Patience and tenacity in the Green Party
Howie Hawkins, The 2020 Presidential Nominee, Ain’t Lost In The Sauce
I have a soft spot for the grassroots underdog. It’s endearing, their rabid challenge of the institutional leash, tugging to the point of asphyxiation for just a whiff of principle. Rebellion is a sexy peg no matter how you slice it. I can’t help but cheer from the corner of my mouth.
By Ryan Baesemann
May 5, 2020
Jeers of impotence are inevitable for the underdog, surely, as are criticisms of impracticality. They’re often valid. Idealistic martyrdom is rarely a great look; even Jesus didn’t come en vogue until post-crucifixion. But when their ethos is rooted in utility, the underdog is vindicated from the pitfalls of the oppositional fringe. With an emphasis on prosperity for the majority, rather than winner-take-all, they emerge bona fide, anew.
Under this fatidical rubric of mine, the progressive grassroots of today hold an inalienable merit, while the Liberty Freaks can go piss up a rope.
There’s nothing more nefarious to the establishment than a rag-tag troupe of unabashed radicals, aiming to up-end the status quo for the sake of communal well-being. Neglecting to compromise this simple value, even to their own detriment, makes them inherently dangerous to the culpable notion of private interests.
The grassroots underdog isn’t just fighting for their own survival, but that of the collective. The pack, as it were. As such, it’s easy to discount the relegation of the selfless by the self-absorbed, if not disregard it entirely.
Howie Hawkins is the underground archetype for this particular brand of anti-hero. In 1984, he was a founding member of the national Green Party, so he’s rather familiar with playing the scapegoat. Such judgements couldn’t bother him less. For decades, Howie’s been an unwavering force behind the verdant ballot line.
A quaint and unassuming man (appearing considerably younger than 67 years old), Howie has peppered gray hair, kind eyes, and an agile frame. He’s spent most of the past twenty years in the same two-bedroom apartment in Syracuse, New York. He lives alone, retired near the poverty line, and receives a total of $1,260 per month from a pair of pensions—earned by his former careers as a postal worker and co-op organizer. The rest of the neighborhood isn’t much better off. You can feel the unemployment on the street, and see it in the gutters. Some streets have more boarded-up vacancies than occupied homes.
His days begin with coffee and a bowl of steel-cut oats. Howie leaves them in the refrigerator overnight, soaked in milk, before garnishing with sliced apples or blueberries (if he has them). He often skips lunch, but might return to his frugal pot of fruit and grain for seconds. Howie isn’t one for ornamentation or extravagance. Blueberries’ll do just fine.
In spite of his time-honored intimacy with all-too-common strife, Howie is becoming a household name in New York politics. He’s been the Green candidate for a bevy of races over the years: governor of New York (three times), both chambers of Congress, mayor of Syracuse, city auditor, city counselor... among a handful of others.
He’s campaigned for elected office in twenty-four separate races—and lost every single time.
“Closest was back in 2011. I got 48 percent in a City Counsel race here in Syracuse,” Howie recalled during a recent conversation. I envisioned him wearing this number as a badge of honor—a shiny “48%” in the fashion of a sheriff’s shield. At the time, he worked the night shift for UPS, unloading delivery trucks. Howie put it simply, saying, “I’d work overnight, get up early in the afternoon and go out and campaign.” Even so, he still lost the election. The difference was only 97 votes.
This slim margin was due, in part, to the visibility of Howie’s 2010 campaign for governor of New York. He challenged Andrew Cuomo’s opening bid and coined the term “Eco-Socialist Green New Deal”, becoming the first candidate for any office in US history to run a platform championing a Green New Deal. Drawing inspiration from the European Greens, a lifetime of climate activism, and his faith in socialism, this vision of eco-socialism has since defined both Howie’s offering and the broader direction of the Green Party—but has yet to manifest victory.
That said, Howie’s twenty-fifth attempt to win public office is far and away his most ambitious to date: running for the Green Party’s nomination in the 2020 presidential contest.
As of this writing he’s all but the presumptive Green Party nominee, having won 24 of the first 26 state primaries and an estimated 81 percent of the necessary delegates to clench the ticket. The electoral tide seems to be turning in his favor. If successful, his candidacy would become one of the most cogent representation of grassroots, working-class politics in modern American history.
With his current platform, Howie is eager to bring eco-socialism to the policy frontier, implement a $27.5 trillion Green New Deal, establish an Economic Bill of Rights, pioneer Medicare-for-All, cut military spending by 75 percent, stop foreign interventions, abolish ICE, open the borders, deploy progressive wealth and estate taxes, end the War on Drugs, reform the criminal justice system, defund the police, nationalize the transportation sector, provide student and medical debt relief, and to immediately study and develop proposals that provide the necessary scale reparations to African and Native American communities.
