As he stepped up to a makeshift podium at a restaurant not far from the Vermont State Capitol, Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina sure looked like an Election Night winner. His supporters cheered wildly. Pollina waved them quiet and then declared, "What we're seeing here is the beginning of a very, very successful Progressive Party."

At a moment when many on the left are re-examining their attitude toward third parties following Ralph Nader's controversial Green Party run--which has been frequently condemned for drawing votes away from Al Gore's Democrats--scrappy new progressive parties continue to offer exciting illustrations of what can be done at the state and local levels.

In its first official foray into the political big-time, the Vermont Progressive Party--which advocates development of a single-payer health care plan, living-wage jobs, protections for family farmers and other programs designed to aid working families--earned high marks: not just the 10 percent of the vote for Pollina, but acclaim from the media and even other candidates. "I was the candidate who they said won the debates," explains 48-year-old Pollina. "I was the candidate who stuck to the issues. I was the candidate who changed people's minds."

Add in several legislative seat victories and the whopping 17 percent tallied by state treasurer candidate Claude DeLucia, and the group's effort to crack the two-party system was looking solid. It was all the more impressive that the breakthrough came amidst fears about a right-wing, anti-gay challenge to Democratic Gov. Howard Dean--which led many Pollina backers to abandon his candidacy at the last minute. Even with the slippage, the Progressive Party won "major-party" status along with the Democrats and Republicans. Critically, Pollina held onto the support he had won from independent Rep. Bernie Sanders and the 2,000-member Vermont branch of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union (UE).

UE also provided Nader with critical backing nationally, as did the California Nurses Association and union locals around the country. While few Green candidates for major offices rivaled that level of support, California Senate candidate Medea Benjamin put together an impressive list of union supporters, including several public employee unions, a long list of union leaders, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the L.A. Weekly and, on Election Day, 300,000 voters.

A similarly broad coalition came together on behalf of New York's Working Families Party. Under New York election laws that allow the fusion of votes for different parties into a single vote total for a candidate, the Working Families Party actively campaigned for progressive voters to cast their ballots for Gore and Senate candidate Hillary Clinton on the new party's line--as a way of nudging the candidates to the left. Some unexpected public figures signed onto the strategy. "It won't come as much surprise that as a Democratic elected official, I'm supporting Al Gore and Hillary Clinton this year," Rep. Nydia Velazquez announced just before the election. "But what might surprise you is that I'm encouraging my friends not to vote for them on the Democratic Party line."

Roughly 100,000 voters cast ballots for Gore and Clinton on the Working Families line, making the party the second-largest of the state's eight "minor" parties. The party also helped elect Suffolk County's Pat Eddington to the state legislature with a combination of Democratic and Working Families votes. "Progressive Democrats like our approach," says Working Families organizer Dan Cantor, comparing his group's strategy to the Green Party's direct challenges. "It helps them push their party in the direction they want it to go, without destroying their chances of actually winning a place at the table."

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