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United States: Impressive red-green electoral campaigns in New York, Maine

Brian Jones (left) and Howie Hawkins.

November 13, 2014 -- Socialist Worker (USA) -- In a mostly dismal election year, Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones gave the US left something to cheer about with their Green Party campaign for the governor and lieutenant governor of New York. (Jones is also a member of the International Socialist Organization). By getting almost 5 per cent and 200,000 votes, Hawkins-Jones had the most successful independent left-wing campaign in New York state in more than 50 years.

The Hawkins-Jones campaign was able to bring attention to struggles to defend public education and ban hydrofracking -- and to show that it's possible for the left to begin building organisation outside the Democratic Party. Howie and Brian spoke to Danny Katch about their assessment of the campaign and their thoughts about next steps.

* * *

What were your hopes for the campaign and were they realised?

Howie: We wrote four goals into our original campaign plan last January. I'll run through them:

1. At least 50,000 votes to retain our line on all New York ballots for the next four years. We easily achieved this goal.

2. 5 per cent and 250,000 votes to change New York politics by establishing a viable independent left party. We chose this goal as being within our reach if we ran a very good campaign. The numbers would basically equal the best showings for independent left gubernatorial candidates in New York history -- 5.7 per cent and 5.6 per cent for Socialists in 1918 and 1920; 220,000 votes for the independent American Labor Party candidate for governor in 1950.

We got 4.9 pe rcent and nearly 200,000 votes when all the paper ballots are counted. That's close enough for what we hoped to achieve with this vote: Making the Greens the voice of the left -- or at least the independent left -- in New York politics in the media's and the public's eyes, displacing liberal Democrats and their second ballot line, the Working Families Party.

When we were polling consistently in the 6 per cent to 9 per cent range statewide from July through late October, we began to hope we could break double digits. I think we came up short of what the polls indicated due to last-minute, lesser-evil voting and the record low turnout.

It remains to be seen how the media and public will regard our new status. Some pundits gave us due respect. Politico's Capital New York said the Greens were the "the big third-party winners" and Time Warner Cable's Capital Tonight said, "the Green Party has achieved a new level of permanency in state politics". Our ultimate standing will depend on our organising and media work going forward.

3. Move the debate on key issues. It remains to be seen how much we moved the debate. After our 2010 campaign, our "Ban Fracking" demand was picked up by the whole anti-fracking movement -- which before our campaign had mostly been demanding a moratorium while it was studied.

We got a lot of media coverage for several of our platform planks this time: full and equitable school funding, opt out of high-stakes testing, a $15 minimum wage, ban fracking, 100 per cent clean energy by 2030, single-payer health care, full public campaign financing. How much we are able to move the debate on these demands depends on our follow-up organising and media work. Our significant vote gives us the opportunity to do that.

Because Democrat winner Andrew Cuomo will use the Republican-majority state Senate as a shield against progressive reforms for the next two-year legislative session, our organising will be more about movement building around these issues than passing legislation. [Editor's note: After this roundtable took place, the New York Post reported that Cuomo had made a secret deal that left the Republican majority in the state Senate intact.]

But we will be demanding legislative votes on these issues to put the incumbents on the record, which will set up our campaigns for the 2016 state legislative elections.

4. Increase party membership and strengthen party organization. The campaign raised new interest in the Green Party. We have many requests for support in organising new county and local Green organisations across the state. Our original campaign plan included keeping some staff on for a couple months after the campaign to help with following through on organising. That's what we are doing now after the election.

Brian: For my part, I was hoping especially to give an electoral expression to the movement to defend and improve public education. Teachers, parents and students have been organising against school closures, charter school co-locations, high-stakes standardised testing and union-busting.

The people most directly involved in this organizing increasingly found themselves up against high-level Democratic Party officials, including the US Department of Education and the White House. In my view, the sooner that parents, teachers and students begin seeing themselves as building a movement that is self-consciously independent of the Democratic Party, the harder it will be for the Dems to co-opt and derail our movement.

In this regard, I think our campaign made important strides forward. The first people I went to for support were education activists statewide, and they all responded enthusiastically. Many were first-time Green voters, but their experience told them that challenging corporate education reform requires being willing to challenge Democrats.

