by Mark Dunlea, co-founder of the Green Party of NY and author of Madame President, The Unauthorized Biography of the First Green Party President
I write from the unique perspective of being the one person who played a critical role in establishing both the Greens and the Working Families Party (WFP) as ballot-qualified parties in NYS.
I admit that my heart and daily work belongs to the Greens. I would always urge voters to support the more progressive candidate and reject the lesser of two evils, and it is no contest between Hawkins and Cuomo. Hawkins not only supports but organizes on issues such as a $15 minimum wage, a ban on fracking, 100% clean energy by 2030, full public campaign financing, single payer health care, the legalization of marijuana, worker rights, taxing the rich, an end to the New Jim Crow and mass incarceration, universal child care... the list goes on and on. (howiehawkins.org/platform).
I believe that by far the strongest way to move the political debate in a progressive direction in New York - especially on issues such as fracking and the minimum wage - is to maximize the vote total for the most progressive candidate, not to spread out the vote for the Prince of Darkness among four ballot lines that only political insiders care about. Media commentators have noted that political insiders, for instance, will be closely evaluating Hawkins's vote total in counties where there is strong anti-fracking sentiment. Are voters really willing to punish Cuomo for not banning fracking?
400,000 marched in NYC on September 21 to demand action on climate change - a great march that, unfortunately, has done little to change the politics of global warming at the state or federal level. If those 400,000 march to the ballot booths on election day and support the Green Party's call for 100% clean energy by 2030, that would have more impact. Hawkins also says that to deal with climate change we need system change - opposing capitalism and the two corporate parties they finance.
But I also agree with the sentiment expressed by Richard Kim, the Executive Editor of The Nation magazine, who wrote an op-ed in favor of voting for Howie Hawkins as the best candidate. He concludes: "my vote for Hawkins is a protest vote, against Cuomo, yes, but also against what the WFP has become—a party too dominated by inside institutional players who can’t or won’t see when the air is really better on the outside." (www.thenation.com/blogs/richard-kim)
The critical threshold for "third" parties in NY is to get the 50,000 votes for Governor to win official ballot status for the next four years, which makes it easier for the parties to run candidates (except, of course, the WFP seldom runs its own candidates, even less so today than in the early days where it focused more on primaries). Despite Cuomo getting revenge for his hostage treatment at the WFP convention by creating and campaigning for his new Women's Equality Party, both the Greens and the WFP will easily pass the 50,000 vote threshold. The unions, which forced the WFP membership to accept a candidate they hated, will bail out the WFP because they find it a useful tool in their arsenal of lobbying weapons.
The real contest is between the Greens and the Conservative Party to see who will finish third in the election, which will determine the critical order of the ballot for the next four years. A major problem for the Green Party in NY is that is very hard for voters to find their candidates on the ballot. Being third would make it much easier.
It would have course been nice to defeat Cuomo, something that might have happened if the Greens and WFP had united behind a single candidate as Howie had suggested. Dissatisfaction is so great with Cuomo that even the relatively unknown Zephyr Teachout might have beaten him in the Democratic Party primary if she had had WFP support.
The debate between the Greens and the WFP is the classic debate about the best path to social change - revolution or incremental reform. Both sides have their partisans, and most of us strike a conflicted balance in our organizing work.
The debate is why I decided to contact the WFP leadership after receiving an email from its Executive Director Danny Cantor throwing in the towel after its first election in 1998. While I prefer the Green approach, I view both parties as important experiments in using elections to promote social change. Who knew back in ‘98 which path would be successful? The fusion strategy gets more power short term but is more easily corrupted. The independent third party strategy is much slower, especially under the winner take all rules of partisan elections; but when such a party succeeds, far more fundamental changes can be won.
Almost all democracies in the world use proportional representation: when a party gets 10% of the votes, it gets 10% of the seats. Throughout the world, the Greens are part of many national ruling coalitions and have played a pivotal role on a number of issues such as climate change and sustainable agriculture. Outside of NYS, most local elections are nonpartisan and the Greens win about a third of the local elections they contest, resulting in hundreds of elected officials. In recent years Gayle McLaughlin, the Mayor of Richmond California, has been the highest-profile Green in the US with her fights against housing foreclosures and Chevron. A number of Greens are elected mayors of villages in NYS, most notably Jason West, whose performance of gay marriages helped ignite the successful effort nationwide for same-sex marriage.
Back in ’98, Cantor had informed the WFP membership that the party was over since it failed to get 50,000 votes for Governor. I was the campaign manager that year for the successful Green gubernatorial campaign for Al Lewis. Looking at the election returns, I was pretty sure there were 50,000 votes for Democrat Peter Vallone on the WFP line and contacted the WFP to urge them to mount an aggressive voter recount to establish the party, which they successfully did.
I have written previously about the shortcomings of the WFP (and WFP members have graciously chipped in their own insights into those of the Green Party), so I won't repeat much of it here.
