From the October 31, 2014 issue of The Chief-Leader.
Reprinted with permission from The Chief-Leader


Razzle Dazzle

Why Waste Vote When Hawkins is Alternative?

By RICHARD STEIER

Let’s at least give Governor Cuomo credit for a debate performance in which he provided an example to Michael Grimm of how to seethe with anger yet not threaten to throw your antagonist off a balcony.

Mr. Cuomo took his watered-down medicine Oct. 22 during the hour-long debate in which half the time was taken up by the Green and Libertarian Party candidates. This cut into the time in which Rob Astorino could play the populist and accuse him of doling out “massive corporate welfare” that came back to him in the form of $45 million in campaign contributions, and assert that Preet Bharara would soon present him with a pair of custom-made handcuffs. It also reduced the time in which the Governor was forced to contain his fury while responding that Mr. Astorino has dishonored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., shown his disrespect for women as part of his “ultra-conservative” agenda, and was a liar as well. He also compared him to Sarah Palin while implying that she at least was principled on the subject of fracking.

From Reformer to Ringleader?

Mr. Astorino landed a few good body shots. He retorted that accusing him of racism for contesting a Federal consent decree in a lawsuit brought against his Democratic predecessor as Westchester County Executive regarding housing practices was “just despicable,” and said that when the Governor “throws out the race card, it’s because he has no ideas.” He also wondered at Mr. Cuomo’s metamorphosis from his 2010 campaign for office as “a reformer” vowing to clean up Albany to “a person who may very well be indicted” for shutting down the commission he appointed to probe corruption in the state capital.

After the Governor called that remark “outrageous,” Mr. Astorino shot back, “There’s only one person here who’s got a criminal-defense team. It’s not me.”

Mr. Cuomo never really tried to dispute the portrait painted of him as a slippery fellow whose promises were like those photographs that are erased seconds after they are transmitted, allowing him to insist that those claiming he had misled them had merely misunderstood.

One of the best moments in puncturing his veneer came following his response to a question about fracking after Mr. Astorino stated, “I won’t be politically paralyzed like this Governor is.”

Mr. Cuomo shot back with his Sarah Palin analogy, likening his GOP foe to the “drill, baby, drill” former vice presidential candidate when he campaigned upstate, only to turn into a not-in-my-backyard tree-hugger back in Westchester. He said the issue was “very complicated, it’s very controversial. Let the scientists decide.”

At that point, Howie Hawkins, the UPS driver who is the Green Party’s nominee, declared that while fracking may be controversial, its impact wasn’t complicated at all. “It’s a danger to the climate,” he remarked in his folksy drawl. “You burn gas and it heats up the planet, and it does pollute the water and the land.”

He then uprooted Mr. Cuomo’s “let the scientists decide” rhetoric with a reference to the Capital New York story a couple of weeks earlier revealing that his administration had delayed releasing a Federal study about fracking’s impact until it could alter or delete some of its more-damning findings. “When some science came back from the U.S. Geological Survey,” Mr. Hawkins said, “his administration wanted to change the results.”

No Points for Bullseye

It was a neatly delivered dagger, with no dramatics involved. Perhaps because of that, and the fact that Mr. Hawkins has had trouble cracking 10 percent in the polls, Mr. Cuomo saw no need to rebut it, and the remark got no coverage in the next day’s papers, other than on Capital New York’s website.

For those tuning in to the debate aired on public-television stations around the state, it was the first extended look at Mr. Hawkins, notwithstanding his participation in the seven-candidate phone-booth pileup during the 2010 campaign, when he also had the Green nomination.

He offered some predictable positions as the candidate claiming to be the one true progressive in the race, notwithstanding Mr. Cuomo’s occasional invocation of the word. Mr. Hawkins during his introductory statement asserted, “The government has been bought by the richest 1 percent.” He also had previously called for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which while far-fetched makes more sense than Chris Christie’s rant against any increase at all nationally from the $7.25 rate he managed to preserve in New Jersey until the state’s voters overruled him and bumped it a dollar last year.

