2017 Syracuse Election Results -- What Happened?

On the positive side, the Green policy platform and candidates received great reviews during the campaign and unprecedented post-election praise from community leaders, the media, and the mayor-elect himself. The expectation is that the new mayor and council will take up some of the policies the Greens advocated. That gives the Greens leverage going forward.

On the negative side, the Green vote was down from every local election since before its 2009 campaign.

2017 Syracuse Election Results – What Happened?

By Howie Hawkins

 

The Vote

Mayor

54% Ben Walsh (I, Reform, Upstate Jobs)

38% Jaunita Perez Williams (D)

4% Howie Hawkins (G)

2% Laura Lavine (R)

0% Joe Nicoletti (WFP)

Councilor-At-Large (2 votes for 2 seats)         Percent of Voters

38% Timothy Rudd (D, WFP)                                      76%

36% Khalid Bey (D, WFP)                                           72%

17% Norm Snyder (R, C, I)                                          34%

9% Frank Cetera (G)                                                   18%

2nd District Councilor

80% Chad Ryan (D, I)

20% Eric Graf (G)

4th District Councilor

68% Latoya Allen (D, WFP)

21% Quante Wright (I)

11% Serena Seals (G) 

Voter Turnout: 35% 

The non-voters were the majority again. The voter turnout was only about 35% and lowest in the working class neighborhoods.

 

What Happened?

On the positive side, the Green policy platform and candidates received great reviews during the campaign and unprecedented post-election praise from community leaders, the media, and the mayor-elect himself. The expectation is that the new mayor and council will take up some of the policies the Greens advocated. That gives the Greens leverage going forward.

On the negative side, the Green vote was down from every local election since before its 2009 campaign. 

The Greens were swimming against three strong dynamics in this election. 

The first was the anti-Trump Democratic vote that swept the nation. That explains the strong Democratic vote in the council races. 

The second was the record levels of dissatisfaction with the two-party system. That helps explain the strong vote for the Independence line in the council races and the win by “independent” Ben Walsh running on the Independence line in the mayoral race. It was the vote the Greens might have captured if the third dynamic had not taken root right after the primaries in September.

The third dynamic was the narrative in the mayoral race that it was a very close two-way race, which was set in concrete right after the first poll in early October showed Hawkins coming in last at 5% among five candidates on the ballot. Many people told us that “Howie is my first choice. But he can’t win. So I have to choose between Juanita and Ben.”

A fourth factor was that, for a variety of reasons, the number of donors and volunteers was lower and the Greens’ execution of their campaign plan was the weaker than in any of its local campaigns since before 2009. 

 

Mayoral Race

The Spectrum/Post-Standard/Sienna poll in early October with Walsh and Perez Williams way ahead of the other three on the ballot solidified the general election narrative that it was a two-way race. I was fifth with 5% in that poll. I was in the same position in the followup poll in early November. The first poll really hurt our chances of picking up volunteers, contributions, and votes during the last five weeks of the campaign. 

The middle-class majority of the voters voted on which of the two frontrunners they felt most comfortable with as mayor.

The voters who were undecided or weakly committed to other candidates in the polling broke overwhelmingly for Walsh on election day. Perez Williams and I got votes close to what the polls said, while the votes for Lavine and Nicoletti dropped deeply.

The field of candidates was very strong. All of them presented themselves well in seven broadcast debates – four on TV, two on radio, and one livestreamed by the daily newspaper – and in more than 20 well-attended community forums in the last five weeks of the campaign. That made it harder for our campaign to overcome the two-way race narrative despite what most observers said were winning debate performances and positive and extensive media coverage of my candidacy.

Perez Williams worked hard to implement a grassroots campaign that focused on canvassing voters. It paid off when she beat the designated Democrat, Joe Nicoletti, in the Democratic primary. But many Democratic leaders did not like her management style from when she was head of the city’s legal department. She counted on the nearly automatic Democratic majority vote and tried to label Walsh a Republican. But Walsh successfully undermined that appeal by saying he would “rise above” the partisan bickering that the voters see every day in Washington, between Mayor Miner and Governor Cuomo, and between the factions of the Democratic Party within the city where Democrats hold every elected office but one. The Democrats split in the general election. 