Density of the previous graf notwithstanding, this is but a cursory glance of his intentions. When it comes to his intersectional approach to social and economic justice, Howie speaks at length, off the cuff, and often. The full scope of his platform is too vastly detailed for these pages.
His running mate, Angela Walker, is a dump truck driver in North Carolina. She formerly directed a local transit union in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she once ran for county sheriff, and was an active participant of the Occupy Movement. In 2016, Walker became the vice presidential candidate for The Socialist Party USA.
Walker feels right at home with Howie and the Greens, characterizing her addition to the ticket as “a reunion of sorts.” A number of her 2016 staffers are currently working with Howie, but she didn’t realize this before accepting their offer. Walker was the first and only person Howie called for the job.
The Socialist Party announced that Howie and Walker are their 2020 candidates, and while they’re grateful for the nod, Howie admits that the Socialist ticket “functions more as an endorsement than anything else.” Being nominated to represent the Greens is the goal.
Howie harbors no illusions about his viability in the general election this November. In his own words, “That’s a real long shot.”
He’s not running to win the Oval Office, so much as he’s campaigning to provide coattails for other Greens down the ballot and break the political duopoly held by Democrats and Republicans. Without an established caucus in Congress and an active base at the local level, Howie doesn’t see the possibility of a fruitful Green in the executive branch.
Before the current election cycle, only 22 states included the Green Party candidate on the 2020 presidential ballot. With five months until the general election, the Greens have gained ballot access to two more states—Vermont and Illinois—for a total of 25 ballot lines, including DC. Cumulatively, this amounts to 305 electoral votes—well past the 270 needed to secure the presidency. But winning would require a nearly clean sweep as an oppositional candidate. In other words, a snowball’s chance in hell.
The objective for the Greens is to get a ballot line in at least 30 states by November. With a national platform, they are mobilizing groups across the country to petition for Green Party ballot access in various states. If successful, these petitions grant a ballot line to Green candidates running for other offices in that state, bringing their platform further into the national conversation. “We may not score a touchdown,” Howie said, “but we will make a few first downs.”
States have myriad, ever-evolving requirements for political parties to gain ballot access: the scale of donations, a certain amount petition signatures, their performance in past elections, the number of other states recognizing the party, variable (and typically steep) filing fees... “It’s a bit like 51 different campaigns, in 51 different circumstances,” said Howie. The process is wildly convoluted, arguably by design.
Mark Dunlea, a co-founder of New York’s Green Party who served as Jill Stein’s campaign manager in 2016, asserted as much to me. “This is just one of the ways the two corporate parties press the independent progressive parties… with these ‘ballot access laws’, which are 100 times more complex than what you find in other democracies.” Dunlea and Howie have been in cahoots for decades. He’s currently advising Howie’s 2020 campaign, helping lead their messaging and strategy.
In most states, if a candidate wins a certain threshold of the state-wide popular vote, their party retains ballot access for the next election cycle. “In some states, that threshold is 5 percent,” Howie detailed. “More commonly, it’s one two or 3 percent. In New Mexico? It’s half-a-percent. Alabama? Twenty.” But before their performance in a previous race comes into play, third parties need to get on the ballot in the first place.
While grassroots organizing is institutionally rigorous in a general sense, that’s especially true during a pandemic. Taking this into account, Howie’s campaign is petitioning for ballot access relief in certain states. They most recently received a deadline extension and digital petition allowances from the state of Maryland. His campaign took this as a needed sign of good faith; however, most in the establishment don’t view the Greens so kindly.
In early-April, Governor Cuomo nearly tripled the ballot requirements in New York going into the next election cycle. In North Carolina, if the Green Party isn’t on the ballot in at least 37 states by November, it will be removed from future state ballots. The game is undoubtedly afoot and nowhere near a level playing field.
Clearly, Howie’s subtle demeanor belies the scope of his tenacious, almost blind ambition. And whereas this all might seem like pie in the sky—and indeed it is—there’s an increasingly worthy chance he’ll enjoy at least a slice of this vision.
A distinct shade of melancholy enveloped American progressives with the suspension of the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign.
Few expected Brother Bernard to end his run before Wisconsin reported a single district, but following Super Tuesday, it wasn’t difficult to recognize the fix was in yet again. Between the highly-suspect results from Iowa, a polarizing spat with Senator Elizabeth Warren, uniformly dreadful debate moderators, and a blatant media blackout—grim tales of loss reigned supreme.
