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.
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.
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.
“Hey, I don’t like the Working Families Party,” said 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.