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If a Third-Party Candidate Says Something in the Forest . . .

Green Party gubernatorial hopeful Howie Hawkins, along with Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich, say their appeal to voters on election night would be surprising—if only the media would give them any attention

By Ali Hibbs

Election Day is less than a month away, and the race for governor has begun to look like one of those late-night Ginsu commercials, with each candidate promising their fiscal plan will cut the deepest. It slices, it dices, it cuts Medicaid, reduces pensions, and if you call right now, we’ll even lower your taxes!

The faltering economy is the principal public concern this election season, so gubernatorial candidates are determined to pitch voters the most appealing plan for recovery. Social and environmental issues have all but vanished from the public dialogue, while the two major contenders promise corporate tax breaks and banter about each other’s “cojones.”

Looking at the campaign platforms of Andrew Cuomo (D) and Carl Paladino (R), it may seem that implementing spending cuts and hiring freezes and withholding grant money are the only options available to close the state’s yawning budget gap. Nearly every candidate running for governor has put forth their version of an “austerity plan,” emphasizing statewide belt-tightening and massive reductions to social services.

Enter Howie Hawkins, Green Party gubernatorial candidate, longtime political organizer and perennial political hopeful.

Hawkins says he has a “prosperity plan” to reinvigorate the state’s economy. According to Hawkins, this plan would serve to even the playing field between economic classes, resolve the state budget crisis, promote ecological sustainability and create jobs for hundreds of thousands of unemployed New Yorkers. He believes that many of the issues important to progressive voters today—civil rights, ecological sustainability, improved social services and government oversight of big business practices—have long been paid insincere lip service by leaders of the Democratic Party, especially here in New York. With liberal votes in their “back pockets,” contends Hawkins, these politicians have gone on to make decisions based purely on the influence of corporate interests.

Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich agrees with Hawkins about the skewed loyalties of the two major party candidates. Last Thursday, both men made a public appeal during a press conference in Albany, insisting on being included in any gubernatorial debates that take place between now and the election. They blasted the front-runners for favoring Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, supporting unnecessary and expensive military action and falsely invoking long- abandoned ideals, and both argued that neither of the major parties represents majority opinion.

Neither Paladino nor Cuomo answered Metroland’s inquiries about whether they would be willing to include other parties in a debate, should Cuomo take Paladino up on his challenge.

“Without us in [the debates],” says Hawkins, “there won’t be real democracy. I think that we represent more voters, in terms of policy, than Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino do.”

“People are tired of what’s going on in Washington and Albany,” says Redlich. “They’re not happy. There’s a perception that the Tea Party is opposed to the Democratic Party, but the problem is that people aren’t happy with both parties. We don’t agree on some of the issues, but I can tell you that I think Howie Hawkins is a man of principle and that he’s not in bed with special interests.”

Redlich admits that his fiscal plan tends more toward austerity, but says that he respects some of Hawkins’ ideas and that he believes that he is a better choice for Democratic voters than Andrew Cuomo.

Fiscally, Paladino has offered very little by way of explaining how he intends to distribute the 20 percent cut he has promised to make in state spending. On his website, Paladino declares, “Cutting taxes takes courage. I will cut taxes.” He promises to “work tirelessly each and every day of [his] administration to make more spending and tax cuts to provide New Yorkers the relief they need.” These tax cuts will be offset, however, by cutting funds to unidentified existing state programs.

Andrew Cuomo has crafted a more detailed fiscal plan than Paladino, but it is also heavily dependent on large-scale spending cuts. Along with his promise to keep taxes under control, Cuomo wants to reduce spending on education, infrastructure and Medicaid. He’s even proposed retaining any surplus for a “rainy day fund.”

Hawkins says he has never really been taken seriously as a candidate. He simply doesn’t have the money to run a successful third-party campaign a la Ralph Nader or Ross Perot. But his ideas for the financial future of New York State are intriguing, his economic plan staggeringly simple.

In 1979, the state began rebating the stock-transfer tax, which amounts to a penny or two per trade. Hawkins contends that, if the state were to stop returning this money to Wall Street, it would generate an extra $16 billion a year in tax revenue. With the projected deficit at $9 billion, this would equate to an instant surplus. “After receiving trillions of dollars of taxpayer money to bail them out over the last two years,” reads Hawkins’ platform, “it is time for Wall Street to pull its own weight in taxes.”

Repealing this one rebate granted to Wall Street three decades, Hawkins says, could ostensibly save thousands of jobs, arts and education programs, social services and civil works projects across the state.

Hawkins is unfazed by concerns that reinstating the tax may drive investors out of state, causing further damage to the economy. “It’s New York City. The idea that Wall Street would just empty out is crazy. I’m sure anyone who did decide to relocate would be replaced in no time. If the economy is getting better, as it should much faster with this plan, people will want to come here, and a couple of cents per trade isn’t going to keep them out.”

