Is South Carolina ready for a progressive third party?
BY BRETT BURSEY
With the exception of a call to abolish the draft and grant 18-year-ods the right to vote, the United Citizens Party platform could have been written today. When it first started in 1970, the UCP called for state-supported day care and kindergarten for all children, abolishing the death penalty, stricter environmental laws, unions for state employees, living wages for all workers, curbing corporate incentives and retiring the Confederate flag to a museum.
Most of the issues the UCP fought for 30 years ago remain unresolved. The continuing failure of politicians to promote and defend the interests of working people speaks to the shortcomings and prejudices of the major parties ó and, some argue, evidences the need to resurrect the UCP.
The UCP first ran candidates in the 1970 general elections. John Roy Harper, then a law student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, was party chairman. At a press conference announcing a petition drive to place the UCP on the ballot, Harper said, "There are no black state legislators, no black members of the county councils, no black school board members, no members of city councils. We got no way to go but up."
The original call for starting a black-led third party in South Carolina came out of a study committee organized by the S.C. Voter Education Project, headed by Jim Clyburn, a 29-year-old Charlestonian. Clyburn warned the group to watch out for back-room deals by Negro Democrats, but stressed that the UCP should include Republicans and Democrats and that it should be "an alternative ó if necessary ó primarily geared for general elections."
Clyburn likened the UCP to political backup. "Itís like a gun you buy for protection; you hope you donít have to use it but itís there in case you need it."
Clyburn went on to become the first commissioner of the state Human Affairs Commission (a state agency the UCP called for iin its party platform) and now represents South Carolinaís Sixth District in the United States Congress. Clyburn did not return phone calls for comment on the current effort to revive the UCP.
While the UCP was black-led and committed to electing black candidates, Harper said in 1969 that the party needed support from "other powerless people of South Carolina ó poor whites, Indians, mill workers and those in the labor movement. In short, there are large numbers of people who are entirely unrepresented in the existing system of government. And neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party has done anything about our conditions."
The UCP ran candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, the legislature and county councils in 1970. In 1972, Democratic nominee George McGovern topped the UCP ticket in the presidential race against Richard Nixon. It was South Carolinaís first experience with cross balloting, or "fusion" voting.
While no UCP candidate won an election, the party can be credited with opening up the Democratic Party to black participation. Black Democrats won seats in the House starting in 1972, and have continued to do so in every election since. Today, blacks make up about a third of the stateís population; they hold 18 percent of the seats in the legislature.
The story of the UCP between its high-profile days of the early 1970s and its recent reemergence is a strange tale. The party was dormant but retained ballot status until the law governing parties changed in 1986. New rules provided that to retain its status a party had to run candidates in at least every other general election.
In 1988, the year the UCP would have been decertified, the New York-based New Alliance Party filed the necessary paperwork, took control of the party and ran their candidate, Lenora Filani, as the UCP candidate for president.
Old UCP activists told Filaniís group that the party had not been abandoned, merely put on the shelf to await the proper time for its use. Filani, a black psychologist, had no political base in South Carolina, and wanted the party simply to get her name on as many ballots as possible to increase the amount of federal matching funds for her campaign.
The UCP loyalists were faced with a lose-lose situation. They could stop Filaniís move to take over the party, but that would mean the party would be decertified. The old guard decided to let the UCP go.
Filaniís group changed the name of the UCP to the Patriot Party and supported Reform Party candidate Ross Perot for president in 1992. Filaniís political bedfellows have included Lyndon Larouche and most recently Pat Buchanan. She has generally been viewed by the media as a bit of a kook.
In 1996 the Reform Party got ballot status in South Carolina, and Perot appeared on both Patriot Party and Reform Party ballots in South Carolinaís second experience with cross-party balloting.
Once the Reform Party had itís own organization in South Carolina, the Patriot Party (the old UCP) fell into disuse.
Now, 30 years after its founding, there is an effort to revive the party. In the past few months, Mike Avey, a political science professor at Lander College in Greenwood, and some activist friends have quietly complied with the necessary legal requirements to regain control of the Patriot Party. They have changed the name back to the United Citizens Party, and are intent on returning the party to the people.
"A progressive third party can help shape the major partiesí agendas," Avey said. "Democrats will continue to take blacks, women, gays, environmentalists and workers for granted if you canít quantify these votes and have a way to withhold them."
"I first saw the party as a way to get Ralph Nader on the ballot for president," Avey said, "but I quickly recognized a restored UCP ó a progressive third party with staying power ó was more important in the long run."
Aveyís coup in recovering the UCP resembles Filaniís paper takeover of the party in 1988. The difference, Avey said, is that he supports a true grassroots, democratic party for working people.
"Not enough has changed," Harper said in a recent interview. "The problems and inequities the United Citizens Party identified 30 year ago are still problems today. Sure, there have been a number of black legislators elected, but not enough to make difference without the support of white Democrats, which too rarely happens. The (Democratic) Party gives lip service to the needs of the black community and working people, but it stops there."
The notion of starting a third party today threatens the shaky seat black Democrats have at the table. White Democrats argue that a liberal third party would throw races to conservative Republicans.
Tim Rogers, a Columbia attorney and former member of the state legislature, organized Students for Broadwater in 1970. Rogers was a student at USC, and Tom Broadwater was the UCP candidate for governor.
At the time, Rogers was quoted as saying the UCP "offers a constructive alternative to the politics of negativism and equivocation practiced by the stateís other parties."
Today, Rogers fears that a liberal third party running candidates against Democrats "could split the vote and conceded races to the Republican."
