Your vote will make a difference in N.Y.

November 3, 2014

Activist and author Ben Davis explains why he is supporting the Howie Hawkins/Brian Jones campaign in New York--and why a vote for the Greens will make a difference.

THERE IS so little time, but since I have invested some meaningful chunks of my life into supporting the Howie Hawkins/Brian Jones campaign for governor (I mention it briefly in my interview in Guernica), I thought I should have something to say about why. So here is why I care about this campaign, and why I think you should, too, on Tuesday.

If you are like, well, almost anyone I know, you are not paying attention to the New York state elections. This will be for a combination of good and bad reasons.

It will be because, if you are a liberal-identifying Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a supremely uninspiring, borderline offensive candidate; you could feel the New York Times holding its nose when it endorsed him. (The same editorial called Hawkins' candidacy "unrealistic" but said "his ambitious ideas are useful goads to the governor from the left." I think what is unrealistic is expecting Cuomo to move left.)

If you are a radical, it will be because few things are less inspiring than official state electoral politics. For activists, I know that this is not the arena where it seems like meaningful change will come from. And after all, the fix is in: Andrew Cuomo will win next month. He's got a massive machine behind him, and giant corporate donations in his pocket. Nothing is less inspiring than a fait accompli for Goliath.

Howie Hawkins talks to a voter in Rochester, N.Y.
Howie Hawkins talks to a voter in Rochester, N.Y.

I know this.

What you probably haven't heard, or don't know, is that this will be a historic election. An underdog candidate named Howie Hawkins is polling at 9 percent for governor. That is a historic total. If it holds, it will be more than any independent progressive third-party candidate has ever gotten in the history of New York state. This surge feeds on the same frustration that produced a historic protest vote for Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary, with her quixotic campaign against the Cuomo machine. It shows the deep and accurate insight, among anyone who is paying attention, that our establishment politicians are "servants of the oligarchs in our society" (Teachout's words).

HERE IS what you need to know about the Hawkins/Jones campaign. First: They don't answer to oligarchs. This is a non-corporate campaign. Every bit of money being spent has been earned based on the support of normal people (average donation size: $70; Cuomo: $7,000).

And if you are looking for candidates who might possibly understand what it's like to be a non-millionaire trying to survive in this state, you could not ask for a better slate: Howie Hawkins is a UPS worker from Syracuse; Brian Jones, running for lieutenant governor, is a public school teacher who spent nine years teaching in Harlem; Ramon Jimenez, running for attorney general, is a civil rights lawyer; Theresa Reilly Portelli, running for comptroller, is a social worker.

In Syracuse, where Hawkins will take a quarter of the vote, Howie is something of a local organizing legend. Here in New York City, I've personally known Brian Jones, through organizing and socialist politics, for almost 10 years--through anti-prisons activism, through anti-school closures activism, through antiwar activism, through the abortion clinic defenses we did up in the Bronx. (As a side note for trivia buffs, I was also once in a very short-lived radical improv comedy troupe with Brian.)

But my argument isn't that you should vote for them because they are nice people. What is important is the platform. In essence, the Green Party platform this year is a list of the demands of the social movements right now, and has been shaped by activists from those movements. Fast-food workers are calling for a $15 minimum wage; that's in there. Criminal justice activists want an end to the drug war; that's in there. Immigrant rights activists want ICE out of their communities; that's in there. And on and on.

I marched in the People's Climate March here in New York City with Howie and Brian. A central plank is the "Green New Deal," by which they mean that reworking the economy to be sustainable should serve us as a jobs program. That's a radical but simple-to-grasp idea: There is massive, urgent need to put people to work, and there is a massive, urgent need to rework our economy so that we don't cook the next generation to death. That requires thinking bigger than either of the two major parties are willing to do, but it is an idea that should be mainstream.

THIS IS the part when you ask me what difference it makes to vote if we're not going to win.

It is amazing to me how much of our cultural imagery is built around celebrating small groups of idealistic rebel outsiders going up against the system, and then, when it comes to supporting an actual small group of idealistic outsiders going up against the system, people say stuff like this. And I could make arguments from history here, about how all real change starts small. Or I could say that, if you believe that the ecological crisis is a defining moral issue of our time, you will be glad to look back and say that you voted for people who treated it with the appropriate urgency. Or I could point out that my friends who are traditionally Democrats would never just not vote, even if they knew the Republican would win. Because voting is also about a symbolic statement.

But my argument is something else. My argument is that this is not just a symbolic statement. It will make a difference--if nothing else, because just by doing it, you will be shedding a little bit of cynicism yourself about what is possible.

But mainly, if Hawkins/Jones gets a record vote, that changes the political calculus in the state. For one, technical thing, the Green Party will become the third party on the ballot everywhere, which has real effects that last: on future ballots, the Greens will go from Row F to Row C; that is, it will be the third thing people see, which makes it much harder to dismiss the ideas on which the campaign is based--ideas that I think that you, reader, actually agree with--as fringe ideas.

That is a physical metaphor for what the campaign will do: make unapologetically anti-racist, pro-worker, pro-environment ideas mainstream.

That's a kind of success that doesn't replace activism, but it might help sustain it. It will not bring down capitalism, but it will make it harder to close schools, harder to balance the budget on the backs of the poor, harder to get away with fiddling around with the science on fracking (as Hawkins called Cuomo out for doing during the governor debate), and on and on, because one-tenth of the active voters will have said that they take these ideas seriously enough to stand with them.

I have done a very small part to help with this campaign. I can't take much credit for how well it is doing. That credit goes to the great, Green organizers I work with, and to the fact that, given the terrible state of the world, the Green Party platform makes sense to almost everyone who happens to hear about it. With more people involved, more people to make calls, flier and get out the word, it could be so much more.

There's so much more to say, and I know I can't answer all the questions people have. I know time is precious. So I just want you to know one thing, whatever else you take away from this: There's something really to vote for this time out. That's exciting, and that means something. That's worth knowing about and talking about and supporting.

I hope I see you on Tuesday.

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