The six unions that endorsed us were all teacher unions. That doesn't meant that every member of those locals is now committed to independent politics, but it represents an important opening for that discussion. Perhaps the best-known public school advocate in the country, Diane Ravitch, endorsed our campaign. For the unions and for Ravitch, this was their first time voting Green.

Howie's vote increased dramatically from his last run in 2010--particularly in New York City. What do you think accounts for that?

Brian: The terrain was very favourable for making an advance. Cuomo is widely despised, but is propped up by the astronomical wealth of his core supporters and, of course, the Democratic Party machine. The New York Times spent the summer exposing him as thoroughly corrupt, and in the Democratic Party primary, he faced a progressive challenger who gave liberals confidence that he could and should be challenged.

Then there's the fact that "left" groups like the Working Families Party (WFP), which endorsed Cuomo claiming they would push him to the left, were quickly embarrassed by the fact that Cuomo pledged -- immediately after securing the nomination -- not to keep his promises to them. He even created another ballot line in order to undermine the WFP.

Last, but not least by any means, the issue of education was paramount. The very issue for which Cuomo was widely hated among progressives -- his determination to promote privatisation through high-stakes standardised testing, charter schools and union-busting -- was the very issue where we've seen some intensive grassroots organizing in this state.

The internal dynamics of the umbrella teachers' union for the state -- New York State United Teachers -- also played a role. Teachers statewide moved toward open revolt against a leadership that has been loyal to the privatiser-in-chief Cuomo. Many union presidents and teacher activists around the state challenged the leadership in the statewide union elections, and then they banded together again to support Cuomo's challenger in the Democratic primary.

When American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten intervened in the primary to support Cuomo, recording a robo-call for him, it was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. A self-conscious group of teacher union activists statewide had already cohered before our campaign, and supporting us was a logical next step. With connections to union members and school communities statewide, these activists added considerable human resources to the campaign.

Howie: Cuomo's conservative policies, particularly his attacks on public schools, teachers and state workers, generated a protest vote from liberal Democrats. Our polling in the 6 per cent to 9 per cent range enabled us to get more media coverage in New York City media, which ignored us in 2010.

Andrew Cuomo has seemed to go out of his way to antagonise liberals. How much do you think the Green Party vote was the result of people's dislike of one odious candidate, and how much do you think it represents a growing questioning of the Democratic Party that independents can build on for future elections?

Howie: I think it's about half and half. I take our 2.5 per cent vote for Theresa Portelli for comptroller and 2 per cent for Ramon Jimenez for attorney general to represent the vote of the independent left. The other half of our 5 per cent was protest votes by progressive Democrats.

Voter abstention by working-class voters was 80 per cent. The Democrats have lost them. They are now disgusted by and alienated from the whole political process. The independent left will grow by organising with these voters.

Brian: Certainly, some of our voters and supporters this time around were with us for this election only. But their support had the effect of enhancing the legitimacy of independent campaigns. There are a lot of good people out there who are holding out hope that progressives will be able to capture the Democratic Party.

In my experience, the people most directly involved in grassroots organising are the most open to shifting on this question, because if you really go out and try to change something -- anything -- you eventually start stepping on Democratic Party toes. There is a group of people who are changing their minds about the Democratic Party through bitter experience.

It's hard to move from something to nothing, though, so independent campaigns -- especially if they are perceived to be successful -- play a role in helping people cross over.

How was the campaign able to connect with grassroots activism?

Brian: Everywhere I went, I was set up to speak alongside local activists. This way, the campaign attempted to amplify their voices, not just our own. I spoke alongside parents, teachers, students, former prisoners, people fighting for LGBTQ rights, for immigrant rights and more.

As you might imagine, these events generally reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the state of grassroots organising in various places. Even if some of the events we held were more modest than we hoped, I'm proud that we stuck to our guns and tried to make these connections, even if we were only planting seeds for future growth.

Howie: We were able to connect with the movements to defend public education and ban fracking, the two movements with the most energy in New York these days. A half dozen teachers' union locals and several public education advocacy groups endorsed us. We also strengthened ties with activists working for a fracking ban, clean energy, single-payer health care, a $15 an hour minimum wage and criminal justice reform.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned over the course of the campaign?

