Can the untamed zeitgeist of Occupy Wall Street be channeled into electoral action? To find out, a prominent Connecticut political organizer is leaving the state to take on a national role with an expanding Working Families Party.
Jon Green, 38, the executive director of the labor-backed Connecticut WFP, whose fusion politics helped elect the first Democratic governor in 24 years in 2010 and pass a first-in-the-nation paid sick days law in 2011, is leaving in April.
“It does feel like the time is right to take what we’ve learned in Connecticut and apply it elsewhere,” Green said.
His departure comes two months before the 10th anniversary of the party’s founding and Green’s arrival in Connecticut, a decade in which the WFP rose from obscurity to an influential voice of progressive politics.
The Working Families has roots in New York, a state with a long history of fusion politics: minor parties trying to elect simpatico major-party candidates by offering cross-endorsements and a second line on the ballot.
“I think when we started, a lot of people thought it was pretty weird idea, quite honestly,” Green said. “There are probably still some people who think that.”
In 2010, its cross-endorsement in Connecticut brought Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dannel P. Malloy 26,308 votes on the WFP line, enough to turn a 19,904-vote deficit into a 6,404-vote win over Republican Tom Foley.
Last August, with a tropical storm about to land in Connecticut, the party’s annual convention attracted all three Democratic candidates for an open U.S. Senate seat and House Speaker Christopher Donovan, a candidate for Congress.
The master of ceremonies for the convention was Kurt Westby, an area director with an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, one of the unions that financially support the Working Families Party.
A decade earlier, Westby was a doubter who wondered what a minor party and its then-28-year-old director might accomplish.
“I wasn’t that interested at the start,” Westby said. “It’s about a lot of energy and a lot of focus. But he stuck with it, helped build a party that has grown in strength every year. For that, he deserves a lot of plaudits.”
Not all states have election laws allowing cross-endorsements, so the Working Families’ expansion into other states is likely to focus on grass-roots organizing of Occupy Wall Street’s “99 percenters.”
“There has got to be a way to ‘electoralize’ that movement, not to diminish that movement as it is,” Green said. “But we also have to figure out how to translate that zeitgeist into infrastructure.”
But as political organizers on the right have discovered with elements of the Tea Party movement, political disaffection does not always translate into political action. Conservative activists in Connecticut have lamented that too few Tea Party demonstrators are willing to work on campaigns or even vote.
Green worked with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy New Haven protesters on a demonstration in October outside the New Canaan home of Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive officer of General Electric.
“It is an enormously successful company that pays no income taxes,” Green told ABC that day. “We felt it was important for someone like Jeff Immelt to hear from people who are struggling in this economy.”
But Green said he is aware that some in the Occupy movement are wary of involvement with anything that smacks of “the institutional left.”
In states where cross-endorsements are allowed, the Working Families Party has given voters who recoil from major-party politics a way to influence an election, while keeping their distance.
Green is fond is calling a vote cast for a major-party candidate on the WFP line “a protest vote that counts.”
“It is consciously independent of either major party and is willing to challenge Democrats and willing to occasionally support Republicans,” Green said. “The focus is on electing people who are supporters and advocates and champions of working people.”
In practice, that typically means cross-endorsing progressive Democrats, occasionally running their own nominee and, rarely, cross-endorsing a Republican.
In 2010, the only Republican to win a WFP cross-endorsement was state Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven. In 2008, state Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, also was cross-endorsed.
Kissel was the only Republican to vote for paid sick days last year. Fasano, who was publicly in favor, missed the vote after the unexpected death of his law partner’s wife.
Paid sick days was the party’s signature issue, a national issue it was able to take on in liberal Connecticut, winning with the lobbying help of the new governor, Dannel P. Malloy.
(It also was a source of embarrassment to Green. He was fined $10,000 for failing to wear a lobbyist badge while he was at the State Capitol working on the issue.)
The bill proposed years ago in Connecticut and adopted by a handful of cities, notably San Francisco, had covered far more workers and industries, but it was repeatedly narrowed to pick up votes. In the end, the bill focused primarily, though not exclusively, on service workers.
“It meant a lot in terms of the credibility of the organization to really win on what was arguably the most heavily lobbied issue in the legislature in the past few years. In my view, it also showed the value of thinking in bigger and more ambitious ways.”
That thinking is what is now taking Green on the road.
“I am going to be building relationships with labor and immigrant rights organizations and community organizations in a number of states that share our values and want to build the kind of independent organization we built in Connecticut, New York and, now, in Oregon as well.”
Green said the list of states where the party hopes to establish a presence is long, but part of his portfolio will include Connecticut.
In fact, he said, he is planning on keeping his lobbyist badge.