Howie Hawkins at American Legion Dunbar Post 1642 in Syracuse. Photo by Chuck Wainwright.
He was an early leader of the anti-nuclear movement as well as anti-apartheid efforts that ultimately pressured world leaders to end the practice of legalized racial discrimination. And in New York state, he applied plenty of pressure for the ban on hydrofracking, a $15 minimum wage, and free state tuition for middle-class families.
Since the 1960s, he’s gotten pretty good at making some ideas popular and some ideas unpopular with the masses.
“With almost everything, we started out as a tiny movement, but we grew and got things done. That’s the way it worked in stopping the Vietnam War,” said Hawkins, 65. “With that perspective in mind, I say let’s keep trying.”
All told, Hawkins has run for public office 21 times in the past 25 years, including bids for the Syracuse city council and the U.S. Senate. He’s currently running for governor, his third try for that seat, employing a theme of “Demand More.” He will only consider the contest a loss if he fails to swing the other political parties a few degrees in the Green Party’s direction.
Politics always on the table
Hawkins grew up outside of San Francisco, in a racially diverse working-class neighborhood. His mother Gloria died when he was very young. His father, Howard Hawkins, was an attorney.
The elder Hawkins was a star football player at Michigan State University and considered playing professionally, but instead served in the U.S. Army and went to law school on the G.I. Bill.
Hawkins gravitated to sports early, excelling at football, basketball and baseball. He was also a strong student. He enjoyed Boy Scouts’ activities and the outdoors but admits that he was terrible at shooting. Hawkins’ father was a good shot and tried to teach his son the finer points of marksmanship with a BB gun, but Howie Hawkins did not enjoy himself and immediately developed a distaste for firearms.
Politics was a hot topic at the dinner table. Hawkins always enjoyed the discussions with his more conservative father and two younger siblings, even if it got heated. His father, a Chicago native, was a classic Midwestern Republican who pressed for civil rights but also opposed unnecessary government involvement. They agreed on the principles of equality and individual liberties but disagreed on some of the stances of the hippies and the role of civil disobedience, which the younger Hawkins supports to this day.
“We called it the generation gap back then,” Hawkins said. “In his later years, I told him the one lesson I did learn from him is — don’t follow the crowd!”
Hawkins’ extended family members were traditionally Republicans, but that changed in the early 1980s when a right-wing coalition then known as the Moral Majority essentially took over the party. “That’s not the Republican party,” he said, “that we knew.”
Decades before that, at the end of the 1960s, Hawkins was a high school student in an area that was an epicenter of the counter culture. He got caught up in the times but has never abandoned those ideals. He organized the first Earth Day event at his high school, which some faculty and staff members applauded, but he also cut school to attend marches or sit-ins at Berkeley.
His first brush with the law came at the age of 14 when he outran a truant officer on his way to a Vietnam War protest. Fifty years later, Hawkins was arrested in Albany for protesting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s policies on climate change, which opponents say do not go far enough toward protecting the environment. Hawkins was photographed holding a drawing of the governor standing in front of a factory emitting black smoke, with the words “What will be your legacy?”
“I can’t count how many times I’ve been arrested,” Hawkins said. “Maybe a dozen.”
With extremely high marks in high school, Hawkins was accepted into Ivy League Dartmouth College. He chose the business-engineering program with hopes of using the skills and knowledge he acquired to develop technology for improving the environment. But when Hawkins’ draft number was called for the Vietnam War, he elected to enlist in a U.S. Marines officer-training program that would keep him on a college campus, as opposed to going off to combat with the Army overseas.
The plan did not work out for him, however, because he could not afford to return to college and he had not accumulated any GI Bill benefits, though he still was not called into combat.
Hawkins worked in construction and returned to Dartmouth but fell just short of earning a bachelor’s degree due to not meeting the foreign language obligation. He failed Spanish and attempted to submit his knowledge of Tongan toward the graduation requirement; he had already completed an undergraduate fellowship overseas.
Initially, Hawkins’ proposal was accepted, but it was then reversed by higher-level officials. Hawkins believes that his frequent participation in anti-war protests, including one that was specifically against bringing the Army ROTC program back to Dartmouth, were factored into that decision.
In 1974, Hawkins helped organize a protest and occupation of the Seabrook Nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. He settled in New England after leaving Dartmouth because he thought it was a good place to continue his work in the anti-nuclear movement. To pay the bills, he led a construction workers’ cooperative that specialized in eco-friendly renovation projects, like solar panels and windmills.
When the construction industry took a nose dive in the late 1980s, Hawkins found work as a logger. But a back injury sidelined him from the forests, so he had to look for something else.
“Basically, my choice at that time was to find a desk job,” he recalled. “But I felt like I was too blue collar for that.”
The California native who adopted New England as his home then found himself in Syracuse, where he was hired as the executive director of Common Works, an organization that helped nonprofit agencies grow. It was a noble cause for the idealistic Hawkins, but the ugly side of that arena drained his enthusiasm at times.
“In terms of our original mission, we weren’t that successful,” he said. “It really wasn’t my cup of tea. The foundation world is really more about who you know.”