Howie: The most surprising thing was the endorsement of six liberal Democratic clubs in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They've never endorsed outside the Democrats before. These clubs represent issue activists, not Democratic hacks.

It was a protest vote for them, not a break with the Democrats. But it set a good precedent that I hope we can build on by establish ongoing relationships to work together for progressive reforms between elections. The Greens can be the alternative for them in future elections as the neoliberal policies of financial, real estate and other big corporate funders continue to prevail at the top of the Democratic Party.

Brian: I was surprised by how much time we needed to spend fundraising on the phone. It turns out that the very best way to get money is to ask for it. Without full public financing of campaigns, this kind of intense fundraising is going to be a serious part of electoral campaigns -- including independent ones.

People were incredibly generous, especially given the tough economic times we're facing. Our donors are from the 99 Per cent -- they're suffering under the weight of credit card debt, medical debt, student loan debt and insufficient wages. Still, they dug deep and came through.

Even in the age of Facebook, there's value in getting potential supporters and activists on the phone. Whether or not you're asking for money, actual human interaction is essential to organising. As much as it isn't fun to make hours and hours of phone calls, I was pleasantly surprised by the actual experience of having those conversations.

How do you think the campaign's success can benefit labour and social movement struggles beyond the ballot box?

Howie: The Greens will have to work with labour and social movements to fight for reforms between elections. The Green Party gives labour and social movements leverage in these struggles because we're the alternative in the next election.

The Democrats won't be able to take labour and the movements for granted. But caught between their elite funders and grassroots voters, the Democrats won't be able to deliver consistently. By remaining consistent allies in these fights, the independent Green option in elections will become a more viable alternative for labor and social movements.

Brian: The more our unions and social movements operate from the position of independence from the Democrats, the stronger they will be. The Democratic Party takes labour for granted -- "lesser evilism" is really about lowering our expectations. Lowered expectations are death to social movements, which is part of why the Dems are so lethal to real movements for change.

When we support independent candidates, we can speak with our voices, articulate our own demands and actually raise expectations. That's one of the ways that what we do at the ballot box serves labour and social movements.

How can the Green Party build on this year's electoral success? What challenges will it face to realise that potential?

Brian: The next steps are exciting, but by no means straightforward.

The Green Party has an opportunity to develop its base of activists statewide. How much that's about other electoral campaigns and how much that's about grassroots activism will have to be sorted out. The electoral process is demanding, and it's rigged against independents. But it gives us a megaphone and platform to access people who normally don't hear from us.

Sinking roots in diverse communities is also a tremendous challenge. I'm proud of the strong stances our campaign took on issues of institutional racism and oppression, but turning broad support into active support and overcoming divisions is no easy feat. The entire left is trying to figure this out, not just the Green Party.

Howie: The Greens will have to systematically build a mass membership party, funded by its members. That's the only way it can end the dependence and co-optation of progressive movements by the "nonprofit-industrial complex" around the Democratic Party funded by the super-rich corporate liberals and their foundations.

These NGOs are movement killers, because they water down demands to what Democratic leaders will accept and mobilise in a top-down fashion that disempowers and de-activates grassroots people. The Greens need to get good at organising, not merely mobilising. We need to respect and foster the dynamism of movements where regular people develop their own ideas, demands, actions and leaders.

The Greens will also have to get good at organising across the lines of race, occupation and location. New York is the most segregated state in the nation by race and by class. Its income distribution is the most unequal of any state.

The working class is separated physically by significant distances, into urban, suburban and rural locations with different racial and occupational profiles. It is divided by occupation between public-sector and private-sector workers, union workers and non-union workers, and workers in the welfare and criminal justice systems who are supervised by public-sector workers.

The 1 Per cent uses this segmentation to divide and rule. Finding a way to bring these sectors of the working class together around common interests and values is the biggest challenge to building a movement that can unite the working class majority and take power.

