Howie Hawkins is hoping to change the political landscape of New York state.
“If you do public polling, the majority is very progressive on economic issues, but they never get what they want,” Hawkins said. “A study just came out, the oligarchy study, looked at 1,799 federal issues. They went to the top 10 percent. Any time [the top 10 percent] wanted one thing and the 90 percent wanted the other, of course, they got their way on every issue there was conflict. This goes back to 1979. That tells you. They say, is this a democracy or a plutocracy or an oligarchy? And I think it is [an oligarchy] until we organize a party that can speak for the majority of the people. That’s been the thing that I think we need to do, what we’re trying to do.”
Howie Hawkins has an ambitious plan for the reforms he’ll make if he makes it to Albany. In addition to securing a ballot line for the Greens for the next four years and strengthening the party, Hawkins hopes to dispose of the capitol’s “three men in a room” culture, as well as create a sustainable clean energy system, reform Common Core and public education and establish a strong public campaign financing system.
On campaign finance reform:
According to Hawkins’ proposal, candidates would collect a reasonable number of $5 donations from private donors to demonstrate support. Candidates would then get an equal grant that would allow them to campaign. He pointed out that doing so would allow legislators to actually work for the people instead of spending their entire terms fundraising for the next election.
“They can do the people’s business that they were hired to do,” Hawkins said. “They do it in Maine and Arizona. They love it. As public officials, they don’t have to spend all their time fundraising.”
Hawkins believes the corporate limits at the state level are ridiculous.
“The statutory limit is $41,100,” he said. “I think $41,100 isn’t a donation, it’s corporate bribery.”
On school funding:
Hawkins wants to increase the revenue sharing to cities and school districts by raising taxes on the wealthy, allowing schools to be fully funded.
“We still have the Gap Elimination Adjustment,” Hawkins said. “We’ve basically balanced the state budget on the backs of schoolchildren, and here we are six years after the financial collapse. There’s no excuse for that.”
On Common Core:
Hawkins wants to eliminate the high-stakes testing that is a central part of the Common Core curriculum, as it simply stresses out kids and educators and doesn’t provide an accurate assessment of the abilities of either.
“Instead of a test-and-punish regime, a support-improve-approach,” he said. “Putting kids through a battery of tests and being told you’re a failure just gets kids frustrated.”
On clean energy:
The most ambitious part of his platform is the creation of a clean energy system, which Hawkins believes can generate profits, lower energy costs and bring manufacturing back to the state.
“We have a study from engineers and economists and scientists from Cornell and Stanford telling us, with commercially available technology, it is economically and technologically feasible to build a 100 percent clean energy system in 15 years,” he said. “It would be a huge economic boon that would make fracking look like kindergarten. It’ll take 4 and a half million manufacturing and construction jobs over the next 15 years to do that. Our unemployment number is about 750,000, so that’s six times the amount of people looking for work officially. So people would move to New York to fill that system out. And it would be about $600 billion in new investment.”
That’s why Hawkins is running for governor, taking on the Democratic political establishment and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as his Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.
Hawkins, along with running mate teacher Brian Jones, hopes to challenge traditional ideas about how politicians operate and what they can do for New York. He believes he and Jones offer a good alternative. Jones taught in Harlem for nine years and has been active in New York City’s teachers’ union. He’s currently enrolled in a PhD. program in urban education.
“He balances the ticket,” Hawkins said. “He’s younger, I’m older. He’s black, I’m white. He’s Downstate, I’m Upstate.”
Hawkins’ name is a familiar one in Central New York. He has run in 20 elections, including Syracuse Common Council, Syracuse mayor, New York State Comptroller, Senate, Congress and governor. He’s also served on the campaigns of presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and several other prominent Greens and third-party candidates.
Though he’s seen varying levels of success, Hawkins feels compelled to keep running.
“[It’s because I have] this historical perspective on what we need and having been involved in movements that you think you’re getting nowhere and suddenly explodes,” he said. “I saw it in my life in the ‘70s with the anti-Vietnam War movement and really earlier with the Civil Rights Movement. In the ‘70s, it was the anti-nuclear movement, the ‘80s the anti-apartheid movement, the ‘90s the global justice or what they call anti-globalization, and then in the 2000s these massive anti-Iraq War demonstrations. So I’ve seen how little groups are agitating and people may like what you’re saying, but they’re not coming out with you, then suddenly everybody wants to be there with you. I think at some point we’re going to see that in the electorate. We’ll have an electoral insurgency where we’ll have an independent, progressive third party.”
Hawkins said the progress he’s seen keeps him going. He believes the electorate is ready for a more progressive option.
