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Time for a Two-Party System?

Though some in the suburbs of Saratoga County might disagree, I don’t think of Albany as a particular bastion of liberal politics. It does however, have an active, sordid political landscape, marked, of course, by its famously long Democratic Party dominance.

So it was interesting to realize that given the results of this year’s election, one wouldn’t be crazy to surmise that if Albany does break into a true multiparty give-and-take some time soon, it may not be the Republicans, the country’s presumed “second party,” who take us there.

Granted, if parties had to earn their ballot line separately in Albany, rather than just getting 50,000 votes for their gubernatorial candidate on your line—which in 2002 worked out to about 1.1 percent of the total votes cast—then Republicans, with 6.5 percent of the vote for mayor, would not be in immediate danger of going the way of the Liberals or the Right-to-Life Party. (Or, yes, the Greens, who lost their state ballot line in 2002; they just seem to have managed to stay active as a party despite that, which the other two have not.)

The Republicans also fielded some interesting and committed candidates this year. I suspect that in at least some races their poor showing had less to do with them, and more to do with the legacy of Democratic Party dominance—when you have one party for so long, it becomes a very large tent. There’s little to stop fairly conservatively leaning folks from ending up running on the Democratic line—that’s how one gets elected after all—and therefore getting used to voting on the Democratic line.

This is not an intractable problem, but it doesn’t seem like Albany’s Republicans—who also have been needing to spend some attention trying not to lose ground in the rapidly Democratizing Albany County suburbs—have yet hit on the formula to draw people back.

On the other hand, the results, not to mention the buzz and the attention, of this November’s election point to the fact that in the city of Albany, the Working Families Party and the Green Party are perhaps closer to that formula. They’ve both been working very hard to build their bases and be a presence on local and regional issues outside of elections.

The Working Families Party, of course, has the immense strategic advantage of retaining its ballot line and being willing, usually, to use it to support candidates also running on major party lines (though not in Albany, it should be noted that they have in fact cross-endorsed Republicans). The Greens have their own strength, however, because they are not afraid to stand completely independent, rather than aiming at mostly shifting the Democratic Party in one direction or another.

Especially after conflicts over last year’s district attorney primary, the WFP is careful not to be seen as trying to influence Democratic Party primaries. (The same cannot be said, for example, of the Conservative Party and its mailings about city treasurer Betty Barnette.) Still, the WFP does seem to have gained enough influence and respect that merely making its endorsements for its own line before the Democratic primary carries some weight with voters. Shawn Morris, the WFP candidate for Common Council president, sailed to victory despite her history of being willing to confront the mayor, and ended up getting more total votes in the general election than Jennings did.

And for its part, when the Green Party fields candidates like Alice Green and David Lussier who are willing to do the legwork, they can get impressive results. Alice Green got nearly 25 percent of the vote. She may still be an underdog, but that’s not a dismissible number.

WFP and the Greens endorsed two candidates in common this year—David Lussier in Ward 11 and Russell Ziemba (who also had the Democratic line) in Troy. Reportedly, if Alice Green hadn’t held back on her campaign announcement in order to not steal Archie Goodbee’s thunder, she may have had a chance at the WFP line for mayor as well—and we can all only wonder what might have happened then.

Karen Scharf, chair of the local WFP, and Mark Dunlea, state Green Party chair, both are interested in collaborating more in the future. The two parties are planning to meet and talk about how to follow up on some of the key issues locally. This sounds incredibly promising.

Here’s what I would love to see—I’d love to see the Green Party get their ballot line back in next year’s gubernatorial election, and then locally I’d like to see the two parties more frequently cross-endorse candidates, pooling their strengths and similar commitments to democratic process and reform. But I’d also like to see them maintain their independence, each sometimes taking risks or making commitments to candidates when the other won’t, and generally providing an opportunity for the voters to indicate their support for specific agendas and priorities.

That could bring Albany the power of a viable second party, with the variety and protection against calcification provided by active third parties. Who knows, it might even provide the climate for the Republicans to get back in the game.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net

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