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Progressive Democrats Have Little Power Without an Independent Left
Longtime Green Howie Hawkins, now running for Governor of New York on a multi-candidate Green ticket, wrote this piece in 2017 about the Working Families Party. WFP is one of several groups that claim they can make progressive change from within the Democratic Party.
Stephanie Luce asks [in this piece for the web magazine Solidarity] why did [NY Gov.] Cuomo shift leftward after the 2014 gubernatorial election in New York? Her answer is that progressives working inside the Democratic Party – Working Families Party, Zephyr Teachout, Bernie Sanders, Fight for $15 demos organized by Democratic Party-oriented unions – changed the political landscape and forced Cuomo to move left to recover the left wing of his electoral base.
What is missing in Luce’s analysis is the role of the independent left and the votes Cuomo lost to the Green Party in 2014. In 2014 I ran for Governor of New York with the teacher and socialist activist, Brian Jones, as my Lt. Governor running mate. Our ticket received 5% of the vote in the general election (185,419), which was about the same number of votes (192,210) as Zephyr Teachout’s 33% vote in the Democratic primary. The Green vote jumped the Green Party past the Working Families and Independence parties on all state ballots, which list parties in order of their votes for the gubernatorial ticket.
The votes for the left of Cuomo in both the primary and general elections mattered to him. The 5% Green vote was the most for an independent left party ticket for Governor/Lt. Governor in New York history except for the 6% received by the Socialist tickets in 1918 and 1920. It was widely reported when Cuomo started his 2014 campaign that he hoped to surpass his father Mario’s best win of 66% in 1986 and use that result as a launching pad for a presidential bid. Instead, Cuomo’s 54% in 2014 was way down from his 63% in 2010 and well below all winning Democrats in modern New York history. He knows he lost most of those votes to his left.
The Greens don’t claim sole credit for Cuomo adopting policies that he opposed, or would not commit to, when the Green ticket campaigned for them in both 2010 and 2014. Those policies include not only the fracking ban, $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public universities, and paid family leave that Luce mentions, but also funding a state plan for 100% renewable energy by 2030, Raise the Age (i.e., end the prosecution 16 and 17 year olds as adults), a ban on solitary for incarcerated minors, and making New York a sanctuary state.
Greens give the reform Democrats their due. We acknowledge that Cuomo felt and feels their pressure. But they should give also the independent left its due as well, especially when Luce claims the WFP is trying to rebuild trust with progressives who were so dismayed at WFP’s nomination of Cuomo. That trust-building has certainly not been extended to the Greens. Consistent with the WFP narrative, the Green Party is absent in Luce’s analysis. WFP is making no attempt to build positive working relationships with the left that is independent of the corporate-financed Democrats. Rather, they work to keep the independent left out of the decision-making and the speakers platforms in coalitions they influence.
As the 2014 gubernatorial campaign got under way, many WFP supporters, including state committee members, urged me to seek the WFP as well as Green nominations. They could not stand the thought of WFP endorsing Cuomo again. Fusion – being nominated and appearing on the ballot of more than one party – is legal and common in New York State. It takes 50,000 votes for the gubernatorial ticket to create a ballot line party for the next four years. Of the eight parties now with ballot status, only the Green Party line was created by running a candidate who was not also the candidate of the Democrats or Republicans. The other five “minor” parties routinely cross-endorse the “major” party with which they are aligned.
Green Party rules in New York preclude fusion with the corporate parties and their satellites like WFP. But given the many appeals from WFP supporters in 2014, I wrote a letter to the WFP co-chairs in April asking for a meeting discuss how to we might work together to oppose Cuomo and his conservative economic agenda in the 2014 elections. In the meantime, I drafted a Green Party rules change that if adopted would have allowed fusion with WFP on a case-by-case basis for a two-year trial period if WFP was willing to run a joint ticket against Cuomo and run more progressive independents against corporate Democrats. I never received a response to my letter and the rule change was not proposed at the Green nominating convention.
