For those seeking to form a new, third political party in New York State, the scene at the Hearthstone Manor Thursday night pretty much summed up the problem.
On one side of the Depew banquet center, only about 35 people gathered to discuss forming the Independence Party -- a movement seeking to sponsor a gubernatorial candidate this year and then evolve into a "centrist" party of fiscal and political reform.
But in the larger room next door, the local AFL-CIO annual dinner overflowed with hundreds of guests and politicians of every stripe receiving awards from one of the nation's largest special interest groups.
The irony was not lost on Gordon S. Black, the nationally known Rochester political pollster who is leading the reform effort. He told the reform group that small beginnings like Thursday's meeting represent the only hope for wresting back all levels of government from entrenched politicians he claims serve only the special interests.
"For 200 years, Americans believed we had the best political system in the world," Black said. "But after 30 years of losing choice, the result has been feelings of cynicism, alienation, and a drop in people even bothering to vote.
"We have become ethical immigrants from our political system as a result of feeling we can't change anything," he added.
Black's presentation marked the first Buffalo effort to launch the Independence Party, which seeks to field candidates who refuse political action committee contributions, will abide by term limitations, and pledge adherence to reforms they say are more oriented toward true citizen government than perpetual politicians.
"Republicans and Democrats have proved year after year and election after election that they're not about to reform what's going on," added B. Thomas Golisano, another Independence backer who is founder and CEO of Paychex Inc. of Rochester. "And because it doesn't appear that change will come from within the two-party system, there's got to be change from outside."
It was that kind of talk that lured many of those interested in the Independence Party to the Thursday meeting. Most interviewed said they were attracted by the 1992 presidential campaign of billionaire Ross Perot and now want to see those ideas transferred directly to New York politics and government.
"Frankly, we have a lot of watchdog groups; what we don't have is different political parties," said Stanley Franklin of the City of Tonawanda, attending with his wife, Mary Ann. "There's really no difference between Republicans and Democrats now, and this is the beginning of a new party."
Black said he thinks the idea of a new, centrist party for New York will work despite the historical failure of minor parties. As the chief pollster for Perot in 1992, for the Gannett newspapers and for other concerns, he has found most Americans crying for a political vehicle outside the established two parties.
"The only thing that gives you or I any real influence is the opportunity to throw out the people who don't do what we want them to do," he said, a process frustrated by the power of PAC money and incumbency.
"If not, the system will become just like any other tyranny -- or like the political machines that became corrupt, insensitive and indifferent," he said. "And if you can't throw them out, that's exactly what you get."