So, after leading the progressive insurgency for decades, Bernie capitulated his final push for a selective reading of utility… as defined by the establishment he’s spent his entire career fighting. Centrists got their man in Biden, Trump his preferred opponent in the general. The constituency? A race between senility and narcissism, based on loose platitudes and ultimatums.
Behind the reductive banner of #votebluenomatterwho, muddied notions of pragmatism and electability proved more persuasive for the electorate than a habitable planet, a living wage, or universal healthcare. Trump must be stopped at all costs, we’ve been assured. Bernie’s path to the nomination was unviable, they offer. The “circular firing squad” narrative became a good ol’ fashioned stand-off with Biden, and rather than square up and draw, Bernie toed the Democratic line against the festering orange day-glo, now irreparably stained into the Resolute Desk.
This has been the resounding thrust of leftist commentary: consolidation around the bankrupt ideology of neoliberal incrementalism, simply because Trump is a baddie and any alternative will do. This stance isn’t entirely unwarranted—Trump is the worst of us—though it does leave progressives wanting.
In 2019, Biden assured wealthy donors behind closed doors that “nothing would fundamentally change” under his administration. In March, during his face-off debate with Bernie, he stated “the American people are not looking for a revolution.” These statements did not age well.
Considering the nationwide protests in response to the recent police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the disgraceful status of racial and criminal justice in the US proved more than enough to motivate a bona fide uprising. According to a Monmouth University poll, 54 percent of Americans believe the burning of the Minneapolis Police station was justified. So after a week of focus groups on messaging strategy, Biden’s most coherent response to these events was his suggestion that cops shoot people in the leg, rather than in the heart. Lest we forget, Biden co-authored the fabled “Tough on Crime” bill, after all.
While the splintering of the Democratic Party has been in full effect for years, it reached a pinnacle moment with the most recent submission of Sanders. Whereas Bernie’s own campaign manager went full-on Benedict (founding a pro-Biden Super-PAC), former advisor Nina Turner has lobbied for progressives to “hold the democratic party hostage.” It seems quite-a-many are heeding Turner’s call to action. Hello somebody...
The Pew Research Center recently discovered that 47 percent of Berniecrats do not believe the left will rally behind Biden. According to the Wall Street Journal, a mere 3 percent of those who financially contributed to Bernie’s campaign have donated to Biden thus far.
What the establishment has failed to acknowledge is that Bernie was a compromise for many progressives—a step in the right direction, yet far from the full extent of their ambitions. The movement has been irrevocably radicalized, and despite the vacuum left by Sanders, many still wish to see the system Bern.
Since the turn of the millennium, the electoral college has double-hosed the Democratic Party. But rather than blame the system (or half of the population that chose not to vote), the Democrats have historically chosen the Greens as their foil. Considering W.’s victory in 2000 (due to Nader’s take in Florida) and Trump’s in 2016 (with Stein’s haul in the battlegrounds)—one led to Iraq, and the other, well… Take your pick.
Should the popular vote loser manage to win again in 2020, Howie claims the electoral college will be permanently shattered, necessitating a ranked-choice popular vote for president. This system allocates electoral votes on a tiered, proportional basis, rather than the current winner-take-all method, and over time, could theoretically bust the duopoly. Howie believes ranked-choice voting is a truer form of direct democracy, but acknowledges it might take more heartbreak for the Democrats before they catch on.
A number of states have already explored ranked-choice voting in various elections, with Maine becoming the first to implement it statewide and at the federal level earlier this year. Howie wants all the states to be like Maine—by amending the constitution to abolish the electoral college and implement ranked-choice voting nationwide. He sees this as imperative for an oppositional, workers-rights party to be realized. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” he declared. “We can get that constitutional amendment.”
As of early-June, Howie has raised roughly $160,000 almost exclusively from individual donations. When I asked how much the Green Party has contributed to his campaign so far, Howie said, “Zero. I might get a token amount if I get the nomination, but the party is very underfunded. There’s barely a staff at the national level.” For context, Joe Biden has nearly $60 million on-hand, and that’s before he’s formally received the Democratic nomination.
Undergirding this scenario of financial malarkey is the ever-elusive 5 percent. Should Howie win the Green nomination and earn at least 5 percent of the national popular vote in the general, the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2024 receives an estimated $20 million in federal funding. This would grant the Greens a far greater war chest than they’ve ever achieved, and would make a national campaign feasible. Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign is the closest they’ve come, with 2.74 percent.