The rule change I drafted was certainly controversial within the Green Party because of bad experiences with WFP and its endorsed Democrats. In my own case in 2011 and 2013 in two-way city council races where I was running against a Democrat, WFP brought in their upstate and downstate political directors to coordinate paid campaign workers to canvass and get out the vote in order to defeat me. In 2011, I received 48% of the vote, losing by just 96 votes. In office, this Democrat, Khalid Bey, was known for spearheading tax breaks for developers, slow walking and weakening ordinances to Ban the Box and hire more city residents on city contracts, towing Cuomo’s line against increased state revenue sharing for high-poverty fiscally-strapped cities like Syracuse, and being the only city councilor to vote against extending non-discrimination protection to transgender people in the wake of a hate crime murder of a transgender woman.
My opponent had more donations from developers, landlords, and construction companies than any candidate in the city. When I made an issue of his donations in the second campaign in 2013, he resorted to inviting those donors to $99 contribution events. $100 is the threshold for itemizing contributions by name in state campaign finance reports. To this day, however, he has not filed those reports for the 2013 campaign. It is not possible to tell from the campaign finance reports by WFP accounts how much they spent on these elections.
In 2013, WFP’s second invasion of my council district – there is no WFP organization in the district or the city – prompted a petition by labor and socialist activists around the state to the WFP to stop campaigning against me in favor of a centrist Democrat. That became the topic of a discussion on Doug Henwood’s Facebook page the night before the election. While I was at my job unloading trucks at UPS, WFP’s upstate political director, Jesse Lenney, wrote on Facebook that “a victory for Hawkins tomorrow would be worse for the progressive cause than any other victory for a Right Winger.” The day after the election, an analysis in the daily Syracuse Post-Standard noted that “the Working Families Party has shown it can parachute in to influence Syracuse elections.” Asked why WFP focused solely on a Green/Democratic race to the neglect of other close Democratic/Republican contests in our city and county, Lenney said, “Paid canvassing is very expensive. We have to marshal our resources.” Apparently, it was a more important priority for WFP to defeat a left independent than Republicans.
The usual WFP line accuses Greens of not just being unwitting dupes of Republicans by supposedly splitting the progressive vote, but also of being conscious supporters of Republicans. Lenney wrote on Henwood’s blog that night, “Isn’t Ann Marie Burkle [a former conservative member of Congress from the Syracuse region] and the Tea Party funding your campaigns against us?” What was exceptional in that statement was only that he wrote it down in a public forum. Those kind of statements about the Greens by WFP staff and canvassers are frequently passed on to us by activists and ordinary voters canvassed by WFP.
The watering down of campaign finance reform demands by WFP and progressive Democrats generally illustrates how sectarian WFP can be toward its rivals to their left as well as what happens when progressives play “real politics” inside the Democratic Party. On Henwood’s Facebook page that night, Lenney wrote, “The last I saw of Howie was when he rudely disrupted a public event in support of public financing of fair elections.” I did protest the format of the event, which did not permit discussion of their partial public funding proposal from the floor. I only agreed to attend the event after an insistent call from a well-meaning woman from the League of Women Voters who assured me that I would be able to speak from the floor on the issue. The previous public campaign finance event also sponsored by WFP, Citizen Action, and other liberal groups had a format where only questions on cards would be read and responded to by their panel. No comments from the floor. Another Green had asked about Move To Amend’s proposed amendment to the U.S Constitution to affirm that money is not speech and corporations do not have the same rights as natural persons in order to have effective regulation of campaign financing and the economy. The event’s moderator read the question and dramatically threw it over his shoulder as he dismissed the question without responding to its substance. I objected to the having the same format at the second event and urged them to let us have a real discussion. When I was told to sit down and shut up, I called the format “bullshit” and walked out.
The substantive issue was the retreat of WFP and Citizen Action from their previous position in support of full public campaign funding, where all candidates who opt in and qualify get equal public campaign grants and cannot take private campaign donations. The partial public funding proposal they were now backing added a dollop of public matching funds on top of unlimited private funding. It was, in my opinion, a reform that would not reform. It would leave the big private donors dominating campaign finance.
Public campaign financing really matters in New York where 40 state elected officials have been driven from office for public corruption since 2000. Pay-to-play campaign contributions were central to many of those cases and to the whole culture of corruption in Albany. The two WFP-endorsed Democrats who sponsored the partial public funding bill in 2014 – former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former chair of the Democratic Conference of the state Senate, John Sampson – are today felons convicted for public corruption and sentenced to federal penitentiaries for 12 years and 5 years respectively.
