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Howie Hawkins: Last Man Standing

He’s the only progressive left in the governor’s race, but is his party still relevant?

Peter Rugh Oct 9

Issue 240

Howie Hawkins is running for governor but that’s not why he’s here. That’s what the retired UPS worker in the dark gray suit tells the crowd of about 40 people who assembled to mark the seven-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street on Sept. 17 in the place where it all went down.

“I’m here because I’m a veteran occupier,” says Hawkins, who helped organize a parallel encampment in Washington, D.C. in 2011.

Would the lifelong activist have been on hand at Zuccotti Park if he weren’t running for office? Hard to say. The race is what brought the Syracuse native to New York City to begin with and, as he prepared to zig-zag his way campaigning across the state from Manhattan to Buffalo, it was certainly on his mind. The large stack of green pamphlets he’d stowed on a nearby marble bench testified as much.

Hawkins has a message for Cynthia Nixon voters:  ‘I’m you’re Plan B.’

Nevertheless, Hawkins, who dropped out of Dartmouth College just shy of graduation in 1977 because didn’t want to wind up a paper pusher for the rich, addressed the crowd in language more of protest than politics. “You never know when you start something that it’s going to be the event that changes history,” he said, reflecting on Occupy’s fight of economic equality and comparing it to movements he participated in as a young man — Civil Rights and the anti-Vietnam war effort. “Don’t give up, keep agitating and we will make progress.”

That’s essentially Hawkins’ motto. The 65-year-old retired Teamster is making his 22nd bid for elected office. So far he is zero for 21. But now that the hullabaloo surrounding this year’s Democratic primaries has died down, he is hoping larger swaths of New York beyond the limited group here in Zuccotti will start paying attention.

In a year where Democratic voters have shown a keen interest in ruffling the feathers of the establishment, Hawkins is the only progressive left standing in the New York governor’s race.

He has a message for the half million people who voted for Cynthia Nixon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s defeated left-wing challenger in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary: “I’m you’re Plan B.”

Hawkins has crafted a platform that is in some ways more sophisticated than Nixon’s. For instance, when it comes to rent regulation, Nixon called for universal rent control but said nothing about the Urstadt Law, which grants lawmakers in Albany, many of whom come from Republican districts upstate and receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from downstate developers, a say in New York City’s rent regulations. Hawkins would give the city home rule when it comes to rent law.

His platform also goes a few steps further than Nixon’s or that of any of the other high-profile progressives in New York of late who have identified as socialists and run on the Democratic line.

“Their idea of socialism is basically old-fashion liberalism,” he tells me. “I haven’t heard a proposal from any of them saying, ‘We want a public bank or public energy or partial socialization of any damn thing.’ They’re not talking about a new economic system. They’re talking about social programs, which socialists support, but the difference between us and the liberals is we really mean it and the system really can’t get it. That’s why our slogan is ‘demand more.’”

Hawkins helped found the Green Party in 1984 with the aim of taking the energy of social movements and transferring it to the ballot box. Many have sprung up since — global justice, anti-war, climate, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo — yet the Greens have secured few ticks in the W column. Hawkins says the Greens’ tactic has always been to get a grip on power through down-ballot races and rise from there, though even local victories have been elusive over the past 34 years. Party members currently hold roughly 150 out of the 511,000 elected offices that exist in the United States. For his part, Hawkins has run for city council and mayor in Syracuse, for county executive, state comptroller and thrice for governor — all to no avail.

While he is critical of both Democrats and Republicans, Hawkins reserves his strongest disdain for the Working Families Party (WFP), a rival third party with ties to labor unions and community-based organizations like Make The Road New York and New York Communities for Change. Where the Greens reject any relationship with the Democratic Party, WFP regularly alternates between competing against establishment Democrats and supporting them, depending on circumstances.

