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The Red League rallies around a blue party candidate

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Erica Smiley, head of the Young Communist League, peddles "Vote for Obama" leaflets on a Brooklyn street corner on Super Tuesday, Feb.5. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

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Erica Smiley, head of the Young Communist League, peddles "Vote for Obama" leaflets on a Brooklyn street corner on Super Tuesday, Feb.5. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

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Erica Smiley, head of the Young Communist League, peddles "Vote for Obama" leaflets on a Brooklyn street corner on Super Tuesday, Feb.5. (Photo by Snejana Farberov)

“Don’t forget to vote!” Erica Smiley of the Young Communist League, USA, bellowed from her perch on a Brooklyn street corner on Super Tuesday--"Vote for Obama” fliers in her hand.

“Oh, how can I?!” exclaimed a woman in a red African headdress as she accepted one of the leaflets.

A few minutes later, Smiley called out to an approaching elderly man in a black jacket and baseball cap.

“Don’t forget to vote!”

“Been there, done that,” the man muttered impassively as he rushed by.

Smiley, 28, a North Carolina native, did not take it personally and waited for the next potential voter. Being a communist in the United States requires a thick skin and the patience of Job.

The Young Communist League is the stuff of the late-Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s worst nightmares: Several hundred motivated young people organized in 17 chapters in cities that include New York, Chicago and Milwaukee. But unlike McCarthy’s Red witch hunts of the 1950s, when communists were lying low to avoid persecution, Reds are openly pushing their agenda these days by campaigning for mainstream presidential candidates.

This election, the league is largely banking on the candidacy of the junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Smiley, who has been at the helm of the league for the past two years, noted that they will support any Democratic candidate who may potentially loosen labor laws and pass broad social reforms.

“Obama is an excellent candidate, but it’s not about Obama or Clinton,” she said recently over a breakfast bagel in a coffee shop down the street from the Obama campaign office in Brooklyn. “It’s about beating the extreme right wing; at the end of the day, they’re just playing their roles.”

The league doesn’t claim official ties to the Obama campaign, and the Obama campaign did not respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails to its Chicago headquarters seeking comment.

Rather than introducing its own candidate, as the Communist Party last did in 1984 with Gus Hall, the league decided to back the Democratic Party candidate who members believe supports the most proletariat-friendly platform.

“If we were to run our own candidate this year,” Smiley said, “some people would vote for him, taking away votes from Clinton or Obama, and McCain might jump in. That would be terrible!”

Smiley, who sported a red T-shirt with the words “Troublemakers Union,” said the league members fear that an official endorsement of Obama could hurt the senator’s chances to become president because a stigma is still attached to communists.

“It’s better then it used to be in my parents' generation,” Smiley said, “but it’s still very taboo. The Bush administration puts communists and fascists together.”

Even within the league, not all members refer to themselves by “the C-word.” Hector Gerardo, 24, co-chair of the league for Harlem and the Bronx, prefers to call himself a socialist.

Outside New York, league comrades also are up in arms.

Docia Buffington, co-chair of the Chicago chapter, which has about 30 members, said in a phone interview that they have concentrated their campaign efforts on Little Village, a predominantly Latino area of the Windy City.

“I think it was clear that most people were excited about Obama rather than other candidates,” Buffington said. “I think that he does represent a certain kind of change, or it seems so.”

Some other leftist organizations, including the Socialist and Green parties, claim the Young Communist League is “selling out to the enemy” by cooperating with the Democrats, even if it is to promote their own goals.

“We disagree but support a society where organizations are free to endorse whichever candidates they want,” Greg Pason of the Socialist Party wrote in a statement.

Pason noted that “the Socialist Party calls for breaking with the two ‘big’ capitalist parties” and pledged that in the upcoming elections, socialists will run their own presidential candidate.

Smiley, however, believes that such a blinkered outlook will not carry those leftists groups very far.

Jeremi Suri, history professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book “Power and Protest,” shares that opinion.

“If you’re an organization like the Young Communist League, a somewhat fringe group, you want to make a statement," he said, “but at the same time, you don’t want to be irrelevant.”

The Young Communist League has been active since 1929 in different incarnations and under different names. The league shares its ideology with the Communist Party of the United States of America, but it is a sister organization, not a youth arm of the CPUSA. There are between 250 and 400 active members in the league, though Gerardo claimed thousands are registered online.

The leadership of the Young Communist League is honest about its long-term goals: to home in on the ultra-right Republicans by supporting Democrats now, and then to carry on their struggle--eventually against their former allies.

“The truth is, in politics you’re always making calculated compromises,” Suri said, “It’s a way to get access to power and try to influence power. The problem is they think they’ll do that, but once you’re a part of the team, it’s very hard to pull out.”

For some of the group, the excitement of Super Tuesday has faded along with hopes of a decisive Obama victory that day. Regardless, Smiley vowed that her organization will unify behind whoever wins the nomination in August.

“We don’t want to sit on the sidelines,” she said.

E-mail: sf2345@columbia.edu