Progressives who enter the Democratic Party coalition are junior partners subordinate to the big donors. Progressives face enormous pressure to water down their demands in order to stay in the good graces of Democratic leaders and the corporate funders behind them. In this case, the progressive Democrats’ retreat from full public campaign funding to partial public funding followed the lead of a coalition of high-donor capitalists, elected Democrats, and liberal pro-Democratic organizations like Citizen Action and WFP that launched this campaign for watered-down campaign finance reform in 2012. The New York campaign for partial public campaign financing was touted by corporate-funded liberals as the first step in a national campaign for a partial public funding matching funds system at the state and congressional levels. The campaign was well-financed by corporate liberals, including David Rockefeller, Sr.; Jonathan Soros, scion of the multi-billionaire currency warrior, George Soros; media mogul Barry Diller (Paramount, Fox, USA); Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and his husband, Sean Eldridge, an unsuccessful Hudson Valley congressional candidate in 2014; the Committee for Economic Development, a big business lobby; and Organizing for Action, the Obama post-campaign dark money conduit.
The demand for matching funds partial public funding had replaced the demand for full public funding that progressives had been pushing since the 1990s and had won in Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine (though the Connecticut version was deeply flawed by making access for third party candidates effectively impossible). To the Greens, this looked like a campaign by the corporate Democrats to pre-empt full public campaign financing as well as the growing Move To Amend movement for a U.S. constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court contrived doctrines that money is speech and corporations are people.
WFP defenders often dismisses the Green Party as more interested in political posturing than political power. It is not only WFP that works with the legislature we’ve got to get what we can at this time. Although Greens are critical of the strategies of reform Democrats, Greens do work with progressive Democrats for policy reforms that we share in coalitions were decision-making and speaking platforms are shared across the party divide. While WFP has not been a willing ally of the Greens, we have many Democratic allies we work with on issue campaigns. My campaign manager in 2014, Ursula Rozum, is currently working as the upstate field organizer for the Campaign to Pass the New York Health Act, the single-payer health care bill that has passed the Assembly and needs one more vote in the Senate. The Campaign works closely with the bill’s principal sponsor, Democratic Senator Richard Gottfried, and receives its principal funding from the nurses and service employees unions that generally back Democrats in elections. A veteran Green who was a policy advisor to my campaign, Mark Dunlea, leads a trans-partisan Campaign for 100% Clean Energy by 2030 that has shepherded funding for planning a transition to 100% clean energy by 2030 into Assembly’s proposed state budget. Cuomo subsequently affirmed his support for a study to plan a “as fast as possible” transition. By contrast, NY Renews, led by WFP and its affiliates, campaigns for 100% by 2050. NY Renews is absent from the grassroots campaigns in which Greens participate to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure – pipelines for fracked gas, oil “bomb” trains and ports for fracked and tar sand oil, gas storage in salt mines – as well as the campaign to stop a Cuomo-brokered $8 billion subsidy to Exelon to keep four aging and economically failing upstate nuclear power plants running. The Greens also initiated the campaign for a fee on plastic bags in New York City that passed the city council only to be pre-empted at the state level by the “Big Bag” lobby that succeeded in getting bipartisan legislation passed and signed by Cuomo.
By remaining independent and raising movement demands without dilution, Greens have been able to lever the political landscape to the left, including WFP positions, on some issues. It was the elected Greens of New Paltz, Mayor Jason West and Deputy Mayor Rebecca Rotzler, who got the marriage equality movement going in New York in 2005 by performing two dozen gay marriages in defiance of objections from Democratic-oriented LGBT groups and until a court injunction secured by the Democratic state Attorney General, Elliot Spitzer. By 2011, the marriage equality was New York law. In my 2010 gubernatorial campaign, I called for a state bank, which got a good response in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and foreclosure crisis. After the election, WFP’s policy shop, the Center for Working Families, produced policy papers on public banking and sought state legislative sponsors for a state bank bill. In 2009 and 2010 the Green Party campaigned for a ban on fracking while the environmental movement was debating whether natural gas was a “bridge to renewables” or whether a moratorium on fracking while it was studied was in order. The demand for an immediate ban came from the grassroots movement, from Greens, other environmentalists, home owners, farmers – Democratic, Republican, and independent – in the southern tier of New York, which was ground zero for potential fracking wells. One of the grassroots leaders was a Green elected to the town board of Afton, Mary Jo Long. I took that demand into the 2010 gubernatorial campaign and it caught fire. The environmental movement in New York abandoned the natural gas “bridge” and the ban replaced the moratorium demand. WFP, which had been circulating moratorium petitions before the election, began circulating ban petitions after the election.
