Economic and social difficulties of the 1970’s prompted the creation of several alternative political Parties. One of the alternatives, a well-organized Citizens Party, started in 1979, lasted six years, and dissolved due to insufficient recognition. Nevertheless, its grassroots organizational structure and decision-making process, which tried to make use of participatory democracy, serve as models for a future progressive party. Proposed solutions to unresolved economic, energy, and social problems were prophetic and can facilitate development of a more secure, equitable and democratic society.

By 1979, politicians had become increasingly dependent on political contributions from a few wealthy individuals and Political Action Committees (PACs). The new manner of acquiring campaign contributions hindered effective debates on inflation, militarism, environment, health, and ecological crises. Mainstream political parties and their intended presidential candidates refused to conduct proper debates on vital subjects. The Citizens Party arrived to firmly address the issues and challenge the presidential candidates.

Political surveys of late 1978 concluded that President Jimmy Carter would again become the Democratic presidential candidate in 1980. His principal problems: Congress continually stymied the administration, and its executive and legislative departments conducted the nation with contradictory approaches.

Despite making himself a suspect to Washington skullduggery by committing the unpardonable in pardoning Richard Nixon, and preventing the former president from serving a possible jail term, Gerald Ford became the Republican front-runner. His affable manner gained him supporters, but many judged him ineffective in soothing the wounds left by the Vietnam War and Nixon's resignation.

The choice between two failed presidents stimulated the progressive community to search for an alternative candidate and an alternative Party. Usually the start of an alternative political Party originates from radical activist groups. Not so with the Citizens Party. It did not start from the ideas of those associated with poorly funded radical organizations. It started from people with substantial endowments in mainstream foundations.

David Hunter and Arch Gillies launched the alternative Party. The former used his energies to promote progressive causes and examine the promises and limitations of the American system. The more pragmatic Gillies had actively tested the U.S. political system as a candidate in several electoral campaigns. From the campaigns, he defined his role in the political system as the selection and support of dedicated and progressive candidates.

David Hunter, Executive Director of the Stern Fund and previous director of other foundations, had been instrumental in funding several types of activist organizations: anti-nuclear, peace groups such as Business Executives for a Vietnam Peace, and civil rights groups. In funding the Workers Training League, his organization provided training for the early leaders of the civil rights movements. The foundations had also supported non-establishment think tanks: the Institute for Policy Studies and the National Center for Economic Alternatives. Under Hunter’s leadership, the Stern Foundation financially assisted many organizations that sought to improve social conditions in the United States.

The John Hay Whitney Foundation, which received direct funding from the wealthy Jock Whitney, had been more conservative than David Hunter's foundations in its funding. Nevertheless, under the direction of Arch Gillies, who had been a Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress in Long Island and for the New York City Council, the John Hay Whitney Foundation ardently funded civil rights and other activist causes, including grassroots community movements. As a political advisor to Jock Whitney and Nelson Rockefeller, Arch Gillies' political life shaped himself as a Rockefeller style Republican. His nature embraced those who had shown compassion for the less privileged groups of society and those who had formulated political and economic program that more equitably distributed the country's enormous wealth.

In 1979, David Hunter and Arch Gillies evolved beliefs that the election of either Carter or Ford signified the continuation of ineffective and outdated economic policies. The views directed their political strategy toward formation of an alternative political group; to a third Party that could capture the progressive and alienated groups presently attached to the major parties.

The two close friends in the foundation community made it clear to each other, and to all others with whom they spoke, that they were operating on their own and without support of their respective foundations. As any citizen, they were expressing their political rights and wanted only to have progressive and effective government. They were willing to go far and search all possibilities to reach their newly formed objective. In the latter part of 1978, the two New York based foundation leaders talked with those they felt could assist in the endeavor. Their talks did not bring any results, but as they began to doubt their ability to acquire the resources for accomplishing the enormous task, they found support from mutual friends.

Their foundations funded the Exploratory Project for Economic Alternatives, a Washington based think tank, whose prominent economists Jeff Faux and Gar Alperowitz had received a grant to write a book on economics. During the seventies, these economists often discussed the need for a third Party. To Jeff Faux:


The Democratic Party had lost its attachments with much of the labor movement, become too conservative in the economic programs required to maintain a healthy economy, and had let the Watergate experience shape policies as moral issues. With the Carter administration having moved the Democratic Party to a stance sufficiently conservative on economic issues, there was now a constituency large enough to support a more radical third party. 1


After a January 1979 planning meeting that discussed additional projects for the Exploratory Project for Economic Alternatives, the two economists and two foundation leaders waited for their eastbound planes at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Stanley Weiss, an industrialist who was active in anti-nuclear energy causes and had attended the planned meeting, joined them.2 Snow and fog at the busy airport impeded their flight, and the wait dragged on for several hours. While waiting at the O'Hare Airport steak house, the discussions covered many political and economic topics, including the possibility of creating a new third Party.

