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Meet the Green Party Candidate Shaking Up the Race for New York Governor

Howie Hawkins won't win New York's gubernatorial election this year, but he could prevent incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo from winning another landslide.

"It's almost like we have a battered-woman syndrome," Ramon Jimenez told me last week, stumping below the elevated tracks of the 6 train at the Parkchester station in the Bronx. Jimenez, the Green Party's candidate for New York attorney general, was discussing the challenges third parties face in wooing away the Democratic Party's traditional base: blacks, Latinos, women, young people, unions, environmentalists.

"They make us promises," Jimenez said. "They break their promises. They beat us up. Then they come back, make us more promises, and beat us up again."

Howie Hawkins, the Green Party's candidate for governor, stood at Ramon's side. This was his last stop in New York City before heading upstate for a final round of campaigning ahead of the vote. Dressed in a gray suit, his white beard neatly trimmed, Hawkins dispensed fliers while Jimenez and a cluster of supporters shouted things like "Meet your next governor!" at passersby.

"I'm the only candidate who wants to ban fracking," Hawkins told me. "The only candidate who wants a $15-an-hour minimum wage and single-payer health care. The only candidate who says it's time to tax the rich and get some tax relief for working people. I'm calling for a transition to renewable energy over the next 15 years, a Green New Deal that will create millions of jobs."

Despite his bold ideas, Hawkins is a pretty mild-mannered guy. For most of the campaign, he's held on to his night job at a UPS depot in Syracuse, although he took time off in the spring when a hernia allowed him to collect disability. "Where doctors saw a hernia, Howie saw an opportunity," Mike O'Neil, a field organizer for the Hawkins campaign, joked to me at the time.

Even though Hawkins doesn't constitute any real threat to his main opponent, incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo, the UPS worker has taken advantage of the governor's dwindling popularity to garner an unusual amount of support, a factor that could bode well for others running outside the confines of the two-party system in the future. Recent polls show Hawkins with around 9 percent of the vote, numbers that aren't even close to enough to win the election, but also aren't bad, considering Cuomo entered the race with $33.5 million at h​is disposal, while Howie's campaign told me he has raised just $160,000 throughout the entire election period. In October alone, Cuomo's campaign spent $2.​3 million on television advertising, according to recent filings, while Hawkins has only been able to muster one television​ ad.

Support for Hawkins may very well have grown since those polls were taken, thanks to his performance at the only scheduled gubernatorial race last month. Cuomo and his Republican challenger, Westchester County Commissioner Rob Astorino, spent the entire debate bickering: Cuomo pointed out that Astorino is the subject of a federal investigation for housing segregation, and Astorino fired back that Cuomo is also under investigation for dismantling the state's anti-corruption commission. Hawkins, meanwhile, used the debate to introduce voters to the Green Party platform, and his campaign hopes that the introduction to voters might prevent Cuomo from getting the landslide win he enjoyed in 2010.

"We're going to come up with the largest numbers for a third party in the history of New York," boasted Jimenez, "or at least that have been seen in a long, long while."

The last time a left-wing third party gave New York Democrats any serious trouble was all the way back in 1886, when unions formed the Independent Labor Party and ran a Christian Socialist by the name of Henry George for New York City mayor against Abram Hewitt, the Tammany Hall political machine's choice. George lost, receiving a third of the votes counted, but as Lance Selfa notes in his book The Democrats: A Critical History, there were reports of ballot boxes floating down the East River on election day.

In all likelihood, Hawkins will fall well shy of winning a third of the electorate, but he is siphoning off a good chunk of the progressive vote, reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with Cuomo among the more liberal elements of the Democratic base. Both the AFL-CIO and the United Federation of Teachers, two powerful unions in the state, have declined to endors​e Cuomo because of his record of public-sector layoffs and pension cuts. And environmentalists have been hounding the governor over concerns he'll open up the state's Marcellus Shale region to hydraulic fracturing--not a far-fetched fear given reports the Cuomo administration delayed and altered a US Geological Su​rvey study that had warned that the advanced drilling process could contaminate New York's drinking water with methane.

The Cuomo campaign did not respond to requests for a comment on this article. His website is relatively vague when it comes to providing specific policy proposals for his second term. He's hardly campaigned at all this year, limiting his public appearances to late-night talk shows, a trip to Israel, and a nationwide book tour to promote his new memoir.

In territory Cuomo has abandoned, Hawkins has been determined to pick up ground. In an op-​ed titled "Why Waste Vote Whe​n​ Hawkins Is Alternative," the Chief, the state's public-employee newspaper, endorsed Hawkins, as have four Democratic clubs and six teachers unions. Meanwhile, the Working Families Party, the Green Party's primary rival for liberal third-party votes in New York, decided to back Cuomo this year, as they did in 2010, a decision that was widely criticized among their base.

Hawkins, however, is not the only candidate who has challenged Cuomo from the left in this election. Aiming to reverse the Working Families Party tendency of backing Democratic candidates,  ​Zephyr T​eachout, a Fordham University law professor, sought and lost the party's endorsement in June. She went on to run as a Democrat in the September primary, winning 34 percent of the vote. Now that she's out of the running, Hawkins hopes Teachout's supporters will turn to him.

"I'm the only progressive option left on the ballot," he said. He sees himself as a representative of the grassroots forces that have emerged outside the ballot box on the left, like the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and more recently, the nationwide progressive campaign to raise the minimum wage.

"Politics is a process, not one event," Hawkins said. "Win or loose on Election Day, we'll take the votes we get and let them be our calling card going forward."

Yet, if Howie and other third-party candidates succeed in shaking up the political system, it might not be by wooing Democrats or Republicans to their side, but by bringing in those who currently don't participate in the process at all. In the 2012 election, fewer than 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, and even fewer are expected to vote in this year's midterms. Third-party candidates like Hawkins argue that if more people voted, their ballots could be enough to tip any election.

"It's not only that people are disgusted," Hawkins mused. "They feel powerless. They say, 'Why bother? I can't make any changes anyway.'"

That certainly seemed to be the sentiment of 25-year-old Brian Perez, who stood smoking a Black & Mild, casually watching Howie and his entourage pass out flyers in the Bronx last week. When I asked him which candidate he planned to vote for, Perez mistook me for a member of the Hawkins campaign. "I'm not into that, man," he said, "but good luck."

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