Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
It's called the Third Party Club, and its monthly meetings often resemble a political version of the alien bar scene in "Star Wars."
Nearly 250 incumbents, candidate hopefuls and political junkies of disparate stripes jammed Blue Restaurant in Blue Point last week for the club's most recent meeting.
Presiding as emcee, Frank MacKay, state and Suffolk Independence Party chairman, spent nearly a half-hour just introducing all the officials. Club co-head Edward Walsh, Suffolk Conservative chairman, was on the patio holding court with a stream of potential candidates. "Everyone was looking for Frank and me," Walsh said later.
Like the Hamptons on the Fourth of July, it's high season for minor parties and their leaders, who, under the 1947 Wilson Pakula Act, can authorize candidates who do not belong to their party to run on their ballot line. With party conventions a few weeks away, hopefuls are anxious for the 2 percent to 10 percent edge a minor party line can bring in November.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would like to end the practice in the wake of federal charges against state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis), who is accused of arranging for tens of thousands of dollars in secret payments to GOP officials so he could appear on the GOP primary ballot in the New York City mayoral race. Cuomo has called it "pay to run," noting that there are allegations that minor party designation often go to the "highest bidder." In an election law package, Cuomo is proposing to allow candidates from one party to run in any party primary.
"What he's doing is exactly right," Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said of Cuomo. "When you talk about jobs and favors, it does [a] disservice to the electoral system and it needs to be cleaned up."
Joseph Mondello, Nassau GOP chairman, called it a "bad idea. Allowing an enrolled member of one party to indiscriminately run in the primary of every other party is a recipe for chaos and confusion."
John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, called Cuomo's proposal "very shortsighted" because it could open primaries to candidates who disagree with a party's principles. LaValle also said wealthy candidates would gain a significant advantage.
"The Conservative Party's foremost issue is to be against abortion, but this would allow a liberal Democrat with money to run for the line," said LaValle. "What Cuomo's bill does is give the candidate with the most money the most access to the most ballot lines."
Desmond Ryan, a veteran business lobbyist and a Republican, noted that local Republicans' past 2-1 edge over Democrats has disappeared and the GOP needs the Conservative line to buoy its prospects. "The GOP is like a mastodon which needs every line to avoid the elephant graveyard," Ryan said.
Walsh said Cuomo's proposal would restrict the minor party from backing conservative-minded Republicans. "We're always looking for the most conservative person," Walsh said. "If it's one of our own, great, but if not, we also want to run the best person."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) says he favors the current system that allows fusion politics. The Conservatives, who have the ear of Senate Republicans, and the labor-based Working Families Party, who largely back Democratic lawmakers, oppose the plan.
Others including Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer say Wilson Pakula should be fixed, not repealed.
"There should be changes, but not that change," Schaffer said. Instead, he said a party's executive committee, not just the leader, should have to approve ballot lines for nonparty members. "That way you have more than one person signing off on it," he said.