Running for real change in Maine

November 13, 2014 -- Socialist Worker (USA) -- Owen Hill, a member of the International Socialist Organization in Portland, Maine, agreed to step in late in the race to become the Green Party's candidate for the state Senate seat in the 28th district. Given his lack of previous experience with elections and the short timeframe, he thought 10 per cent would be a good showing. After election day last week, though, he ended up with 26.97 per cent of the vote, matching the total of the winning Democratic candidate's Republican challenger in the previous election.

Here, Owen talks about the people he talked to and the lessons he learned by putting forward a left-wing political alternative in a local election.

* * *

Standing in their driveway on a late-summer day in Westbrook, Maine, I talked with Tina and Shelly for just under 30 minutes.

Tina was out of work. She had been for over two years, and she knew that wasn't likely to change soon. She had worked since was 12, but now, in her mid-30s, she had suffered the twin blows of a bad economy and a difficult battle with multiple sclerosis.

Tina's husband, who works at Fairpoint, a local telecommunications company, was now the couple's sole provider -- and he and his fellow union members were facing down the threat of a company lockout after refusing to accept deep cuts to their pay and benefits after a year of negotiations with the company.

Things were going better for Shelly, Tina's downstairs neighbour, but not by much. In her late 20s, Shelly was thankful to still be working. But even as a professional social worker with a master's degree in social work -- and the accompanying debt -- she was having trouble keeping ahead of rent and student loan payments. Shelly was overworked, underpaid and, like so many Americans today, just treading water.

I was talking to Shelly and Tina because I was a candidate for the state Senate in Maine from their district. At this point, still early in my four-month campaign, I was in the middle of qualifying for clean-elections funding. This is one of the remaining pieces of what used to be a robust public financing system in the state of Maine. And it's one reason that the Green Party, the first state chapter of which was founded in Maine 30 years ago, has been able to build and sustain itself despite the challenges that face third parties.

But clean-elections funding is also tremendously difficult to qualify for. In order to do so, a state Senate candidate has to show they have real support by collecting $5 contributions from 175 voters residing in the district. For an experienced activist versed in asking people for contributions for political causes, this works out to just over 80 hours of door-to-door canvassing.

It was the third week in August, and I was getting down to the wire for my qualifying time period. Candidates in Maine typically have four months to qualify, but running as a replacement candidate, my campaign had just begun three weeks earlier. I had one week left to collect another 70 contributions, and I was starting to stress. I took a week and a half off from work -- the only point during my campaign when I wasn't working full time -- to make sure I finished on time.

But it was stories like those of Shelly and Tina that kept me going for that week, not to mention the next two-and-a-half months. And it was their reaction to my story -- who I was, why I was running, and how I thought ordinary people could change the world for the better -- that made my campaign as successful as it ended up being.

When I set out to run for state senate, I knew I was facing long odds. My opponent, Anne Haskell, was no slouch. A politically powerful Democrat in Maine, Haskell was elected to her first political office back in 1988, the year before I was born. Now, at the apex of her career, she is the assistant majority leader in the state Senate and a ranking board member of one of the state's largest local banks. Anne had experience, connections and the power of a major party backing her -- in short, everything that I lacked.

To run against someone like Anne Haskell is audacious. To run against someone like her when you're 25, a third-party replacement candidate and full-time customer service rep is downright crazy. You have to be ready to lose, and lose pretty bad.

So when I set out to run for the state Senate I had hoped for 10 per cent of the vote. I ended up doing much better -- winning just under 27 per cent.

I think this success was for a couple big reasons, few having much to do with me in particular. In fact, in some ways, I was the greatest obstacle to my own campaign. If nothing else, the sheer lack of time and experience on electoral campaigns prevented me from doing better than I might have otherwise.

So what accounted for the relative success of my campaign?

First, shortly after I entered the race, the Republican candidate dropped out. Running in a two-person race is definitely a game-changer for third-party candidates. It opens up possibilities that don't exist otherwise. Without the threat of "spoiling" the election, voters don't have to worry about electing the "greater evil" and so are free to vote for the policies or personalities they like best.

Additionally, if voters are unhappy with the party in power and want to cast a "throw the bums out" vote against the person in office, you're the only other choice. This is a significant advantage almost never afforded to third-party candidates, and shouldn't be underestimated. But by itself, it doesn't account for my relative success and the support I received from over a quarter of the district.