This Federal Election Commission law—providing the 5 percent incentive—has cast the Greens as the “spoiler” and made the party itself taboo. After Nader’s role in 2000, Green allegiance became a Scarlet Letter of sorts; a scornful label of democratic adultery. But today, many Greens don’t particularly care about this judgement. They openly aim to win at least 5 percent of the popular vote, and aren’t shy about their stoke to spoil (read: “Howie Hawkins’ Dank Meme Stash” and “Lord Pete Buttigieg’s Casual Imperialist Wine Cave” and “Jordan Peterson’s Neverland Ranch for High IQ Lost Boys”).
Playing the spoiler, despite the consequences, is very much the goal for many young progressives—though Howie doesn’t view his role exactly as such. Whether Biden loses at the hands of the Greens isn’t his concern. For Howie, it’s just about ballot lines, ranked-choice voting, and getting Green solutions into the national debate.
“You’d think the Democrats would go for what I’m talking about,” Howie said with a chuckle, referring to 2000 and 2016. “Instead, they want to pick on the Greens. They’ll say we’re spoiling the election! And I’ll say, ‘No, you had your chance. Until you get serious about this reform, you’re spoiling the election, you Democrats.’”
If the Green Party is a fringe rebellion, then the Sunrise Movement and Democratic Socialists of America are undergunned mutinies. These youth-led, socialist-leaning organizations are attempting to bend the Democratic Party toward progressive policy from within. Both organizations granted their coveted endorsements to Bernie Sanders and other progressive candidates, but neither Sunrise nor DSA responded to repeated requests for comment on Howie’s campaign.
I asked for Howie’s perspective on these groups and their decisions to not endorse him. He was unperturbed. “I ran into some of them at a demonstration outside the Democratic debate in Detroit, but they didn’t want to come anywhere near me because they’re tied to the Democrats. These young folks want to put all their eggs in the basket of the Democratic Party,” said Howie, “but I think they just found out what they’re going to get—Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders.”
Before the electoral door had a chance to hit Bernie on his way out of Wisconsin, sponsored posts for Howie’s candidacy flooded my social media channels. The promoted spreads offered a handsome, yet humble looking fellow, with his profile emblazoned above banners reading: “Eco-Socialist Green New Deal”, “Economic Bill of Rights”, and “Medicare-for-All”.
His campaign saw their window and went for it with zeal. Howie’s image was inescapable on social media that early spring day, almost more so than clips of Bernie’s concession.
“Who the fuck is Howie Hawkins?” I thought to myself, after the fifth banner passed through my scroll. Being a California-native, I hadn’t even heard his name before.
I sent a curious request for comment and finished a bottle of wine. The night became a sloven salute to the fallen comrade, as one bottle became several, in the woeful style of a down-and-out Sanderista.
The next morning I woke up with an emotional hangover and a missed call from an unknown area code. I dialed back and by the second ring Howie was on the line. Not a staffer, his press secretary or campaign manager, but the man himself calling me from his landline.
At the time, the Green primaries were still in their infancy. Howie was the front-runner then as well, but he faced a serious contention in Dario Hunter, 35—a black, gay, Ivy-educated environmental attorney born of immigrant parents. Hunter held public office as a Green on the school board of Youngstown, Ohio, before recently relocating to Los Angeles.
He’s also the first Muslim-born person to be ordained as a rabbi, and is pro-Palestine. Speaking with The New Republic last year, Hunter said, “It takes a tough skin to be an openly gay black son-of-an immigrant Jewish rabbi.” I don’t doubt that in the slightest, though it’s certainly a compelling backstory for an emergent progressive firebrand.
In the identity-driven litany of liberal signposts, Hunter is pure heroin. Howie might be a Michelob Ultra. Imagining them together on a debate stage, it’d be the old, white man vs. The Future.
Suddenly, I had plans to visit Syracuse.
Howie’s been involved with progressive, independent politics since he was a teenager. He grew up during the anti-war ‘60s in South San Francisco, near Coyote Point, and was first radicalized in grade school.
His music teacher was an ardent supporter of the Sierra Club, which was then headed by David Brower—both the fabled Godfather and irascible pariah of the early environmental movement. In class, Howie’s teacher replaced music lessons with ecology and sustainability discussions centered on Sierra Club materials. “I don’t remember him teaching anything about music,” said Howie. “But he did show us photographs by Ansel Adams—all around Yosemite and in the High Sierra.”
Having spent time in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, growing up just a few hours away in the Bay Area, young Howie rather enjoyed those classes. By the time he was a teenager, Howie was a member of the Sierra Club himself, reading their literature on his own time.
