Ross Perot was more than just a billionaire with big ears and a funny way of talking, says Beth Anderson, the Nassau County Independence Party chair. He was a trailblazer whose progeny include more than just the odd wrestler.
"What Ross Perot really did was take a giant bulldozer and he pushed down the trees through the jungle and said, 'Here is the road for the Independence Party. Get in a car and learn how to drive it.'"
As one of the first women to chair a county political party, Anderson is one of thousands in the United States to heed the call and learn from the successes and mistakes of the Reform Party, the national version of New York State's Independence Party. For a third party to break or even loosen the Republican-Democrat stranglehold over American politics, Anderson has learned that community activism must come before electoral politics. It is this same attitude which helped the Independence Party take over the third slot on state ballots, beating out the Conservative Party in votes cast during the last gubernatorial election.
All of a sudden, third parties matter, even in high profile races between Republican and Democrat stalwarts. Anderson said her party is being courted by both of the front-runners for the US Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
"Hillary Clinton wants our endorsement; Rudy Giuliani wants our endorsement; Lazio wants our endorsement," she said. "We also have our own candidate, Tom Loughren. You know who is going to get our endorsement? The one who starts as a citizen activist and writes letters to every senator in the country, emploring them to pass the campaign finance reform bill. Start acting like a senator. Put your voice behind some of the important issues. Then ask for our endorsement."
The McCain-Feingold bill on campaign finance reform recently passed the House and is now in the Senate. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy has been in touch with Anderson on the developments, another example of the Independence Party's influence.
"She called me up and said, 'We're working on the campaign finance reform bill. What amendments do you want?'" Anderson said. "I told her, 'Carol, just pass it as is. Remove the barriers preventing it from being passed.' And it passed the House."
Locally, the Nassau chapter is just as influential and its endorsements often make the difference in close races. But unlike the Conservative, Liberal or Right-to-Life parties, the Independence Party does not take stands on particularly controversial, divide-and-conquer social issues like abortion. It is also the only third party which regularly cross endorses candidates from both of the major parties. The Conservative and Right-to-Life parties traditionally align with Republicans and, with the exception of Benjamin Slutsky's Right-to-Life candidacy for the 15th District, the County Legislature endorsements fall along party lines. Same goes for the Liberal Party, which is only running one of its own, Kevin E. Rockitter in District 16, throwing the rest of its endorsements to Democrats.
The Independence Party is running two of its own candidates in local elections this year and, through a rigorous screening process which took place in May, selected between the incumbents and challengers for town and county elections based on how they address the party's mission of fiscal responsibility, an open process and campaign reform.
Town candidates were chosen with respect to the communities' individual issues and how the incumbents have or have not addressed them, and the plans offered by challengers.
On the county level, the greatest concern is over the multimillion-dollar budget deficit. "We did not endorse anyone who did not acknowledge there is a major problem in Nassau County," Anderson said.
In the interest of an informed electorate, Anton Newspapers asked Anderson to justify each of the Independence Party's endorsements.
Town of North Hempstead: "We went with the Democrats (incumbents). They follow our platform. They've paid down the debt. They've clearly reformed their budget process. The North Hempstead budget is clear and easy to read and you don't have to know how to request it to get a copy. The town is in the black."
Town of Hempstead: "Another fine budget, which is why we endorsed the incumbents. Richard Guardino is a fabulous supervisor. Like him or hate him as a longtime Republican, he's a fine supervisor and they are fiscally responsible.
City of Glen Cove: "The voters there are truly independent. They don't stick to party line. We did not endorse the incumbents. We went with a completely Republican slate and we shocked a lot of people. It's important for anyone who sits on a council to know where their garbage goes, where their affordable housing is, road paving issues. We had the Democrats in here and they didn't screen well, they didn't know these things. Glen Cove has a downtown problem. It's poorly planned. The Republicans are prepared to address that."
Town of Oyster Bay: "Their budget is not as good as the other towns. The Democrats did not put forward a solution or a strong ticket. The supervisor (John Venditto) said he'd go hat in hand to the governor and beg for a piece of the Environmental Bond Fund money. We're going to hold him to that.
"We're also running an Independence Party candidate for receiver of taxes, Paul Nehrich, who is running against Jack O'Leary. Paul has been working in the North Hempstead tax office for ten years."
