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In Chicago, No Memory Of Obama New Party Membership

Documents suggest Obama sought the party's endorsement and joined it, but those involved say he was never a member. The party was "poorly organized," a former organizer says.

Posted on June 12, 2012, at 2:55 p.m. ET

The National Review's Stanley Kurtz reported last week that Obama was a member of the New Party, a left-wing third party organization with ties to organized labor and ACORN in Chicago. Kurtz's report, based on newly unearthed minutes of a January 11, 1996 meeting, re-opened a side-story of the 2008 election, offered a new glimpse at Obama's roots on the left side Democratic politics in the 1990s, and drew attention from Fox News's Sean Hannity this week.

Kurtz shared the underlying documents with BuzzFeed, and they're posted above online for the first time. Obama's campaign has denied he was a member of the party, and a spokesman this week said they had no reason to change that stance.

And while the minutes of the meeting state clearly that Obama "also joined the New Party," a half-dozen people involved in the long-defunct party told BuzzFeed Obama had never joined it. They had no explanation for the document. The party's founder also told BuzzFeed that the New Party wasn't a "membership organization," though other people formerly involved in the organization said that was a lawyerly explanation: There were people who considered themselves members and gave money, but there was no well-developed national decision-making structure.

At least one of the people involved in the New Party, and present — according to the minutes — at the 1996 meeting has died; two other people involved in the New Party, Madeline Talbott and Keith Kelleher, didn't respond to requests for comment.

But six people involved in the New Party in the 1990s said Obama was never a member, and that his involvement with the group was minimal at best.

"Obama was never a member, never active in anything," said Dan Swinney, a co-chair of the Party at the time and now the head of the Center for Labor and Community Research in Chicago, who was present at the 1996 meeting, according to the minutes. "I wish he was. He was obviously a progressive Democrat, but not a member of the New Party."

"There was really no process" for becoming a member, Swinney said.

Swinney's account echoes what New Party founder Joel Rogers told BuzzFeed last week.

"We didn’t have membership, it wasn’t a membership organization," Rogers said. He later clarified in an email, "The only time I talked to BHO about it, he made clear he didn't want to work on it or join it or be identified with it."

Others who were involved in the New Party's brief existence don't remember Obama being a part of it.

Amy Sherman was, according to the minutes, also present at the January 11 meeting where Obama, running for state Senate, requested the New Party's endorsement.

"Barack Obama was not a member to my knowledge," said Sherman, now an executive at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, an adult-education nonprofit in Chicago.

In fact, neither Swinney nor Sherman, the two mentioned in the minutes, remembered Obama's presence, or the specific meeting at all, though neither disputed the possibility that they'd forgotten it.

Elaine Bernard, Harvard professor and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, was involved in the beginning of the New Party. She said she has no knowledge of Obama taking any real role in the party: "It's news to me if he was involved."

Barry Commoner, a longtime environmental activist and Queens College professor, now in his 90s, told BuzzFeed that his involvement with the New Party barely registers anymore.

"I don't remember that specifically," Commoner said. "I was involved in various things."

For most of the people involved, the New Party was merely a blip, a third party with European-style "social Democratic" goals of higher taxes and a larger government role, as reflected in this 1996 document. But its methods were heavy on process: They had bet on the Supreme Court forcing states to allow "fusion" endorsements of a single candidate by multiple parties, and hoped to use the promise of a New Party endorsement to pull Democratic candidates to the left.

"The idea was that as a party you could cross-endorse and you could be an independent party, but as a party you could support a Democratic candidate or a Republican candidate," Swinney said. "It lasted for about a year, I left it. It wasn't a viable organization."

"If one of our candidates won, Barack Obama, that doesn't mean he was

a member of the New Party. He was a Democrat," Swinney said.

Though the party's national hopes were dashed by a 1997 Supreme Court ruling, some states allow fusion voting and some of the people involved in the New Party went on to create New York's Working Families Party. That party was also founded by labor unions, the now-defunct ACORN, and other organizations of the left. Fusion is allowed in New York State, and the Working Families Party often cross-endorses liberal Democrats, though it also sometimes endorses Republicans and backed the moderate Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

But Chicago's New Party didn't have the same staying power.

"It was a relatively brief thing," Swinney said. "Poorly organized."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.