In addition to the $7 billion surplus generated from the stock-transfer tax, Hawkins believes it is necessary to restore a progressive personal income tax structure, similar to the one New York State had in the 1970s. On the federal level, “the rich are the biggest welfare kings and queens in our society, because they get tax breaks,” he says. “The tax rates they pay are lower than working-class people. For example, they get a lot of their money from income from capital gains. That’s taxed at 15 percent. Most full-time, working class people are paying income tax at 25 percent.” Hawkins pauses to let this sink in before continuing. “We pay, as working-class people, a little over 7 percent in payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security. Now, that’s capped at a little over $100,000, so the highest-salaried people are not paying on all their income, only the first hundred thousand or so. In the long run, lower income people end up paying a much higher percentage than those who make more money.”

And according to Hawkins, taxation at the state level is just as unequal. Under the current income-tax system in New York State, he says, “The highest bracket comes at about the middle of the income spectrum and then it’s flat, even if you’re making as much as Bloomberg and Trump. When you add sales tax—and middle-and low-income people have to spend a good portion of their income on buying what they need—in some counties it’s as high as 9 percent, while the high-income folks who don’t have to spend all their money get to invest,” Hawkins says, reiterating that the financial returns on those investments are taxed at nearly half the rate of income tax. He believes returning to a more progressive tax rate and rescinding certain exemptions could yield another $7.7 billion in state revenue and would relieve the burden on those working the longest hours and struggling with the most debt.

One of the more radical aspects of Hawkins’ proposition—a plan to employ every New Yorker who wants a job—hearkens back to ideas implemented by President Roosevelt in his New Deal response to the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Hawkins would use a portion of the surplus to develop a state bank, charged with spending public dollars to hire private contractors to implement new public projects, the focus of which would be making the state more ecologically sustainable and improving public services and utilities. He has also proposed the creation of a program resembling the Works Progress Administration, which would provide civic jobs to the unemployed. Ultimately, Hawkins believes, the program would pay for itself by reducing the cost of public assistance programs and stimulating consumer spending.

So why is Hawkins in a race that almost everyone says he can’t win?

After being disappointed by both major parties taking actions that he perceived as politically racist, Hawkins remembers thinking, “Why isn’t there a party that will stand up for civil rights without any question?”

At 14, Hawkins joined the Peace and Freedom movement after hearing about it over an African-American radio station playing on a transistor radio in a park near his home. He volunteered and began actively trying to register party members. By the time he was a senior in high school, Hawkins had passed up several opportunities to play professional baseball and immersed himself in civil activism.

Though he never saw active duty, Hawkins’ college career at Dartmouth was interrupted by the draft, and he never completed his degree requirements. But by then he was “pretty deeply involved in organizing the occupation at Seabrook” Nuclear Power Plant, which was under construction in New Hampshire in the mid-1970s. Hawkins is a founding member of the Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear organization that enjoyed considerable triumphs and generated extensive national publicity.

Following that success, Hawkins went on to help found the national Green Party in 1984, before moving to Syracuse in 1991. In Syracuse, he helped to organize a number of cooperative, ecologically sustainable efforts with individuals who had lost factory jobs and to establish co-op food markets in urban neighborhoods. Since then, Hawkins has worked in construction, and currently works evenings, unloading trucks for UPS. An active member of Teamsters Local 317, Hawkins says the job provides good benefits while allowing him the time to pursue his political goals.

Hawkins has been throwing his hat into one political ring or another since 2005, when he ran for mayor of Syracuse. The following year, he ran against Hillary Clinton for U.S. Senate. Obviously, he didn’t win, but Hawkins garnered more votes than all the other third-party candidates combined (55,469 to be exact), even though he spent less than $45,000 on his campaign. (Clinton spent $30.8 million for the 3 million votes she received). In 2007 he ran for Syracuse Common Council, and in 2008, for U.S. House of Representatives in the 25th District, a race in which he garnered the endorsement of Ralph Nader. In 2009, Hawkins ran again for Syracuse Common Council—and earned the largest percentage of the vote that the Green Party has ever received.

And that, it turns out, is his true goal. Hawkins believes that having a third significant party in American politics is necessary, and it is his mission to elevate the Green Party across the state and nation in an attempt to “return the voice to the people . . . people who want to see meaningful environmental action, eat good food, work when they are able and get health care when they’re sick.” The corrosion of ideals in both major parties is something that Hawkins sees as irreversible. He believes that the only solution is to challenge the established system with a brand new voice, ideology and plan.

“When I first ran in Syracuse, I got three percent for City ouncil,” said Hawkins at the press conference. “Last year, I got 41 percent. We’re not just an upstart in Syracuse; we get more votes than the Republicans. We’re the second party now. And we can do that statewide, but we can’t expect to do it in one election.”

“If we had the media attention that the major-party candidates have,” asserts Redlich, “then people would know more about what we’re saying. I can only tell you that when I speak to audiences, people like what I have to say. I’ve seen Howie speak to audiences and people like what he has to say. Andrew Cuomo doesn’t say anything. Carl Paladino says stuff that appeals to a narrow, angry group of people. I really think that, if people were able to hear what we have to say—if we were able to get that message out—you would see some pretty surprising numbers.”

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