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Little political party is winning big 

Brightly-colored T-shirts and posters adorn the walls of the Working Families Party's small offices at 681 South Avenue. Flyers of the group's main campaign of the summer, "Defeat Bush," are stuck in a row on the front window. They sport a grimacing face of President Bush that stares at visitors and passers-by.

The room and the people in it --- volunteers and canvassers ranging in age and experience from college students to retirees --- smile and chat on couches and chairs like laid-back professionals. They're in T-shirts and jeans, for the most part. The group is, unmistakably, grassroots.

Working Families might be small, but its influence is growing. Its voting power has more than tripled since the party formed in 1998. And the group is given a share of credit for the recent approval, by the State Assembly and Senate, of the minimum wage bill. A win like that is huge in a year when the state budget is still past due, says the party's Finger Lakes coordinator, Alex Monticello.

That sense of victory has emboldened party officials to speak out more quickly: when the minimum wage legislation met Governor George Pataki's veto Thursday, Working Families issued a press release within hours calling the move "heartless, short-sighted, and economically illiterate."

Monticello vowed Friday to continue fighting for the wage increase. "We are poised to do whatever it takes to get the senate to override the veto," he said. "They did it once, they can do it again." And there's one simple reason Albany veterans may be listening a little more closely to the party's demands these days.

At the heart of the party's victories in New York State --- major and minor --- is the concept of fusion voting: cross endorsing. It's Working Families' (not so) secret weapon, the party's website and local party members say.

Rather than running its own candidates, as the Greens do, Working Families often endorses major-party candidates whose record and viewpoints they agree with. Critics of two-party politics hail fusion voting as a way to give clout to smaller parties' voices and strength to their issues without spoiling popular candidates' chances at election.

This is a tactic the Monroe County Conservative Party has used successfully for years. And the Conservatives have been able to exert power much larger than their numbers, particularly among local Republicans.

"We think we've really changed the landscape of New York politics over the past few years," says Don DePerna Jr., a volunteer with the local Working Families chapter. "We've taken advantage of fusion voting in New York. That's where we try to generate some political power."

Statewide, votes cast on the Working Families line rose from 1 percent in 1998 to 4.5 percent in 2003. Locally, the number of voters registered with the party is growing: in 1999, there were only 49 in Monroe County. Now, there are 617.

The party's tactics have resulted in some surprising wins. In Syracuse, for example, the New Times reported last September that two Common Council members were unseated due to the party's influence. The party targeted Mike Atkins and Marty Masterpole, the New Times reported, because the men reneged on their pledge to vote for living-wage legislation.

And in New York City, Letitia James, running only on the Working Families line, was elected to City Council.

The party doesn't usually run its own candidates, Monticello says, "because it is very hard to get people who are conditioned to voting on the top two lines to move their vote all the way down to the bottom line. It's one thing to get 3 to 5 percent of the vote; it's another thing to get 35 to 45 percent on your line."

Working Families is a generally liberal-leaning group, but Monticello says it doesn't always pick Democrats.

"I think we send an important message to the community," says volunteer Jo Ann McDonald, "because we don't say we're just going to vote for a Democrat, or we're just going to vote for a Republican, or we're just going to put our own on the ticket. It lets the people know that what they want is important, and that the party is not as important as the issues are. I think that's why we're growing as fast as we are."

Locally, the party was one of several groups fighting for an increase in the state's minimum wage. Also lobbying were several local religious organizations, the Rochester Labor Council, Action for a Better Community, and Metro Justice. But State Assemblymember Susan John emphasizes the importance of the Working Families' campaign. John and fellow Assembly Democrat David Koon joined Working Families representatives for a press conference last Thursday, urging Governor Pataki to sign the bill.

"They kept the issue focused and alive," says John, and she cites the group's success in bringing public attention to the campaign and in stirring its base to action. "The Working Families Party tried to help energize the disenfranchised," John says.

To promote public awareness on the issue and raise money for the party's work, Working Families canvassers knocked on 20,000 doors in Monroe County.

Members say they're happy the bill was passed despite critics' complaints that the minimum wage increase will drive businesses out of state and scale back local work forces.

"There's been no job loss that you can point to from a minimum wage increase," DePerna says.

Speaking of Working Families Party, minimum Wage

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