"Fusion, however, is a great idea," he said. "I can see it could cause heartburn to some folks, but the two-party system by definition leaves people out. Fusion voting for progressive candidates would bring out new voters."
Fusion voting is legal in only a handful of states. It allows different parties to nominate the same candidates and add the total votes together. For example, if Jane Frederick, the Democratic nominee running against Congressman Floyd Spence, would also accept a nomination to run as a UCP candidate, her name would appear twice on the ballots, and she would receive the cumulative total of votes cast.
The move to restore the UCP was taken up at a strategy meeting of the South Carolina Progressive Voter Coalition (S.C. ProVote, a political action committee) in May. "Our group was excited about the possibilities a homegrown third party like the UCP gives us," said Donna DeWitt, president of the S.C. AFL-CIO. Fusion voting gives us a way to support good candidates and punish the bad ones. We can put Democrats, or even Republicans who pass our nominating process, on our ballot and bring out more votes for them. If there is no good candidate, we can run our own."
Charleston political consultant Steve Abrams said, "Fusion voting is like training wheels to help a new party get its balance. In New York, there are some 13 lines on the ballot," said Abrams, who has worked on races and has run as a candidate in that state. "It started out with the minor parties not having much clout. Since they have started using fusion tactics, you canít get elected as a Democrat in most places without the support of the Liberal Party."
Abrams believes fusion voting results in a more democratic political process. "The minority voices get a real seat at the table because they have the power to decide who wins," he said.
Willie Legette, a political science professor at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, has been working on restoring the UCP. He has spent years analyzing this stateís political machines.
"The Democratic Party is trying to articulate the interest of middle-class voters who are overwhelmingly and disproportionately white," Legette said. "The people who define the black agenda are always middle-class blacks. Only a small percentage of blacks are middle-class, so you need another party to voice the needs of working people and black people.
Legette believes that the intersection between race and class is more profound in South Carolina than in other states. Black political districts have been created that are overwhelmingly elderly and poor. "What this means," he said, "is that South Carolina has segregated people by class as well as race. White districts do not have a significant percentage of poor constituents.
"We have districts that have 70 percent black people that are below the poverty level. White poverty isnít concentrated, and seldom represents as much as 10 percent of a district. So politicians donít have the incentive to champion causes relevant to working people."
Legette thinks the challenge for the UCP is to galvanize new voters around the common interests between black and white working people.
"The right wing has convinced people over the past 30 years that the government is the enemy and should have no interest in quality of life issues," Legette said. "The UCP can articulate a new progressive policy agenda, talk about new possibilities about what the government can, and should, in fact do. We need a new contract between the people and their government, and the UCP can help write this contract."
Challenging the two-party system is fraught with problems, not the least of which is how to deal with established black leadership and their middle-class agenda. Legette points out that many black leaders donít concern themselves with issues that are important to a majority of their constituents, such as a living wage, reform of the criminal justice system and improving access to health care for poor people.
"They will list a whole slew of things they support," Legette said, "but what they are willing to spend their political capital on are set asides, affirmative action, more black appointments ó all things that help the black middle class."
"The UCP offers the opportunity to develop a new party with a different ideological orientation and a different base of legitimacy based on the support of working people, poor people, environmentalists, gays and lesbians ó people who recognize that the Democrats have not served their interests," Legette said.
"The base of the UCP will be people who are looking for a more democratic and egalitarian system," Legette said. "To ensure that this happens, we need to bypass the Ďacceptedí leadership by going to the communities and presenting our agenda. We have to be careful to not tie our fortunes to personalities, and make sure that issues take the lead."
Leslie Minerd, a long-time Columbia activist, has been working with Avey. She is enthusiastic about the UCPís potential, and hopes the party will choose Ralph Nader as its presidential candidate at its convention Aug. 12 in Columbia.
Putting Nader at the top of the UCP ticket will bring out new voters, Minard said.
At a May meeting of Nader 2000 in Columbia, publicized only through email, nearly 20 people turned out with less than a dayís notice.
"Half the people were under 25 and have never been involved in politics," Minerd said. "These are people who say they wonít bother to vote for Gore or Bush, but will turn out for Nader. There are a lot of people out there that neither the Democratic nor Republican Party are reaching."
The two major parties seem to be content to fight over the small percentage of the existing voters. Minerd and others believe it is past time to start fishing in different pools for new voters.
South Carolina ranks 48th in the nation for voter participation, with fewer than half our citizens going to the polls. Only 38 percent of the voting-age population voted in 1998, and only 29 percent of the black vote turned out.
While UCP organizers think their party will help boost voter participation ó bringing more progressives to the polls ó and that the Democratic Party would benefit from the new blood, a decision to run fusion candidates this November might end up in court. Jim Hendrix, director of the state Election Commission, has told UCP organizers that it is too late to certify their own candidates for this fall, and that candidates from other parties would have to be approved by the chair of the respective party.
"We have consistently taken the position that our candidates can not appear on other ballots," Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said when asked for comment on the possibility of cross balloting with the UCP.
"My gut feeling is that it makes things more diffuse and harder for voters to understand," Harpootlian said. "It would make the situation more like an Italian election than an American election."
Harpootlian said the decision to allow fusion voting would be up to the Democratic Partyís executive council, but that he was willing to keep an open mind and hear arguments about how the practice could help Democratic candidates.
Avey believes that the UCP could put Democrats on their ballot without Harpootlianís approval. "I think that if we have to go to court we will win," Avey said.
The UCPís nominating convention will be held Aug. 12 in Columbia. For information, call 803-957-8740 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.