Mr. Hawkins said if elected he would commit to making the state “100 percent clean-energy over the next 15 years.” And, in an argument President Obama failed to sell four years ago to Congress before compromising, he urged, “Take health care off the business budget by having a single-payer system for the state.”

Curbing Honest Graft

He favors full public financing of state campaigns, adding, “The legislators should be banned from taking outside income,” a harsh remedy for the legal corruption that dominates Albany politics, but one that has become increasingly plausible as more has been revealed about the influence-peddling legislative leaders are able to do, to their personal enrichment.

As Mr. Hawkins rolled through positions directly affecting public workers, calling Common Core “a test-and-punish regime,” responding to a question about how to pay for the new Tappan Zee Bridge by saying a greater priority should be given to public transportation, and urging the creation of a State Bank to avoid having to go to Wall Street for financing of capital projects, it seemed like he stood for much of what they and their unions would like to see implemented. (Mr. Cuomo has pledged an infrastructure bank as well.)

In response to a question on whether the state should raise its cap on charter schools, Mr. Hawkins said, “Public schools fail because we’re the most-segregated state in the United States.” The charters have been used for tax breaks by hedge-fund operators; worse yet, he continued, is that they’re siphoning away children in poorer neighborhoods whose parents are aware enough to seek something better for them than their local schools, in what he called “a cannibalization of our public-school system...We need to fully fund our schools.”

Unions Not Signing On

Despite these positions, Mr. Hawkins has even less union support than Zephyr Teachout, who made a surprisingly strong run against Mr. Cuomo in the Democratic primary. Part of the reason may be that Mr. Hawkins lacks Ms. Teachout’s vibrant personality, but a bigger factor may be that a union’s going against Mr. Cuomo in September was less fraught with risk than bucking him now. Nobody expected Ms. Teachout to actually win, and so urging union members to vote for her was a relatively safe way to send a message to the Governor regarding the discontent he created in the ranks of labor during his first four years in office.

While it seems unlikely that he could lose the race, given his lead over Mr. Astorino holding steady at 21 points less than two weeks prior to the election and his vast advantage in campaign funds—what his GOP rival termed his “$45-million war chest,” serving as a powerful counter to any final-week surge—the Governor has made clear the importance of building a sizable victory margin. Already some people have pointed out the likelihood that he’ll fall short of the 63 percent of the vote he got against the underwhelming Carl Paladino four years ago. And last week’s Siena Poll showed that a majority of voters—57 percent, in fact—gave him a negative job-performance rating.

All these factors do not augur well for Mr. Cuomo coming out of the election looking like a presidential contender in 2016. Yet he has been downright defiant toward the unions that swung the Working Families Party endorsement to him and away from Ms. Teachout five months ago, persuaded by some vague promises he lip-synched about acting like more of a Democrat. High on the list was his pledge to help his party gain undisputed control of the State Senate, yet there’s been no sign of him stumping for those in tough races even as polls show enough of them swinging toward the GOP candidates to make that goal unlikely to be fulfilled.

Squeeze Me? Squeeze You!

At least as great an irritant has to be his talking up the new Women’s Equality Party as an alternate ballot line. One of the pragmatic reasons the union officials who play such a big role in the WFP’s operation wanted to give him its nomination rather than backing an obscure law professor whose lack of name recognition at the time was equaled only by her paucity of funding was that they felt more confident he could produce the 50,000 votes on the WFP line necessary to preserve its spot on the state ballot four years from now. His touting the WEP as his preferred option for those choosing to vote for him on a line other than the Democrats’ makes that calculation look a lot shakier.

One of the more left-leaning labor activists within the WFP, Communications Workers of America Local 1180 President Arthur Cheliotes, during a phone interview the day after the debate remarked with some ruefulness on the paradox his union faces. “We’re already phone-banking on that issue” to urge members who vote for Mr. Cuomo to do so on the WFP line, even though the union isn’t endorsing Mr. Cuomo’s re-election.

