November 04, 2005

A Political Independent

Green Party's Hawkins advocates social change in city

By John Mariani
Staff writer

Of all the people who could have inspired Howie Hawkins to a lifetime of third-party politics, it's Willie Mays who can claim that distinction.

The year was 1964, and Mays, star center fielder for the San Francisco Giants and a black man, wanted to move into an all-white community near the 11-year-old Hawkins' San Mateo, Calif., neighborhood. "Near enough that he might come see me play at the parks we played ballgames at," Hawkins said. "I thought that was so great.

"And then the white community didn't want him there," Hawkins said. "They said the property values would lower."

Even at that age, Hawkins said, he wanted attitudes to change. The Republicans, the party of his West Virginia ancestors, gave no solace - not with Ronald Reagan, still an actor, campaigning against a fair-housing act. Neither did the Democrats, he said, once they offered only two non-voting national convention seats to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

"So I started looking for something independent," Hawkins said.

He found it. Or more accurately, founded it. Twenty years after his political epiphany, Hawkins was a delegate to the convention that brought together scattered Green committees from across the country. And in 1991, he was one of four people who announced the formation of the Green Party-USA.

This year, he's the Greens' candidate for mayor of Syracuse.

It would be easy to dismiss Hawkins as an idealist whose nearly annual runs for office are doomed by his third-party status.

But some of Hawkins' ideas are catching on this year, most notably with Joanie Mahoney, the Republican who, with Hawkins, is challenging Democratic incumbent Matt Driscoll.

Mahoney has expressed interest in Hawkins' proposal to create a municipal electric utility, like the ones that power Solvay and Skaneateles, and his "Sustainable Syracuse" development plan. If she's elected, she said, she'll seek Hawkins' opinions.

"Howie has very different politics than I do, but in his platform, I think, are some ideas worth pursuing," Mahoney said.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose 2000 and 2004 presidential cam-

paigns found their Upstate New York field coordinator in Hawkins, praised his ability as a community organizer, his work ethic, his integrity and what he said was Hawkins' steadfastness in pursuing social justice.

"I don't think I've met a dozen people like Howie in the whole country," Nader said. "He reads deeply. He writes articles, letters, long tracts. He's a complete person from A to Z. He's got multiple talents backed by endless determination. . . . He believes freedom is participation in power."

Sitting in local Green Party headquarters on South Salina Street, Hawkins cites Thomas Jefferson's later writings, the Polis of ancient Athens, and a host of studies by a variety of think tanks as he discusses his life and ideas. Statistics tumble from his lips.

"I do two things to relax: I read and I go to the gym," Hawkins said. "The gym, 45 minutes to an hour, that's all that that takes. But reading - there's never enough time to read all the things you want to read."

Shadow of Vietnam War

For a long while, it appeared that baseball, not politics, would be Hawkins' calling. He said he played in every league he could. He longed to patrol centerfield, like his idol, Mays, but because he threw left-handed, he usually played first base.

Hawkins wanted to play pro ball. But the Vietnam War was raging as Hawkins advanced through his teens. Originally a hawk, he said, he turned against the war as he studied its history. He decided to get a student deferment and enrolled in Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, majoring in social ecology.

It didn't last. The government stopped deferring college students and, in 1972, Hawkins enlisted in an off-campus Marine Reserve Officer Training Corps program rather than be drafted into the Army. Two years later, he told the Marines he didn't have enough money to continue college and offered to complete his obligation as an enlisted man. They told him they'd get back to him, he said; they never did.

Hawkins almost finished college - he said he's a disputed foreign language certification away getting his bachelor's degree - and started working construction. He helped organize the Clamshell Alliance, which fought the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power plant. He and 1,413 other members were arrested for trespassing during one protest.

His work with the Clamshell Alliance got him invited in 1984 to a convention in St. Paul, Minn., of the nation's scattered network of Green organizations. He became the New England Clearinghouse coordinator. In 1991, he helped organize Green Party-USA, the electoral arm of the Green movement.

That same year he took a job in Syracuse as director of CommonWorks, a group that organized worker cooperatives. When CommonWorks ran out of money, Hawkins took a job at UPS, where he unloads trucks.

Meanwhile, Hawkins revived the local Green Party and today is its county chairman. He also ran for office: for councilor-at-large in 1993 and 1995, mayor in 1997, state comptroller in 1998 and 2002, county executive in 1999, Congress in 2000 and 2004, and 4th District councilor in 2001.

A political lesson

It was while he was lobbying New Hampshire towns for the Clamshell Alliance that Hawkins said he grew to appreciate the town meeting, the citizen assemblies that make collective decisions for their communities. One by one, the towns adopted the Alliance position. He called it the biggest political lesson of his life.

That's the origin of his "Neighborhood Assemblies" proposal. Each city neighborhood would have its own assembly, where residents would set priorities, solicit city attention, elect representatives to city boards and the Common Council.

"If you give the neighborhoods power and make the city responsive, then you're not dependent on who the mayor appoints to a particular department, who the personnel are. You've basically got some authority to make the city come into your neighborhood and deal with problems," Hawkins said.

The change, he said, would turn residents from customers of government to its owners.

"At least you'll understand the constraints it's under when the city has to choose between money for police versus money for recreation programs," he said.

Too cumbersome? Not if the assemblies are set up as in New Hampshire and Vermont, where parliamentarians schooled in Robert's Rules of Order guide discussion and help the presiding officer keep "characters" and old feuds from dominating, he said.

Tomorrow's Neighborhoods Today has used more of a consensus process in Syracuse, he said. "But if you're making decisions and you have power, everybody is not always going to agree. At some point, you've got to take a vote," he said.

The New England town meeting may not be the best model for urban areas, with their complex issues, but some cities have enjoyed a degree of success giving their neighborhoods more power, said Archon Fung, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Minneapolis has given its neighborhoods $400 million to spend over the past 20 years, Fung said. Some used the money better than others, he said, but the ones that used it well launched innovative housing and redevelopment programs and harnessed volunteer energy among their residents.

Social change takes time

Hawkins also wants to change the property tax so that land, but not houses and other improvements, is taxed. To make up the loss of revenue, he proposes a city progressive income tax and a tax on suburbanites who work in Syracuse.

He hasn't crunched the numbers on how his tax proposal would affect the city's revenue stream because he couldn't find out what the commuters' income distribution is. But he said he's confident a coalition of Syracuse and other cities considering a commuter tax could get an enabling law out of the state Legislature.

It's possible to win an election without winning the office, he said, much as Ross Perot did in the 1992 presidential race by forcing the major parties to balance the federal budget.

Social movements, such as the abolition of slavery or apartheid, often take decades to gain momentum, he said. But as time passes, he said, people often quietly begin coming to your point of view.

"They may not be ready to get out in the street with you or vote for you, but you're part of the discussion and you're changing people's minds," Hawkins said. "A lot of times (when) social change comes it comes very quickly and then people say, ah, 'I was with you all the time.' "

2005 The Post-Standard. Used with permission.

Posted by syracusegreens at November 4, 2005 10:45 PM