In previous meetings and conversations, these activists had routinely discussed the formation of a third Party. In this discussion, the participants showed more enthusiasm and more determination. At this dinner, while waiting for their airplanes, all agreed it was time for an alternative. The two economists and the industrialist were willing to join with Arch Gillies and David Hunter and commit their time and energy to form an alternative Party. Inclement weather, rather than inclement politics, became a deciding factor in the formation of an alternative political force.

The group talked about a Party that bridged major lines, and appealed to the liberal and disaffected elements of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Jeff Faux wanted a wider constituency, encompassing the less doctrinaire groups of the radical left. Everyone agreed that developing a third Party would eventually require institutionalized grassroots support, and that the membership must feel they had an equal stake in the movement. The approach seemed simple; run someone for President on a progressive platform that addresses the concerns of all Americans, and galvanize the electorate by vision and aspiration. The campaign would draw adherents and act as a catalyst for further developments. After the campaign, long-term party building would occur. Jeff Faux recalled:


There was never any idea to create a party in two years. Maybe, on paper it would be created in two years. Support would come from activists; especially those associated with the Democratic Party. 3


To Jeff Faux, success of a third Party depended on its ability to gain day-to-day activists from the Democratic Party; those who knew ballot access, petitioning, knocking on doors, telephoning. A new party had to prove itself, show some success, and demonstrate viability. Then the Democratic Party followers would have reasons for joining and becoming active in the new party.

Before the group disbanded, they agreed on two possible candidates in the coming presidential election, consumer activist Ralph Nader and environmentalist Barry Commoner. The public knew both men, and each of them had social and economic philosophies that coincided with the group.

Those desiring to form a new political party will face similar issues to those that soon faced the five men finishing their dinners at O'Hare Airport, controversies and confusions that arise from an initial direction in developing a political Party. Processes, democratic actions, and grassroots development will become more than everyday words. They will become words of debate, struggle, and division.

Stanley Weiss agreed to take a fundraising role for the new party. The prototype of the self-made entrepreneur, he enjoyed new ventures. While walking in the mountains of Mexico, Weiss discovered and eventually developed manganese mines, from which he acquired a fortune. The businessman knew how to acquire and raise money.

At meetings in his New York apartment, Stanley Weiss discussed with Arch Gillies and David Hunter whether corporations had acquired too much political power, were not functioning effectively, and were smothering the U.S. economy and its political processes. Together with Arch Gillies, he suggested a basic strategy for Party development, envisioning a conventional Party, which they characterized as "...running through the system. Why fight it or try to change it? Get candidates into both the Democratic and Republican primaries, let them secure a following and then run as independents under one banner, receiving donations from their supporters and matching funds from the government.” 4 Adequate funding made elections successful. Raising the campaign money came before nominating the candidate.

Now firmly committed to forming a third political party, the group arranged a meeting, with others interested in a third Party movement, at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. During the meeting, they wisely adopted the formation of a Citizens Committee and charted it to prepare the structure for a new party. The charter gave the Citizen’s Committee the authority to outline the Party's principles, develop its initial strategy, and seek means to attract known and knowledgeable people from the political field.

Party formation process proceeded with additional meetings and focused on challenging President Jimmy Carter and ex-President Gerald Ford as the major Parties’ candidates in the coming election. Neither candidate had shown capabilities to engineer solutions to the principal problems confronting the economy at that time. Inflation, lack of job growth, pockets of enduring poverty in the world's wealthiest nation, anticipated energy shortages, and diversion of diminishing resources and productive capacity to the military complex remained problems. Liberal constituencies were certain to become disillusioned with the lack of capability of the Democratic and Republican candidates. A bipartisan third Party could attract alienated segments from each of the major political Parties.

Examining strengths and weaknesses of the two major Parties, supports the thesis of their built-in limitations. Did the GOP, in 1978, have a unified program supported by all of its members? Any person could call him or herself a Republican. Jacob Javits, characterized as a New York liberal, shared the same party as Strom Thurmond, a Southern Dixiecrat. The Republican Party collected contributions from moneyed interests and industry leaders, and promoted legislation that furthered those interests. By the end of the 70's, several special interest groups, such as the NRA, AMA, and Right to Life fundamentalists, whose only qualifications for receiving support from the Republicans seemed to be their dedication to the status quo and willingness to donate huge amounts of money to the GOP treasury, identified and allied themselves with the Republicans.

