The Greens are gaining steam in New York

October 1, 2014

Julian Guerrero reports on the most promising left-wing independent campaign in New York state in many decades: the Howie Hawkins-Brian Jones campaign.

HOWIE HAWKINS' Green Party campaign for New York governor is surpassing expectations--and raising the banner of social justice during an otherwise dismal election season.

With a little over a month to go before the election, Hawkins and Brian Jones, who is running for lieutenant governor, have made strides in pulling together a bloc of people and organizations fed up with the status quo under Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo--at a time when, according to a Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, nearly half of New Yorkers think the state is moving in the wrong direction.

Four years ago, Hawkins got only 1.5 percent of the vote--and even this was considered a positive accomplishment for the Green Party, which shows how difficult it is to break into the two-party system in New York, as elsewhere.

This year, Hawkins-Jones is polling at 9 percent among likely voters as of the end of September--13 percent among people of color--numbers that have forced the media and other candidates to acknowledge the Green campaign despite a historically powerful Democratic political machine.

Howie Hawkins at the massive People's Climate March in New York City
Howie Hawkins at the massive People's Climate March in New York City (Carole Ramsden | SW)

What is the significance of getting 10 percent versus 1 percent, since both are far short of the number of voters that could actually put a Green in office?

Left electoral campaigns aren't just about trying to win, which the two-party system makes almost impossible in bigger elections for state and national office. A sizeable vote for Hawkins and Jones can break the myth that the Democrats and Republicans represent the vast majority of New Yorkers. Equally important, a respectable Green Party showing in November can encourage activists to push their unions and organizations to end their practice of blindly supporting the Democratic Party, no matter how often the Democrats don't support them.

IF HOWIE Hawkins' fortunes have changed in the past four years, so have those of Andrew Cuomo, who was elected in a landslide in 2010 as a socially liberal reformer who promised to clean up the state's corrupt political system. After winning early fanfare for supporting same-sex marriage, however, Cuomo turned to his top priority: helping the state's wealthy and businesses.

This Democrat has stripped $2 billion from schools, froze the wages of state workers, and cut public-sector pensions--all to cover his "Start Up NY" program, under which manufacturers pay no state taxes for 10 years. Cuomo also battled New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to raise the city's absurdly low minimum wage of $8 an hour.

Meanwhile, Cuomo's good-government credentials took a major hit this year when he disbanded his own anti-corruption commission because its members were naïve enough to think they could investigate the governor's allies. For this public blunder, Cuomo is being investigated by the U.S. District Attorney's office.

Cuomo is on the wrong side of almost every issue in which there is growing left-wing sentiment in his state.

New York has the most parents opting out of high-stakes standardized testing; the governor has aggressively pushed for the test-driven Common Core curriculum. New York has the most towns that have passed resolutions banning hydro-fracking; Cuomo has denied their requests to permanently ban the ecologically destructive practice and many expect him to lift the state moratorium sometime after the election. Thousands of New Yorkers protested Israel's destruction of Gaza this summer; Cuomo rushed to Israel to show his support and refused to meet with Palestinian leaders.

As is generally the case in U.S. politics, the Republican candidate Rob Astorino is at least as bad as Cuomo, vowing to outdo the governor on tax breaks for the wealthy and handing over the state's natural resources to natural gas companies for fracking and wants to rebuild public infrastructure through "private-public" partnerships, which would dramatically increase the privatization solutions that both mainstream parties champion.

Astorino has opportunistically tried to tap into the sentiment against high-stakes testing by creating a "Stop Common Core" ballot line for people to vote for him (New York has unique election rules that allow candidates to run on multiple party lines). But his efforts don't seem to be working--opinion polls show him trailing Cuomo by 54 percent to 29 percent.

Looking only at Cuomo and Astorino, the picture in New York is as bleak as politics across the country, where Republicans are surging towards predicted victories in the midterm elections, and the Democrats are responding by shifting to the right on immigration and foreign policy.

Both parties have clamored for Barack Obama to "get tough" on terrorism and border security, and the president has complied, becoming the fourth president in a row to wage war in Iraq and breaking his promise to the Latino community to take executive action to stop the immigrant deportation machine now operating at 1,100 deportations per day.

But as is often the case, the conservatism and nastiness of formal politics doesn't reflect the desire of millions of people for progressive change.

New Yorkers have attempted numerous paths in recent years to register their discontent with Cuomo.

One of these avenues is the Working Families Party (WFP), a coalition of unions and liberal groups that sometimes runs independent candidates and other times uses its party line to cross-endorse Democrats. The WFP strategy is meant to be the best of both worlds--build an "independent" party while supporting "good" Democrats. In fact, the party has repeatedly endorsed Democrats at key moments, regardless of whether they have any progressive credentials.

