Howie Hawkins, undefeated: The story behind Syracuse’s most remarkable candidate
By Marnie Eisenstadt | [email protected]syracuse.com
Syracuse, N.Y. — Howie Hawkins has run for office more times than anyone in Syracuse’s modern history. The 67-year-old is now in his 25th campaign.
He’ll lose this one, too.
Hawkins is running for U.S. president on the Green Party line. He is on the ballot in 30 states.
Aside from one city council race, Hawkins has never thought, even for a second, that he would win.
And yet he runs. It’s part of the unique DNA of Hawkins: He’s a pacifist who loved most parts of briefly being a Marine. He’s a liberal activist and a Teamster. He turned his Ivy League education into a job loading trucks. The family he was born into is white, Republican and upper-middle class. The family that sets a place at the table for him on Thanksgiving and Christmas is Black, embedded in the history of Syracuse’s South Side.
Hawkins is, without a doubt, the losingest politician in Syracuse’s history.
Still, he is not defeated. Does anyone, after all this, have more hope than Howie Hawkins?
Howie Hawkins’ dad, also Howard Hawkins, was a corporate lawyer and a Republican. The family lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Burlingame, California, a suburb of San Francisco.
Hawkins’ mother died when he was 12 in 1965; she was an alcoholic whom he mostly remembers passed out when he got home from school.
It was a time of change and unrest: Vietnam, civil rights and Nixon were the talk of the day and the dinner table.
Many nights, Hawkins and his dad would stake out opposing sides and defend them, remembers Howie’s little brother, Larry.
“They would be head to head,” Larry Hawkins said. “I think that’s where he got a lot of his debating skill.”
Howard Hawkins didn’t agree with Howie’s politics. But both men remember their dad telling Howie: “If you’re going to be a Communist, be the best damn Communist there is.”
Larry was always “Howie’s little brother.”
“He was a living legend growing up,” Larry Hawkins said. That was not because Hawkins was some social justice crusader. In high school, Howie Hawkins was a jock. He played everything and did it well, his brother said. Baseball was his favorite. At one point, he hoped to be a professional baseball player.
Football and basketball led him face-to-face with racial inequality.
Hawkins would go to the rec center in San Mateo because the pickup games were better. One day, the kids were talking about protests at nearby Berkeley. The director had just returned from Mississippi, where he worked in the civil rights movement.
Someone called the protesters Communists.
“He’d say, ‘No, they’re civil rights workers,’ ” Hawkins recalled. “He gave us a whole different picture.”
Hawkins saw the inequity between his world and those of the kids he played ball with. He wanted to fix it.
He began to get involved, skipping high school to go to anti-war and civil rights demonstrations at Berkeley.
Hawkins was recruited by Dartmouth, an Ivy League school he’d never heard of on a coast he’d never visited. His grades were decent, but his athletic ability got him in, he said.
Once there, Hawkins was so busy with the anti-war protests and civil rights that he never ended up playing sports.
His college career was briefly interrupted when his draft number came up. Hawkins enlisted in officer training with the Marines and went to basic training at Quantico but was never called to active duty.
“I loved it. It was like glorified Boy Scouts,” said Hawkins, who was active in scouting before leaving California. He once tried to lead a group of younger scouts across a swollen creek on a long hike in mountains, said his brother, Larry.
“He fell in. They all thought he was dead, but he survived. He’s fearless,” Larry Hawkins said.
Hawkins never graduated from Dartmouth. Everyone had to do a semester of foreign language study overseas. Hawkins decided to break from the pack and go to Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific. Dartmouth didn’t count Tongan, he said.
So Hawkins is a foreign language requirement shy of an Ivy League degree, he said.
Hawkins is happy with his life; he never wonders if he chose the wrong path. He remembers the moment when he realized academia and corporate work would never be for him.
“A professor said: ‘You rich guys are going to hire you smart guys to write five-page memos … And five people will read them. And that’s your life. That’s what you’re going to do,’ ” Hawkins recalled.
He wasn’t the rich guy. He split from his father over his political views after he left for college and had been working construction to pay for school, he said. And he didn’t want to be the guy writing papers no one would read.
When he left Dartmouth, Hawkins continued working in construction and logging. And he found the Green Party.
On one of his last logging jobs, a tree fell on Hawkins and ruptured a disk.
That’s how he ended up in Syracuse in 1991. Hawkins needed a thing he really hates: a desk job.
Ron Ehrenreich had one for him.
Ehrenreich started the Cooperative Credit Union in Syracuse and he was trying to help seed other cooperative businesses through a nonprofit called CommonWorks. He asked Hawkins to come to Syracuse and run it, he said.
Ehrenreich, who was the Socialist Party’s candidate for vice president in 1988, had run into Hawkins at socialist conventions over the years. Hawkins was trying to recruit socialists to the Green Party.
In Syracuse, Hawkins didn’t find much success turning factories into cooperatives.
Ehrenreich remembers when they went to Syracuse China workers when the company was selling it off. Hawkins tried to convince the workers to sign onto a plan to make the company a cooperative. But the workers accepted a company buyout instead, he said.
The nonprofit shut down. But Hawkins had become entrenched in building the Syracuse Green Party and working to get Green candidates into local elections. So he stayed for that work and took a night job at United Parcel Service, where he became an active member of the Teamsters. (He retired in 2017.)
Hawkins found his second family at a Syracuse restaurant.
Anyone who really knows Hawkins knows he’s diligent about going to the gym. He doesn’t drink. And he really likes soul food and pie.