When the Sierra Club supported a nuclear power plant development on the central coast of California, Brower split; or rather, was ousted in a fairly policitized fashion. In response, he founded Friends of the Earth to pursue more radical approaches to environmental activism (Brower was eventually kicked out of this organization, too). Howie followed suit. He left the Sierra Club, joined Friends of the Earth, and started to become a staunch anti-nuclear activist.
His father, Howie Sr., was a military man—counterintelligence for the Army—who worked in some secretive capacity on The Manhattan Project (of all things). “He never really talked about what happened during the war,” said Howie. “It had the whole ‘If I tell ya, I’ll have to kill ya’ air around it.”
Before WWII, his father was a practicing attorney in New York City after completing law school at the University of Chicago. Following the war, he worked as general counsel for an atomic energy subsidiary of Standard Oil. Around the time Howie entered high school, Howie Sr. became the counsel for Dean Witter & Co. (now Morgan Stanley). Howie Sr. retired from Dean Witter in 1981 as a Senior Vice President.
By late-adolescence, Howie’s political concerns had broadened beyond the ecological. He avidly participated in the anti-war and black power demonstrations across the Bay Area in the late 60s, where socialist literature and left-leaning pamphlets circulated widely (specifically those by Hal Draper and the Independent Socialist Clubs). These experiences and introductions proved paramount for Howie’s understanding of politics, while also breeding inherent contentions with his conservative father. “We had some real big arguments over the war and what was going on in the ‘60s,” Howie recalled. “I was becoming a radical and he was a Republican. But he was pretty pragmatic about it. He voted for Kennedy in 1960. But then he turned around and voted for Goldwater... So we had a testy relationship when it came to politics.”
Howie’s mother passed when he was still a kid. “I must have been 11 or 12. She had a drinking problem and destroyed her liver. I didn’t really know it at the time, just knew she was sleeping a lot in the afternoon.”
By the time Howie was in high school, he was already fully plugged into the radical ecology movement through Friends of the Earth, which was well represented in the Bay Area. Ballantine Books, which published both Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth materials, became his main source of inspiration. Their issues of Man Against His Environment, The Voter’s Guide to Environmental Politics, and The Frail Ocean proved instrumental for Howie. But reading Perils of the Peaceful Atom by Richard Curtis served as his initial wake-up call to the dangers of nuclear energy.
“You could get their books at Woolworths or other drugstores,” said Howie. “So I read them all.” Many of those original copies from high school still line his shelves in Syracuse.
Even though he’d found a network of peers in the Bay Area through Friends of the Earth, Howie felt ready to fly the coop, as youngsters often do, which led him to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “It was as far away from the Bay Area as possible, so that was one thing,” said Howie with a nostalgic chortle.
In the summer of 1972, after his freshman year, Howie spent his break from college “workin’ a jackhammer, busting through walls”... and was subsequently drafted into Vietnam. So he enlisted in the Marines and figured at least he’d get a free education out of the GI Bill. Due to scheduling conflicts, he didn’t complete his basic training at Quantico until the summer of 1974. After boot camp, Howie never heard from the Marines again.
“I wrote to the Marines and said, ‘I can’t finish and get my degree. Send me to Parris Island or Camp Pendleton to do my two years of active duty,’” Howie explained. “They never contacted me. They just left me in limbo. By the fall of ‘76, I went back to Dartmouth and did my last year.” He completed everything but his foreign language requirement, ultimately not receiving a degree, but did become a formidable rabble rouser on campus and around the state.
Once back at Dartmouth, the People’s Energy Project consumed most of Howie’s free time. It was a New Hampshire-based anti-nuclear organization that he joined in the fall of 1974, after training at Quantico. The impetus behind the People’s Energy Project was their vehement opposition of Richard Nixon’s “Project Independence”—his plan to build 1000 nuclear power plants by the year 2000.
One nuclear power plant in particular—the Seabrook Station scheduled to be built on the coastline of New Hampshire—became the target of Howie’s ire. The same year Howie returned to Dartmouth, he co-founded the Clamshell Alliance with other members from the People’s Energy Project to oppose the Seabrook nuclear development. “By spring of ‘76, we realized that this thing was going forward,” said Howie. “So we did what we called The Last Resort, which was non-violent direct action.”
On May Day, 1977, the Clamshell Alliance made international news when a multi-state police force was deployed to break up their latest protest. Occupying the Seabrook Station site, they wore shirts that spelled “NO NUKES” and peacefully carried signs—a couple of them reading, “Go Fishing, Not Fission” and “Split Wood, Not Atoms”.
