NEW YORK, April 26 (UPI) -- This is the toughest year for New York's political parties, because their performance in the gubernatorial election this fall determines their ballot position for the next four years and, for the smaller ones, whether they survive as a legal party at all.
To remain a legal party, which means that party candidates don't have to go through a tiresome "independent petitioning process," requires getting a relatively small number of votes for one's gubernatorial candidate -- a "mere" 50,000. This relatively small number, combined with the rare New York law that permits multiple parties to endorse the same candidate, has led in recent years to a proliferation of minor parties.
Only four of New York's eight parties are automatically safe this fall: the two major parties, of course; the Conservative Party, which will support Governor George Pataki; and the Right-to-Life Party, which has a small if dedicated constituency and will definitely not support Pataki.
And even the big two parties are always fighting over the first position ("Row A"), which goes to the party that finishes with the most votes on its line. Most politicians believe that that position is worth some extra votes, because of the phenomenon called the "donkey vote," in which uninformed voters vote for the first candidate in a list.
In 1990, the weak Republican candidate for governor, Pierre Rinfret, did so badly that he nearly lost Row B to the Conservative Party, a "feat" which would have cost the Republicans their 50 percent control of boards of election and election inspectors. In 1994, Rochester millionaire Tom Golisano spent $10 million on a gubernatorial campaign for the Independence Party (New York's version of Ross Perot's Reform movement), and did the same in 1998, thereby giving that party Row C over the Conservatives.
The four parties that may have to struggle to get their line, let alone to try for the fabled Row C, were considered last year to be that same Independence Party; that ever-smaller one-man show the Liberal Party; and the two left-wing parties that both crossed the 50,000 line for the first time in 1998, the Green Party and the Working Families Party.
The Independence Party is now controlled by a weird left-wing cult, which grew out of the New Alliance Party, a party that ran Leonora Fulani for president in 1988 and 1992, before joining the Reform Party. Fulani backed Buchanan for a while, then split with him, and using classic Leninist tactics, gained structural control of the Independence Party. Ironically, she has taken the party hierarchy into support of Pataki, in return for what seem to be monetary considerations for her followers.
Golisano is now threatening to use his fortune to run a primary against Pataki in the Independence Party, and trying to get the leadership of the Conservative Party to let him run against Pataki in their primary, too (something they will certainly not do; the state's "Wilson-Pakula Law" gives parties the right to permit or exclude non-members from its primaries).
Most recently, Golisano's people have approached the far-left Green party to see if he could run on their line, as well. The Green Party got the all-important 50,000 votes last time by running the ancient Al Lewis, best known for his role as Grandpa in TV's "The Munsters.'' This time they approached film-maker Michael Moore, but he turned them down, leaving the party with a field of little-known candidates: CUNY sociology professor Stanley Arononwitz, St. Lawrence farmer Donald Hassig, and Rob Young, professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University.
The Green Party, characteristically uncontrolled, is divided between those who think survival is worth principle, and those who would rather see the party die than back the fiscally conservative Golisano, who certainly doesn't care about and probably opposes such party issues as the "living wage," pesticide-free agriculture and legalized industrial hemp and marijuana cultivation.
So, if the Independence Party nomination will be a fight between Golisano and Pataki, and if the Green nomination is up for grabs, what can be said of the other two parties?
The Working Families Party, unlike the Greens, is controlled by unions and activist groups such as ACORN, and is explicit about its desire to back acceptable Democrats in major races. This year it will put in a stand-in candidate, then back the winner of the Democratic primary between Andrew Cuomo and Carl McCall.
As for the Liberal Party, which has become largely a family enterprise controlled by Chair Ray Harding, it has fallen on bad times. After eight years of Mayoral patronage from Rudy Guiliani, Harding put his bet last year on City Comptroller Alan Hevesi to win the mayoralty -- but Hevesi finished fourth in the Democratic primary.
Worse, Giuliani had appointed Harding's two sons, Russell, who never graduated college, and Bob, who never had an accounting position, as heads of the City's Housing Development Corporation and Bureau of the Budget, respectively.
The muckraking Village Voice has been running a series on the activities of Russell Harding, who splurged six figures worth of city expenses on vacations, parties, and fine dining.
More seriously, the minority wing of the Democratic party, led by David Dinkins -- the former mayor who is infuriated by the party's close relationship to Giuliani, has insisted that Democratic candidates not accept the Liberal line any more. Carl McCall has taken that position, so that leaves Harding nowhere to go but to Andrew Cuomo. Ironically, Cuomo's name is well-enough known that it will secure 50,000 votes whether or not he wins the Democratic nomination.
So here's the late April party scorecard:
Republican: George Pataki
Democrat: Carl McCall or Andrew Cuomo
Independence: George Pataki or Tom Golisano
Conservative: George Pataki
Right-to-Life: an unknown candidate
Liberal: Andrew Cuomo
Green: Tom Golisano or an unknown candidate
Working Families: the winner of the Democratic primary
Looking at this list, it seems that only the Green Party is at risk of losing its line this year. If they give it to Golisano, they will surely stay a legal party; if they don't, November may be dicey for them.
No one ever said New York politics was simple!
(Each week, National Political Analyst Jim Chapin, who is based in New York City and steeped in city and state politics, reports on what's happening and who's making it happen in Tammany's Town.)