by Preet Bharara
Who are Wilson and Pakula and why is their arcane 1947 law a major issue in Albany today?
Wilson-Pakula is the original party crasher law, created during America’s Red Scare to keep socialists and communists from infiltrating political parties and taking them over from within.
In a measure that may only make sense in New York’s power politics, it places extraordinary power in the hands of political party bosses. It allows a party leader to grant a ballot line to a candidate not enrolled in the leader’s party. The extra line, prohibited in most states, is a strategic and critical tool for many candidates in New York to attract more votes.
Today, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has resurrected the debate over the law that was sponsored by Assemblyman Malcolm Wilson, who later became governor, and Sen. Irwin Pakula of Queens. In April, Bharara accused Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens of trying to bribe his way onto the Republican line to run for New York City mayor. Smith denies the charge and state Republican Chairman Ed Cox said his party would never have accepted Smith.
Now, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to dismantle Wilson-Pakula. He wants to take away the power of party chairmen to grant waivers allowing an insider onto the party line. Instead, Cuomo wants to require a petition process that would require broader political support by party members, which some minor parties already offer.
“You have heard the expression ‘pay to play’?” Cuomo said, referring to the practice in which lobbyists make campaign donations to get or stop legislation. “This is ‘pay to run.’
“The allegation is that the minor parties basically, on occasion, have used campaign contributions to determine who gets the line,” Cuomo said. “It’s almost that the line goes to the highest bidder.”
The Independent Democratic Conference, which shares majority control of the Senate with Republicans, also supports repeal.
Wilson-Pakula, however, is being defended by the unlikeliest band of liberals, conservatives, moderates and disenfranchised voters equally disgusted by the Democratic and Republican parties. They note eliminating the power of a party’s top leader to block a candidate gives more power to the Democratic and Republican parties through infiltrating operatives to control or silence minority parties and their voices.
Supporters pose a scenario in which a wealthy candidate — for example, a conservative — could organize enough supporters to infiltrate a minor party of liberals and collect votes from liberals who assumed the candidate shared their values. The next step, supporters portend, would include Republicans and Democrats infiltrating the opposition party, resulting in two parties indistinguishable from each other or, worse, a de facto single party.
“We respectfully disagree with anyone who wants to change the Wilson-Pakula law,” said Frank MacKay, chairman of the state Independence Party. “Without Wilson-Pakula, a wealthy candidate could override the philosophy of a party which he has nothing in common with.”
On this, many liberals and conservatives agree.
“Hey, I don’t like the Working Families Party,” said state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long. “But they stand for a set of principles and enunciate a set of principles. … We feel this is important for this nation. It would really end a philosophical bent to political parties in New York.”
The liberal Working Families Party agrees.
“The governor’s proposal will cause a tremendous amount of confusion and chaos among voters and is a direct attack on the rights of minor parties to be effective participants in New York politics,” said Dan Cantor, executive director of the party.
“We know a lot of people vote on our line and we know a lot don’t. But they’ve come to rely on our line meaning something,” Cantor said. “The governor is trying to make ideas even less important in politics. And that’s a bad thing.”
The Green Party, another liberal force, calls efforts to repeal Wilson-Pakula an assault on the First Amendment and a move that would make well-funded candidates even more powerful. Cuomo has more than $20 million in his campaign fund and the Democratic line in a state dominated nearly 2-to-1 by Democratic voters. He has no need to run on a minor party line, but for his Republican opponent, additional lines will be essential.
“Cuomo and the Independent Democratic Conference aren’t interested in preventing corruption,” said Gloria Mattera, co-chairwoman of the Green Party. “They just want to further weaken political parties and make it easier for the candidates with the most money to buy elections.”
This article was written by Preet Bharara and originally published on newyork.newsday