Of the estimated 2,000 in attendance, 1,414 protestors were arrested—Howie included. It was the first time he was arrested as an activist; being an organizer of one of the largest mass arrests in the nation’s history. According to Rolling Stone, “It took state troopers from five New England states 15 hours to remove all the occupiers.” Some of those detained at Seabrook were held for nearly two weeks in the National Guard armories after refusing bail, but Howie was one of the lucky ones released early due to a lack of beds. When I asked Howie how many times he’s been arrested for protesting since then, he plainly said, “at least a dozen.”
Not being in jail worked out well, as coincidentally, Howie had already invited Murray Bookchin—the infamous anti-nuclear ecologist—to speak at Dartmouth the following week.
In the late-60’s, Howie went to the San Mateo Public Library and checked out Murray Bookchin’s work Our Synthetic Environment, written under the pseudonym Lewis Herber. “It was a holdover from the Red Scare, and all that,” explained Howie. Focusing on the dangers of pesticides, plastics, and nuclear energy, Our Synthetic Environment prefaced Rachel Carson’s work in Silent Spring by a few months, as well as underscored Howie’s path toward the anti-nuclear movement.
The opportunity to host Bookchin at Dartmouth was an honor for Howie, especially considering the immediate context. “Murray didn’t even know we were going to do that,” Howie laughed, referring to the Seabrook protest just days before. Bookchin’s 1971 work in Post-Scarcity Anarchism had greatly informed Howie’s understanding of revolutionary politics. “I went to Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school, and I learned more from Murray Bookchin than I did from the whole faculty.”
They were fast friends after meeting that day at Dartmouth, and Bookchin quickly became Howie’s mentor. “From ‘77 until ‘91, I worked very closely with Murray on anti-nuclear issues, and it became my entryway to the Greens,” he said. It was Bookchin who convinced Howie to attend the founding committee of the national Green Party in 1984, which he’d been invited to for his efforts leading the Clamshell Alliance.
After retiring as a professor from Ramapo College, Bookchin became known as the brainchild behind the Burlington Greens—an ultraist, Vermont-based faction of the Green Party. They called for “municipal libertarianism” (which Mark Dunlea referred to as “municipal anarchy”) and fiercely opposed their mayor, Bernie Sanders, whom they considered a faux-socialist.
At the time, Bernie was a member of the Vermont Progressive Party—which he formally left in 1988 to run for Congress as an independent. In seeking ways to broaden their clout with Vermont’s progressives, the Burlington Green’s favor of municipal libertarianism soon became articulated as “Communalism”—representing decentralized structures of diverse, self-reliant, and largely sovereign democratic communities, taking intimate care of their constituents at the hyper-local level. “It’s the anarchist principle of federation rather than a centralized state,” said Howie. “Power comes from the bottom up.”
The two terms are largely synonymous, but one is the result of a clever branding exercise—in part, to court some of Bernie’s progressive base.
“Municipal libertarianism sounds like a professor talking about something people don’t understand,” said Howie. “Murray had been callin’ himself an anarchist, but finally concluded that the existing anarchist movement was too individualistic and not serious about transforming the power structure with real grassroots democracy. So Communalism is the word he took up, pulling more from the socialist tradition—particularly in France.” Howie still believes in the core of this approach.
In 1988, Bookchin and Howie founded the Left Green Network as a vehicle to spread the ethos of the Burlington Greens and Communalism elsewhere. It functioned as a radical caucus of the national Green Party. “We let people on the left—democratic socialists, independent socialists of various kinds—know that there was a place for them with the Greens, because the more conservative wing of the Green Party was very anti-socialist and anti-left,” said Howie. “There was a lot of red baiting and rumor mongering, and politics ain’t bean baggin’. They were throwing rocks.”
Under Bookchin’s leadership, the Burlington Greens were active from 1986 until 1990. They aimed to utilize local elections as a means to both educate the populace and to seize power. Once in office, they planned to revise the city charter so that direct democratic assemblies were the decision-makers, rather than bureaucrats. Ultimately, they collapsed when key members inside the Burlington Greens made back-channel deals with the Democrats. Bookchin refused to allow this act to be swept under the rug—which was the preference of the younger Burlington Greens—and their differences were unable to be resolved.
During this period, Howie lived in White River Junction, Vermont and worked as a construction laborer, but he visited Bookchin often. He wasn’t a member of the Burlington Greens, but Howie was a trusted ally and often sat in on their discussions. “I was in close contact with them, trying to keep the New England Green Committees of Correspondence together, which was the way the Green Party developed after ‘84,” said Howie. “We were the Committees of Correspondence, then the Green Committees of Correspondence. And finally, the Green Party USA after ‘91. But at that point, yeah, the Burlington Greens imploded.” The Left Green Network disbanded shortly thereafter as well.
