Third party becomes key player in several major Connecticut races

Hartford - A minor political party has become a major player in Connecticut's election season this year.

The Working Families Party, a liberal political organization created in 2002 with the backing of organized labor, directly or indirectly has a role in several key political battles currently being waged, including the closely watched race for the 5th Congressional District seat and a lawsuit filed against Secretary of the State Denise Merrill by the Connecticut Republican Party.

In both cases, the party's ability to cross-endorse candidates, giving them two spots on the election ballot, is at issue.

In the 5th District, House Speaker Chris Donovan, who lost last week's Democratic primary to former Rep. Elizabeth Esty, has yet to announce whether he plans to continue running for the open seat under the banner of the Working Families Party. The third party, with 171 registered members, cross-endorsed the Democrat this year.

The Working Families Party's cross-endorsement of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy back in 2010 is the impetus behind the state GOP's recent lawsuit challenging the order of candidates on the November statewide election ballot. Republicans maintain that their candidates, not the Democrats, should appear on the top line even though a Democrat won the governor's race. That's because Malloy ultimately won that close race with the votes he garnered as a cross-endorsed Working Families Party candidate.

Republican Tom Foley received 560,874 votes, while Malloy won 540,970 as a Democrat and 26,308 as a Working Families Party candidate. Merrill's office has said that the Working Families Party did not have minor party status in 2010, so the top line goes to Malloy's party. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Sept. 12.

Lindsay Farrell, the party's new executive director, said the ability to cross-endorse candidates is key to making sure the issues the group cares about, such as paid sick days for workers, affordable housing, access to health care and a higher minimum wage, are advocated by candidates. By giving candidates an opportunity to have a second spot on the ballot, candidates have an incentive to be responsive to the party's issues.

"It's certainly a benefit," Farrell said of the second line.

Besides Malloy, a handful of state lawmakers in close races in 2010 ultimately won because of the votes cast for them as Working Families candidates. Farrell said some voters are frustrated with the two major parties and see the Working Families' endorsement as an independent validation of a candidate, allowing them "to say something with their vote about their values." She said others are familiar with the political party's positions and therefore support their endorsed candidates.

The Working Families Party does not encourage its members to register to vote as party members. Rather, the organization has hundreds of dues-paying members, as well as ties with affiliated groups that also provide candidates with grassroots campaign help, such as phone calling and door-knocking. Farrell estimates 100,000 people can be mobilized.

While the party typically cross-endorses Democrats, it has backed some Republicans over the years.

"It's never really about running a candidate of our own just for the sake of doing it," she said. "It's about seeing victories on the issues that affect middle and working class people with the folks that end up governing."

Farrell said Malloy's support of the new law requiring certain employers to provide paid leave - an issue the party lobbied for at the state Capitol - is a key example of what it's trying to accomplish with its cross-endorsements.

The party has been successful in running its own candidates locally in Connecticut. There are currently three Working Families Party members on the Hartford City Council and two on the city's school board.

The party's endorsement this year of Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy for the open U.S. Senate race has prompted Republican Linda McMahon to try and get on the ballot twice. McMahon spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the campaign has submitted its petitions to get McMahon listed as a candidate on the Independent Party line and is awaiting them to be verified. McMahon needs 7,500 signatures.

Her primary rival, former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, has criticized McMahon for trying to appear on two lines, saying it would ultimately hurt her fellow Republican candidates by diluting the vote.

"It says a lot that she's pursuing that," Farrell said. "She's not alone. A lot of Republican candidates this year got the memo about getting your name on the second ballot."

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