New York Post

Thursday,September 21,2000
Post Opinion

COULD Ralph Nader hand the White House to George W. Bush? New Yorkers know well that the concern is well-founded - but should also see why progressives find a Nader run well worth that risk.

Liz Holtzman's loss in the 1980 Senate race is still fresh in many memories. The incumbent, liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits, lost the GOP nomination to the conservative Alfonse D'Amato - but refused to yield to Holtzman, ideological soulmate. Instead, Javits ran on the Liberal Party line - and D'Amato won with 45 percent of the vote. Holtzman got 44 percent of the vote, Javits 11 percent - and Democrats got to live with D'Amato as senator for the next 18 years.

It's no wonder that many Gore supporters wish the Green Party and Ralph Nader would just go away.

But Javits is not the only model of a spoiler, nor the most relevant. The most that Javits' candidacy could have accomplished was to save his seat. For a New York model that truly resembles Nader's candidacy, we must go back to the elections of 1829.

From its birth in the early years of the 19th century, the Democratic Party pitched itself as the party of workers. But for many years all it offered them were slogans and sympathy.

When debtors were jailed for owing grocers even the tiniest of sums, the Democratic Party refused to change the law. When artisans petitioned the Legislature for protection of their tools when they defaulted on their rents, their party did not accommodate them. Building contractors routinely cheated their workers of their wages, yet the Democratic Party refused to pass a law to place liens on buildings until the workers who had built them were paid. The Democrats espoused free education for all, but would not finance education in any meaningful way.

New York City workers came to realize that "their" party would not represent them unless they forced it to, and in 1829 they formed the Workingmen's Party. In the elections that took place just two months after the new party presented its platform, it received almost a third of all the votes that were cast.

The effect was immediate. The most pressing demand of the "workies," an end to imprisonment for debt, was passed into law by the state Legislature in 1832. By 1840, practically all the rest of the "workies" demands had become law as well. Several leaders of the Workingmen were brought into the leadership of the Democratic Party, and the structure of the party was transformed radically.

Just two years after it was formed, the Workingmen's party ceased to exist. But the Democratic Party in the country's largest state at the time had become the party that it had always proclaimed to be: The representative of organized labor. And it proceeded to don the mantle nationally.

Ralph Nader claims that the Democratic Party will never realign itself with its voters unless it is forced to, and that a challenge by a third party - even when this party has no chance of winning - can accomplish this task. New York's historical record supports his claim.

Moshe Adler teaches in the urban planning department at Columbia.