The New Party was, in my not-so-humble opinion, a brilliant attempt at independent electoral politics in turn of the century United States. If you’re not acquainted with this predecessor to the Working Families Party, you can find a barely adequate summary history at Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia article does not mention that the New Party, Chicago DSA, and New Ground’s coverage of the New Party played a major part in right-wing conspiracy fantasies about President Obama being a “socialist” puppet under the control of mysterious and shadowy forces. The article below was originally published in New Ground 38, January – February, 1995.
New Party Organizes
by Bob Roman
On Saturday, January 14, the New Party in Chicago took another step in its effort to establish itself as a political force by holding a major outreach meeting directed at Chicago’s Left. About 100 people, with sizable delegations from DSA and CoC among others, heard Bruce Colburn and Elaine Bernard preach the gospel of the New Party. The audience was also introduced to the New Party’s first candidate in Chicago, Michael Chandler, who is running for Alderman in Chicago’s west side 24th ward. The meeting was held at the meeting hall of SEIU Local 880, a local that is tackling the extremely difficult task of organizing home health care workers in Illinois. SEIU Local 880 and ACORN share office space.
For me, Bruce Colburn was the more interesting speaker. Bruce Colburn is an officer of the Milwaukee Central Labor Council and the Chair of the local New Party affiliate in Milwaukee. He had a great deal to say about holding candidates accountable, maintaining a mobilized constituency, and the role of the labor movement in the process. Some of his comments were intriguing. He mentioned, for example, that labor in Milwaukee had begun canvassing its members to organize community groups.
The New Party movement has helped elect a number of candidates in Wisconsin, and it has united with a number of other left groups in Wisconsin to form the New Progressive Party of Wisconsin. The New Progressive Party has secured ballot status in the state.
All who had seen Elaine Bernard at last year’s Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference were psyched up to see her again. And she gave a good performance. Elaine Bernard gave a cogent exposition on the nature of politics and the way the New Party uses this in its strategy.
The near term future of the New Party in Chicago is represented by Michael Chandler, candidate of the 24th Ward. Legal and illegal dumping, crime, housing and the Privatization Accountability Ordinance are the major issues in Mr. Chandler’s campaign. There are ten other candidates in the contest for Alderman of the 24th Ward. The incumbent is Jesse Miller, Jr. If Michael Chandler wins, the New Party will have established a foothold in mainstream Chicago politics.
The Saturday meeting was clearly intended to be a major step in organizing the New Party in Chicago. The next step is a meeting scheduled for February 1 at which the New Party will choose local officers. It’s clear that the New Party is hoping that enthusiasm generated at the Saturday meeting will help expand the New Party’s base.
In Chicago, the New Party’s biggest asset and biggest liability is ACORN.
Like most organizations, ACORN is a mixed bag. On one hand, in Chicago, ACORN is a group that attempts to organize some of the most depressed communities in the city. Chicago organizers for ACORN and organizers for SEIU Local 880 have been given modest monthly recruitment quotas for new New Party members. On the other hand, like most groups that depend on canvassing for fundraising, it’s easy enough to find burned out and disgruntled former employees. And ACORN has not had the reputation for being interested in coalition politics- until recently and, happily, not just within the New Party. In Chicago, ACORN has been working with the National Training and Information Center on housing issues, and Equip for Equality in challenging Illinois’ inaction on “Motor Voter” registration. ACORN has also become a major participant in Chicago Jobs with Justice.
But the nature of Chicago ACORN is secondary to the inevitable dynamics of the situation. As the single 800 pound gorilla in the Chicago New Party, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for newcomers to participate except on ACORN’s terms. This will make it difficult for the New Party to have a life apart from ACORN. The element that seems to be present in Milwaukee but absent in Chicago is organized labor.
Nationally, the New Party claims between 3,000 and 4,000 members and credit for electing several dozen candidates in various localities around the country. While the Saturday meeting had much to say about candidate accountability, it’s hard to assess exactly what these victories mean. The New Party is not dogmatic about establishing its own ballot line and is perfectly willing to support worthy Democratic, independents and (presumably) Republicans. In essence, the New Party functions as a Political Action Committee on steroids. As such, it represents the first truly canny, grass-roots attempt at dealing with the non-party, candidate centered electoral system in our country, but it makes “success” rather more difficult to measure.
What happened to the New Party? The Wikipedia account (as accessed on December 1, 2017) blames it on a decline triggered by the loss before the Supreme Court of the case Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party involving cross-endorsing of candidates between parties as a First Amendment right. There are two problems with this. One is that it misstates the issues involved. In point of fact, Minnesota had decided to allow cross-endorsing but required that all the political parties involved agree to it. The New Party thought it had that agreement from the Democratic Farmer Labor Party but apparently not. If you want more detail, see Ballot Access News, January14, 1996, “Eighth Circuit Throws Out Ban on Fusion” and Ballot Access News, July 20, 1996, “Minnesota New Party Betrayed”. The other is that these developments are hardly the sort of things that would cause membership to defect. It’s just not plausible.
While this must be speculation, it’s far more plausible that these developments plus a mixed track record of success led ACORN and its allies in the New Party to shut down the project regardless of the level of membership support. I would further speculate that there were decidedly different motives leading to this. In New Party chapters where ACORN was strong, the return on investment was conceivably a major motivating factor. For example, here in Chicago Michael Chandler did indeed become Alderman of the 24th Ward. Shortly thereafter, he ran for and became Democratic Ward Committeeman of the 24th Ward as a means of building his own political operation. This was not untypical. The New Party did not have the means to enforce policy discipline nor could it substitute adequately for a candidate’s own organization. Elsewhere, I think it was ACORN’s obsession with control that motivated the end of the New Party. It had little hope of outgrowing ACORN’s sandbox; why continue?
The New Party did not wither. It was killed.