The Democrats behaved similar to the Republicans. They had contradictions: alliances of northern liberals and Southern conservatives, trade unions and Sunbelt strikebreakers, urban planners and corrupt city administrators. Principal legislative thrusts considered social and economic programs intended to more equitably distribute wealth and elevate the living standards of the less privileged classes of the society. In recent Democratic administrations, many of these programs, such as those of the Great Society, failed those they intended to assist, and enriched those who administered the projects and supplied the materials and tools. In addition, as for the Republicans, anyone could register as a Democrat. The Democratic Party organizations throughout the country had no real association with one another. They were places for lawyers, insurance agents, accountants, and other professions to network, and in many cases, to manage election spoils.

An elephant electoral victory in 1980 could mean enrichment of the wealthy and impoverishment of the poor. A donkey election victory and its ultimate tax policies might decrease the wealth of the rich, but, from examples in recent history, might not assist the poor. It would more likely enrich those who managed the "throw the money into the system programs," the philosophy of democratic administrations for solving economic and social problems. Many citizens believed that a new political party was the preferred alternative to working with either of the existing parties. How could this task be accomplished?

Gar Alperowitz suggested that the group talk with someone who had studied political formations, and had academic knowledge, or experience with political campaigns. One recommendation favored Dan Leahy, former director of the Labor Action Coalition of New York, a coalition of 50 union locals dedicated to public power and the renewal of the union movement, and an acquaintance of Stanley Weiss.

Dan Leahy consulted on a research project that investigated publicly owned electrical utility systems. While occupying part of a larger office, organized by Stanley Weiss for the anti-nuclear movement, Leahy had met and talked several times with the industrialist. Nevertheless, he was surprised when, at the beginning of spring 1979, Stanley Weiss, in a matter-of-fact tone, stated to him that some of his friends, mainly David Hunter and Arch Gillies, were eager to start a new political Party. This was not going to be a one issue, one-time popular personality party, such as those that had characterized previous third Parties. It was not going to be Henry Wallace progressives against the Cold War or Eugene McCarthy pacifists against the Vietnam War. It would not be a left of center revolt against the Democratic Party; it would be a well-organized and new Party with leaders from many institutions and other established political movements. The Party would dedicate itself to improving the economic and social lives of all Americans and have industry serve the entire nation.

Stanley Weiss said that he, Arch Gillies, and David Hunter were willing to provide support for the new Party with one condition: they wanted it organized quickly, in time for the next presidential election. The group wanted Dan Leahy to assist in organizing the new Party, a monumental task considering that the election was less than two years away.

Dan Leahy's first thought was, "Why me?” Although he and Stanley Weiss had become friendly, they did not share similar political philosophies and economic approaches. The labor organizer pursued radical politics; formed from the setting of a different generation. He had not actually been in electoral politics. His experience included grassroots work for social and political change, tenant organizing in New York, and a role as Executive Director of a Cornell University Human Affairs program from 1973 to 1976. In the latter program, Dan Leahy initiated projects in public power movements and prevention of sexual harassment of women in the workplace. Although absent of political experience, he had studied political Party formation, had a will to become politically involved, and often expressed interest in playing a leading role in political organizing. Evidently, his ideas and eagerness impressed his associates. Without giving a firm commitment, he expressed willingness to investigate a role in organizing the new party.

Dan Leahy admitted his limitations and experience in organizing political movements. After discussing the status of the new Party with the founders, he concluded they were sincere in forming a new political movement, but lacked a visible organization and suitable plans for developing it. For the venture to succeed, he recommended integrating into the Citizens Committee a more professional person, someone who had previous experience in organizing a Party for a presidential election. The small group agreed with Dan Leahy's recommendation and authorized him to search for a person with the required qualifications.

At this time, a spectacular public incident occurred that emphasized the necessity of a closer examination of U.S. nuclear policy. It made the emerging Party appear prophetic. On March 28, 1979, at Three Mile Island, situated ten miles southeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a newly dedicated atomic power facility exhibited a series of failures leading to a near meltdown.

After several problems developed from the inability of inexperienced workers to clean a clogged water pipe, the main feed-way system failed. The reactor lost normal and emergency cooling water sources and gradually started to tear itself apart. It took until April 27 to stabilize the fault and place the plant in a shutdown mode. During the period, an estimated 140,000 people fled the area.

