Howie Hawkins saves Green Party, loads trucks

Howie Hawkins. (howiehawkins.com)
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At one point late in the governor’s race, the press and interested public paid their obligatory few minutes’ worth of attention to Jimmy “Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillan and a handful of other candidates with zero chance of election. Yet only one candidate outside of the two major parties received more than 50,000 votes, the magic total that grants virtually unfettered ballot access to all party candidates for the next four years. This third candidate was Howie Hawkins, a UPS worker with a crazy accent who received over 57,000 votes, the most of any Green Party gubernatorial candidate in the history of New York.

The New York Green Party had its first statewide meeting in 1991, and party member Mark Dunlea was elected later that year to the Poestenkill Town Board. (He also ran as a Democrat.) The party first ran someone in a statewide campaign in 1998, fielding Al Lewis, the actor who played Grandpa Munster, as its gubernatorial candidate. He garnered over 52,000 votes, and because of this showing, the party received automatic ballot status for the next four years, and was included as a party option on all state voter registration forms. By 2002, the party had around 35,000 registered voters, according to Green Party co-chair Peter LaVenia, a 29-year-old Albany-area graduate student. During those four years, Hawkins explained in a phone interview, “We ran a couple hundred candidates, but nobody won.”

Ralph Nader received the votes of 244,040 New Yorkers on the Green line for President in 2000, by far the party’s high-water mark. The perception that Nader had helped elect Bush almost certainly contributed to the party’s decline. In 2002, the Greens ran sociologist Stanley Aronowitz for governor. He received fewer than 42,000 votes, and thereafter the Greens have been forced into the expensive and labor-intensive task of independent petitioning to gain a place on the ballot each time they have wished to field a candidate for anything.

They had a few bright spots since then. In 2003, Green Party member Jason West was elected mayor of the college town of New Paltz, and soon began marrying same-sex couples. This was later halted by court injunction, and West lost his re-election attempt in 2007. He’s apparently now an urban planning grad student at Berkeley.

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In 2005, Hawkins ran for the mayor of Syracuse, and attracted some attention.

“The televised debates I was in really put us on the map,” he said.

LaVenia, the party co-chair, explained, “Howie managed to get the idea of municipal power into the debate. He’s built up a base, especially among working-class people in New York State.”

Hawkins is an interesting guy. He was born in San Francisco in 1952, and raised just to the south in San Mateo. He has a distinctive, southern-sounding accent, which, he noted ruefully, prompted “the most frequent question I got from New York City media.” Hawkins says that his accent is native to a particular neighborhood of San Mateo, between the railroad tracks and the Bayshore freeway, which had been settled mostly by people from the South, whites and blacks. The neighborhood was diverse: “Blacks were probably the largest group,” he said. “Then Mexicans, Tongans, Samoans, some Arabs… It was a little United Nations.”

Hawkins attended Dartmouth but never graduated. His extensive Wikipedia page says that “he completed all the requirements for graduation except learning a foreign language. He speaks the Polynesian language of Tonga, where he lived for three months in 1973, but it was not recognized by Dartmouth.” He was very active in the anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid movements in New England, and attended the original founding of the Green Committees of Correspondence in St. Paul in 1984. Hawkins moved to Syracuse in 1991.

“I came to New York to organize co-ops,” he said. “When the funding ran out I got a job loading trucks for UPS.”

He’s still there.

Hawkins has built up a real, if not massive, following in the Syracuse area. In addition to his run for mayor in 2005, he ran for Congress in 2008 and received almost 9,000 votes, 3.3 percent of the total. Last year, he got 41 percent of the vote running for a seat on the Syracuse Common Council. The Syracuse-area voters supported him in large numbers this year, with Hawkins garnering 5.3 percent of the vote in Onondaga County.

“I have a personal base in Onondaga and adjacent counties,” Hawkins says. “I got over 3 percent in all of them.”

The Green ticket got as many votes in the counties surrounding Onondaga as it did in all of New York City, despite the area having a tenth of the city’s population. Although Hawkins’s running mate, Gloria Mattera, is from Park Slope and once ran against Marty Markowitz for borough president, the bulk of the New York Green Party membership is from upstate, with concentrations in urban areas. Hawkins’s 1.2 percent in Manhattan was his best showing in any county downstate.

Andrew Cuomo was not concerned about protecting his left flank in this election, and, as he did in 2005, Hawkins was able to gain attention by being lots more liberal than the Democrat in a televised debate. The Greens hit Cuomo hard on two issues of concern to certain upstate constituencies: his refusal to call for an outright ban on hydrofracking, and his plan to limit property tax increases, which will probably result in cuts to the state workforce.

“I was approaching 3 percent in Albany [3.1%] and Rensselaer [2.5%] counties,” Hawkins said. “I think a lot of state workers voted for me.”

LaVenia says the party targeted registered Greens, who now number 18,000, but also registered members of the labor-sponsored Working Families Party, which rather humiliatingly caved in the face of an endorse-or-die ultimatum by Cuomo, who campaigned as a union-tamer.

Both Hawkins and LaVenia are harshly critical of the WFP, which only a few years ago came into existence as a more ideologically cohesive progressive alternative to the power-corrupted, Giuliani- (and Andrew Cuomo-) allied Liberal Party. The Green Party makes a point of never endorsing the candidacies of members of other parties, as is permitted by New York’s unusual electoral rules, preferring to run “independent candidates” rather than make a living off of fusion voting, the general strategy of Working Families Party.

“We believe in an independent choice, and not pretending to pull someone to the left like the WFP,” says LaVenia.

The WFP needs at least 50,000 votes for governor to stay on the ballot as well, and it’s not clear that they would have received that many running someone who was not named Cuomo. Cuomo avoided them all summer, and then agreed to run on their line in return for their support of his “New NY Agenda.” “This year Cuomo said, ‘You can’t put me on your line unless you endorse the austerity plan,'” Hawkins said. “People are making fun of them.”

Told of the Greens’ criticisms, WFP spokesman Dan Levitan was relatively gracious: “We congratulate [the Green party] on making the ballot. They put a lot of hard work into it.”

However, he went on, “We think running campaigns that are noble but doomed… is not a good way to help people who need it. We raised the minimum wage, and passed the biggest green jobs program in the country. If your goal is to really affect outcomes, there’s no question that the fusion model is a better approach.”

Levitan noted that the WFP is open to supporting Green candidates in the future.

“We’ll interview their candidates the way we will anyone else, but [electoral] viability is a factor.” He declined to comment on his party’s relationship with Andrew Cuomo.

Perhaps now that it is so much easier for them to put candidates on the ballot, the Greens will be more aggressive in running local candidates in New York City. The vast majority of incumbents in the city, both on the Council and the state legislature, currently have little competition. Democrats control every position in Manhattan and the Bronx, every position in Queens but for three members of the City Council, and every position in Brooklyn except for one State Senator. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ran unopposed this year.

“We got a lot of organizing to do,” said Hawkins.

But that’s all in the future. This morning, six days after the election, the highest vote-getting (and youngest) Green gubernatorial candidate in the state’s history went back to his job loading trucks at the UPS hub in Syracuse.