In 1989, Howie spent a season as a logger and ruptured a disc in his back when a “tree started rollin’ and almost crushed” him. It was this event that brought Howie to Syracuse in 1991—a need to find a desk job—as the injury had made construction work difficult. Fortunately, he found one. Howie spent most of the ‘90s as a director of CommonWorks, a nonprofit organizing worker cooperatives. “It was the worst job I ever had,” Howie recalled with glee. “Bureaucratic politics, man. I don’t have the patience or the stomach for it.”
Within a few months of his arrival in Syracuse, Howie was “adopted” by the Perrys—a family that ran Vera’s Place, his favorite soul food restaurant in town. “I like collard greens with everything. So whether it was pork chops, pig’s feet, or fried fish, my side was always collard greens… sometimes double collard greens,” said Howie. Apparently, they had the best collard greens of all time, but also a needed sense of community. After quickly becoming a regular, Howie and the Perrys started sharing meals, then living spaces.
Howie had trouble finding stable housing during his first decade in Syracuse, but the Perrys were there for him. “Vera had a rent-to-own property that I lived in for a while, but the lender was predatory, so I had to move on in a flash,” he said. “Then I moved in with one of her daughters, then one of her other adopted sons for a while, and I stayed with Carol, another sister, at one point too.” I briefly spoke to Carol, Vera’s daughter, and she called Howie her “white brother” with notable admiration.
“Vera found out my mother died when I was young. And she was Big Mama, so she’s like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna take care of you,’ even though I was in my 30s by then,” said Howie. “That kind of sealed the deal.” When I asked what’s kept him in Syracuse all these years, Howie replied without any hesitation, “My family, the Perrys. I’ve always been kind of a stray, but they took me in.”
Howie’s never been married, has no children, and his family is spread across the West Coast and Hawaii. As far as who he sees and connects with regularly, the Perrys are largely it.
In 2001, Howie started working at UPS for the retirement benefits and healthcare. “The benefits...” said Howie. “That’s why everybody works at UPS.” Pushing 50 years old by then, it was tough to get back into a building trade union to do construction full-time and receive benefits. So at UPS he was known as an “unloader”—which is exactly what it sounds like. Within his first year at UPS, Howie became an active member of the Teamsters Union, and considering his already colorful past with grassroots organizing around workers-rights, he decided it was time to kick his political career into a higher gear.
The rags to riches parable isn’t novel or appealing; that’s rarely the whole story and now they’re speaking from the riches... so who gives a hoot anyway. America doesn’t need more bootstrapped nationalisms parroted by sloganeering charlatans. It needs authenticity. Howie speaks for the rags, from the rags.
Syracuse is hurting. It was abundantly apparent from the moment I pulled into town. According to the Census Bureau, nearly a third of Syracuse’s population lived below the poverty line in 2018. It estimates that 44 percent of the children in Syracuse lived in impoverished households at that time, predominantly among the black and Hispanic communities. From the looks of things, not much has improved since then.
The Green Party office is just off the highway, where Howie said to meet. It’s in an old strip mall along one of the main drags, next to a couple of unoccupied storefronts and an airbrush tattoo shop. The antiquated brick is covered in withering vines, with a convenient green paint job on the ground floor.
Howie pulled up in his little Hyundai shortly after I arrived. He felt sincerely enthused to meet, wearing worn blue jeans, a Teamster t-shirt, and a Teamster jacket.
There’s only two Google reviews for the Green Party office in Syracuse: “Easily the best”, Ken Eat (5-stars); ”I don’t recommend”, Leslie Crysler (1-star). This seems to sum up the office, but also the attitude toward the Greens writ large. The paint is chipping off the walls, the office phone doesn’t have voicemail set up, and the lobby isn’t exactly suited for passers-by; but besides these superficialities, it’s been nested into a rather charming nook.
Most every day, Howie sits by himself at a cluttered desk. Nobody else has worked out of the office for months now. The walls are flush with the foregone flyers of Green campaigns long past, a few of them being his own. It’s a suitable backdrop for his relentless schedule of Zoom and Facebook Live discussions—an attempt to make up for the absence of boots-on-the-ground campaigning during COVID. The party sent Howie some basic lighting to help with production value, but I got the impression he hasn’t used it much.
The day I arrived happened to be the day before the Green Party’s New York primary. Shortly after getting settled in at the office, Howie made a series of frantic phone calls to make sure someone was watching the ballot count. After several requests, including one to Mark Dunlea, he eventually found a campaign volunteer to keep an eye on it. Aside from the enviable delegate count of populous New York, Howie needed a decisive victory in his home state. He ended up winning 80 percent of the vote.