The second major factor in my favour is the relative strength of the Green Party in Maine, particularly in Portland, the largest city in the state.

Portland's Green Party is one of the strongest locals in the country. As of this election, party members and close party affiliates control two out of nine seats on the city council and three out of nine seats on the school board. Additionally, the Portland Greens spearheaded two successful city referendums in the last two years -- the first legalising marijuana in Portland, the second preventing the sale of an underused  and underfunded public park to real-estate developers.

A glance at the other Green candidates shows the strength of the party in Portland. Two candidates for state representative, both young radicals like myself, were running for the first time -- one got 17 per cent of the vote in a three-way race, the second got 28 per cent in a two-way race. The other state Senate candidate in Portland got 18 per cent in a three-person contest, doubling the share for the Republican in the race.

Finally, two candidates with ties to the Green Party ran for school board (in an officially non-partisan election). One received a quarter of the vote, while the second, a seasoned Green who previously served as a state representative for Portland, won his seat by two percentage points.

But again, it is no coincidence that Green Party members are generating this kind of support in Portland, Maine. The most important reason that voters are drawn to vote Green in Maine is that Green Party policies are tremendously popular -- once you get a chance to actually talk about them. Running for a local office, that's probably the thing that sticks with you the most.

I met people like Tina and Shelly all over my district. There was one low-income condo development I visited where I started a conversation with two older women, one of them named Liz. It just kept going and going until Liz called down to her neighbours to come and meet me. By the end of the conversation, I had talked with seven people living in the same development -- they were all retired, and all angry as hell about the state of the world.

I told them that we needed to tax the rich, and they said, "Damn straight." I told them we needed a green jobs program to save the planet and put people back to work, and the floodgates opened with stories of out-of-work relatives and their worries about their grandchildren's futures.

When I talked about the idea of a guaranteed universal income of $600 a week, there was guaranteed universal excitement. But we did hit a stumbling block with that one. "But not for the immigrants, right?" came one of the responses. That one took some time to talk through, but by going over the issue and talking about the actual parasites -- the 1 Per cent who do nothing but have everything -- rather than the scapegoats, and with a little help from Liz, most of the seven neighbours had come around before I left. They all agreed to vote for me.

Of course, this isn't always how it went. There were lots of people who thought I was unrealistic or too inexperienced or too young. And there were other people who never got over one stumbling block or another -- racist, sexist or homophobic ideas that I challenged, but didn't change.

But most of the conversations ended on a good note -- not always, but most of the time. And there were many more positives than negatives. Lots of people thanked me profusely for giving them an opportunity to talk to someone who they was finally making sense -- for validating their frustrations and rekindling their hopes -- even if I was interrupting their supper.

Now that it's all said and done, what conclusions should we draw about my campaign?

I think the primary one to draw is that the possibilities for building left alternatives to the two-party system are very real and growing. These possibilities are in no way even across the country, But I think the results in Portland show that when dedicated groups of activists work over the long-haul to put forward a message that's relevant to ordinary people, and they stand in opposition to the corporate duopoly, they can mount real challenges to that system at a local and state level.

Indeed, Portland is likely one of a few unique situations across the country where the human and political capital has been built up to the point that a left-wing third party can expect results like mine from a campaign like mine -- one seriously constrained by time and experience.

There are undoubtedly real dangers in this type of work -- the growth of egos and the conflicts they create, reformist accommodations and misuse of resources better spent elsewhere seem like they belong at the top of the list. But there are also real gains from building the kind of base that can turn out campaigns of the sort that I ran: state funding is one, but also important is the credibility that comes from engaging in official politics.

In many ways, the validation and hope that you can bring to working-class people flows from your position as a "professional" in the business of making history. It's meaningful for people to feel that they are able to connect with a voice speaking things that they are thinking, but perhaps not yet saying, in an officially sanctioned capacity.

Now, I think back to that day in late August standing and speaking with Tina and Shelly. To the moment when they each -- without hesitation, without resentment, in fact with nothing but enthusiasm -- pulled out $5 so that I could have funding to run a real campaign.

When I think back on that, it brings to mind the words of the great US socialist Eugene Debs: "Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning."

 

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