“History tells me you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.” A lot of people may already agree with you, but they’re just not acting on it. The main thing is you have to have a historical perspective, realize that progress is by big steps. There’s a saying – sometimes nothing will change for decades, and then in days, decades will happen.”
Finding a place to belong
Hawkins has been active in progressive politics since he was a teenager in northern California during the Civil Rights Movement.
Could he win?
Howie Hawkins believes New York is ready for a Green to take charge.
“We’ve seen polling — this is from Siena and Quinnipiac — that says 22 to 24 percent would vote for an unnamed Working Families Party candidate. They cross-endorse Cuomo,” he said. But he said Cuomo isn’t far enough to he left to satisfy party voters. “We think we’re the ticket that 24 percent was looking for.”
If the Greens can get that 24 percent, that would put them on equal footing with Republican candidate Rob Astorino and just 15 points behind Cuomo.
“If we can get to that point, say, after Labor Day, we can have a real race. We can have a real debate. I think the program we’re offering will speak to the needs of the most people and be the most popular.”
Hawkins said he doesn’t see much of a difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates.
“I think Cuomo and Astorino are trying to outdo each other on who can best cut taxes and spending, by which they mean cut taxes for the 1 percent and cut spending on schools and other services used by the 99 percent,” he said.
Hawkins is betting on dissatisfaction with Cuomo to help him ride into the governor’s mansion. And he could be onto something — Cuomo is already facing a Democratic primary challenge from Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, who has criticized Cuomo for reneging on his promise to reform New York. His approval ratings have dropped from 52 percent in 2011 to 42 percent this year according to an NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll. His ratings have seen a particular decline among African-Americans and Latinos, as well as middle-class parents dissatisfied with the state’s handling of Common Core requirements in the schools. There are also serious questions about Cuomo’s handling of an ethics committee, the Moreland Commission.
Meanwhile, New York has elected just six Republican governors in the last century.
However, Hawkins has an uphill battle. Right now he’s pulling about 5 to 6 percent of the vote, according to recent polls. The Working Families Party has declined to join with the Greens in an effort to unseat Cuomo. He also lacks the big money backing his opponents have; Greens don’t take corporate donations.
Local political experts say these obstacles will prove too much for Hawkins to overcome.
“Howie Hawkins’ chances are absolutely zero,” said Dr. John Robert Greene, the Paul J. Schupf Professor of H Dr. Grant Reeher, professor of political science at Syracuse University and the director of SU’s Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute, agreed.
“There is not the campaign funds or the organization, and as a third party candidate, it’s extremely hard to win,” Reeher said. “Some of his positions are outside the mainstream. And he doesn’t have the resume of a successful candidate for governor.”
But Greene said Hawkins can gains some ground in this race, given some conditions.
“Hawkins is good in a debate,” Greene said. “If they’ll let him debate, he’s got a chance to pick up 2 or 3 percent. But that’s if Cuomo and Astorino allow him to debate, and I can see no reason why they should. Both are running well. Why put a ringer in the room like Howie Hawkins?”
But Hawkins does have the support of former Green Congressional candidate Ursula Rozum, who has been active in his campaign.
“Ursula is a dynamic speaker, and she’s got name recognition Hawkins doesn’t have. She’s proven that she’s graceful and skillful in defeat,” Greene said. “She’s got more friends around the state — she’s not particularly well-known in Western New York, but she’s well-known in Green circles in New York City — and if she pushes hard for Howie, she could pick him up a point or two.”
Hawkins could also provide a wake-up call to Cuomo.
“He could do quite well for a third party candidate in this particular election by attracting a lot of protest votes, particularly from the left,” Reeher said. “The governor has frustrated a lot of people in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And there will be some who will want to positively support Hawkins’ positions, as well.
But it won’t be enough to net him the governorship.
“Governor Cuomo will almost certainly win, but it will be interesting to see how the other candidates do,” Reeher said.
But Hawkins isn’t discouraged.
“We know from the polling that I think it’s 60 percent of the people, according to Gallup polling last year, want a major third party,” Hawkins said. “Around the country in cities here and there, you can find third-party candidates who are a real part of the debate.”
He pointed to Seattle City Councilor Kshama Sawant, a socialist who has gotten the city to pass a $15 minimum wage. He believes the Greens in Syracuse occupy a similar position.
“I would say here in Syracuse, we are,” he said. “I don’t think it’s happened yet, but the potential is there. You can see how it manifests itself. It takes people seeing some victories so they have hope that it makes a difference. And it takes the grassroots organization so people can see you actually out there, fighting.”
“I came up in a neighborhood that had been Japanese. During World War II, they sent the Japanese to internment camps, and they brought blacks in to work in the shipyards, expecting the blacks would go back down South. They didn’t,” Hawkins said. “In the early ‘60s, that was the topic. I sort of got schooled in what was going on in the movement through young men that were working at the rec center. And they explained what was going on.”
