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Independent Politics in a "What's Next?" World

National Conference of Independents
New York, NY
January 28, 2007

By Dr. Lenora Fulani

Thank you. Sharp Talk, by the way, is filmed in a real barbershop in Brooklyn, New York. It’s kind of unusual, because while you’re being interviewed, there’s a guy right behind you getting a haircut!

If you pardon the pun, it’s very “cutting edge” – and I mean that literally. Because Reverend Sharpton – who is the country’s most important civil rights leader – was having a dialogue about new political options for black America.

Reverend Sharpton and I have known each other for a long time – as he said. Maybe not since we were teenagers, but certainly before we each had teenagers. We’d come to know each other as street protesters, standing up in response to racial violence here in liberal New York, during the 1980s. I was a political independent. He became a Democrat. Our conversation about the road to empowerment for black America began 20 years ago and has taken us through many twists and turns. It continues to this day.

As I said on the show, the issue has never been whether we should build a black political party. I am neither a separatist, nor a partisan. And as I told Rev on Sharp Talk, the biggest political question for black America is the question of who should we partner with and what the terms of those alliances are.

For more than a generation, black people were partners in the liberal coalition, and that coalition was attached at the hip to the Democratic Party. Our struggle for civil rights was backed by white liberals and together we produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In those years, black people became entirely loyal to the Democrats, voting for Democratic candidates (when we voted) by margins of 90% and higher. In the 1980s, Reverend Jesse Jackson led a crusade to raise us up within the Democratic Party. To some extent, he succeeded. The numbers of black elected officials grew at all levels of government.

But empowering African Americans inside the Democratic Party is not the same thing as dealing with poverty, a failed education system, drug abuse and racial violence in our communities. Yes, civil rights and voting rights gains have been made. Yes, there is a growing black middle class. But, there still is massive poverty and underdevelopment in black America. If anyone thought those problems had been solved, Hurricane Katrina set the record straight. The liberal coalition did not succeed in creating the Great Society – far from it. The liberal coalition can, however, take credit for opening the door to the dominance of the Right Wing. Its failures empowered the Republican Right. Meanwhile, our kids are poor, growing up without learning to read or write, without any sense of the wider and complicated world of which they are a part.

Why is that the case? One major reason is that the Democratic Party has not had the will, nor the capacity, to deconstruct and reconstruct its own priorities. The special interests that control policymaking in America control both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There is a delicate balance among those interests, which the two parties work overtime to maintain. That’s what they’re doing when they’re being “bi-partisan.” They are cooperating to reinforce the political status quo. With the status quo intact, they can only send us bandaids. They cannot cure the disease. And the Democrats, in particular, are notoriously unwilling to look at innovation, at new ideas, most particularly when it comes to poor people and people of color.

The white liberal partners who shared our cause in the 1960s, now have less to offer. They are more concerned to grab a piece of the action inside a Democratic Party that believes it has gotten its “mojo” back. Black America is a constituency whose votes are taken for granted. After all, the liberal Democrats say, we don’t have anywhere else to go!

In the last 15 years a new constituency stepped out of the political box and onto the political stage. And that changed the equation. The independent voter – a huge mass of Americans, largely white, who – as the saying went – want to take our country back. Could these independents become a partner for black America? That became my question.

I was already in the midst of my second independent presidential run when Ross Perot announced his independent presidential candidacy in 1992. I began to reach out to his supporters and followers, even as his campaign reached out to mine – to find out how the heck you get on the ballot in all 50 states. Here’s an example of how rich people are smart. What did billionaire Ross Perot do when he wanted to get on the ballot in all 50 states? He called up the poor black woman who had done it four years earlier. When Mike Bloomberg came along here in New York, he did something similar. He needed independent votes and black votes to be elected mayor in 2001. A lot of people said, “What? Is he crazy? Hooking up with that fringy Independence Party?” Bloomberg was crazy. Crazy like a fox! The Independence Party’s 60,000 votes on Column C gave him his margin of victory. Bloomberg realized that poor people were not only the key to winning the mayoral – they were the cheapest way to do it!

But before there was the Bloomberg Revolution, there was the Perot revolution. And it was something brand new in American politics that our wing of the independent movement, the progressive wing, was determined to create a connection to. If black America could find a new partner in the white independent voter, then we would have somewhere else to go! We could escape from the old paradigm and create a new political partnership.

By the time the National Reform Party was founded after Perot’s 1996 run, there was a black and independent alliance inside the Reform Party. This was the force that worked to build the party on the ground. This was the force that came together in Dearborn, Michigan in 1999, to establish a majority coalition inside the party, a democracy coalition focused on empowering the party’s rank and file, a coalition which gave me 45% of the vote in an internal party election for Vice Chair. This was also the coalition that was upended and overwhelmed inside the Reform Party when major party players came in to take it over and destroy it.

The black and independent alliance is, of course, still in its infancy. Nonetheless, it made a dramatic mark here in New York City in the mayoral race in 2005. We know those results very well. In an astonishing outcome, 47% of black voters turned away from the Democratic Party and voted independently for Mike Bloomberg. They were joined by over 65% of independent voters, while the Independence Party polled 75,000 votes on its Column C line, an increase of 26% over 2001.

The main pillars of the Bloomberg revolution of 2005 were black voters and independent voters. But, the black and independent alliance has done more than re-elect the most independent, nonpartisan, pro-reform mayor in the country – the guy a lot of people would now like to see run for president. That coalition tried to win passage of nonpartisan elections, meeting with stiff resistance from the clubhouse. And even though we lost that round, we still redrew the map of electoral politics in New York City, creating a model for a new political partnership for black voters – the black and independent alliance.

