Renewing New York

— an interview with Howie Hawkins

HOWIE HAWKINS, A Green Party and socialist activist, ran for Governor of New York State. Dianne Feeley interviewed him for ATC.

ATC: You developed a set of proposals for turning the NY state deficit into a surplus. Could you outline them and give readers a sense of how people responded to them?

HOWIE HAWKINS: With the highest income inequality of any of the 50 states, in the industrial country with the highest income inequality in the world, New York State has a lot of very rich people with very high wealth and income. Using state income tax return data, the union-funded Fiscal Policy Institute recently documented that the proportion of income going to the top 1% in New York has increased from 10% in 1980 to a stratospheric 35% in 2007.

Regressive tax reforms from the 1980s only exacerbated this trend, which was spawned by stagnant real wages and soaring returns to financial and real estate elites. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy’s latest edition of Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States shows that New York State’s state and local income tax structure is clearly regressive, with the top 1% paying a lower overall tax rate than the rest of the people.

We campaigned for progressive tax reforms to cover the projected $9 billion deficit next year and to fund a $25 billion a year Green New Deal of full employment through a green fiscal stimulus and public jobs, single payer health care, fully funded public schools, free public higher education, and public investment in a clean energy transition based on energy efficiency and renewables, public transportation, organic agriculture, and clean manufacturing. These proposed reforms included:

• Stock Transfer Tax ($16 billion): At 1/20th of one percent of the value of a stock trade, this tax brought in $16 billion in 2009. But it was immediately rebated to the traders and the politicians declared a fiscal crisis! The Stock Transfer Tax was instituted in 1915, but fully rebated since 1981. Its value has risen dramatically in recent years due to computerized high frequency proprietary trading by Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and the like. We called for an end to the rebate.

• 50% Bankers’ Bonus Tax ($10 billion): A few thousand New York bankers and traders whose companies were bailed out with trillions in Federal subsidies, low interest loans, and guarantees turned around and paid themselves at least $20 billion in bonuses in 2009, according to the state Comptroller.

• More Progressive Income Tax ($8 billion): According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, if New York State went back to the progressive income tax structure of 1972, the state would raise $8 billion more in revenue while giving 95% of New Yorkers a tax cut. In 1972, New York State had a personal income tax with 14 graduated brackets, ranging from a low of 2% to a high of 15%. Today New York has only five flatter brackets, between 4% and 6.85%. Most people with a full-time job reach the top bracket. A single person reaches the top 6.85% rate once his or her taxable income reaches $20,000, a married couple at $40,000.

The state did institute a temporary three-year “#8220;Millionaire’s Tax” for 2009-2011 to deal with the mounting fiscal crisis. It added two temporary higher tax brackets of 7.85% on income between $200,000 and $500,000 and 8.97% on income over $500,000. Those temporary tax rates on the rich bring in $5 billion a year. But the Democratic candidate and easy winner, Governor Andrew Cuomo has campaigned before and after the election to eliminate these temporary tax brackets.

With the state projecting a structural budget deficit of around $9 billion a year for several years going forward, we said during the campaign that our reforms would raise $34 billion a year in additional revenue, which after closing the $9 billion deficit, would leave $25 billion a year for the Green New Deal.

The distant frontrunner for the whole campaign was Andrew Cuomo, who explicitly opposed progressive tax reforms and openly called for deep spending cuts in education, health care, and public employees and their wages and benefits to cover the deficit. He scapegoated public employee unions for the fiscal crisis. The Tea Party’s candidate, Carl Paladino, in his victory speech upon winning the Republican primary, whined that Cuomo was stealing his platform.

Cuomo’s father, Mario, had presided over the rebating of the Stock Transfer Tax and the flattening of the income tax when he was Lt. Governor and then Governor from 1978 to 1994.

Andrew Cuomo also called for a 2% cap on property tax increases in New York State, which was very popular given that 9 of the top 10 counties with the highest rates as a percentage of home values are in upstate New York. The biggest reason for the high rates is that New York is one of the few states that require counties to pay for a share of Medicaid. Medicaid in New York is very expensive because it covers long term care, which accounts for about 75% of total Medicaid costs (25% for the elderly, 50% for the disabled). The counties’ share of Medicaid averages 45% of a counties’ property tax levy.

Cuomo’s 2% cap on property tax increases, combined with his projected cuts in education and health care spending, would devastate cities, towns and school districts, which already facing huge budget deficits (on the order of 20% for the city as well as the school district of my home town, Syracuse).

The Greens proposed a different approach: a state takeover of all Medicaid expenses. This would relieve counties of an unfunded state mandate equal to 45% of their property tax revenue on average, enabling the counties to provide relief from high property taxes and still fund schools and other local public services.

