Progressive Populism and 2014's Pragmatists

Zephyr Teachout won her legal battle to stay on the Democratic primary ballot, so for now there are two progressive alternatives in the race for governor: Teachout, who is running on a ticket with lieutenant governor candidate Tim Wu, and Howie Hawkins, who is carrying the Green Party’s standard along with Brian Jones.

Because Teachout is seeking the Democratic nomination, she would only face Hawkins if she wins her party’s primary.

For now, Cuomo’s $32.5 million-dollar war chest is overshadowing the candidacies of both challengers, which has prompted some voters to lump Teachout and Hawkins together under an imaginary umbrella with the words Anybody But Cuomo stamped on it.

While the two may be attracting some of the same supporters, they have less in common than you might think.

Just listen to them.

“I am a progressive, but I am a down-the-line, traditional Democrat,” Teachout told ABC News. “I would be right at home in Mario Cuomo’s cabinet.”

The same cannot be said of Hawkins, who on Independence Day stated, “The oligarchs have two parties. It’s time we had one of our own.”

Jones, the Green Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, predicts that progressive Democrats angry with the governor will hedge their bets: They will vote for Teachout in the primary, and if she loses they will then cast a vote for Hawkins.

“I think, unfortunately, many people are doing just that,” Jones said on The Capitol Pressroom. “And I hope people come to understand that we will ultimately need a party of our own.”

But hedging is a strategy that sells both candidates short, and doesn’t account for their different political ideologies.

Hawkins is a socialist. He attended Dartmouth College, and works loading packages onto trucks for the United Parcel Service in Syracuse on the midnight to 4 a.m. shift. In 2010 he exceeded the 50,000 votes required in a gubernatorial election to retain the Green Party’s standing on the ballot.

Teachout is a progressive populist. She advocates working within the system but toward decentralized political and economic power. Teachout is a constitutional and property law professor at Fordham Law School. She cut her political chops working on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004.

It’s fun to note that as a 13-year-old student at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., Teachout witnessed some of Hawkins’ “handiwork,” as she called it on The Capitol Pressroom.

“I was struck by this extraordinary thing that was happening,” she said. “These shanties [at Dartmouth] were being built to protest apartheid. It turns out one of the leaders of that was Howie.”

But Teachout’s politics reside in the mainstream; some of Hawkins’ do not.

“Many of the things that [Teachout’s] most interested in, such as corruption in politics, go right to the problem of big government,” said Adrian Kuzminski, the moderator of Sustainable Otsego, a social network of several hundred subscribers, and the author of books including Fixing the System: A History of Populism, Ancient and Modern and The Ecology of Money: Debt, Growth, and Sustainability. Kuzminski is supporting Teachout because of her stand against corruption.

“If we’re going to get a handle on it, we have to figure out a way to make politicians and the system more accountable to grassroots,” Kuzminski explained.

Despite Teachout’s attacks on Cuomo’s political corruption efforts, she and the governor have similar positions on campaign finance reform: Both support the New York City public campaign finance model.

Hawkins does not, arguing that the system allows the dominant role of private donations to remain intact. Instead, Hawkins espouses a full public campaign finance system, such as those in place in Maine and Arizona, where public funding is based on raising a certain number of $5 donations.

Teachout’s position on charter schools is less stark than that of Hawkins, who says they are paid for by advocates of privatization and who wants to eliminate them. Teachout would agree to maintain the cap on charter schools for now, but says “they should remain an experiment, not a replacement for public schools.”

At the same time, according to her website, Teachout wants to protect public schools from “privatization schemes, including the diversion of state funds to private schools through vouchers or back-door tax credits.”

Both candidates advocate repealing provisions enacted in 2014 that mandate New York City pay for charter school rent.

Both candidates want to roll back the implementation of the new Common Core standards.

Hawkins is more aggressive than Teachout in his call for higher taxes on the wealthy, including a halt to the $14 billion annual rebate of the stock transfer tax. Teachout is less specific, but advocates that the rich pay their fair share.

According to Teachout’s Facebook page, she and Wu “are not arguing about whether to redistribute wealth, but about how opportunity is distributed and wealth created in the first place.”

Hawkins is indeed arguing about redistribution of wealth.

Still, to some pragmatic voters, electability is more important than the candidates’ policy differences or similarities.

“Howie, obviously, on every single issue [is] standing with the people,” said Joe Seeman, a volunteer organizer with MoveOn and Citizen Action of New York, as well as a member of the Working Families Party state committee. “The problem is that Howie and the Green Party do not believe in fusion candidacy as the Working Families Party does, and so they really don’t have … much of a chance of winning.”

“Maybe a snowball’s chance in hell,” Seeman added.

Another difference evident to anyone who meets the two candidates is each one’s demeanor. Hawkins is relaxed, seemingly content just to get his message out there.

“I hope she beats Cuomo,” Hawkins told MSNBC in June. “Then we’ll have an argument about how far to the left we want to go. She can help expose Cuomo’s record, that’s fine.”

Teachout is a coiled spring, telling The Capitol Pressroom, “I want to be very clear to anyone who’s listening: I am running to win this primary.”

While she may not win, political strategist Bruce Gyory says the better Teachout does in the primary, the more incentive she might have to endorse Cuomo.

“It’s weirdly counterintuitive,” Gyory said. “Let’s say she cracked 20 percent of the vote or got 25 percent of the vote, which right now would sound huge. Do people say to her, ‘You know, you have a future in the Democratic Party. Why ruin it by being a spoiler? You made your case. Endorse him.’ ”

On the other hand, Cuomo certainly doesn’t want Hawkins’ endorsement—and he won’t get it.

Susan Arbetter (@sarbetter on Twitter) is the Emmy award-winning news director for WCNY Syracuse PBS/NPR, and producer/ host of the Capitol Pressroom syndicated radio program.