Jun 12, 2009 Walt Shepperd Uncategorized
Running for what?
Green Party ponders its role this election:
Although Howie Hawkins is probably the most serious and knowledgeable political candidate the area has seen in current memory, he has now run for local office and lost so many times he can comfortably joke about it. “How many has it been?” he asks rhetorically, “Thirteen? Maybe the next one will be lucky.” The humor, however, is ironic, since the local Green Party, which Hawkins has pioneered since his arrival in town, has traditionally cast itself in the classic third party stance, knowing it will not win elections, but will be able to raise and articulate issues.
In Hawkins’ most successful run, four years ago in the mayoral contest, he outshone current incumbent Democrat Matt Driscoll and current County Executive Republican Joanie Mahoney in forums and debates, hammering on the issue of public power. He brought the issue to the table, put it on the city’s agenda, and finally maneuvered it into the city budget for a study of the concept. The phrase most often heard about that effort then was, “If only Howie were a Democrat, I could vote for him.” That effort and its results got local Greens thinking maybe they could win an election, if they could find the right one.
This year Hawkins and the Greens are taking their time in scoping the situation. Over the years Hawkins has been their most prominent, sometimes only, and certainly most articulate candidate. If the mayoral forums and debates are to provide bully pulpits to define the current status of the public power issue, Hawkins would be a logical reprise. But at this point, Hawkins would rather run for Common Councilor-at-Large. The Republicans are running only one candidate, Fanny Villerreal, for the two at-Large seats available, Democrats have two, Lance Denno and Jean Kessner. An appeal to the whistful “If only” Democrats of four years ago, and a follow-up issue to public power–perhaps municipal cable–might just put Hawkins in the running.
Four years ago, when at times both your opponents were voicing agreement with your position on public power, did you ever think you might have a chance to win?
No. I never thought I was going to win that one. The dynamic was, a lot of Democrats preferred my policies. But about 90 percent of them said, “I’m going to vote for Driscoll because I’m afraid of Mahoney. I’m going to vote for the Democrat because I’m afraid of the Republican.” That’s the biggest obstacle I have to overcome.
Green Party candidates around the country have been winning elections in certain situations. Is that something that has to happen for the Green Party in Syracuse?
I think where we’ve won around the country it has mostly been non-partisan local races, so that the party label is not an obstacle. There have been a few cases where it has been partisan, like the case of (San Francisco mayoral candidate) Matt Gonzalez, who ran against the Democrat in a run off and the Democrats brought out all the big guns, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson. On Election Day Gonzalez won something like 60 to 40 percent. Then when they counted the absentee ballots, the Democrat Newson came from nowhere and Gonzalez lost 52 to 48. I told Matt I thought they stuffed the ballots, but he just had a little wry smile. Matt had been on the Board of Supervisors, so he had citywide recognition. And he had been out front on a lot of issues, like gay marriage.
In New Paltz, you had the mayor and the deputy mayor and they were promoting the New York State Pride Agenda. But coming back to Syracuse, yes, I think if we win one election, we’ll turn the whole psychology. We’re not just raising good issues that people like, but we’ll have candidates who can win. Once we pass that with one race, I think we will elect people in other races.
Is at-Large the target for that first race?
That’s where I want to run. The thinking in the Greens is we should run somebody for mayor because there are issues other candidates are not raising. There again I could be the person who raises the issues, but can’t win. When I talk to people about running at-Large, they say, “Maybe you can win.” It would be tough. But there would be four candidates running for two seats, and I’m learning more and more how to get the word out, so I think that would be the best shot. At least people would be taking me as the candidate, not just raising issues, but running to win. So that’s kind of where we’re at, we haven’t decided yet, though.
Do you think the Republicans running only one candidate would help you?
I don’t know. I ran for at-Large in ’07 and the guy from the Coffee Pavilion Bill Harper (Republican at-Large candidate) would say nice things about me in community forums and practically gave me a formal endorsement, but I didn’t seem to get many Republican cross-overs. I got a little bigger vote, but I think most of it was really Green votes. If there was a Democrat who was controversial, or there was a really bitter primary, I might get a lot of votes from people who are disillusioned. But so far we haven’t got that kind of protest vote from disgruntled Democrats or Republicans. There are Republicans who will vote for me, and have encouraged me to run.
What I really have to reach is that center of Syracuse politics, that progressive Democrat, with bread-and-butter economic issues. What I’ve got to show them is that the Democrats are no more for the working class person than the Republicans are for fiscal responsibility–if you look at the record of the past 50 years. The rank and file of both parties are judging from the mythology of both parties, not what they actually do.
Will those wistful “If only” Democrats eventually see through the mythology?
I hope so. I think we can do that, and that’s what we’ve got to do if we’re going to elect somebody.
On raising the issue of public power, how far did you get? Where is it now?
We got it on the agenda. Then we followed it up. We formed a public power coalition. We had a forum at Fowler High School, and I think that kind of shocked the Councilors and the mayor that this really is an issue with legs. People were getting hammered by the rate hikes back then. We got a big petition, and the Councilors said they would sign a feasibility study. Then the Saturday before the Monday the Democrats caucused, and decided they were not going to be tax and spend Democrats, so they knocked out public power and the police brutality review and some money for Parks and Rec out of the budget. The next year we had to go back and put pressure on them, and we got it passed.
It took about six months for the feasibility study request to be written. Now they’re half way through the first studies. Like consultants do, they kind of feel out who they’re consulting to see what they want to hear. What concerns us now is that they’re not focusing on public power, but on aggregation. That’s like these ESCOs, energy supply companies. They aggregate in the market to get a better deal. The truth is its not a competitive market and the prices are high, they’re monopolistic.
If you go municipal you have autonomy. But Driscoll, and all the mayoral candidates, really don’t want to take on National Grid. They understand it could be a long fight. They look at Messina, where it took eight years, it went to court. On the other hand, the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation are voting to take over their utilities, and National Grid seems to be cooperating with them, not fighting them. So maybe the candidates are backing away from a fight that isn’t even there. But the point is what’s good for the city in terms of lower rates, for economic development and for consumers.
That’s one reason the Greens are looking to run somebody for mayor, just to get that issue back on the agenda, and bring people up to date on where it’s at.
Local Green philosophy has generally been not to cross-endorse candidates from other parties. Might any of the potentially unsuccessful Democrat primary candidates be attractive enough to change that trend?
We’ve done some of that in the past and been disappointed down the line. As a general rule, Democrats talk a great game on looking out for the working people, but in fact, their whole development policy has been to bring back Big Boss. Big Boss isn’t coming back. We’ve had Enterprise Zones, Empire Zones, this is a Republican idea, a Jack Kemp Republican idea, basic corporate welfare. And it hasn’t worked.
Is municipal cable television the next logical issue for the Green Party to raise?
Yes. Public power, public cable, a public development bank, and neighborhood directed development. In other words, public planning. If Uncle Sam’s not coming in to save us, if the Big Boss isn’t coming back, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. You can’t put the fate of the city in the hands of Bob Congel. Who knows what his real financial situation is. He’s a private company. You know from court records he’s in the black if you count all the malls he owns, which he’s been trying to sell for the past decade, and he can’t sell. What if he goes bankrupt out there? We can’t depend on others. We need to do our own planning. We need a planning department. We need real neighborhood assemblies, where people can make decisions about what goes on in the neighborhood. And we need a public development bank, which would provide both business planning and training, as well as credit, to start businesses, like grocery stores, in the city.