District 2: Democrat incumbent Roger H. Corbin over Republican Michael G. Abrahams. "Abrahams didn't screen well. He was saying people should vote for him because he's Republican and would be part of the majority and could bring home more for the district. Corbin is a well seasoned legislator. He understands what we need and he's been trying to deliver what we need."
District 3: Republican incumbent John J. Ciotti over Democrat Jacqueline Cherveny Brown. "People may have a good heart but that doesn't mean they have knowledge of the issues. It's kind of like, 'Elect me and then I'll learn how to do the job.' We went with Ciotti because he was willing to challenge the executive branch on the budget. He's promised to bring forward a bipartisan Legislature and not to play the games of who gets credit for good legislation. He's on the rules committee so we'll hold him to that."
District 8: Republican incumbent Vincent Muscarella over Democrat P. Brian Paradine. "We went with those Republicans who were committed to challenging the budget, the personal service contracts (which amount to a total cost between $50-100 million for the county), who know the job and acknowledge what they can do better."
District 9: Green Party candidate Frank J. Morris over Republican incumbent Richard Nicolello and Democrat Matthew Cuomo. "It's refreshing to have an environmental candidate. We bumbled the procedure and information sharing with the public regarding this spraying for mosquitoes. We need effective communication for public health. Unfortunately, the Democrats hadn't decided on a candidate in time for our screening process."
District 10: Democrat incumbent Lisanne Altmann over Republican Howard R. Birnbach. "Lisanne is one of the first Independent Party endorsements we made. She was the first in the Legislature to introduce campaign finance reform. She has lent her voice to our vision."
District 11: Democrat incumbent Barbara Johnson over Republican Tricia M. Zenobio. "Zenobio is brand new on the scene and doesn't know the issues. Barbara is exactly the kind of advocate we want."
District 12: Republican incumbent Peter J. Schmitt over Democrat Carl Lowe. "The bench talent the Democratic Party put forward was sometimes lacking. Schmitt is intense and smart. For example, he's willing to investigate scanning technologies to reduce the need for space in our county clerk's office. We have the largest county clerk's office in the country and we can solve a lot of our traffic difficulties downtown if people didn't have to come there for every little piece of evidence or records."
District 13: Republican incumbent Norma Gonsalves over Republican Patricia M. Maher and Democrat Rita Eilenberg. Norma ran on the Independence Party line a few elections ago when she lost the primary for the Republican ticket. She proved the Independence Party can pull enough votes to win an election. She didn't win, but it was so close. She was the first candidate to run strictly on our line."
District 14: Independence Party candidate Rosemary Styne over Republican incumbent Salvatore Pontillo and Democrat Kevin C. Gorman. "She has been involved with every transportation issue. She understands the traffic difficulties we have in this county. Our north-south access needs to be improved. We need vision and planning and she knows it."
District 15: Republican incumbent Dennis Dunne, Sr. over Democrat Teresa Butler, Right-to-Life candidate Benjamin Slutsky and Green Party candidate Janet Zink. "Butler didn't know the issues. She came in with a script, saying, 'Elect me because I wasn't there when the problems were made and I don't know anything but I'm not to blame.' That's no reason to vote for someone. Perhaps from May to now she's learned the issues, but she didn't when we did the screening."
District 16: Democrat incumbent Judith Jacobs over Republican Lois J. Weinstein and Liberal candidate Kevin E. Rockitter. "She's a godsend to Nassau County and as high as her aspirations go, we would like to be a part of that. Besides knowing all the issues in and out, if the Democratic Party was ever in power, she'd be an effective majority leader. Instead of being frustrated by the system, she's still passionate and innovative."
District 17: Republican incumbent Edward Mangano over Democrat James P. Keough and Liberal candidate Aaron M. Schein. "We grilled Mangano and if you were to ask him what he thought of our screening, he would say it was the most unpleasant conversation he's ever had. But he came out with a commitment. He's on the same page to accomplish what we need."
District 18: Republican incumbent John Canning over Democrat Brian T. Muellers. "Muellers is an intelligent, well-spoken young man, but his focus has been on his PhD and not being an activist. We don't want someone who has been out of it to be thrown into it. He will be a brilliant legislator if he takes the time to learn the issues. He needs a year to learn and we need a legislator today, and Canning is a legislator today."