Walsh ran a very smart campaign with its messaging, coalition-building, and deployment of its campaign fund of around half a million dollars. After initially inquiring about seeking both the Democratic and Republican lines and being rejected for not being enrolled in their parties, Walsh branded himself an “independent” in a time of widespread disgust with both major parties. He built a winning coalition by combining his family’s longstanding political base, the donations of developers and business leaders with whom he had worked as the previous Democratic mayor’s business developer, and bringing in Democratic leaders who had been alienated by Perez Williams, including electeds, candidates, and black and progressive community leaders.

Walsh’s “independent” campaign took away ground the Greens usually claim. Walsh’s independence – not being affiliated with a major party – is different from the Greens’ class independence from the moneyed special interests that fund both major parties as well as Walsh’s campaign. But it captured the anti-major party mood of many voters that otherwise might have gone to the Greens.

Probably the key to Walsh’s decisive victory was the support from the black political class – electeds, non-profit agency heads, contractors – who saw Walsh as their best bet for grants and contracts as well as more focus on the impoverished black neighborhoods of the city that have been so neglected by Syracuse mayors for decades.

Walsh not only won the affluent middle-class neighborhoods decisively, but also cut into the usually overwhelming Democratic vote in black neighborhoods with 25-30% of the vote.

My vote over-performed by two or three times its 4% average in the black neighborhoods and the most progressive middle-class neighborhoods near Syracuse University. These center city neighborhoods comprise the 4th council district where I have run between 40% and 48% in three races since 2009. My vote underperformed in the outer ring, more middle class neighborhoods. My citywide 4% vote was down from my 35% for auditor in 2015, 12% for governor in 2015, and even my 5% voter for mayor in 2005.

Yet my message got a more thorough and postive reception that in any previous race. I focused my campaign message – “Real Solutions Can’t Wait” – on specific concrete policies to deal with the very serious problems the city of Syracuse faces:

  • Progressive Tax Reforms to prevent pending city bankruptcy, a state financial control board, and possible dissolution of the city into a countywide metro government on terms unfavorable to city residents.

  • Outreach and Help for At-Risk Youth instead of hiring more police to attack the 6th highest rate of teenage shootings and killings among all the nation’s cities over 50,000 since 2014.

  • Fair Shares of City-Funded Jobs for Residents and Minorities in city departments and with city contractors through an overhaul and enforcement of the city’s long-neglected Equal Employment Opportunity Program.

  • Public Investment in High-Poverty Neighborhoods instead of corporate welfare for politically-connected developers and businesses.

  • A Municipal Bank to Develop Worker Co-ops that pay living wages and build business asset wealth for low-income families to address one of the highest rates of poverty among the nation’s cities.

  • Inclusionary Zoning and Inter-District School Desegregation to address the highest rate of concentrated (i.e., segregated) poverty by race and class among the nation’s metro regions.

  • Public Development of Affordable Housing by the Syracuse Housing Authority in a city where 65% rent, more than half of renters pay more than the federal affordability standard of 30% of their income. and nearly a third of renters pay more than 50% of their income.

  • Lead-Safe Certification before units are rented out in the city with the nation’s highest rate of child lead poisoning.

  • Publicly-Owned Utilities for power, broadband, and sidewalks to lower the costs of living and doing business in the city, to modernize the city’s infrastructure, and to make a rapid transition to 100% clean energy.

  • Bold Urban Design Initiatives for “civic and environmental highways” (community grid in I-81 corridor, eco-agriculture in a restored Onondaga Creek corridor, eco-industries along a restored Erie Canal corridor) to build a “Sustainable Syracuse” that attracts residents and business because it is distinctive from other Everywhere USA cities.

  • Inclusive Democracy reforms to create structural institutional incentives for increased citizen power, civic engagement and voter turnout: neighborhood assemblies for community planning and participatory budgeting, proportional representation on common council, instant runoff voting for mayor, public campaign finance, and a grassroots-democratic metro government based on the principles of federalism and proportional representation so that city residents retain control over local affairs and have their fair share of representation in metro affairs.