If done through a single payer system, the state takeover would save New Yorkers $28 billion a year by 2018 compared to the private insurance mandate system passed by Congress, according to the state’s own July 2009 study of health care financing alternatives that the major parties decided to ignore. The Greens also called for a property tax circuit breaker to cap property taxes at a percentage of income.

We tried to summarize the election as a choice between the Green prosperity plan and the Cuomo/Paladino austerity plan. The response to our program of ordinary people on the streets, in local events and in local radio and TV interviews was overwhelmingly positive. But we couldn’t get our program out through the major corporate print and broadcast media. The New York City media completely ignored us. The upstate print media treated us as an occasional sidebar to the main narrative of the Cuomo vs. Paladino austerity plans. Alternative local papers gave us some decent coverage, but their reach was limited.

ATC: You made a number of videos during your campaign. How were these used?

HH: We used email, websites, youtube, facebook and twitter to spread the videos. We sent some of them to the media as well. One of them, “#8220;Where are the f***ing jobs?” which showed New Yorkers asking that question with bleep at the right moment, got some blog and media coverage. Most of our videos had views in the hundreds, a few in the low thousands. We turned f***ing jobs video into a 30-second TV ad that showed on MSNBC and Comedy Central’s Daily and Colbert shows. We also had an ad for TV MSNBC and the local cable network’s 24 hour news channels with me speaking and summarizing our platform.

We spend about $10,000 on TV ads, mostly in upstate cities because New York City costs are so high. We also spent about $3000 on facebook and other social media ads. I barely understand what those are. But my campaign manager thinks the social media ads were more cost effective.

ATC: Last time you ran for office, it was for Syracuse City Council, and you did very well. How are the issues different when you are running for a statewide office? What’s interesting about a statewide campaign? What did you learn through the campaign?

HH: Name recognition means a lot. I’m well known in Syracuse. I got 41% for city council in 2009. For Governor, I got 5.3% in my home county and 3-4% in adjacent counties in the same media market where people know me and my politics. Statewide I got 1.4% overall, pretty consistently across upstate except for 2.5% in the Albany area, due, I believe, to protest votes by state workers whom Cuomo targeted for layoffs and wage and benefit cuts. We did worst in the New York City area, less than one percent in its outer boroughs and suburbs.

In local races, a campaign by a small upstart party can go door-to-door to get its message to people. We have built support for particular candidates and the Green Party over a series of local races and consistent long-term campaigns for reforms in movements as well elections.

Two Green village mayors and several city and town councilors and school board members currently hold office across upstate New York after winning partisan races. To be more successful statewide, we have to replicate those local bases of strength across the state. We will also have to develop our own media. Now the corporate media ignore us because they think we are marginal. When we get strong enough to matter, they will smear us. We need our own ways to reach the people through print, broadcast, and the new internet media.

A big difference between a local campaign and statewide campaign is organization. A local campaign can be run effectively with a relatively small team of volunteers. A statewide campaign needs good, paid, full-time organizers to enlist all the volunteers and coordinate local activities. My campaign could only rely on small Green organizations in the major cities and a few rural counties. We didn’t start fundraising until July and were only able to hire two part-time organizers, one for New York City and one for upstate, after Labor Day. As a result, we failed to utilize all the people who were volunteering through my website. We were swamped.

We had three goals in this campaign. The first was to get enough votes to qualify the Green Party for ballot status, which will make it much easier for us to run more candidates for the next four years until the next gubernatorial race. It takes 50,000 votes for the gubernatorial ticket to qualify and we got just under 60,000, after two four-year cycles where we failed with results in the low 40,000s. So our first goal was achieved.

Our second goal was to move the debate. Here we largely failed. The media treated the Greens as marginal at best. When they did cover third party candidates, they featured on personalities over policies and focused on Kristin Davis, the former Manhattan Madam who claimed to have provided hookers for former Gov. Eliot Spitzer; Charles Barron, a Democratic member of the New York City Council who announced his Freedom line candidacy as a protest of the Democrats’ all-white statewide slate; and Jimmy McMillan, a bizarre character running on the Rent Is Too Damn High line.

Feeding this media malpractice was Roger Stone, the Republican operative who has specialized in dirty tricks since he worked for Nixon’s CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President, 1972). Stone was Davis’ campaign manager and also provided staff and advice to Paladino. He seems to have got his hooks into McMillan, too, whose website as the election approached featured a link in its top banner to the Davis’ campaign website. After the televised debate, McMillan was all over cable news and soon got $10,000 for a video ad for, an on line gaming site.

In media interviews Stone also praised Cuomo for his austerity program and touted Barron as an appealing candidate for Blacks and progressives. All this is consistent with one of “#8220;Stone’s Rules,” as related in a 2007 Weekly Standard article: “#8220;Hit it from every angle. Open multiple fronts on your enemy. He must be confused, and feel besieged on every side.”

