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ChIP off the old block
With its rejection of parties and emphasis on process, Choosing an Independent President wants to harness the power of the politically unaffiliated. But to what end?

INDEPENDENT VOTERS have no king. They belong to every ethnic group, hail from all income brackets, and span the ideological spectrum, from gun-toting anti-tax creationists on the right to ultra-pacifists on the left. They don’t have much in common, other than dissatisfaction with Democrats and Republicans and an ornery pride in their own autonomy. Every now and again, a single person manages to mobilize independents’ grievances and aspirations — think Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, or Ralph Nader — but none of these figures could ever credibly claim to speak for the entire independent community.

And no one can do that today. But with the front-loaded Democratic-primary schedule about to commence, and the political press fixated on what impact independent voters — who make up as much as 35 percent of the electorate, according to some polls — will have on the 2004 campaign, a small coterie is assuming the mantle of leadership for America’s independents in subtle but effective fashion. The group’s approach was on display last weekend in Bedford, New Hampshire, where the Choosing an Independent President 2004 conference — also known as ChIP — drew approximately 300 people to the Wayfarer Inn. Democratic hopefuls Wesley Clark and Dennis Kucinich sent emissaries. Photocopies of conference questionnaires filled out by Kucinich, Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Al Sharpton — all desperate for any independent votes they can get in New Hampshire and the 21 other states with open primaries — were stacked neatly on tables outside the Wayfarer’s convention center. And the conference closed with a high-profile coup: an hour-long speech by Nader, who bashed the Democratic and Republican leadership and exhorted the cheering audience to "go back to the states you came from and expand this effort."

Given the questionable backgrounds of ChIP’s conveners — including Fred Newman, a Stanford-trained philosopher and controversial therapist who has been accused of running a de facto cult; and Lenora Fulani, a long-time Newman associate and veteran fringe candidate — the willingness of mainstream candidates like Dean, Clark, and Edwards to have anything to do with the ChIP proceedings is surprising. So was Nader’s appearance: in a piece posted on the Nation’s Web site earlier this week, former Nader backer Doug Ireland asked incredulously, "What in the world is Ralph Nader doing in bed with the ultrasectarian cult-racket formerly known as the New Alliance Party?" (Nader spokesperson Theresa Amato said Nader had considered Newman’s and Fulani’s controversial pasts before deciding to attend, but added, "I don’t think this was the first or the last time people of widely different views convened or attended a public meeting to protest, or discuss the state of the electoral process or a common assault on liberties.")

But the willingness of these acknowledged political heavyweights to associate with ChIP is also a tribute to the savvy of Newman, Fulani, and fellow organizers Jacqueline Salit, Jim Mangia, and Omar Ali. Coupling rhetorical flair with strategic acumen, the five are offering themselves to major-party candidates, the national media, and the general public as authorities on the needs and wants of America’s independent voters — and, simultaneously, as central figures in a burgeoning "independent movement." Both the candidates and the media seem inclined to take them up on their offer. And unless America’s independents take notice, they may wake one day to discover they’ve been assigned a handful of leaders they don’t even know — and whom they’d rather not have. "There’s a history of them trying to glom on and take advantage of real political movements to suit their own ends," Micah Sifry, a former Nation editor and authority on third-party politics, says of Newman and Fulani. "The only way this can happen is if the media props them up. But what happens again and again is that people just don’t do their homework."

THE CROWD mingling around the Choosing an Independent President 2004 registration tables on January 10 certainly looked diverse. While the attendees’ name tags indicated a high concentration of New Yorkers, every region of the country was represented. There were teenagers and geriatrics. People who looked like they’d slept on the street rubbed elbows with moneyed Manhattanites. And, unusual for New Hampshire political events, there was a large African-American contingent. Based on appearance alone, the organizers’ description of ChIP as a "national strategy conference" for independents seemed credible.