The overwhelming majority of commentary we heard – from voters, supporters of other candidates, journalists – gave our program great reviews. Even when they didn’t agree with particular policy proposals, they appreciated that we were putting forward specific, well-developed policies to address the serious problems of the city. The most common feedback from the seven broadcast debates and over 20 community forums was that my answers to the questions were the best.

On election day, a surprising number of people among the hundreds milling around the traditional election day spaghetti dinner at Our Lady of Pompei told me that if we had the instant runoff voting I was talking about in the last debate Sunday before the election, they would have ranked me second. These were largely supporters of Walsh or Perez Williams. A few furtively told me they would have ranked me first. 

The positive view of our campaign within the Walsh camp was exhibited in the reaction in the room to Walsh’s victory speech when he made a positive statement about of my candidacy. As the Post-Standard reported, “Hawkins also earned a shout-out from mayor-elect Ben Walsh during his victory speech that garnered loud cheers from the crowd at the Hotel Syracuse.”

Walsh followed that up in an interview the next day saying he would be calling me for advice. The Post-Standard had an article saying I was one of the winners on Election Day. It also published an editorial on four takeaways from the election, one of which was that Walsh should include me in his “kitchen cabinet.” 

But while many voters really like our program, most voted their guts – their feelings about the two frontrunners – not their brains on policies. That is normal in elections: most people vote on their feelings about the candidates, not on the policies the candidates propose.

Our strategy to overcome that was to talk to the voters one-on-one in doorstep and phone canvassing. We were weaker in executing that plan that we have been since before the 2009 campaign for reasons I will discuss below. Nevertheless, while a well-executed campaign can win over those last few percentage points in a close race, it can only very rarely overcome the larger local and national political dynamics in which it is run.

Walsh’s campaign was one of those rare exceptions. Not only did his campaign do thorough canvassing, but they also methodically and astutely built their coalition by making the effort to meet with and cultivate the community leaders that other voters look to for guidance in elections. He took almost the whole Republican base this way. But the key to his victory was winning over Democratic elected officials and community leaders. With that coalition-building, he swept the middle-class professional neighborhoods and made significant inroads on the Democratic vote in the lower-income, predominantly black neighborhoods with 25-30% of vote in those neighborhoods. That was how he beat the Democrat in a city with a party enrollment of 56% Democratic, 22% unaffiliated, 15% Republican, and 7% divided between six minor parties (Green, Working Families, Independence, Women’s Equality, Reform, Libertarian).

It must also be recognized that the political mainstream of Syracuse is liberal, not radical. The Greens were proposing structural systemic change. Most voters who share our progressive values believe our problems can be effectively addressed with better leadership, not system change that radically expands political and economic democracy.

At the same time, the liberal majority really liked our policy proposals, even the most radical of them. They just don’t link the proposals to a systemic analysis that sees them as part of a larger vision of necessary social transformation. Post-election, I am receiving messages from people saying they voted for Walsh because he could win and implement our ideas. That, of course, remains to be seen. The contradictions within Walsh’s platform and between the constituencies in his coalition means something will have to give.

Two policies we highlighted were did not have such broad support. One was our opposition to hiring more police officers. We called for investing in youth outreach workers and help for the active shooters to stop the bloodshed on our streets, alongside a redeployment of police from their patrol cars to walking beats for problem-solving community policing. I constantly cited the example of Richmond, California under Green mayor Gayle McLaughlin, which cut homicides by 75% during her tenure using this approach. Our approach to crime had significant if not majority support in the black neighborhoods, but was largely opposed in the middle class neighborhoods and by business leaders.

Our other proposal that had a mixed reception was our call for a progressively graduated tax on income made in the city by residents, commuters, and absentee landlords. Syracuse is a city with over 40,000 suburban commuters who have most of the high-salaried jobs in tax-exempt hospitals, universities, government offices, and city-subsidized private businesses. Over half of the city’s long-term debt bonding has been for subsidies for private business. The progressive tax reform was popular in the working-class neighborhoods, but definitely not in the middle-class neighborhoods where many people also work at the tax-exempt institutions. 