The Green Party isn’t particularly organized. The most comprehensive resource available on their primary results is a Wikipedia page, which seems to be updated (or manipulated) by the hour. When I mentioned this absence of a reliable online presence, Howie said, “I’ve been complaining about that for 20 years, but it’s just a lack of resources and staff. I haven’t done much about it because the structure is so loose. It’s like pushing on a piece of wet spaghetti.”
His apartment is just a couple blocks down the street from the Green Party office, on the southside of town. After taking a break for lunch, he agreed to reconvene at his home. It’s a simple duplex, with a faded beige exterior, and Howie has the top floor to himself. The house next door recently caught on fire as Howie was leaving for work. It’s been boarded-up since. The house directly across the street has been vacant for years, with broken windows and various tags.
A few houses up the street, in between Howie’s apartment and the office, a few middle-aged men are seemingly running a package off their porch. They gave me a righteous glare as I walked past, with Natty Daddy tall-cans already in hand at 3pm on a Thursday.
I immediately checked myself, thinking just because I’ve watched The Wire (twice) doesn’t mean I can easily identify someone slanging. But then Howie mentioned it unprovoked, saying the stoop “has all the hallmarks. I know one of the guys, too. We’ll be talking and then suddenly he’ll get a message and have to make a delivery.” It’s apparently no secret in the neighborhood. He typically drives the two blocks to the office, rather than walk past.
Entering the stairwell that leads up to his unit, I could tell this wasn’t a space he often shared, if ever. Howie punctuated this, saying, “Very few people have been in here. And some of them were too big to fit.” The amount of items piled up on the steps required some finesse to navigate. But that was before getting into his unit. Having previously spent a couple months together on video calls, I knew he had a comprehensive library that I was eager to see. But I wasn’t prepared for the scope of it.
Books, magazines, newspapers, court documents, encyclopedias, legal textbooks, pamphlets, campaign materials, brochures, and endless boxes of miscellaneous files… most of the tangible representations of the Green Party and socialist doctrines likely reside within Howie’s abode. “I did a rough count last year,” he said, “and I probably have about 10,000 books in here. One of my vices is buying them faster than I can read ‘em, but I have cracked most of them.”
He’s built his own shelving out of cinder blocks and plywood, which consume the full perimeter of both his living room and study. Though it may not appear that way, there is an order to the madness. Each shelf is meticulously organized by the writer, theorist, or era. Nietzche and Hegel share a shelf, Marx and Engles have their corner, while Chomsky consumes several tiers. Anything ever published with “socialism” in the title has been promptly ordered and tucked away for a rainy day.
A worn Lazy-Boy chair is situated in the center of the living room, with a piece of wood that Howie props on the armrests to read from. He’s arranged stacks of his most recently acquired books on the floor in front of the chair, organized (haphazardly) by relevance and what he plans to read. There’s simply no space left on his diligently curated shelves. Thomas Picketty’s The Economics of Inequality and the latest issue of Harper’s are next on the docket. A green plastic patio table serves as his centerpiece, with a bottle of worcestershire and some cayenne, garlic powder, and a turmeric blend at arms length for easy seasoning. Howie’s not lost in the sauce. He knows what he likes and sticks to it.
Even though our in-person interview had been planned for weeks, it was not apparent he’d made any attempt to hide his life or make the apartment tidier than usual.
Trust was my first thought. Unbelievable faithfulness.
But after taking a moment, I didn’t register an iota of self-consciousness in Howie. He’s not interested in posturing as something he’s not. This is who he is, to his bones. He lives, breathes, and exists in a world that solely revolves around an understanding of social prosperity... and how to make it so. These aren’t careless items coalesced out of irrational compulsion. These are timeless artifacts that he actively involves himself with, sitting each night in his Lazy-Boy with nothing but a ball-point pen, some fresh text, and his thoughts.
From steel cut oats in the morning to socialist literature at night, most everything he needs is there, nourishing his mind and body for the purpose of transforming American politics for the better. Trust actually had nothing to do with his transparency. Howie’s genuinely proud of his collection—as he should be. Though he does wish he had a little more space for it all.
RYAN BAESEMANN is a writer, editor, meanderer, and an occasional goofball from Los Angeles. He was the Media Director of Do-It-Ourselves, an artist collective in Santa Cruz, before writing for Mixmag in New York. Ryan completed an MA in cultural criticism at NYU, enjoyed a stint in Brooklyn, and now lives along the central coast of California.