What hurricane? A progressive audience focuses on 2012

On a rainy and humid morning, when much of the state was prepping for a hurricane, about 130 activists filled a small auditorium at the Polish National Home in Hartford to get a peek at what progressive politics might look like in Connecticut in 2012.

The annual meeting of the Working Families Party, an offshoot of the labor movement that has given mainly pro-labor Democrats a boost with its brand of fusion politics, featured red-meat speeches and a PowerPoint presentation.

“The public is with us,” an animated House Speaker Christopher Donovan told them last weekend. “The public believes in a high minimum wage. The public believes in paid sick days. The public believes in universal health care.”

Donovan, a Democrat from Meriden, delivered the essence of what is likely to become his stump speech as he tries to win a primary next year for the congressional nomination for an open seat in the 5th District.

While the Working Families Party can offer favored candidates a boost in general elections–its endorsement puts their names on two ballot lines–its ranks include union members and other activists who can swing a Democratic primary.

Sitting at long table, waiting for their chance to impress, were three Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate nomination: former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy and state Rep. William Tong.

In the audience was state Rep. Tim O’Brien, who is competing in a Democratic primary for the mayoral nomination in New Britain. With only weeks to his primary, he took a break from campaigning to stop by. Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, also facing a primary, addressed the group.

The Tea Party is ascendant elsewhere, comprising a decisive conservative voting bloc in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the Working Families Party has established itself as a player in blue Connecticut.

“I do feel like we’ve come a long way,” Jon Green, the party’s executive director, said a few days after the annual meeting. “We’re coming off an election where we made a difference for a number of state legislators and, of course, for the governor.”

Malloy, who won last year by little more than 6,000 votes in the state’s tightest gubernatorial race in a half-century, drew 26,308 votes on the Working Families’ ballot line.

“People can count, and that works to our advantage,” Green said.

After a battle over state employee concessions and a tax increase that did not hit the rich sufficiently to please many liberals, Malloy’s standing among progressives is uncertain.

But during a PowerPoint presentation of the WFP’s electoral and legislative successes, the mention of Malloy’s win last year drew cheers and applause. Even Green was unsure how that slide would be received.

Malloy played a key role in delivering the party its most important legislative victory: the passage this year of the first state mandate on some private employers to provide paid sick days. It was a campaign promise, and he delivered.

Green said the party hopes to build on the passage on paid sick days.

“Obviously, with a lot of help, we managed to get a high priority issue over the finish line,” Green said. “Over time, you build credibility, and you win some things. You start to build a reputation.”

As often is the case with grass-roots organizing, the victory came at a cost: A central issue around which WFP organized is gone. But for better or worse, Green said, there is no lack of issues for working families.

“The reality is for our constituency, the win on paid sick days is a step forward in an era where we’re still taking a few steps back,” Green said. “We’ll find a new rallying cry, because there is no shortage of problems.”

A portion of the annual meeting was devoted to exploring a new legislative agenda. One possibility is a push for a better retirement system, such as a voluntary “public option” savings account.

The funds would be pooled and invested by the state pension fund. Public pension funds have significantly outperformed 401(k) and IRA accounts over the past 30 years, Green said.

The biggest beneficiaries would be workers who now lack access to any retirement plan their employer.

“If we don’t do something, there is a pending crisis on the horizon,” he said.

The questions posed by the WFP to the Senate candidates revolved around economic security and equity. Would they close tax loopholes, stimulate job creation and “drawing a line in the sand” to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?

The answers did not vary.

“I will draw a line in the sand and say I will not cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to balance our federal budget,” Bysiewicz said.

“Absolutely, I’ll draw a line in the sand. I already have,” Murphy said.

“The answer is yes, I will draw a line in the sand,” Tong said.

Murphy, who credited his re-election to Congress last year in part to the support of the Working Families Party, seemed to best tap into the mood and interests of the audience by describing himself as a fellow grass-roots organizer.

“It’s not just about putting vote in the right place, it’s about creating a movement to support Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, the building blocks of our social safety net,” Murphy said. “It’s not just about casting a vote, it’s about creating a movement.”

His answer was cheered.

Donovan, a former labor and community organizer, told the group its work for candidates, not just its advocacy for issues, gave the Working Families influence. Issues were only the end result, he said.

“I want to thank you for looking at the beginning part, which is to say we have to work to get the right people elected,” Donovan said. “That’s what makes it different, what you do here. It’s not just convincing people at the Capitol, it’s running people, supporting people, getting them elected, and then they pass the right things.”

Kurt Westby, the Connecticut director of 32BJ, a Service Employees International Union affiliate, all but pronounced Donovan as the endorsed candidate in the 5th in his remarks as the meeting’s master of ceremonies.

“Chris Donovan, we’re lucky to have him,” Westby said.

Green did not object.

“The reality is there aren’t a lot of folks who are as focused on issues of economic fairness than Chris Donovan. That’s the reality of it,” Green said. “I think Kurt’s remarks were probably shared by a lot of people in the room.”