That was never more clear than this spring, when the WFP leadership endorsed Cuomo despite his attacks on unions and public education. Anger among the WFP base encouraged liberal economics professor Zephyr Teachout to run against Cuomo in the Democratic primary. Despite a low voter turnout and her lack of name recognition, Teachout got 40 percent of the primary vote.

TEACHOUT'S SHOWING and the public debate inside the WFP have given the Hawkins-Jones campaign a unique opportunity to break through the usual media blackout of independent left-wing candidates.

Hawkins is a Syracuse-based UPS worker and socialist who has spent decades building the Green Party--he has personal reputation for integrity and intelligence in upstate New York. Jones is a New York City teacher and member of the International Socialist Organization, who is well known and respected in activist and education circles downstate.

Their campaign has been endorsed by the United Opt-Out Movement, the New York Badass Teacher Association, and dozens of education activists who signed on to a statement titled "Educators, Parents, and Students for Hawkins and Jones." Most recently, Hawkins-Jones won an endorsement from prominent education advocate Diane Ravitch, who announced she planned to cast "a protest vote for the first time in my life."

The support from activists who normally back Democrats is especially significant because Hawkins and the Green Party in New York have a proven record of being truly independent. This is quite different from Teachout and the WFP, which are committed to the doomed project of trying to reform the Democratic Party from within. The effect of this strategy is that rather than push Democrats to the left, the WFP and Teachout--who had indicated that she is considering endorsing Cuomo--end up corralling dissatisfied liberal voters back toward the party's right wing.

Hawkins and Jones haven't won the endorsement of any major unions, but they have chipped away at the labor movement's traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party. Jones has met with teachers' unions and public-sector unions that normally have little discussion about political endorsements--this time, there have seen live debates over supporting Hawkins.

The Green candidates have also connected with other social justice movements. At a candidate forum on criminal justice organized by the New York Society for Ethical Culture, Hawkins and Jones impressed the crowd with their calls to end the failed "war on drugs," set up a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the harmful effects that war has had on communities of color, and distribute reparations to its victims. Jones was later the only statewide candidate to participate in the Staten Island march against the police murder of Eric Garner.

The Green Party ticket has stood alone in supporting Palestinians during the horrific assault on Gaza. While every prominent Democrat and Republican in the state loudly proclaimed their support for Israel, the Hawkins-Jones team spoke at rallies against the Israeli assault, and promised to divest all New York state funds and rescind all state contracts with Israeli companies and organizations that benefit from the military occupation of Palestine.

Perhaps the issue with most potential to win Hawkins and Jones new support in the campaign's final month is climate change. The massive turnout for the People's Climate March highlights the growing impatience with the failure of the two mainstream parties to reduce carbon emissions. This opens up a space for people willing to break with the Democrats and Republicans to turn to alternatives.

Not only does Hawkins support an immediate ban on fracking, but he also has a well-regarded plan for a "Green New Deal" that calls for a complete transition of the state's energy system to renewable energy, using public works programs and creating living-wage jobs--Hawkins supports a $15 an hour minimum wage, by the way.

BOTH THE ideas and the campaign's outreach are paying off. Hawkins is polling at 9 percent statewide--and even better in some districts like Syracuse, where Hawkins sits in second place behind Cuomo, with 27 percent of the vote.

And this is despite the fact that most voters don't yet know the Green Party ticket exists! As the only two non-millionaire candidates in this election, Hawkins and Jones can't afford to buy lots of TV ads. But they can gain recognition in televised debates.

Cuomo--who avoided debating Teachout during the primary--wanted to exclude Hawkins from debates during the general election, but the Greens' strong polling has made that impossible. Cuomo and Astorino have now agreed to include Hawkins (and a fourth candidate from the Libertarian Party) in one of two debates.

This is a step forward, but Hawkins and Jones will continue to fight for full participation in the democratic process. Hawkins had already pointed out Cuomo's cynical motivation for wanting a full debate upstate--where he hopes Hawkins can take some of Astorino's voters--while excluding other parties from the debate in New York City, the heart of Cuomo's base.

The campaign still has a lot of work to do in the final month before the election. While Hawkins is polling higher upstate, New York City--with its unions and non-profits deeply nestled in the Democratic Party machine--has been a harder nut to crack. But the city also has hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied union members and unrepresented working class immigrants and people of color who are potential supporters of independent left politics.

The fight to win this support--and that of workers throughout the state--isn't just about votes. The success of the Hawkins-Jones campaign will also be measured by its ability to unite activists from different movements and involve them in the long-term project of building strong social movements and an independent political party that represents workers' interests.

A good showing for the Green Party this November can help further that conversation in New York and around the country. If you live in New York state, Hawkins and Jones want your support!

Danny Katch contributed to this article.

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