WFP, through the Working Families Organization, the 501c4 organizational and money power behind the party organization shell, and other liberal Democratic groups and funders, moved in to create the New Yorkers Against Fracking that Luce mentions. Unfortunately, NYAF too often gave Greens the usual run arounds when it came to seats at the decision-making tables and speakers at demonstrations and news conferences. “The Greens are political and it will jeopardize our non-profit status.” When a Democratic politician was scheduled to speak, we were told, “That’s different. They’re elected.” When we offered our own elected officials, we were told our electeds were “only” municipal officials. The grassroots movements in the southern tier were similarly marginalized as the funded and staffed group grabbed the media spotlight. NYAF’s constant activities and dogging of Cuomo were no doubt important in the governor ultimately accepting the ban recommendation from his health commissioner. But NYAF’s organizing style did not always build trust with organizers in the grassroots movement.
Cuomo’s gestures to his left have not changed his core conservative program. Luce identifies areas where he remains terrible, from inadequate and inequitable school funding and the test-punish-and-privatize school reform agenda to corporate tax cuts and his New Year’s Eve veto of full funding for public defenders. To this we must add and emphasize the Wall Street- and real estate-friendly reactionary core Cuomo’s policy agenda: tax and budget policies that impose austerity on upstate cities, counties, and towns while doling out tax breaks and grants as a corporate patronage system. In addition, Cuomo proposes to disempower struggling upstate inner cities and rural towns by consolidating them into county governments. Cuomo touts his consolidation proposal as a way to lower upstate New York’s extremely high property taxes. New York’s property taxes are high because 15% of regressive local property and sales taxes pay for mandated state programs instead of by more progressive state personal and business income taxes. Eliminating local government won’t lower property taxes. Cuomo’s plan is a “soft” version of Michigan emergency manager law that politically disenfranchised cities and school districts in Detroit, Flint, Benton Harbor, and several other municipalities in order to concentrate money and power in the governor’s office.
We must also note that WFP, and reform Democrats like Teachout and Sanders generally, avoid raising anti-imperialist foreign and military policy demands, which has such enormous consequences for domestic policies that affect working people. During the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, as Cuomo was receiving much criticism for shutting down an anti-corruption commission he had formed as its inquiries were coming closer to his office and his associates, Cuomo changed the headlines and campaign narrative by focusing on foreign policy. He supported Israel’s bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip in July and August and in September focused on potential terrorist attacks in the wake of the Obama administration’s announcement of increased U.S. bombing in Iraq and Syria. Cuomo traveled to Jerusalem in August to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and declare his support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. In September, Cuomo held multiple joint news conferences on terrorism with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. As Cuomo’s primary opponent, Teachout refused in several media queries to take a position on Israel’s Gaza campaign or Cuomo’s Israel visit. She did say she opposed BDS and that she wanted the U.S. to maintain its “special relationship” with Israel. The Hawkins-Jones campaign denounced the Israel’s military campaign in Gaza when it started and then Cuomo’s trip to Israel to support it.
We need an independent left that can raise these kinds of perspectives that those inside the Democratic Party cannot without being marginalized in that power structure. That power structure is organized around entrepreneurial candidate organizations that seek investments from big donors. The big donors call the shots in the end.
While I urge progressives inside the Democratic Party to leave and help build a powerful independent left, I also urge those that remain to see the independent left as their allies, not their competitors. The stronger the independent left is, the more leverage inside the Democratic Party they have. Their votes will not be taken for granted because progressives will have another option. Unfortunately, the WFP exemplifies a sectarian trend among many progressive Democrats whose narratives simply erase the independent left and whose practice often fights that independent left more than it fights the right.