As voters in New York head to the polls today, there is little doubt who the state’s next governor will be. With a 20-point lead over Republican challenger Rob Astorino, incumbent Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, will slide comfortably into another term.
Given the circumstances, it’d be easy to overlook Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. But the 61-year-old UPS truck unloader and member of the Teamsters union is polling unusually high for a third-party candidate. According to the latest polls, he stands to garner nearly 10 percent of today’s vote; the last time Hawkins ran for governor in 2010, he pulled in about 1 percent.
Hawkins’s performance is partly due to the significant number of progressives casting protest votes. The Working Families Party (WFP) has generally been the vehicle for progressives to push Cuomo to the left; in New York, where the same candidate can appear on multiple ballot lines, the WFP is running Cuomo at the top of its ticket in exchange for promises some say he hasn’t fulfilled (a pledge to campaign for Democrats in the traditionally deadlocked state Senate, for instance).
For progressives, the situation is fraught. The labor-allied Working Families Party has been extraordinarily effective in pushing a progressive economic justice agenda, such as paid sick leave for New York City workers, supporting the fast-food workers’ strikes, and pushing for a living wage. In order to maintain its automatic ballot access in forthcoming statewide elections, WFP needs 50,000 people to cast a vote on its ballot line today. Since many members of its traditional base are disgusted with Cuomo, that’s a taller order than it might otherwise be.
The internal battle within the progressive movement prompted The Nation to make a limited endorsement of Cuomo, urging its readers to endorse the incumbent governor, but only as a vote made on the WFP ballot line. Dissenting from that endorsement is Nation Executive Editor Richard Kim, who asks his readers to check the box for Hawkins—in protest of the WFP arrangement with Cuomo.
But Hawkins’s support isn’t entirely inflated by progressive defectors. The anticipated strength of his showing today is also a sort of referendum on fracking in New York. As the lone anti-fracking candidate, a large part of his support is coming from voters who are worried about the impact fracking—a means of extracting natural gas from the ground that has been shown to have negative environmental consequences—could have in the state.
“Early on in the election, many of the anti-fracking activists were supporting [Democratic primary challenger] Zephyr Teachout,” says Hawkins’s campaign manager, Ursula Rozum. “Hawkins being the only anti-fracking candidate has gotten him significant attention.”
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is the controversial process of drilling into natural-gas reserves in underground shale formations using highly pressurized water. The risky technique has been linked to increased earthquake activity and water contamination.
In Upstate New York, home to the Marcellus Shale rock formation, which stretches from New York into Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the discovery of large reserves of natural gas has led to huge demand from energy companies to frack it out.
But many environmentalists and landowners are concerned about the dangers fracking poses for the environment. A recent poll shows that 56 percent of New Yorkers are opposed to fracking—up from 39 percent in 2013. Eight in ten are in favor of the state’s current moratorium on fracking, which is in effect until the results come in from a number of environmental-impact and health studies currently being conducted. This past summer, the state’s Court of Appeals upheld the right of local municipalities to ban drilling—a big win for anti-fracking activists since it gives towns control over drilling rights if the moratorium is lifted.
However, this election will be the one that determines the future of fracking in New York—and it’s not looking good for those who oppose the practice. With the likely re-election of Cuomo, uncertainty is the only certainty. Cuomo has remained on the fence about fracking despite promising to take a stance before the 2014 election.
“I’m not a scientist. The scientists decide. It’s very complicated. It’s very controversial. People have very different opinions,” Cuomo said in the first and only debate of the race. That oft-repeated line is eerily similar to the lines spouted from climate change-denying Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell.
“This is a farce. And Governor Cuomo should take a position before the elections so people know where he stands,” Hawkins said during the debate.
Hawkins has also called Cuomo out for allegedly tampering with a government report on fracking, cutting parts that highlighted the potential for environmental damage. Many anti-fracking activists see this—along with Cuomo’s political indecision—as a sign that he’ll lift the moratorium after the election.
In addition to his platform based on a fracking ban, Hawkins brings radical positions to the race—for example, his complete opposition to reliance on fossil fuels. He recently toured the bordering Pennsylvania county of Susquehanna, which sits on top of the Marcellus Shale. “Driving down these beautiful country roads, our host was actually pointing out and saying, ‘There used to be a house there. There used to be a house there,’” explains Rozum. “But once people’s water was polluted, they moved away and the company bought the land and leveled the houses. Basically you couldn’t tell that anybody had ever lived there.”
In counties like Susquehanna, residents’ livelihoods and fates fall victim to the natural gas industry. One study suggests that as fracking has become more prevalent, gas companies have become more reckless. As they rely on more on unconventional drilling techniques, methane leaks have increased, contributing to climate change and water pollution.
From Syracuse to Ithaca, Hawkins anti-fracking message has rallied networks of anti-fracking activists and landowners. He’s found support in the Southern Tier, where communities are already feeling the effects of fracking creeping into their lives after Cuomo began allowing the storage of drilling waste and fracking equipment. He’s also found support among organized farmers in the area who are worried about how fracking could disrupt their water supplies.
To the chagrin of many environmentalists, natural gas has been heralded as a stopgap between dirty fossil fuels like coal and petroleum to renewable energies like wind and solar.
Hawkins isn’t having it. He has called for a “Green New Deal”—a plan to fully transition to renewable-energy sources by 2030 that he says would create 4.5 million jobs and cut electricity rates in half. The plan centers on investment in individually owned solar panels and wind turbines. Those smaller community-based grids would be connected through a gigantic statewide grid, ideally giving the state a power grid that runs on sun, wind, and geothermal energy.
Hawkins and the Green Party of New York are hopeful this campaign’s momentum can carry on beyond November, using the energy from this election to maintain pressure on Cuomo’s agenda.
“Greens at the grassroots are very involved in their local struggles—whether its fracking infrastructure or pressuring their local legislators on supporting anti-fracking legislation,” Rozum says. “So we’ll be able to get more people involved. People are really getting ready to put their bodies on the line.”