Stone’s enemy was progressive politics and economics. He pushed the rightwing economic agenda from every angle: Paladino, the social conservative; Davis, the social libertarian; Cuomo, the social liberal; and probably McMillan, a social cypher who could siphon off progressive protest votes from serious alternatives. Besides touting Barron to steer votes way from Cuomo, he attempted to steer conservative and libertarian votes away from Warren Redlich, the Libertarian candidate, with a mailer days before the election smearing Redlich as a sexual predator. Redlich was actually a serious candidate with whom I did some news conferences and radio and TV appearances calling for inclusive debates, more media focus on policies instead of personalities, and ending the war on drugs. Thankfully, Stone just ignored my campaign.

The corporate media, especially the New York City reporters who ignored us, were surprised when the Greens were the only third party with it own candidate to pass the 50,000 vote threshold. (Three “#8220;third parties” that run major party candidates on their line under New York’s fusion rules also got over 50,000 votes: Conservative, Working Families, and Independence.)

The Greens’ ballot line success gives us a little opening with the media. But in the longer term we will have to win more local races to demonstrate support and command media attention.

Our third goal was to build the Green Party organization. Even though the corporate media characterized the only televised debate, which had all the candidates, as a “#8220;circus” and ignored me and the policies I advocated in the coverage, we got our biggest surge of volunteers and money from people who saw that debate three weeks before the election. All along the way, we picked up support as people learned of our program. We may not have moved the debate in the media and forced the major party candidates to address our policies. But we did move several thousand people to sign up with us as supporters, volunteers, and contributors.

So we did succeed in building the Green Party. We come out of the election much stronger than we went into it. Now we must organize these new people into local party organizations and campaigns for economic security, peace, freedom, and sustainability in the huge vacuum on the Left being produced by the Cuomo/Obama Democrats’ “#8220;bipartisan” program of deficit-reduction austerity, war, repression, and environmental plunder.

ATC: What’s next for the Green Party in New York State?

HH: The fiscal crisis and bipartisan austerity program remains the top issue in New York State after the election and the Green Party continues to campaign for progressive tax reform and a Green New Deal fiscal stimulus. Thanks to the Green Party’s success in securing a ballot line and its promise to be different from the other minor parties by running our own candidates instead of cross-endorsing major party candidates under New York’s provision for fusion candidates, we are getting more media attention since the election than during the campaign.

I released an Open Letter to Andrew Cuomo the week before the New Year and followed up with a news conference responding to Cuomo’s State of the State Message in the first week of the New Year, both of which challenged Cuomo’s austerity plan with the Green prosperity plan. With the union leadership and liberal Democrats in the legislature pulling their punches for now as they try to work with Cuomo, our opposition is standing out and has resulted in quite a bit of media coverage, including interviews on the two state politics shows on the cable systems’ 24-hour news channels, an AP story, and an NPR story.

We hope that we can establish ourselves as the opposition voice in this debate in the media to a much greater degree than we were able to during the campaign. We are planning an educational conference and mobilization around this issue when Cuomo issues his budget proposal in early February.

A second issue we are trying to inject into the discussion is electoral reform as the state and local governments begin to redistrict following the 2010 census. The good government groups and both major parties are touting independent redistricting as a way to end gerrymandering, where incumbents choose their voters to create safe districts for incumbents before the voters have a chance to choose their representatives. We are calling for independent redistricting into multi-member districts for proportional representation.

Even with independent redistricting, the result will be mostly one-party, noncompetitive districts where one or the other of the major parties has the majority of voters registered in their party. We argue that proportional representation will make every district competitive, increase voter turnout, and give fair representation to all political viewpoints in the legislature. We also call for instant runoff voting for executive offices and full public campaign financing. We are getting more traction on this issue in localities than in the statewide media so far.

Green Party issue committees have been reinvigorated by the election results and are taking their work into the movements, particularly the antiwar movement, the campaign to ban hydrofracking for natural gas, and “#8220;putting the public back into public education.” The Greens hope this issue work will pay off in future elections, the first of which will be a special mayoral election in Rochester to replace Robert Duffy, who became the new Lt. Governor.

The Democrats, who have held every elected office in Rochester for nearly 40 years, had hoped to coronate the replacement, a corporate lawyer and former power utility CEO, Tom Richards, in a special election where the party leadership nominates the candidate without the trouble of a primary insurgency or a Republican opponent because the Republicans are lining up to endorse Richards. But the Greens will provide the “#8220;trouble” of a general election opponent in this special election — as we intend to do in many uncontested seats in the one-party districts across the state in local elections in 2011 and state and federal elections in 2012.

ATC 151, March-April 2011