Hawkins was moved by the March on Washington in August of 1963, but his interest skyrocketed in 1964 when Ronald Reagan, then a recent convert to the Republican Party, spearheaded an initiative to repeal California’s Rumford Fair Housing Act, which was passed in 1963 to end racial discrimination by property owners and landlords who refused to rent or sell to African-Americans. Reagan and the Republicans pushed for the adoption of Proposition 14, which said the following:
“Neither the state nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.”
The proposition passed, but was declared unconstitutional in 1966. But for Hawkins, the damage was done.
“I said, well, [the Republicans] aren’t for civil rights,” he said. “So they definitely weren’t my party.”
In 1964, the Democrats let him down, as well. That was the year of Freedom Summer, when hundreds of white, upper-middle-class college students from the Northeast flocked to the backwater towns of Mississippi to hold literacy and voter registration drives. The students also created the Freedom Democratic Party, which was meant to combat the so-called Dixiecrats, a division of the Democratic Party that held fast to the ideas of segregation and white superiority. The Freedom Democrats asked to be admitted to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlanta. President Lyndon B. Johnson said he would allow them entry, but he refused to expel the Dixiecrats. The move convinced Hawkins that he couldn’t support the Democrats, either.
“I asked, ‘Where’s my party?’” he said.
The answer seemed to come later that year, when the Peace and Freedom Party was formed, dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam and bringing about equality for all races. As a teenager, Hawkins signed up.
“I’m 14 years old, turning 15 during the registration drives, trying to get enough people registered so they could get a ballot line,” he said. “That was my first political campaign. I was going to demonstrations, picking up the literature, reading it.”
But at the time, Hawkins was content to work from the sidelines.
“I always saw myself as a supporter, not a leader,” he said. “I was more an athlete than a politico. But as time went on, I just got more involved.”
Things changed when he was drafted for service in the Vietnam War. After his draft number came up, Hawkins enlisted in the Marines, giving him a unique perspective on the conflict.
“I was going to Dartmouth College, and they were campaigning against the return of ROTC,”’ he said. “They said, ‘You’re a Marine. It would be great if you spoke.’ So I did. I guess I did okay, because they kept having me speak. It just sort of drew me in.”
Hawkins became more and more politically active as he watched the political spectrum shift farther and farther to the right, coupled with growing income inequality, rising unemployment and the increasing reliance of politicians on corporate donations. He said he looked to find a more progressive party that could speak for the working classes. When he learned of the efforts to found a Green Party, which would focus not only on environmental issues but also nuclear disarmament and the rights of the non-elites, his interest was piqued.
“I was at the very first meeting we organized in 1984 to begin national organizing, and I at first was skeptical,” Hawkins said. “I thought, if you just focus on environmental issues [you’re not going to accomplish anything]. But then I learned that the Greens form to the left of the Social Democrats, because the Social Democrats had pretty much accommodated themselves to the system and had chosen one side of the Cold War. The Greens said, ‘The hell with missiles on both sides. Both sides have got problems. We need a new politic.’”
Hawkins was also impressed with their economic platform.
“The slogan I remember from that was ‘A fair distribution of work and income,’ which dealt with the problem of automation,” he said. “In the ‘60s, they called it the triple revolution, which was colonial independence, nuclear weapons and automation, which was creating structural unemployment. They realized you’ve got to take the productivity hours and distribute them fairly. That problem, we’re still not addressing. The Greens were trying to.”
Hawkins attended the first Green Party meeting in 1984 and is credited with helping to form the Green Party. He has since helped to narrow the party’s focus and define its goals.
Now, Hawkins notes that the Greens are the longest-standing Leftist party.
“We’re the only left third party. There have been half a dozen attempts in this whole period of conservatism that have formed, and we’re the last one standing,” he said. “Not that we’re ready to take over the country, but it’s still attracting the people who see the problem the way I’ve described it. We’re just trying to organize that party. We’ve elected over 100 people around the country, half a dozen here in New York. We’ve just got to build upon that.”
Hawkins has an ambitious plan for the reforms he’ll make if he makes it to Albany. In addition to securing a ballot line for the Greens for the next four years and strengthening the party, Hawkins hopes to dispose of the capitol’s “three men in a room” culture, as well as create a sustainable clean energy system, reform Common Core and public education and establish a strong public campaign financing system (see sidebar for details).
Though his agenda is ambitious, Hawkins said he’s not looking for anything radical.
“We want to give people the things they deserve as citizens of this state,” he said. ““If offering people jobs and a fair wage and a good education makes me a radical, then I’m a radical.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.