Moving the citizenry – and particularly the working class that has largely dropped out of politics – to support democratizing systemic change is a long term project. Syracuse Greens have to accept that we are a political minority at this time. Our primary role is to move the debate during and between elections and win what reforms we can.

But there will also be opportunities to elect Greens into office in particular races. We’ve been close in the past. District council races present the most likely opportunities for wins because they revolve around neighborhood issues as opposed to systemic issues and a full canvassing is more possible at our current level of organization. Once there is one Green on the council, the idea of electing more will not seem like a long shot to voters. The first win will be the hardest.

 

Council Races

I was hoping that many voters who wanted to vote for me, but decided they had to choose between the two frontrunners, would vote for our Green common council candidates down the ballot. It didn’t happen to the degree I had hoped, but it did happen to the extent that all three council candidates substantially outpolled me in their districts.

The council candidates were swimming against the stream of two powerful national political dynamics – the pro-Democratic backlash to Trump and the movement to “independence” away from the two major parties, which Walsh’s “independent” campaign magnified locally.

The Trump presidency is so seen as so bigoted, plutocratic, and dangerous that the majority of city voters who are liberal and Democratic voted Democratic in the council races to send an anti-Trump message. The Democratic anti-Trump vote was national and massive, from the Democratic sweeps in NJ and VA to Democratic wins for county executive in normally Republican Westchester and Nassau counties in NY.

Another large cohort seems to have voted for the council candidates on the Independence line due to the growing the dissatisfaction with the two major parties as well as Walsh’s coattails. A Gallup poll released at the end of September found that a record 61% want a third major party and only 34% think the Democratic and Republican parties adequately represent the people. 

The Independence line received far more votes in the council races than in any previous election.

Frank Cetera came in fourth in a four-way race for two seats with 9% of the vote, which means that 18% of voters cast one of their two votes for him. The Republican who came in third got 24% of his votes on the Independence line.

The same dynamics explain the results for the Green district council candidates. Serena Seals came in third out of three in the 4th council district with 11% to the Democratic candidate’s 68% and the Independence candidate’s 21%. Eric Graf came in second to the Democratic and Independence candidate, losing 20% to 80%. The Democrat got 23% of his vote on the Independence line. 

 

Lessons for Greens

The non-voting working class majority in Syracuse is the primary base Greens will have to engage and organize to win power in Syracuse. They are the people in Syracuse who are most abused by the current system and stand the most to gain from radical democratization of the city government and economy.

The execution of the Greens campaign plan was late and weak. We were late in finding a campaign manager, fundraising, literature production, and canvassing. We played catch-up the whole campaign. The party’s core activists were spread thin. They were busy in organizer roles in the anti-Trump CNY Solidarity movement, Black Lives Matter, the Workers Center, the state single-payer campaign, and the anti-military drones campaign.

One lesson to draw from Walsh’s campaign is the one-on-one cultivation of community leaders. Our campaign plan assumed they were so embedded in the Democratic patronage and preferment nexus that they could not be moved. We assumed we could go under them to the grassroots with canvassing. Walsh’s campaign demonstrated that our assumption was wrong.

The progressives who swing between Green and Democratic depending on the race definitely swung Democratic in this election. I think this largely reflects people using their local races to vote against Trump. These progressives tended to support Bernie Sanders in 2016 and they followed his lead into the Democratic Party in 2017. Most of the core Sanderistas put their efforts into electing more Democrats to the county legislature and, after Perez Williams won the Democratic mayoral primary, into the Walsh’s mayoral campaign. Their impact on the county legislature was minimal, helping to switch back one county legislative seat to a Democrat who had formerly held that seat before declining to run for re-election six years ago. The legislature still has a 12-5 Republican suburban majority that will continue to routinely steamroll the city Democrats. They were quite successful, however, in giving permission to progressive Democrats to vote for the “independent” son of the former 20-year Republican congressman and now a top lobbyist in Washington and the grandson of the former Republican mayor and congressman in the 1960s and 1970s. 

