The road not taken: Green Party popularity rises, provides alternative platform for voters
Looking around the Syracuse Green Party headquarters, it is exactly how you would expect a campaign office to look. Stacks of brochures that outline the party’s platform are spread across tables, lawn signs line the walls ready to disperse and whiteboards display scribbled notes comparing its candidates to the opposition.
But at the center of the room sit seven people fighting to win an election — all gathered on a Saturday afternoon to go door knocking in the Westcott neighborhood. The candidates and volunteers work together, engaging in real conversations over coffee and bagels.
The party is counting down to Election Day, with a calendar hanging on the wall booked with events pushing for community engagement.
Public support underlines one of the party’s major platforms — grassroots political participation. The party also believes in ecologic sustainability and involvement of the state in business affairs. On a local level, the party supports further development of mass transit, a living wage ordinance that would allow for community hiring halls and removing I-81 from the city.
Out of Onondaga County’s 103,879 voters, the Green Party has 778 registered voters, amounting to nearly zero percent.
But despite these statistics, the party has made considerable strides within the last decade. In 2010, Syracuse Greens garnered more than 50,000 votes, which put them on the ballot line for the next four years, said Dustin Czarny, Democratic elections commissioner for the Onondaga County Board of Elections.
Ursula Rozum, campaign manager for common councilor candidate Howie Hawkins, strategizes the door-knocking campaign at the meeting. She starts off by asking members to describe why they decided to support the Green Party and what seems to resonate with everyone is a desire for the alternative.
Sitting to the right of Barbara Humphrey, a Green Party candidate for the Syracuse School Board, is Erin Zimmermann, a freshman at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and Michael Messina-Yauchzy, an administrative adviser at Onondaga Community College.
Messina-Yauchzy said, as a 30-year veteran member of the Syracuse Greens, that he has always felt the Democrats and Republicans could never provide the right solutions.
“They never offered solutions that said ‘we’re all in this together,’ it was more of ‘you get in line and maybe you’ll get yours,’” he said. “But if the Green Party wins, we all win.”
Syracuse Greens are in a fortunate position because the Republicans have abdicated any effort to represent the city, he said. In this year’s election, there is no Republican mayoral candidate, leaving Kevin Bott, Syracuse Greens’ mayoral candidate, to run against incumbent Mayor Stephanie Miner and Conservative Party candidate Ian Hunter.
The party faces steep Democratic opposition — in District 4 of Ward 17, or the University Hill area, 65 percent of voters are Democrats, according to voter affiliation records for 2013 collected by the Onondaga County Board of Elections. In the Hill area, 8 percent identify as Republicans and this percentage is true for most of the area, which includes some parts of downtown Syracuse and DeWitt.
When a party has ballot access, it becomes a permanent option on the ballot and people can register for your party, Czarny said. It serves as a good indicator of a party’s ability to gain support, he added.
“But beyond that, their problem as well as any problem for any candidate is voter apathy,” Czarny said. “There are some people that just don’t vote at all, which is quite sad because people often forget that local elections have more of an impact on your everyday life.”
Apathy, combined with America’s two-party system, makes it difficult for the Green Party to lead, said Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University. Most districts in Syracuse also use plurality representation, where the candidate that finishes first gets the seat, he said.
“This makes it difficult for third parties because if you can’t battle for the first or second spot, it makes it hard to sustain your movement,” Reeher said. “You don’t get any points if you come in second or third.”
When parties don’t gain traction, they are often forced to assimilate into one of the two major parties, he said. But one of the Green Party’s platforms involves resisting cross endorsements, he said. Hawkins, the party’s common councilor candidate, has turned down pressure to run for the Democrats for years, Reeher said.
Hawkins has been “grinding it out” for every election, so he understands the struggle to gain recognition, Reeher said. Since coming to Syracuse in 1991, he has ran for city council, mayor, county executive, state comptroller, the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and New York governor — all on the Green Party ticket.
One of the party’s greatest struggles has been getting out in the public eye, Hawkins said.
“We were basically ignored by the media, particularly in the New York City area,” he said. “I think they just saw Syracuse as a backwater town and assumed we wouldn’t get any votes.”
Yet year after year, Hawkins continued to campaign for the Green Party. His experience taught him an important lesson: Persistence is key. In 1999, when Hawkins ran for Onondaga County Executive, he said officials didn’t even mention him as a candidate.
But in his 2011 campaign for Common Council, Hawkins received an endorsement by The Post-Standard. Through time, he said, quality demands to be recognized.
“Just keep plugging away. Help the journalists do their job and be responsive,” Hawkins said. “Over time, that should speak for itself. If you get a decent vote and become worthy of coverage, it’ll show itself.”
People began to realize that the party was more than just “protest voters” but a contender, he said. Rozum’s 2011 congressional campaign also resonated with voters, receiving 8 percent of 15,295 voters in Onondaga County, he said.
Compared to her contenders, who spent $5 million, Rozum only spent $15,000.
Like Rozum, Hawkins said he receives most of the support from three main constituencies: middle class progressives, working class individuals who are unsatisfied with the two major parties and millennials.
“(Millennials) are in a real tough spot. They can’t find jobs, they go to college and end up in debt,” Hawkins said. “They look at the adults and they’re unconvinced. They’re very open to the Green Party, so we’ve got an influx of people that age.”
Hawkins said people from the baby boomer generation and above are the hardest constituencies to sway because many of them have already established their political beliefs like a “religion.”
Messina-Yauchzy, a Syracuse Greens member, said a lot of the uncertainty comes from voters not being able to get past the idea that third parties are unviable. He said if more candidates won, the public would respect the party. He said he encourages voters to support candidates based on their real beliefs and values, rather than voting for someone because they will win.
“I say to people, ‘Why would you look at an election as a horse race?’” Messina-Yauchzy said. “You shouldn’t let someone else tell you who’s going to win.”
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