The Green Party's Howie Hawkins bills himself as the last progressive standing in the New York governor's race.
Hawkins is running to the left of heavy-favorite Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a time when liberal Democrats are signaling dissatisfaction with the governor. While a surprisingly strong primary challenge from college professor Zephyr Teachout fell short this month, voters stirred up this summer are still out there and Hawkins is working to get them.
"He knows he's vulnerable on his left, I mean seriously vulnerable," Hawkins said of Cuomo at an event in Albany this past week.
"We're in a very interesting situation," he said.
Hawkins is a plain-speaking UPS package unloader from Syracuse with slim chances of winning in November. But the shoestring campaign allows the 61-year-old longtime activist to promote issues such as clean energy and progressive taxes.
His first job, though, is to break the 50,000-vote threshold for an automatic Green Party ballot spot in New York — which he did in his first run for governor in 2010.
New York's quirky election laws make gubernatorial elections existential contests for minor parties like the Greens. Without 50,000 votes, Green candidates in New York would face an arduous petition process to get on ballots for the next four years. The Greens reject the common vote-pumping practice among New York's minor parties of cross-endorsing Republican or Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
While this allows the Greens to run candidates in tune with their ideology, they risk falling short of votes. One solution is running an attention-grabbing candidate for governor, which the Greens did in 1998 with Al Lewis, the octogenarian actor famous for playing Grandpa Munster on the "Munsters."
The result was a candidacy in which issues of sustainability and plutocracy were eclipsed by headlines about the cigar-chomping curmudgeon referring to then-Gov. George Pataki as "Potato Head Pataki."
But at least Lewis got more than 50,000 votes. Four years later, the party lost its ballot spot with a college professor at the top of the ticket.
Hawkins won it back in 2010 with almost 60,000 votes. He wants to top that this time.
"The long-term strategy is to win local office, create a base of support and evidence that were competent and have good ideas," he said.
The idea is to field more candidates such as Matt Funiciello, a Glens Falls restaurant owner who is seeking a northern New York congressional seat and appeared with Hawkins and Ralph Nader at the recent Albany event at a Unitarian church.
Hawkins has run for local office many times and it showed during the church appearance. With his white beard and blue blazer, he came off as a regular guy able to speak in number-heavy sound bites on political polls and tax policy. He is running on issues that resonate with the left, including a ban on hydraulic fracturing, a $15 minimum wage and more progressive tax structure ("Tax the Rich - Share the Revenues" reads his web site).
Aside from the issues, Hawkins is poised to benefit if Cuomo retains a commanding lead in the polls over Republican Rob Astorino. That could allow liberals to cast a "message vote" for Hawkins directed at Cuomo without fear of tipping the election.
"Right now it's a freebie vote," said pollster Lee Miringoff of Marist College.
Hawkins' more ambitious goal is to translate his support in the polls, hovering around 6 percent, into a commensurate number of votes in November. That would mean getting more than four times the vote he received in 2010.
That goal becomes harder if Cuomo aggressively courts left-leaning votes in the next six weeks. Disaffected voters also could choose to vote for Cuomo on the line of the left-leaning Working Families Party.
Hawkins' hopes hinge a lot on money and visibility. He benefited from appearing in a 2010 debate and is pushing to be included in debates this fall.
As for money, Hawkins reported $36,000 on hand in July (compared to Cuomo's $35 million). Hawkins, on unpaid leave from his job, won't accept donations greater than $2,600 ("above that is a bribe"). And he does not take corporate money (maybe a moot point for a candidate who rails against "corporate oligopolies").
That means asking grassroots supporters to open their wallets — a chore taken up personally by Nader at the Albany event.
"Anybody here who can get the ball rolling, $1,000?" Nader asked the crowd. "And it's frugally used, more than you'll ever believe."