Pilfering the right’s playbook

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Mention forming a progressive political party and even hard-core lefties roll their eyes: The historical landscape is littered with failed third-party movements and independent presidential bids. Nevertheless, after only two years of organizing (see MoJo’s “Who’s on third?” July/Aug. 1992), the New Party has harnessed enough optimism among veteran activists and ordinary citizens to form chapters and run candidates in 10 states.

Pilfering from the playbook of the Christian right, the New Party is targeting local races for school board, city council, and state legislature. Wary of alienating itself from the liberal mainstream, the party occasionally endorses progressive Democrats or runs its own candidates as Democrats. “We want to build the organization strong enough to have real clout inside the Democratic party, but also have a credible threat of exit,” says Field Director Suzanne Wall. Thus far, 30 of the 45 candidates endorsed by local chapters have won; the highest New Party officeholder sits in the Wisconsin state legislature.

The New Party contrasts its bottom-up strategy with Ross Perot’s top-down politics of personality. Current party activists who were involved in Jesse Jackson’s presidential forays learned that even a high level of progressive energy dissipates quickly without a durable base capable of picking up where a defeated candidate leaves off.

Along with targeting a host of races in the fall, New Party chapters in Missouri, Montana, and Washington, D.C., are working with other organizations to pass campaign finance reform initiatives, one of many “tools of democracy” it considers essential to its success.

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