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Picture this. You go out and buy a brand new television set so that you
can watch the shows and games you want to watch. A guy from the local cable
company comes in to hook it up for you, but he programs the cable box (or
satellite dish) so that you can only watch the shows that he wants you to
watch.

You say, wait a second, I asked you to come in to do what I want done!

But the guy says, hey, I’m the one you called to do the hook-up, so
you’ll have to do it my way. So you call the cable company and tell them you
want a different guy, but the cable company sends you a letter saying that
for the duration of your contract (two years!) you have to have this
particular cable guy and only this particular cable guy.

Sound crazy? Outrageous? Even unconstitutional? That’s something like
what’s been going on in New York for the last year. Only it wasn’t about a
television set and who picks the programs. It was about a political party –
the Independence Party of New York — and who makes the decisions. This week
a court decision by the Appellate Division for the Third Department finally
straightened things out and set things right.

The Independence Party of New York, the state affiliate of the national
Reform Party, is governed by a State Committee made up of about 250 party
members. The State Committee is elected every two years by the membership
who now number over 172,000. Once the State Committee is elected, it then
elects a party chairman who directs the party’s day-to-day business.

The controversy in the Independence Party arose when its chairman,
elected by the State Committee in 1998 on the basis of a pledge to rewrite
party rules to decentralize power into the hands of local county
organizations, reneged on that pledge. The chairman — Jack Essenberg –
wanted to keep the power to appoint local leaders and to award the
Independence Party line to candidates for public office in the hands of an
Executive Committee which he controlled.

This was an explosive issue on two counts. First, local leaders around
the state who worked actively in their counties with the party’s grass roots,
wanted sufficient autonomy to be able to conduct their business according to
local needs. Second, because New York is a “fusion state” — one of only a
handful that permit candidates to run for public office on more than one
line — Independence has the option of cross-endorsing Democrats and
Republicans, if they choose to.

Historically, New York’s “minor” parties — notably the Liberal,
Conservative and Right to Life Parties — have cross-endorsed “majors” and
often influenced the outcome of elections. Since the Independence Party was
first formed in 1994, Democrats and Republicans have courted the party for
cross-endorsements. When the chairman has the sole authority to grant the
line, it gives him inordinate power. This particular chairman wanted to be a
traditional “minor party” power broker, and spent his tenure wheeling and
dealing with Republicans and Democrats from the top-down.

But the Independence Party of New York is far from a traditional “minor”
party. It’s an independent party in every sense of the word. It is
independent of the major parties. And it takes seriously the party’s role as
representative of New York’s millions of independent voters who deeply
oppose the corruption of the state legislature, the domination of special
interest politics, and the extreme decrease in participation among ordinary
New Yorkers (36 percent voted in the last national election).

Consequently, with decision making concentrated in the hands of the
chairman who was violating the vision and principles of the party and its
membership, the State Committee rose up in response. A “Democracy Coalition”
– made up of politically and geographically diverse local activists who
represented 75 percent of the State Committee — formed for the purpose of
implementing local control by rewriting the party’s rules and recalling the
chairman in order to replace him with one supported by the majority of the
State Committee.

As you might imagine, the chairman resisted this plan. Consequently,
every time the State Committee attempted to call a meeting for the purpose
of amending its rules and recalling the chair, he either refused to call the
meeting or refused to allow those items on the agenda. The State Committee
nonetheless went ahead and voted up rules changes, conducted a hearing into
the chairman’s transgressions and then 94 percent voted to recall him. In
response, the chairman took the State Committee to court. He contended that
he had sole authority to determine the agenda of State Committee meetings.
Consequently, any effort by the State Committee — which elected him in the
first place — to act on its own behalf would be null and void, unless he
endorsed those actions.

Initially — if unbelievably — the State Supreme Court, populated by
political appointees plugged into the two party bosses — ruled in favor of
the chairman. Even so, his case was so obviously a manipulation and so
patently unjust, that the State Supreme Court judge granted the legitimacy
of the new rules, while overruling the removal of the chairman. This
litigation — and various spin off cases — went on for over a year, keeping
the party (not to mention the Democrats and Republicans who were trying to
control it for their own purposes) in continual suspense. The Democracy
Coalition, backed up by a hard working independent legal team, kept up the
fight in the courts, but most importantly continued to build the party at
the grass roots.

Last week a five-judge Appellate Court panel put an end to the chaos when
it overruled the State Supreme Court, upheld the validity of the local
control rules and the right of the State Committee to call its own meetings
and set its own agenda via petition. The court also upheld the recall of the
chairman and affirmed the authority of the State Committee as the party’s
highest governing body. Regarding the chairman’s contention that only he
could set the agenda for State Committee meetings, the judges wrote in their
unanimous opinion “… in our view such a construction would effectively
eliminate the meeting-by-petition provision because it would permit the
chairperson to preclude consideration of the business which prompted members
to petition for the meeting in the first place.”

As the party’s newly recognized chairman Frank MacKay remarked, “This
decision is not a victory for any party faction, but it is a victory for
democracy. It makes the statement that the Independence Party is not for
sale.” Gary Sinawski, the lawyer who argued the case for the Democracy
Coalition, added, “This case sets an important precedent for the
constitutional principles of non-interference and non-intervention into the
internal affairs of political parties. That right has long been recognized
for the Democrats and Republicans. But the courts have begun tinkering with
the internal affairs of independent parties, as those parties have grown
more and more influential. The decision in the New York case sets a dramatic
precedent and will hopefully protect other independent parties from
over-reaching by the courts in the future.”

So now the Independence Party moves ahead. As I write this column, I’m on
my way to the state capitol for our nominating convention where we’ll select
our candidate (or candidates) for the U.S. Senate race. As you might expect,
Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio have been working overtime to figure out how
to use us for their own advantage. The Independence Party is working out a
plan for the Senate race that gets the most power for independent New
Yorkers.

And what about that cable guy who tried to tell you what programs to
watch? He quit the cable company. Last I heard, he was selling satellite
dishes at an incredible discount at rodeos and state fairs. But only to
independents.

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