“He betrayed a lot of working people on a number of issues,” Mr. Cheliotes noted.

But he and other union leaders, some with more enthusiasm, will be asking their members to forget that reality because Mr. Cuomo is the best option of the “electable” candidates in the race. Never mind that he balanced the state’s budget his first year in office by giving wealthier New Yorkers a free ride while forcing massive givebacks from state public-employee unions, and came back for more the following March by inflicting Tier 6 on future employees, in municipalities as well as those joining state agencies. The unions won’t be asking their members to think about why billionaire David Koch and his wife gave more than $50,000 more to Mr. Cuomo’s 2010 campaign than he and his fellow anti-labor brother Charles gave to Scott Walker in his successful run that same year for Governor of Wisconsin, and how much that may have influenced Mr. Cuomo’s policies.

The Redistricting Shuffle

Nor will they be pointing out his walking back his promise on independent redistricting in order to get the votes in the Legislature he needed to impose Tier 6, or his shutting down the Moreland Commission early after his staff tried to steer it away from examining the operations of his supporters and political allies.

Even as most of them shy from actually endorsing the Governor for a second term, the public-employee unions’ attitude toward him evokes the old joke about a less-than-honest roulette game: it may be a crooked wheel, but it’s the only wheel in town. Some of them may believe that, having gotten the state’s finances under control after inheriting a $10-billion deficit upon taking office, Mr. Cuomo will treat them more fairly in a second term.

The question is, why would he, when it took so little of substance to get them to ditch their support of Ms. Teachout and give him the WFP line that he prized less for what it could do for him than what he feared it could do to cut into his lead if given to someone else? Both his governing style and his campaigns have been about doing what it takes to get from one political objective to the next, rather than working from a coherent set of principles. Even when he took risks, as with the same-sex-marriage-bill fight and in steering through tougher gun-control measures in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. Massacre in which 20 small children lost their lives, he solidified more votes for himself than he lost from the backlashes that resulted.

The Carter Conundrum

I remember viewing the 1980 presidential election as a contest between an incumbent, Jimmy Carter, who had been thoroughly mediocre in the job and a challenger, Ronald Reagan, whose actions as Governor of California had left me with an aversion for him even before he launched his White House campaign in the Mississippi town primarily known as the place where white racists had killed three civil-rights workers in 1964. A good part of the rationale for backing Mr. Carter resided in concerns about the direction in which Mr. Reagan might take the country if he gained office.

But it made no sense to me to vote for someone who had been such a disappointment. I thought briefly about voting for John Anderson, a Republican who was running as an independent, but ultimately gravitated to someone with even less of a chance, Barry Commoner, running on his own Citizens’ Party line, who had written worthwhile books on poverty and the environment.

He failed to get even 1 percent of the popular vote; Mr. Reagan during his two terms in office changed the political dynamic of the nation, generally not in a good way. I never felt any twinges about being one of those Democrats who deserted Mr. Carter, or about my vote having mattered so little; it would have seemed “wasted” only if I voted for someone I didn’t really believe in.

Mr. Cuomo on balance has done a better job as Governor than Mr. Carter did as President. But there seems very little chance that he will lose this race, and even if he somehow did, it would be hard to argue that he didn’t have it coming.

Affront to Democracy

During Mr. Hawkins’s closing statement in the debate, he contrasted its singularity with the fact that seven debates had been held in the gubernatorial race in Connecticut, then added that this one “barely touched on the issues.”

There is one man responsible for that. Andrew Cuomo didn’t see this as an affront to democracy; for him it was just another case of maximizing his advantage and minimizing his risk, secure in the belief that not enough voters would take offense and act on it on Election Day to hurt him. He might reconsider if he winds up with just 50 percent of the vote because Mr. Hawkins gets enough disaffected Democrats to act on their feelings to get him above 10 percent.

That’s why filling in the box next to his name when marking my ballot next Tuesday will be even easier than pulling the lever for Mr. Commoner 34 years ago.

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