An atomic plant failure occurring only three months after its dedication, the several hour delay by the government in making public the catastrophe, and the government's equivocal manner as to whether there had been radioactive leakage, created doubts the government was equipped to administer critical nuclear programs. Pictures of the ominous Three Mile Island cooling towers, smoking pollutants and possible radiation into the atmosphere, symbolized an unsafe nuclear energy.

The anti-nuclear groups seized the advantage and mobilized a huge rally in Washington D.C. From this highly successful assembly came additional devotees to the Citizens Committee cause, giving an example of how catastrophes provide fortuitous circumstances to benefit a cause.

Before registering with the Federal Elections Commission, and while still awaiting the results of Dan Leahy's search for a person who had been a leader in previous third party campaigns, the Citizens Committee wrestled with the appropriate strategy in the coming presidential election year.

By spring of 1979, Barry Commoner, one of the most respected commentators on environmental and ecological issues, had become active with the Citizens Committee and was assisting it in developing a strategy. After having appeared on the cover of a 1970 issue of Time magazine, the public recognized him as the foremost spokesperson for the environmental movement. In his book The Poverty of Power, Commoner blamed the profit motive for creating the energy crisis. The domestic oil shortage resulted from the oil industry's earlier decision to move exploration and production activities to foreign areas, and from not realizing the consequences of their over-eagerness to increase profits. Commoner had lucid, well-developed, and articulate opinions. His association increased the Committee’s prestige and recognition. He would become the leading figure on the Committee and within the Party.

Noting that the growing Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known by the acronym ACORN, had become uncertain in its direction, and had been considering electoral politics as a means of expanding their influence, the Committee contacted and arranged a meeting with Wade Rathke, one of ACORN's youthful organizers. ACORN had evolved from an experimental outgrowth of the National Welfare Rights Organization to become a leading local organization in many Southern communities, which protected and assisted the rights of poor people and those receiving welfare. In 1976, Wade Rathke had proposed the expansion of ACORN to states that had a Democratic primary or statewide caucus; expecting these could give ACORN the opportunity to influence the Democratic Party platform. He argued to a reluctant leadership that ACORN could also use the opportunity of a presidential campaign to increase its influence and prestige. In 1979, ACORN was again considering the possibility that increased awareness of political events during an election year could enable it to better present its objectives to America; to raise the national consciousness of the plight of the poor and their victimization by the power elite, and demonstrate what organized people can achieve.

On May 7, 1979, a modest Wade Rathke, described as the type of person you would expect to meet if you walked along a Southern back road, met with twelve members of the Citizens Committee to discuss mutual election year strategies. The New York-based Woman's Action Alliance also attended the Washington, DC meeting,

Rathke considered a presidential campaign required a pre-existing Party, a mass movement, and an organized constituency. A national campaign that starts with a top-down approach will ultimately compromise its programs in order to forge alliances and receive support. Scarce finances gravitate to the campaign, with little money available for Party building. Creating a firm structure before any election campaign more assures Party permanence. Local issues are the avenues to programs, and local members provide resources. Leaders serve as the contacts with prospective candidates. By first constructing a strong Party base, the leaders will compromise less with ideals, and this gives a new Party an increased likelihood of success.

The Committee understood the benefits of having support of the welfare rights organization, and admired its leader. Nevertheless, the momentum was toward an immediate presidential race, and for this reason, the group rejected his plan by a vote of ten to two, with only Dan Leahy and Wade Rathke supporting the proposal. Although he physically left the movement, insiders debated Rathke's ideas for several months.

Dan Leahy finalized the search for an election strategy consultant. The Committee agreed to his choice of Jim McClellan, a political activist and history professor who had been involved with other alternative parties, with the Peace in Freedom Party of 1968, the Peoples' Party, and as Dr. Benjamin Spock's campaign manager in the 1972 anti-war campaign.

At Jim McClellan's home in Northern Virginia, Dan Leahy briefly outlined the Party concepts, concluding his talk with simple questions: What could they expect? Could they make it work? The mild-mannered history professor's response, formed from his experience in previous campaigns, was surprisingly negative, and not what Dan Leahy had expected.

The professor did not believe they had a chance. Ballot access is stacked against new Parties, and raising sufficient funds is an almost impossible task for groups who do not have the spoils system of the major parties. The Spock campaign had to manage on a budget of only $41,000. Then there is the media, which is always partial to the existing Parties and antagonistic to the newer. The existing are well funded by federal subsidies while new Parties, who most need the money, have to work extra hard in hope they can get some small matching funds.5

He argued that the possible success of a new Party in the United States is comparable to a person raising himself by his bootstraps, while being suspended in air. Then he smiled and said, “No, it can't succeed, but if you want to proceed, count me in.”