Beneath this apparent diversity, however, was a striking homogeneity. Most of the people I spoke with had one thing in common: they had a prior connection to Lenora Fulani or the New Alliance Party (NAP), on whose ticket Fulani made her 1988 and 1992 presidential runs. Some were open about this affiliation, but others were more circumspect, identifying themselves first as "independent activists" and mentioning their connection to Fulani or the NAP only when pressed.

Take Linda Curtis and Joyce Dattner. Curtis, a wiry resident of Austin, Texas, told me she’d published several op-eds in Texas papers criticizing that state’s redistricting process and was part of a group currently urging Michael Fjetland — who’d previously mounted a Republican challenge to Tom DeLay — to run against the House majority leader as an independent in 2004. When I asked for her political biography, Curtis told me she’d "worked in the independent movement from the late 1970s." It took further prodding to learn that she’d once been the NAP’s national organizer. Dattner, a 55-year-old San Franciscan in a bright-pink fleece pullover, identified herself as the political director of the Committee for an Independent Voice, a network of Bay Area independents, and a former chair of San Francisco’s Reform Party. Then she paused. "I’ve been working with Dr. Lenora Fulani for many years," she continued. "I was actually one of her vice-presidential candidates in 1988."

Since both Curtis and Dattner had been guided to me by a ChIP press liaison, I figured I’d talk to someone at random and asked a stout woman seated next to me what brought her to Bedford. "I’m a Democrat who has no idea how to vote," Anne Street, a Baltimore native currently living in Medford, told me. "And I’m interested in finding out how we could swing the independents to get behind one of our candidates so it doesn’t happen again that, with Nader running, we lose the presidency." Finally, I thought, someone with no ties to Fulani or the NAP. But a moment later, Street mentioned that she’d once hosted a coffee for Fulani in her Baltimore home.

Naturally, not everyone fit the Fulani-associate mold. Keyno Hicks — a genially excitable man who described himself as "one of the few honkies" to attend the Million Man March — spent most of the weekend demanding that Dick Cheney be replaced with former defense secretary Bill Cohen on the GOP’s 2004 slate. (The issue never took off.) He said he’d seen Fulani plug ChIP on C-SPAN earlier this year, and figured it would be worth the trip from Lakeland, Florida. But Hicks was in a distinct minority. Despite the occasional idiosyncratic figure, I met no one who had worked, for example, for such notable independent figures as John Anderson, the former Republican congressman from Illinois who garnered almost seven percent of the vote in the 1980 presidential election; or for Perot during his landmark 1992 run; or for Ventura during his improbably successful 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign; or for Nader during his still-controversial 2000 presidential bid. With few exceptions, all roads led back to Fulani.

MOST PEOPLE don’t know who Lenora Fulani is. But to political observers, especially those who know something about third-party politics, she’s a familiar figure. In 1999, Fulani, a charismatic African-American psychologist whose supporters invariably refer to her as "Dr. Fulani," made headlines by endorsing Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party presidential campaign and serving briefly as his campaign co-chair. It was a bizarre pairing — Buchanan is a reactionary, xenophobic conservative, while Fulani is a long-time advocate of economic justice, affirmative action, and gay rights. Not surprisingly, it didn’t last: Fulani eventually quit, citing Buchanan’s emphasis on social conservatism as the reason for her exit. Still, Fulani’s short-lived alliance with Buchanan fit the pragmatic persona she has been crafting for a decade or more. In her pursuit of political office — which has included runs for president in 1988 (when she became both the first African-American and first woman to appear on the presidential ballot in all 50 states) and 1992, and bids for governor of New York in 1990 and 1994 — and in her public appearances over the last decade, Fulani has increasingly shifted her focus from a leftist stance on social issues to non-ideological structural reforms, like same-day voter registration, aimed at opening up the electoral process. In so doing, she’s cast herself as a champion for the millions of voters who, in the wake of Ross Perot’s insurgent 1990s candidacies, have become convinced that only a strong independent movement can salvage American politics.