The Greens’ role in the social movements should not diminish. What we need to do is organize more people into these movements and spread the organizer skills and responsibilities so all of us can devote more time to elections. We have to keep pointing out to other activists in these movements that without independent left electoral challenges to the two-party system of big business rule, the social movements get taken for granted and have less leverage for winning reforms.

The Greens will have leverage under the Walsh administration because the he and the Democratic council know that many of our policy proposals are popular, we have supplanted the Republicans as the opposition party, and we have demonstrated significant electoral support in recent elections if not so much this one. We should use that leverage to press for reforms. Municipalized sidewalks and broadband, deepening the neighborhood planning and participatory budgeting process, and community policing may be among our reforms that have support inside city hall and among the public.

In addition to such winnable reforms, we should also continue to raise our more radical reforms that don’t have broad support inside city hall. That will distinguish our political alternative and underscore our argument that “real solutions can’t wait” to the city’s fiscal crisis, poverty, segregation, youth shootings, mass incarceration, state takeover of schools, unaffordable rental housing, gentrification, displacement, lead poisoning, the climate crisis, and more.

 

The Larger Context of Local Elections

What is missing in Syracuse and American politics is a mass working-class party. An invention of the workers movement in the late 19th century, it is unique in the long history of slave and peasant and finally worker revolts against exploitation and oppression. Rather than episodic revolts that never changed the system, these parties organized people into a permanent organization, supported by their own dues contributions, around a shared program of fundamental change and continuous campaigning inside and outside of elections. It won the battles for the universal franchise, economic regulations, and social insurance programs that protect working people when unemployed, disabled, or old.

The series of independent left parties that fed one into the next from the 1820s to the 1930s – Workingmen’s, Liberty, Free Soil, Greenback-Labor, People’s, Socialist – forced their issues to the center of the national policy debate: abolition, suffrage, land reform, anti-monopol, monetary reform, anti-imperialism, social insurance, public jobs for the unemployed, public and cooperative enterprise. They really set the political agenda for over a century of expanding political rights and progressive economic reforms.

Those American third parties elected governors and senators, dozens of congressional representatives, hundreds of state legislators, and thousands of local elected officials. They built their parties from the ground up, starting with municipal elections. That is what we have to do again. 

The working-class mass party hasn’t won the battle for full political and economic democracy – i.e., democratic socialism. Yet. But it has kept the socialist ideal alive around the world except in the United States, where the independent left collapsed into the Democrat’s New Deal coalition in 1936 never yet to reappear as a major independent force in American politics.

The New Deal Democrats weakened in the backlash to Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s and became a completely spent and defeated force on economic policy within the Democratic Party with the nomination of the New Democrat, Bill Clinton, in 1992. Since the 1970s, the Democrats have moved steadily to the right on economic policy to reflect priorities of their big business donors. Their indifference to the downwardly mobile bottom 80% of the people that leaves a political vacuum the independent left can fill.

Today’s “left” is oriented around episodic demonstrations and lobbying campaigns around single issues focused on pressuring the two-party system to make reforms. Its liberal reform groups are largely funded by Democratic donors. It rarely wins reforms because it poses no threat to the votes of the two corporate parties.

A powerful left requires its own party to connect the issues and constituencies around a common program of democratizing system change. With capitalism’s structural imperative toward endless expansion that is destroying the climate and other ecological conditions for human life, the need for a mass party of the left is today an urgent matter of survival.

So as the Greens engage in the reform movements, we need to find a way to incorporate political education and party building into our normal rounds of political work. 

The political education of our members should aim to seed the movements with organizers and leaders who can help other activists make sense of the system, its power structure, and the difficulties they face in trying to influence it. Too many activists burn out because they don’t have the historical and analytical perspective to understand why the struggle is hard, that we have won and can win real improvements, and that we can win transformational change over the long haul. 

The party-building should aim to build a dues-paying mass membership organized into local chapters. That is how the organized people can beat the organized money of the existing power structure.

 

 

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Howie Hawkins is the 2017 Green candidate for Syracuse Mayor
Hawkins for Mayor