That is how a white guy from California became part of the Perry family in Syracuse.
Shortly after moving to Syracuse, Hawkins wandered into Vera’s Place, a long-time soul food restaurant on the South Side run by Vera Perry, the matriarch of the family.
“They wondered, ‘Who is this white guy?’ ” Hawkins said. When Vera learned his mother had died when he was a child, that was it. She took him in.
When he had no place to live, he lived with her and then for a time with her daughter, Renee.
Hawkins has dated on and off over the years, but never married.
The Perry family is his family here. They set a place for him at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And they’ve helped him with all of his campaigns, whether or not they are voting for him.
Renee Perry’s daughter, LaToya McKelvin, does not remember life without Hawkins. Her childhood memories are filled with pounding the pavement for Hawkins’ campaigns.
Now 32, she lives in San Diego and is a member of the Green Party herself.
It is the true party of social, racial and economic justice, she says.
It is also the party of “Uncle Howie.”
“This dude helped raise me,” said McKelvin, a digital marketer and dance teacher who graduated from Temple University.
Hawkins showed her something it’s hard to see in politicians these days: “You can be smart, you can be in politics and still be a part of society, be a part of your community.”
Hawkins lives small. He has a small car, always a hatchback. These days, it’s a Hyundai with a bullet hole from when it was parked outside his apartment on the South Side.
Hawkins bought a house in 2009 but he’s never lived there. It’s a four-bedrooms colonial on a dead-end street on the South Side. He got it mostly to hold his books. He had 10,000, many about economic theory, his favorite topic.
So who lives in his house? A friend from the Green Party and extended members of the Perry family. They needed a place. Hawkins had one. Why wouldn’t he share? He doesn’t charge rent. It’s economic theory in action.
Hawkins’ campaign this year has raised just over $300,000. Hawkins usually drives himself and stays with Green Party friends or campaign workers.
Hawkins is well-known in national Green circles. But he never wanted to run for president. But he almost never says “no.”
His longevity with the Greens has made him a national figure in their circles. So when a “Draft Howie” effort began nationwide, he considered it. He called Jill Stein, who ran in 2016, to make sure she was out. She was still smarting from the backlash of Donald Trump’s win.
Then Hawkins asked Ralph Nader if he should do it.
“He’s the salt of the earth,” Nader said. Hawkins is a brilliant guy with a blue-collar background, Nader says. And he’s also a guy who will say “yes.” Most Green Party members will raise their voices and call for action, Nader said. But there’s always silence when they need someone to do the hard work of running for an office they will not win.
“Howie has great stamina,” Nader said.
This has been the worst year to run as a third-party candidate. Hawkins is seen as a potential spoiler to Biden. A vote for Hawkins is a vote for Trump, some Democrats say.
The Greens lost many of their younger members to Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists. Ursula Rozum, who often managed Hawkins’ campaigns and then had her own run for Congress that Hawkins managed, left the party to work for Sanders.
For her, all of those losses started to feel like defeat. She saw Sanders as a way to change the system from within.
There were election nights when she was crushed by the loss. Hawkins, she said, was stoic. To him, you don’t have to win the race to win the argument.
“I think that’s where we diverge a little bit. I’m younger and I want to see things change,” Rozum said.
She and Hawkins have never discussed her decision to leave. The conversation was too hard for her, she said. She has already voted for Biden.
The tension of being a spoiler has vaulted Hawkins onto a national stage. He’s been written up in The Atlantic, the Washington Post and The New York Times. He spent three minutes on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.
He constantly gets calls telling him he should drop out. And he gets help from Republicans, often without ever asking; they hope he’ll siphon off Joe Biden votes in close states. Republican lawyers showed up to help him fight to stay on the ballot in Wisconsin. (He still lost that court case.)
Fifty progressive writers, including Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West, signed an open letter asking people to vote not for the Greens, but for Biden. They don’t mention Hawkins by name, but they pillory the rationale he’s repeated over and over.
Hawkins says Greens don’t steal votes from Democrats. They bring out new voters who would not have shown up. He’s looked at the exit polls from Stein’s race and recites those numbers over and over.
The point of Hawkins’ run has never been to win. It is a boring and important thing for a third party: getting enough votes in each state for the party to retain a ballot line in the next election.
The requirements vary wildly from state to state. But regardless of the state, getting a ballot line makes it far easier for Green Party candidates to run in statewide and local elections.
That’s the thing Hawkins wants. He doesn’t need anyone to know his name. He just wants people to talk about his ideas, the Green Party ideas, and push them into the mainstream.
“I’ve been through too many movements where it looked hopeless, and then we won,” he said. It just takes a long time to see the progress. He points to gay marriage. A longshot is now law.
And then there’s New York’s fracking ban. That seemed impossible. Hawkins talked about it every time he ran for governor in New York. He debated Cuomo on it when he was included in the debate during the 2014 race. New York banned fracking in 2015.
Then there’s slow migration of ideas from the fringe to the mainstream, like the Green New Deal and health care for all.
Hawkins worries about the world. That’s what has set him on this path. But he sees nothing as unfixable, unchangeable.
Movements take time, Hawkins says. Yes. He lost those 24 races.
But you can bet money he’ll be on the ballot for something in 2021.
And he has one plan for his personal life.
When the election is over, he wants to move into that house he bought and share it with his friends who are family. He wants to get a dog. And a cat. Both.
Most people don’t think they get along, he says. But they will. He’s sure of it.
Marnie Eisenstadt writes about the people, public affairs and the Syracuse City School District. Contact her anytime: email | Twitter|