It’s an impressive résumé. But Fulani is also a close associate of Fred Newman, a Stanford-trained philosopher who cut his political teeth on the extreme fringes of American politics more than 30 years ago and has been acquiring a highly controversial reputation ever since. In the early 1970s, Newman founded the Centers for Change, a quasi-revolutionary collective on New York’s Upper West Side. The Centers offered treatment via "social therapy," an unorthodox psychological method predicated on the idea that personal problems are best solved by working to transform the social order. In 1973 and 1974, Newman briefly aligned himself with Lyndon LaRouche’s extremist National Caucus of Labor Committees. Then, after splitting from LaRouche, he founded the International Workers Party, a group that espoused international social revolution and allegedly bolstered both its finances and membership rolls with active involvement from patients at his own social-therapy clinics. Newman also allegedly urged IWP members to adopt the intriguingly named practice of "friendosexuality." In 1979 — around the time he became a mentor to Fulani — Newman formally shut down the IWP and replaced it with the left-wing New Alliance Party. Some former NAPers say the IWP continued to exist, however, and that the new organization simply served as a front for the old one. Like the IWP, the NAP allegedly derived its organizational strength from Newman’s patients, who were reportedly urged to participate in the party’s activities as part of their treatment. Indeed, former members and journalists have characterized the IWP and NAP as cult-like organizations in which Newman wields almost complete control (an inventory of these allegations can be found at www.ex-iwp.org). According to the New Republic, the FBI concluded in 1988 that certain NAP members possessed guns and that NAPers should be considered armed and dangerous.

The NAP also developed a reputation for mimicking, infiltrating, and co-opting other political groups and movements. Around the time of Jesse Jackson’s two presidential runs in the 1980s, for example, the NAP created organizations known as the Rainbow Alliance and the Rainbow Lobby, names easily confused with that of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. As Jackson worked to dissociate himself from these NAP offshoots, NAP representatives muddied the waters by speaking of a generic "Rainbow movement." In the same decade, many began to view the NAP as anti-Semitic. Newman — who is Jewish — helped foster this impression with, among other things, his 1985 description of Jews as "storm troopers of decadent capitalism." The party’s consistently amicable relations with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam contributed to that perception as well.

The NAP formally disbanded in 1994, but Fulani, Newman, and their supporters experienced their greatest success taking over political structures from the inside later that same decade. In 1992, Ross Perot’s first candidacy convinced many independents they had a viable political future; throughout the country, newly motivated independents organized a number of independent state parties. In April 1994, these assorted parties gathered in Arlington, Virginia, to found a national independent party. Many participants were taken aback when Fulani and her adherents, whose left-wing orientation contrasted with the centrism of most of the grassroots activists present, managed to capture half of the 16 leadership positions in the newly formed national Patriot Party — which, a few years later, metamorphosed into the Reform Party. It was a significant victory. Fulani and her associates remained influential in Reform politics throughout the latter part of the 1990s, a period in which the party’s promise slipped away, culminating in the candidacy of a figure — Pat Buchanan — who was the antithesis of everything Perot had stood for.

After losing an intra-party power struggle and breaking with Buchanan in 2000, the Fulani contingent left the Reform Party. Today, Fulani devotes her energies to the Committee for a Unified Independent Party (CUIP), an organization dedicated, despite its name, to the proposition that a successful "independent movement" must eschew the creation of a new national independent party. (The ChIP conference was organized under CUIP’s auspices.) Fulani and her allies have also taken control of large segments of New York State’s Independence Party, a relic of post-Perot activism with over 200,000 members that is assiduously courted by high-profile politicians like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. (For more detailed information on Newman and Fulani, see Spoiling for a Fight, a book on third-party politics by former Nation editor Micah Sifry; "A Cult by Any Other Name: The New Alliance Party Dismantled and Reincarnated," an Anti-Defamation League report; "Psychopolitics: What Kind of Party Is This, Anyway?", a 1982 Village Voice article by Joe Conason; and "Coming Soon to a Presidential Election Near You: What You Don’t Know About Lenora Fulani Could Hurt You," a December 1999 New Republic article by David Grann.)

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Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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