Dan Leahy digested Jim McCllelan’s frank appraisal, and, despite the pessimism, sensed he had the experience, ability, and sincerity that the group sought. McClellan would be able to define the processes for forming a new Party. With assets of which the history professor was not aware and which had not been available to him in previous campaigns, these processes could more easily evolve. Leahy asked the professor to define the types of committees that would be required, outline how the group could develop into a Party, and describe a campaign strategy.

Immediately after Jim McClellan completed the assigned tasks, he flew to New York for a meeting with the Citizens Committee members at the Summit Hotel in New York City. By coincidence, he met Richard Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies. They had known each other for several years, and were now learning on the taxicab ride they were sharing to mid-town Manhattan that they were attending the same meeting, and that neither knew exactly who would be at the meeting nor the meeting agenda.

The hotel meeting room had a long and highly polished table, around which sat about twenty persons. All of them wore suits; all were over 40 years of age; all were white; all were male; and almost all had connections to sources of funding. Most of them had been associated with social causes. These characteristics impressed Jim McClellan; a sharp contrast to those involved in the Spock campaign. Those meetings had a greater mixture of races and genders. Nearly everyone was young, had long hair, wore jeans, and did not have a dime to spare. He reflected that if this group were in the Spock campaign, that campaign would have succeeded in having a lasting effect on the nation. He became more enthusiastic and re-examined the validity of his original comments to Dan Leahy.

Jim McClellan proposed four alternative strategies to his eager audience:

NOTE: All personal expressions have been left in the original words and grammar.


(1)        Run a presidential candidate in an all out-effort for ballot access in all states; an effort that might utilize all of the party's resources.

(2)        Run a candidate in only a select number of states in order to take advantage of the party-building and fund-raising value of the candidate, and designate the bulk of party resources to enhance the party's infrastructure, to assist local candidates, and evolve a strong, comprehensive party platform.

(3)        Run only an issue-oriented campaign on the national level in 1980. To fortify this approach select a shadow cabinet with each person speaking out on specific issues corresponding to a cabinet post.

(4)        Ignore a national campaign in 1980, and work initially on grassroots party building. Possibly run local candidates, or even congressional candidates, where the party had sufficient strength.


Originally presented at this strategy meeting, the proposals would surface and be debated at other Party strategy discussions.

McClellan outlined the details for initial Party structure. Form a self-appointed Steering Committee responsible for policies and an Executive Committee for carrying out the policies. These committees would be appointed until convention time, at which time the convention delegates would elect the committee personnel. As a corollary to his presentation, he volunteered an opinion: The major Parties survive because they have a reward system in which precinct captains eventually receive political appointments, giving them a reason to devote their time and energy to their organizations. For the local groups of the new Party to survive, the Party had to make a "big splash" in the 1980 campaign. He cited the relatively poor electoral performance of the People's Party as the reason for its disappearance only eight months after the 1972 elections.

The group around the table expressed skepticism about some points, especially those of forming a self-appointed committee, and again debated alternatives to a 1980 election campaign. Stanley Weiss and Arch Gillies argued that in the U.S. political arena one must follow ordinary rules, run the party through the system. They did not want to depart from their original strategy of running a presidential candidate in Democratic and Republican primaries to gain a sufficient percentage of the vote for popularizing the candidate. After receiving donations and matching funds from federal financing, a candidate would run under the Party’s banner.

Jim McClellan's presentation satisfied Barry Commoner. The environmentalist declared that the proposal clearly delineated the choices; they were simple, uncomplicated and effective. Inclined to the opinions of the man they believed had a strong agenda, had shown a commitment to the entire project, and was their likely candidate, the group agreed to place plans for party structure into operation. Exact strategy still had to be determined. Jim McClellan had proposed four strategies, but there was still a fifth, that of Arch Gillies and Stanley Weiss, running candidates in the primaries of the major parties, and launching the Citizens Party candidate from the publicity and funding gained in the primary battles.

Before disbanding, attendees debated a name for the new Party. Barry Commoner proposed Citizens Party. Stanley Weiss agreed, and remaining attendees had no preference. In the late afternoon, the exhausted group failed to notice that the name started with the same letters as the Communist Party. Using the initials as an abbreviation might invite controversy and ridicule. This overlooked issue forced the party to modify its abbreviation and use the letters CiP as initials. The initials never created a problem.