federal government coming to a stand-still and the task of running our country thrown completely in doubt. The unfortunate series of recent events that almost ended in America defaulting on its debts for the first time in history would never occurred in other Western democracies which rely on multi-part parliamentary forms of government. Granted, none of these countries has a debt ceiling, which is a ridiculous exercise in politicking and serves very little other purpose. But also, the fact that these countries have the presence of multiple parties in its upper and lower governing chambers results in coalitions being built and deals being struck to the benefit of a majority of these respective country’s citizens- in other words, governing.

So, what can be done about this? There have been attempts to create a prominent third-party presence to challenge the current political duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. Certainly, if you take a long-term view of our country’s political process, such parties as the Whigs, the Know-Nothings (the ancestors of the present-day Tea Party), and the Bull Moose Party come to the forefront. Attempts to create legitimate third parties in recent years include Ross Perot’s Reform Party, the Constitution Party, and Ralph Nader’s Green Party. Most of these parties receive their historical notoriety for playing a spoiler role in deciding elections. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party helped ensure the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the Reform Party interrupted the Reagan-Bush years in 1992, and, well, we all know what role the Green Party played in 2000. (For the record, Al Gore and George W. Bush are not- and never were- “exactly the same.” I’m just sayin’.)

How can a third party establish some legitimacy as a viable option for registered voters to align themselves without playing a spoiler role with disastrous political consequences? Such a model may not be inconceivable at the federal level as perhaps initially presumed, especially when you consider that successful models of legitimate third parties exist at the state level. By providing the model for successful third party integration into the political process, the end result would be an example of the federal government once again stealing the best ideas that are created at the state level.

Oregon’s Working Families Party (WFP) is an example of a third party attempting to challenge the status-quo of the Democrat-Republican stranglehold on electoral politics. An agenda-driven party, the WFP is taking the steps necessary so that their issues figure prominently during the legislative session. During the most recent session, the WFP was one of the strongest advocates for the bill that would’ve created the Oregon State Bank, one of the highest-profile pieces of legislation which failed to be brought to either floor of the Capitol for an eventual vote. Does this mean that the efforts of the Working Families Party are in vain? Without any legislative successes to point to, is it going to be difficult for the WFP to recruit members and assert itself as a viable third party in Oregon politics? Or will the WFP’s agenda issues resonate with voters during the upcoming 2012 political silly season, resulting with the WFP’s endorsement being envied by candidates? I recently sat down with Steve Hughes from the WFP to find the answers to these questions, and more.

Let’s start with the State Bank bill. What happened with this piece of legislation? It appeared that it had tremendous support from a wide cross-section of Oregonians, and even passed the Senate committee by a bipartisan vote. Why was there never a vote on either floor for this bill?

I think we’re on the right track with this bill- we got the legislation along much further than we had originally planned. This was the first session that the WFP was heavily involved with the legislative process, and we feel that we did pretty well. The idea of a state bank resonates with Oregonians, and we will continue to organize on the issue.

As this was the WFP’s first session being involved with the process, do you have any idea whether big-ticket bills such as the State Bank take multiple sessions to pass? And if so, what is the common number of sessions should we take before this bill becomes state law?

The common wisdom is that a piece of legislation takes a couple of sessions to pass, especially bills that are big and ambitious like the State Bank bill. It almost surprised me that we got as far as we did.

So we should expect to see the legislation brought back in the next session?

Absolutely. We will be bringing it back to committee in February. The bill did get passed through both committees before getting stuck in Ways and Means. And it passed by wide margins too, by a 5-1 vote on the Senate side and 8-0 on the House side. A lot of work was done to get it to that point.

But then, nothing. Why was the bill not brought up for a vote, even during the brief extension of the session?

The State Bank legislation simply wasn’t on the short list of bills that “had” to be passed. Education bills needed to be addressed, corrections bills- the State Bank legislation just wasn’t “big ticket” enough.

Was there push back on this legislation? What kind of opposition did you face, and how did you overcome it?

Yes, there was push back. Initially we got opposition from the big banks. But we got around that by getting the Oregon Bank Association to sign off to the bill and then reach out to community banks and advocated how the State Bank would benefit these small banks. The OBA represents both out-of-state and community bankers. There is a natural tension in the banking interests affected by this bill, which helps small bankers. The large banking interests did request amendments that were incorporated, and then they signed on in support.

Tell me a little bit more about the Working Families Party, both nationally and at the state level. How long has it been around, and how does its model differ from other parties?

The Working Families Party was founded nationally in 1998, and Oregon's Working Families Party was founded in 2006. We are an independent stand-alone political party. Members register and join a chapter, just like any other political party. We operate under the state’s Fusion Voting Law, so we are not attempting to play a spoiler role. We are seeking to follow the model set by the Populist Party, which had strong influence in Oregon politics a century ago. During the Progressive Era, the Populists joined with the Democrats, resulting in a Populist Governor in Oregon. Basically, the WFP believes that there is a more vibrant political process with more voices involved.