But, the success of the black and independent alliance came with a price. And it ain’t cheap! For the crime of urging black America to exercise its constitutional right to vote as it chooses, I have been accused of being an anti-Semite, a hater, a divider, a cultist, even a child abuser. Of course, I am none of these. For the crime of giving black people the means to be something other than the private property of one political party, I have been vilified and attacked.

My friends and colleagues, Fred Newman, Jackie Salit and many of the people here in this room have been maligned and abused by party hacks, by the media, and even by so-called fellow independents. As we sit here today, Frank MacKay, the state chairman of the Independence Party of New York, who is leading the so-far failed effort to destroy the New York City organization of IP, is in Albany at a state committee meeting of the party, enacting a proposed rules change that will destroy the entire party and turn it into his private neo-fascistic club, removing what’s left of grassroots democracy and political independence.

The idea – and the reality – of independent black political action does not please the powers that be. When Hillary Clinton wanted the Independence Party line in her first run for the Senate but was told she couldn’t get it in a backroom deal, and would instead have to go to the party’s membership and ask for their support, she didn’t miss a beat. Mrs. Clinton walked right up to an Independence Party podium and pretended that she didn’t want our support. Why? Because, she said, Lenora Fulani is an anti-Semite and an extremist. At the time, there was only one black Democrat who stood up to defend me. It was Al Sharpton.

For having the audacity – not of hope – but of hard work, the audacity to stand on street corners in Harlem and Far Rockaway and Brownsville and offer black people an independent political alternative – for that audacity, we have been made Public Enemy #1 by the Democratic Party political elites and their media vultures. Just like a shark, the media loves a feeding frenzy. When top leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties joined together to try to pound us out of existence, the media was there printing lies and leaks, doing everything in its power to destroy our movement. And I mean top leaders. I mean the newly elected governor of this state. I mean the leading candidate for President of the United States. This was no low level hit job. This came straight from the top.

When the bashing was at its peak, the New York Times ran 18 articles about it, including two editorials telling voters to stay away from the Independence Party – to not give it a single vote. Well, that obviously backfired. But when we won a string of court victories against our attackers, including from a State Supreme Court judge who ruled that the charges against me and Fred Newman had no substance, and that the campaign to destroy us was clearly political in nature, the coverage suddenly dried up. The Times said it was all an internal party matter – not a real news story.

Throughout this process of vilification, Al Sharpton was the singular national black leader in the Democratic Party who stood up for us. He was willing to speak out against this vilification of black independents, and to reach out a hand to build a bridge to the independent movement.

If you read the newspapers or watch TV these days, you read all about Barack Obama. They tell us he is the new leader of black America. I haven’t met Mr. Obama. I don’t know what he’s made of. I do know Al Sharpton. I do know what he’s made of. I’ve heard him speak out. He knows that the civil rights movement of the 21st century is not about “transcending racial issues.” It’s about supporting the development of black people to do new things – including to engineer new political strategies and partnerships.

You’ve heard a lot about Barack Obama, but you don’t hear about the black independent leaders who have been fighting back against the corruption of partisanship, not by “transcending it” but by building a third force that can dismantle it. There are black independents who are right now taking the New York electoral revolution and bringing it out across the country. I want you to know these unrecognized people. And there are a few that I want to recognize today. Watch carefully when I read these names. No flashbulbs will go off. No headlines will be written.

In Atlanta, Georgia, two leaders with years of experience in both the Democratic and Republican parties have become independents, founded an organization called iMove and held a southern regional conference of independents that I was honored to attend last year. Please acknowledge Al Bartell and Audrey Mowdy.

From the critically important state of South Carolina, a colleague with whom I have worked since the earliest days of the independent movement. He is the chairman of the Independent Party of South Carolina, and now that South Carolina has been moved up to the top of the presidential primary schedule, we expect to be hearing a lot more from him. Please recognize our brother – Wayne Griffin.

Originally from the Bronx, this extraordinary person helped get me on the ballot in my presidential runs and is a veteran of many independent campaigns. He is now based in Chicago and heads up United Independents of Illinois, David Cherry.

Finally, a physician and talented spokesperson for the independent political movement in the Bay Area, she helped Ron Dellums to become the new mayor of Oakland by mobilizing independent support for his campaign. He won by 155 votes. Please recognize Dr. Elouise Joseph.

These are just a few of the unknown pioneers of a new and humane political culture for America. I am so proud to lead them and to build with them.

Like these unknown and unrecognized leaders, the electoral revolution in New York City in 2005 did not make headlines. But the political elite followed those results closely. They know that 42% of the American people consider themselves independents. They know that 47% of black voters in New York walked away from the Democratic Party into a partnership with white independents. They know that the poverty and underdevelopment of black America is deeply felt – and not just by black America. They see that new alliances are forming and that black people are choosing new options, that we are taking steps down a new and different road, and that we are determined to get – if not to the promised land, at least to a land that has a level playing field where Americans of all colors and ideologies can freely choose to coalesce.

Our wing of the independent movement, its progressive wing, has worked from the beginning to ensure that black America is a part of that movement and has a seat at the independent table. Our commitment to this principle has not changed. Our movement must be multi-racial, inclusionary, and up-from-the-bottom democratic. It must do the work necessary to knit together Americans of all kinds or we will not be able to make a difference.

Reverend Sharpton once said to me, I didn’t come this far, to do nothing. Those were wise words, Reverend Sharpton. We didn’t come this far to bow down to the corruption and vulgarity of two party politics in America. We’re going to keep going. We’re going to make a difference. I’m so proud to be walking this road with all of you.

Thank you!

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