Hawkins was happy to shed the suit and tie for the brown threads of a UPS uniform, starting at $8 an hour but working his way up during a 17-year career there that preceded his retirement from non-political work (other than being a member of the Teamsters union). He worked nights unloading trucks.
“The physical activity was almost like a vacation,” he recalled, “and I always slept well.”
The overnight shift also gave Hawkins plenty of time to get involved in local politics. Central New York, he explained, was a great place to test out ideas because the demographics in terms of political affiliation, race, education, income and a variety of other factors closely resemble national averages. With few gated communities, Syracuse and its suburbs were easy places to go door to door, and Hawkins found early success getting his letters and columns published in local newspapers.
“It’s like a big small town,” he said. “It is ideal in terms of its human scale. My left-wing politics made it challenging. It’s not as easy a terrain as Berkeley, but it is a useful terrain.”
Under his current platform in the governor’s race, Hawkins wants to establish a government-funded health insurance program that would cover more services than Medicaid in its current form. He also promotes an environmental plan that would assure “100 percent clean energy” in New York state by 2030. He also wants to cut back, if not eliminate, unfunded state mandates that drive up local property tax rates.
“We need a bottom-up system instead of trickle-down economics,” he said. “Both parties balance the state budget on the backs of local tax payers. The state should pay for its own mandates, and the 2 percent cap on government spending has not lowered property taxes. Let us locally decide our priorities.”
Making a difference
When he’s not politicking, Hawkins is still a gym rat. Fitness has always been a major part of his life, and he works out with weights, uses elliptical machines and stretches almost daily. Hawkins never married and does not have children, which has afforded him the ability to quickly mobilize for gatherings, protests or rallies.
“I was the kind of guy in college who always talked about having a wife, kids and a house,” he said. “And yet, I never found the right girl.”
Politics has been his true love, even though it breaks his heart often. Over time Hawkins has become more hardened by the battles, more strategic and more focused on longer term goals. But the game is getting much tougher. He’s always been outmatched by money, power and influence, and now there are up-and-coming rival third parties competing for the same slices of the Green Party’s pie.
The projected anti-Trump blue wave is expected to benefit Democrats but not necessarily anti-establishment fans. Still, Hawkins does not get discouraged and cannot imagine giving up his fight any time soon.
“I think we made a difference even if we don’t win the office,” Hawkins said. “We’re very pleased with how we moved public opinion, but now we have to get the policies to move.”
Carol Perry, a longtime friend of Hawkins and one of his campaign volunteers, called the third-party politician a “true go-to guy.” She met him over 15 years ago at her mother’s soul food restaurant, Vera’s Place. Her first observation was that the man had an enormous appetite for someone who stayed so fit. Today, she considers him like a brother.
“He had a plate full of collard greens and corn bread, and then all of the ribs and fried chicken,” Perry said. “Oh, man, can Howie eat!”
It didn’t take Hawkins long to strike up conversations with everyone in the restaurant, let alone much of the surrounding neighborhood. He met anyone who had something to say. He talked some, Perry recalled, but mostly listened.
“He’ll listen as long as you need him to, and you always feel like you’ve been heard,” she said. “Howie is grass roots. You don’t see politics first — you see concern first.”
Over the years, communities have looked toward Hawkins to put pressure on city hall to address their issues. He has also connected with dozens of families on a personal level, even if it means visiting loved ones who got arrested and talking sense into them when other people in their lives couldn’t make a breakthrough, Perry explained.
She recalled the time when a needy man whom Hawkins never met before asked to borrow $10 to deal with an emergency. Hawkins, despite being distracted and in a hurry, handed the man money without a second thought. Three years later, the man recognized Hawkins in his neighborhood, handed him a $10 bill, and thanked him for the loan.
“Howie didn’t even remember loaning him the money, but enjoyed meeting him,” Perry recalled. “You never see that, but that’s the kind of thing that only happens to Howie Hawkins.”
Howie’s Soap Box
Howie Hawkins, the Syracuse Green Party candidate who is running for New York state governor, provided his opinion recently on a variety of issues:
On the environment: Hawkins is pleased with the statewide fracking ban but disagrees with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support for new power plants, pipelines and infrastructure for growing natural gas use in New York state. “They say it’s a bridge,” he said, “but I say it’s a cliff.”
On health care reform: Hawkins advocates a taxpayer-funded “single-payer” system that covers the costs of essential medical services for all residents. He does not believe that such a system would require massive tax hikes. He said legislation for such a system has been considered in Albany, but it continually hits road blocks put in place by pharmaceutical companies and special interest groups.
On the ever-growing number of casinos in New York state: Hawkins said adding casinos is a poor excuse for economic development. “It’s just re-arranging revenue, not creating it,” he said. “What we should do to promote economic development is to lower the cost of doing business and open up subsidies that promote clean energy.”
On legalizing marijuana in New York state: Hawkins is in favor or legalizing the drug, taxing it and regulating its growth, distribution and sale. But, he cautions, “this should not be a situation where big pharmacy and big tobacco can come in and leave the little people out.”