More Than a Protest Vote

Howie Hawkins’ campaign for governor is part of a renewed vision of electoral activism on the Left.

Fearing disenchantment among its progressive supporters, the union-backed Working Families Party has worked around the clock to justify its most recent endorsement of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has run on an anti-tax platform that places blame for the state’s woes on government employees.

Yet silver linings have been found. The most recent victory the WFP claimed was the governor making good on a promise to push five Democratic state senators back into the party caucus, reestablishing Democratic control of the upper house.

There are problems with gloating over this development. The move took the wind out of the sails of progressive primary challengers to these conservative Democrats, essentially winning a concession from Cuomo at the expense of people like former Comptroller John Liu. Beyond that, the new legislature isn’t an assurance of progressive taxation or ceasefire in the privatization of education. Even Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos bragged that the move wouldn’t make a difference.

But at least the charade further dispels illusions that the WFP is a viable alternative to the Democratic Party. Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins and his running mate, Brian Jones, are organizing to win at least some of the votes of those who have fallen away from the WFP fold. Hawkins came in third in 2010 with 60,000 votes, and this time he’ll be stronger: There’s more progressive anger at Cuomo than four years ago, partly because he has thwarted much of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s platform, which included taxing the rich and halting school privatization.

Hawkins, a UPS truck unloader and Teamster based in Syracuse, also achieved his impressive finish without a downstate campaign four years ago. This time he’s with Jones, a well-known New York City socialist activist and outspoken member of the United Federation of Teachers’ dissident caucus, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators.

But there’s also a different kind of energy this time around. The Hawkins/Jones ticket isn’t merely a protest vote against the centrism of the Democratic Party or the capitulation of the WFP. Their campaign is an extension of the new vision of electoral activism on the radical left that began with Kshama Sawant’s election to Seattle City Council, an election that paved the way for a citywide $15 per hour minimum wage. A similar campaign by another socialist, Nicholas Caleb, in Portland, did not end with him winning, but it did force the minimum wage issue into the political debate.

There are other efforts underway in places like Chicago, driven by groups such as International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative, and Democratic Socialists of America. In New York, the support Hawkins is receiving from leftists in various radical groups is also encouraging. Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, campaigned with Hawkins in New York City during her visit at Left Forum, and she has indicated that different campaigns could come together to get behind a possible national push that would put Senator Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket.

Through these campaigns there is a real chance to build a more ecumenical Left — likely not one that could take over Congress, but powerful enough to force issues like poverty and inequality onto the agenda, while discussing the bankruptcy of the two-party system. Cranky pundits wanted to know what Occupy Wall Street would do after the tents came down. This is one answer.

Hawkins is working closely with public school advocates and anti-fracking activists, an alliance that could further expose how Cuomo, and the Democratic Party in general, is aligned with corporate interests against teachers, students, and communities. He’s also met with central labor councils and has been received warmly by state employees unions that have been battered by the Cuomo administration, although he’s aware that gaining endorsement from those groups will be difficult because they don’t want to anger the notoriously vindictive Cuomo.

On the one hand, Hawkins says he’s gotten more attention from reporters since polling showed earlier this year that progressives yearn for a left challenger to Cuomo, and notes that he has gotten a particularly warm response from Albany journalists who bristle at the governor’s insistence to only engage with the press in carefully scripted events. But much of the New York City media, caring more about polling data than actual discussions of political ideas, have willfully ignored Hawkins and Jones.

This is why their shoe-leather campaigning will be so pivotal. In fact, there’s a lesson from Jones’s previous election campaign within the UFT. MORE activists were clear that the incumbent Unity Caucus, which has held control of the union for four decades, is so entrenched that defeating it is practically impossible, but that MORE’s immediate goal is rank-and-file organizing rather than gaining executive power. Union elections, MORE activists said, were venues where caucus members could meet and organize teachers with which they might not otherwise come into contact.

In a political world where ordinary citizens are bombarded by pabulum, these elections can be a time when Left activists can engage with people who they wouldn’t normally meet. A single working mother might be fed up with the two-party system, but she isn’t likely to take a weekend off to listen to a lecture at Left Forum. Still, she might entertain campaigners who come to her door for a few minutes and speak to her issues. As Jones himself says, “What we’re really trying to do is crack open the mainstream political discussion,” and that “the more that we are able to use the electoral arena to amplify the Left voice, the more ordinary people will find a political home.”

It points to a theme Hawkins has talked about before: mainstream unions and the Working Families Party are good at mobilizing people, but he wants to organize. The former are very good at emailing members when a campaign is around the corner and can get them to sign a petition or write their representative when need be. But organizing is a year-round project and, unlike mobilizing, is a two-way relationship, in which everyday citizens speak their minds and develop their own political strategies, and realize that they’re not a person with a grievance but a part of a community that lacks a political voice.

Or, as Jones puts it, “I hope that this campaign becomes a place where people can find a political home.”