In 2014 WFP backed Cuomo in the primary and the general. Following the election, Cuomo rewarded his labor allies by signing into law a $15 minimum wage. This year WFP backed Nixon in the primary along with progressive challengers who knocked off seven pro-corporate Democratic incumbents in the state Senate. On October 3, WFP’s central committee voted to replace Nixon with Cuomo as their candidate in November to ensure the 50,000 votes needed to maintain their ballot line in New York State for the next four years.

“The thing Working Families is afraid of most is being accused of splitting the Democratic vote and a Republican getting elected,” Hawkins says. He has fewer qualms about that. Marcus Molinaro, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, “may be marginally worse than Cuomo but he can’t do any really bad things cause he’s got to deal with a Democratic Assembly and probably a Democratic Senate. So relax. Vote for who you want.”

Hawkins and the Greens want as many Democratic voters to come to their side as they can get. He accuses WFP of compromising its values in order to secure influence in the Democratic Party and argues Cuomo is more likely to notice Green Party votes since they count against him: “If you vote for Cuomo, even on the Working Families side, you get lost in the sauce if you’re a progressive. He’ll take it as a mandate for what he’s talking about cause you voted for him.”

A constellation of groups has taken shape, backing a strong, diverse field of left-leaning candidates in Democratic primaries.

This argument helped Hawkins garner nearly 5 percent of the general election vote when he last ran for governor in 2014 following on the heels of Zephyr Teachout’s surprise showing that year when she tapped into anti-Cuomo discontent and won 34 percent of the Democratic primary vote and half the counties in the state.

Hawkins says his 2014 vote total helped subsequently force Cuomo’s hand on imposing a permanent ban on fracking and freezing plans to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores — two issues that riled liberal voters that year. He hopes to catch a similar tailwind this year following Nixon’s spirited primary run.

But to what end?

Before Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, choosing between triangulating centrist Democrats and doomed third-party protest candidates was, with few exceptions, the best the left could hope for from electoral politics. Since 2016, a constellation of groups both new and old — Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, WFP, MoveOn, Democracy for America, among others — has taken shape, backing a strong, diverse field of left-leaning candidates in Democratic primaries. A significant number are winning city council, state legislative and congressional seats, though victory at a statewide level has so far proven to be elusive.

The leftmost of these groups, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), shares an anti-capitalist ideology with the Greens but has adopted a different electoral strategy.

Pursuing what might be described as an “outside-inside-outside” strategy, the group participates in grassroots activism outside of the electoral arena, fields candidates when members decide that they align with their socialist principles and then runs door-to-door canvassing operations in support of those candidates that are independent of the politicians themselves. Here in New York, DSA played a key role in this summer’s primary victories of future congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and of Julia Salazar, who won a hotly contested North Brooklyn state Senate primary just four days prior to Hawkins’ Occupy anniversary appearance.

Hawkins poo-poos the idea that the left can dance with the Democrats for long without compromising its integrity. He views DSA and the candidates they’ve helped elect as proponents of a weaker brand of socialism — if socialism at all. Nonetheless he says he is glad Ocasio-Cortez beat Queens Democratic Party boss Joe Crowley and concedes that Sanders and other socialists that have run as Democrats in his wake have made it safe to use the ‘S’ word without sending voters running for the hills — a development that led to the Green Party declaring itself an outright anti-capitalist party for the first time in 2016.

“Sanders really turned the tide on that,” says Hawkins, noting that in the past he had campaigned with “socialist content but without the word.”

Interestingly, Hawkin’s political career is not dissimilar from the senator’s early days in Vermont. Sanders’ ran on the Liberty Union third-party ballot line for governor in 1972 and 1976 and the U.S. Senate in 1972 and 1974. He never won more than 6 percent of the vote before gaining a political foothold as Mayor of Burlington in 1981 after running as an independent. Hawkins is still looking for his leg up. He won’t win on Nov. 6 but his ideas might should voters decide to keep troubling the status quo.

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Howie Hawkins and other former-Occupy activists at Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17. Credit: Erin Sheridan.