One major problem is that, increasingly, the WFP chooses candidates not based on whether they are progressive but on whether they are incumbent Democrats. For instance, while urging voters to support peace, they run candidates for US Senate who support war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They adopt the Green agenda in their outreach to voters but actually embrace the Democratic Party corporate agenda with their candidates.
The power of the WFP is greatly exaggerated. What they have evolved into is probably the best door-to-door political campaign organization in NYS, probably only exceeded in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts by the money and phone banking of union organization 1199 SEIU. But the WFP’s canvassing operation allows them to go into unorganized districts - for a substantial fee - to help elect Democrats.
The WFP is an aggressive lobbying organization and has won some good reforms over the years but fairly routine ones - less than other well funded lobbying groups; a few crumbs here and there while the 1% wins the real power and rewards. Income inequality, for instance, has greatly increased during the WFP's existence.
And the few reforms that are won are often flawed and weakened in their final form (the devil is in the details) and then undercut by the executive branch in implementation. Perhaps the most important state legislation the WFP has passed was to create the Green Jobs, Green Home program to create tens of thousands of jobs by energy retrofitting one million homes. But actual progress has been weak, with less-than-enthusiastic implementation by the Cuomo bureaucracy.
The WFP is also given some credit for the recent hike in the state minimum wage. Other groups had been working for a $10 wage for several years when the WFP was able to get Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to put the hike on the table in 2012. But problems soon popped up. The WFP immediately embraced the much lower 75 cents an hour hike proposed by Silver without consulting other groups or workers. The WFP then killed the deal to raise the minimum wage as part of the state budget - because they wanted to use the issue to beat the Senate Republicans in the election. This delay cost workers hundred of millions of dollars.
Silver and Cuomo - both WFP nominees – agreed, however, to gerrymander the legislative districts to allow the Republicans to keep control of the Senate. And then when Obama pushed turnout high enough among the Democratic Party base to give the Senate Democrats a thin majority (for the second time in recent years), 5 WFP nominees created the IDC (Independent Democratic Caucus) to give control back to the Republicans. The WFP also pulled back their resources from the minimum wage fight post-election. When the minimum wage finally was increased a year later, it was kept a sub-poverty wage, spread out over 3 years, with no indexing to inflation and excluding food tip workers, and lawmakers created a $50 million teenage minimum wage tax credit for Wal-Mart and McDonalds.
The WFP is paid for by the Democrats and several unions. The union involvement is primarily where they get their power from. ACORN (of which I am former state Head Organizer for) and Bob Masters of CWA were able to convince some key unions that a WFP fusion electoral arm would be useful to help push their legislative and budget agenda. Remember, like the unions, the WFP's initial approach to power was to help the Republicans maintain control of the State Senate, most notoriouly helping Nick Spano (later sent to jail for corruption) defeat Andrea Stewart Counsins (now the leader of the Senate Democrats) by a few dozen votes.
Many of us wish unions in the US had their own party like they do in other parts of the world, but they are entrenched in the Democratic Party. And unions, particularly in NYS, are not focused very much on long-term political change or working-class solidarity but rather transactional politics to deliver immediate benefits to their dues-paying members. While the state workers based in Albany, along with many teachers, hate Cuomo's anti-union, anti-public employees attacks, many other unions have been able to win what they want from the Cuomo administration. 1199, for instance, won more than $300 million in this year's budget to increase the pay of health care workers.
The WFP by design is not a democratic organization. Power is concentrated in those who pay the bills - primarily the unions, along with a handful of community groups. So the labor unions decided to support Cuomo again and forced his nomination through against the wishes of the vast majority of the WFP enrollees. Cuomo was required to produce a video where he allegedly was forced to recite a few promises to get the votes of a few community groups to defeat Teachout, but he began walking away from those vague commitments the morning after the vote.
Four years ago I urged the WFP to run someone against Cuomo, whose conservative economic agenda was quite clear. He expressly stated that he rejected the WFP agenda and the party needed to shut up and just endorse him if they wanted him to maintain their ballot line. While an independent WFP campaign would have made it much more difficult for Hawkins to pass the 50,000 threshold, WFP would have easily achieved it and won its independence from Cuomo. They would have been far stronger politically: many Democratic insiders now just view them as pests who don't increase the overall vote total but just shift a few percentage points from the Dem line to WFP. In 2010 the WFP backed down, endorsed Cuomo, who, once elected, proceeded to enact the bad policies he campaigned on.
Now the WFP, despite the rebellion from their membership, has decided to re-nominate Cuomo and his bad agenda. They made the wrong choice 4 years ago; they made a horrible choice this time. And now they want progressives to join with them in their disempowerment and protest Cuomo by voting for him. I wonder if George Orwell would have found this logic plausible to include in 1984 if he was around to update it.
So I urge voters - both to promote progressive politics and to help the WFP regain their soul – to vote for Howie Hawkins and the Green Party as the only progressive choice on the ballot for Governor.