Building Outside the Democratic Party
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has done a great job representing his real constituents — the finance, real-estate, and fossil-fuel industries. The rest of us haven’t had the same luck: workers in New York have seen cutbacks in hospitals and classrooms and promises of more hardship to come.
I agreed to be the Green Party’s 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor of New York because I deeply believe we need our own political representation.
Everything about this election points to widespread dissatisfaction with a rightward-moving Democratic Party. Democratic voters stayed home. The turnout was a record low in New York State, with Cuomo receiving nearly a million fewer votes than he did in 2010. The Working Families Party (WFP) deployed all their resources to maintain their ballot line, but their campaign literature didn’t mention their candidate for governor: Cuomo. Only the Green Party significantly increased their vote.
Our gubernatorial candidate, Howie Hawkins, got 5 percent and 175,000 votes — nearly triple the number that voted for him in 2010 and quadruple the percentage. Instead of just voting against the Republicans or for a lesser evil, countless people expressed glee at the prospect of voting for someone running on a progressive platform.
We were hoping to capture Row C on the ballot — which would have positioned us directly below the two major parties in the next election — but ending up coming in fourth just behind the Conservatives. Still, the party managed to move from Row F to Row D. And since the Conservatives got their vote by putting the Republican candidate — Rob Astorino — on their ballot line, that means the Greens have emerged as the real third party in New York State politics.
In the end, the strategy of pushing the Democrats to the left by voting for them was exposed as a farce. Cuomo has made it perfectly clear that not only does he feel zero pressure from the WFP, he is out to destroy them. He created the Women’s Equality Party for that very purpose.
A large part of the reason why the Working Families Party endorsed Cuomo was because of pressure from large unions in the state. Top union chiefs like American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten twisted arms (and lent her voice to robocalls) for Cuomo early on — provoking a split in the teachers’ statewide union.
In the last week of the campaign Cuomo openly declared war on public schools, vowing to “break up” the “public-school monopoly,” using charter schools and standardized tests.
Once again, the unwavering fealty to the Democrats was exposed as a one-way street. At the eleventh hour, Weingarten posted on the AFT website a message about the New York elections that seemed to indicate she wasn’t voting for the governor, and didn’t mention Howie Hawkins. But it was too little, too late. Instead of pressuring Cuomo from the left, the WFP and liberal leadership helped hand him a landslide.
Still, unprecedented endorsements for Hawkins had trickled in.
Six local teacher unions — from the small but spirited Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association to the Buffalo Teachers Federation — endorsed the Green Party for the first time. We also got endorsements from a significant array of public-education advocates, including the Badass Teachers Association of NY, the Coalition for Public Education, the Independent Commission on Public Education, the United Federation of Teachers’ Movement of Rank and File Educators, and former US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch.
These organizations and individuals took a bold leap in backing the Green Party. It’s unfortunate that more union leaders didn’t do the same.
Building a strong, independent political movement is the hard work that lies before us. Many of our allies this time around will no doubt be looking for a progressive alternative within the Democratic Party in 2018. But in the meantime, thousands of people inspired by this campaign need to be encouraged to participate in Green Party activism and chapter-building statewide.
Without millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship (and short of full public campaign financing), independent political parties can never compete with Democratic and Republican advertising. Our best statewide poll put us at 9 percent — but that same poll showed 80 percent of voters hadn’t heard of us.
Mainstream news coverage can help get our names and faces out there, but the big networks aren’t easy to crack. Hawkins got more media than ever upstate, but in New York City there was a virtual blackout. Even post-election, New York City reporters still tend to go to the WFP to get the left opinion on the returns.
The WFP and the unions don’t have as much money as the corporations can throw around, but they have the staff to work full time on publicity, and they have the ability to organize and pay hundreds of people to knock on doors and make phone calls. Short of prying loose some of those union resources, the Green Party will have to go beyond relying purely on volunteer people power.
As Hawkins often points out, just like other working-class parties around the world or the Socialist Party in the early twentieth century, the Green Party needs to build a mass base of dues-paying members in order to hire the organizers and staff they need to seriously challenge the two parties of capital.
Hawkins and I are both socialists, but this campaign didn’t emphasize the distinct contributions of socialism and socialist ideas. Instead it put forward, broadly speaking, an independent working-class agenda for reform.
I’m proud of the work that socialists put into this campaign — including my comrades in the International Socialist Organization and those from Socialist Alternative and other socialist groups as well. I intend to continue organizing explicitly as a socialist, which I think is an essential ingredient in the strengthening of a broader working-class movement in this state, in the country, and in the world.
Whether socialists can — as socialists — fill the electoral space to the left of the Democratic Party remains to be seen. Perhaps a red-green alliance will be a model for future collaborations, or perhaps some other model will work better. Regardless of the specific form, we need a stronger socialist movement and a stronger labor movement and an independent political movement — those things need each other to succeed.
A truly independent political movement will have to sink deeper roots in a diverse range of communities — from those that are challenging mass incarceration to those fighting to stop hydrofracking.
Traveling the state for this campaign was a real educational experience. I was struck by the widespread poverty and devastation in many postindustrial upstate towns. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would transform the lives of millions of New Yorkers. Next year there will be hearings statewide on single-payer health care, which we desperately need. These are the burning issues upon which a large, independent political party could be built.
There are no shortcuts to this project. Latching onto the Democrats does not make it easier to push on these issues; it shackles us within the narrow framework of compromises acceptable to the party’s top brass. To say that building something genuinely independent of the elite is a challenge would be an immense understatement. But it’s the only political project worth our time because it’s the only one that has ever created genuine change.
By projecting the name of the Green Party farther and wider than ever before, I hope our campaign has brought us one step closer to realizing that goal.