What role do you see the Working Families Party playing in the 2012 elections?

We are going to see what position candidates take on the issues that matter the most to us, such as the State Bank. We will bring issues to candidates when they are at their most vulnerable- when seeking votes during the primary process. We will vet candidates through an interview process, a candidate survey, provide more information to candidates on these issues if requested. We are a stand-alone party and we could nominate and run candidates if we wanted to. But we’d prefer to rely over-all on an issue-driven agenda. The one thing we want to do to add value is provide access for our agenda items to the ballot. The last thing that people see when they vote is the ballot. As more people know who we are and what we are, they will be looking for our stance on particular ballot measures. And, finally, we want to be able to ensure that politicians live up to what they say and hold them accountable. But we have to build capacity- right now we’re still small.

But what about the primary process? As Oregon has a closed primary, does this mean that Working Families Party members cannot participate in the primaries?

You do silence yourself in the primary process due to the state’s closed primaries. But, look, enough people are disenchanted with the current two-party political system. We are trying to operate in the margins, seeking to provide the “margin of victory” for a particular candidate or ballot measure. If we could offer the margin of support for a candidate, they will take our agenda issues seriously. The key has to be maintaining independence from the other major parties. Being just an appendage to either of the two main political parties does not do a service for working families.

Could you describe the experiences you had travelling around the state, speaking to Oregon voters from different parts of the state about the State Bank? What kind of response did you get when you went to different areas?

Mostly, the response I received about the State Bank was mostly good. All sorts of different people came out to the events we held- 13 forums, and I was invited to speak at a number of other events. People were interested, and excited about the proactive idea. We were pointing out not just what the problem is, but offering a proposal to actually do something about this identified problem. The participants in these forums were able to get their hands and minds around the proposal. We always felt that the idea of keeping more of Oregon’s money within state lines would appeal across party lines- the support for this bill cut through the noise that was offered by the opposition. This was hugely beneficial as an organizing issue. People could understand and get excited about the State Bank. As for particular people we spoke to, we knew it was really important it was to talk with community bankers. We won them over. Their support was essential. They would be on the front lines, moving credit through this new institution. They won over the other bankers.

What about the conservative residents of the state that you’d meet with outside of the safe confines of the Willamette Valley? What were those experiences like?

Some community bankers in rural Oregon were ideologically opposed- they believed that government just has no role in the marketplace. I disagree. Not everyone, however, was as doctrinaire, but they have a bit more common sense. And while their colleagues may have asked what they were doing, these common-sense bankers stood up and took a courageous stance for an outside-the-box position that is becoming less and less outside-the-box.

But I have had prior experiences with unions all across this state. I feel comfortable everywhere I go. The reason why I signed on with the Working Families Party is because I was looking to find a vehicle to build bridges, to connect urban and rural communities. Electoral politics are more tangible than discussions about unions- everyone believes that to be a good citizen you need to vote. As a political party, we are able to have a conversation where otherwise people may not pay attention if you were coming from the perspective of a union. Unfortunately, there are some very powerful people who use electoral politics to divide people. We had a radical notion to use electoral politics to unite people.

So what’s in store for the Working Families Party? Have you all ready had a post-session debrief? What impact is the WFP going to have on the 2012 election?

We are all ready planning- we have an 18-month plan for the next election. Obviously, session is in the middle of that. Last election, we were new to the scene and we had just gotten Fusion Voting passed. In 2012 we will have had one cycle under our belt. One thing we are wrestling with is that Oregon has no campaign finance laws, so close elections are incredibly expensive to contest. As a result, we are targeting our efforts to where they would be most productive. For example, if it is expected that an incumbent would beat any challengers by a large margin, it might be counter-productive to spend our funds in that election, but it would instead make more sense to invest our time and money in elections that are close instead.

So, on that note, should I end this piece by suggesting to interested readers to support the WFP with donations?

(Laughs.) Sure, we could always use more money. More money and more members is what we want.

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    Thanks for the piece, Kyle. Good to read about the WFP and their efforts.

    Two quick clarifications - Perot wasn't a spolier. Exit polls showed his supporters would have split equally between Clinton and Bush.

    And the U.S. Green Party was around for a long time before Ralph Nader; though he's the most prominent candidate they've had it's certainly not his party. The Greens formed in 1984; Nader ran as a Green in 1996 and infamously in 2000. He ran as an independent in 2004 and 2008.

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    Q: How do you tell a Democrat from a Green.

    A: Greens don't blame Gore for making Nader lose 2000.

    Honestly, Gore ran a historically bad campaign that failed to deliver his own home state. If he had let Clinton in, he likely would have gotten Arkansas, and Florida wouldn't have mattered.

    I do like the idea of a party embracing a single issue per election. The Greens have a lot of really good ideas, but I wonder if they are overreaching with so many. But getting out there, basing on just one idea, will either force the other parties to adopt (ala Perot), or provide enough branding to have people remember when they get in the booth (or return their envelopes, here).

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    Thanks for the coverage of the WFP.

    Couple of quibbles, though: I don't think the Democratic Party is beholden to extreme partisans during their primary process or at any other time, for that matter. The leadership of the Dems is way too much beholden to the same wealthy interests that wield power in the GOP, too. If that were not the case we'd have someone from the House Progressive Caucus in the leadership of the Dem Party.

    The GOP, on the other hand, is absolutely under the control of an extreme element.

    Also, in the recent debt-ceiling debate, the Dem leadership did not stand firm, at all. They gave and gave, so it's not correct to characterize it as a equal-sided gridlock.

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    The idea the Theodore Roosevelt (who hated being called "Teddy" btw, he liked TR as a nickname, cf. BlueOregon's own TA Barnhart) was a spoiler in 1912 is quite remarkable. Actually what happened was the Republican Party was captured by a conservative rump who organized around President Taft against the wishes of the majority of Republicans who were progressives. Roosevelt ran on the Progressive Party ticket and got a lot more votes than Taft. Can someone who gets more votes be called a spoiler?

    Roosevelt was as you suggest more progressive than Wilson, not least because of DP segregationism of the day -- Wilson originally hailed from Georgia -- but Wilson also ran and in a number of ways governed as a progressive. If anyone was a spoiler. In the popular vote, 42% voted for Wilson, 27% for Roosevelt, and 6% for Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, i.e. 75% for progressive or further left candidates. Taft got 23%.

    "Bull Moose" came up because Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt and when questioned on his health replied "I'm as strong as a bull moose," which then became the Progressive Party symbol. Their platform was an outline for social democratic reform in the U.S. and to a substantial degree a template for the New Deal, as well as promoting woman suffrage.

    If this is how the WFP understands the spoiler issue, it undermines my potential interest.

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    The interview is a little misleading about membership in the WFP. You can become a WFP member in two ways: by registering as WFP, which takes you out of other party primary processes, or by paying dues, which allows WFP members to retain major party registrations. WFP leans D and draws on support from unionists who are dissatisfied with the DP in various ways, but in the last elections did co-nominate one Republican state legislator from the Pendleton area. In 2008 they ran their own candidate for attorney general, which they felt able to do because John Kroger had no Republican opposition, and attracted enough votes to secure minor party ballot access. Interestingly their highest votes were in more rural or rurally-oriented communities, suggesting that they may be able to attract voters who identify themselves as working class or with the idea of working class, but who may not like the DP for various reasons. That might make WFP co-nomination worth something.

    As far as I can tell there isn't much consideration among the three lefty small parties (WFP, Pacific Green & Progressive, which has some roots in the Nader movement) or the somewhat harder to characterize Independent Party about using fusion lite to cross-endorse with one another, despite considerable similarities of programs.

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    Sorry, meant "idea of working families."

    On fusion, the WFP name was first developed and has worked best in New York, where there is full fusion, under which multiple parties can endorse the same candidate on separate lines, so that it is possible to identify which votes were identified with which party's nomination. In a number of races the WFP line provided DP candidates their margin of victory. However historically the Liberal and Conservative minor parties have mainly been vehicles for patronage extortion, which is how fusion can degenerate.

    There is a different way to read the fusion story of the People's Party ("Populists") in the 1890s, at least at the national level. It may be true that in Oregon the DP cross-endorsed an essentially Populist governor candidate, but at the national level, the People's Party endorsed William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat, and thereby gave up the radical and innovative "Sub-treasury" proposal and related economic program with which they had been galvanizing farmers (then still the majority of the population) away from the DP and RP as they struggled to escape the predatory monopoly practices of the railroads and the banking system, controlled from the urban northeast. Instead the Populists signed on to Bryan's tepid proposal to ease credit a bit by monetizing silver along with gold, while losing their non-partisan position vis a vis the dominant parties.

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    This is a very informative piece that is well written. I have to point out, as a Co-Chair of the Pacific Green Party of Oregon, the misinformation regarding the Greens.

    [Attempts to create legitimate third parties in recent years include Ross Perot’s Reform Party, the Constitution Party, and Ralph Nader’s Green Party. Most of these parties receive their historical notoriety for playing a spoiler role in deciding elections. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party helped ensure the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the Reform Party interrupted the Reagan-Bush years in 1992, and, well, we all know what role the Green Party played in 2000. (For the record, Al Gore and George W. Bush are not- and never were- “exactly the same.” I’m just sayin’.)]

    The Green Party was not Nader's party, Nader just happened to have the name recognition that boosted Green curb appeal. One wouldn't call the Green Party, Cynthia McKinney's Party, why not?

    Nader didn't spoil the election for Gore, if you go into the election results in Florida, one discovers the fraud and how the election was stolen from Gore in the key electorate states of Ohio and Florida. Gore won the popular vote, clearly. Just the facts.

    I think that a third party colluded candidate for District #1, Wu's seat, would be a good collaboration for the upcoming special election. no? why not?

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