Dreaming Green

Stanley Aronowitz Wants to Build a Progressive Party—Crack by Crack

A huge inflatable pig, the veteran of many demos, squatted on Wall Street last Friday, as 1500 people gathered to assail the usual military-industrial suspects. Ralph Nader had organized this rally to promote his group Democracy Rising, so there was no Green Party banner in sight. But the Greens' candidate for governor of New York, Stanley Aronowitz, did get to speak. His modest proposal—that corporate criminals be put to work cleaning up the environment, at minimum wage—got a rousing roar.

That evening, Nader endorsed Aronowitz at a campaign benefit, noting that the candidate "has written more books than his opponents have read."

Still, there is friction between the Greens and the Great Slayer of Gore. "Nader thinks the party is too contentious," Aronowitz says, adding that Nader "still believes the Greens are the place where alternatives are offered."

Mr. Aronowitz goes to Washington: The Green candidate for governor speaks at a Federal Hall rally.
photo: Marc Asnin
Mr. Aronowitz goes to Washington: The Green candidate for governor speaks at a Federal Hall rally.

Aronowitz is definitely one of them. With a platform that combines progressive economics, environmentalism, feminism, sexual freedom, and legalizing marijuana, he presents a much broader left agenda than Nader ever has. Nader's mistake in 2000 was "his hostility to feminism and gay rights," Aronowitz says. "When he failed to aggressively take on the issues of gender and race, I think he blew his chance of reaching 5 percent."

This is not a blunder Aronowitz intends to make. Not many politicians can be counted on to proclaim, "People need sex." During the tiff over lieutenant governor nominee Dennis Mehiel's two out-of-wedlock children, Aronowitz announced that he has three. Not the revelation you'd expect from a distinguished professor of sociology and urban education.

With uncanny energy for a man of 69 and charisma that comes from a very active life, Aronowitz is proving to be a thorn in Carl McCall's side—though hardly the wedge Tom Golisano, the self-financed Independence Party candidate, represents. Aronowitz says he is running at 2 percent in the city and upstate, but the major polls don't even track him. He's been relegated to "other," a category that includes several minor parties. But the Greens are growing faster than the state's budget deficit. In 1998, they won 53,000 votes and a ballot slot by running "Grandpa" Al Lewis of Munsters fame for governor. This year, the Greens don't have a celebrity, but they do have a much more propitious political climate.

As McCall slips further behind George Pataki (the latest polls show him trailing by as much as 22 points), Aronowitz thinks more and more progressives will consider him. Visibility is his biggest problem, but on October 13 Aronowitz will get to show his formidable debating skills in a gubernatorial dustup to be televised by ABC. With his brash candor and a wardrobe that brings new meaning to the word casual, he will stand out on a platform of perfectly coiffed, perfectly careful pols. No other candidate is likely to propose that new taxes be levied on those who earn more than $80,600. But then, no one else is running under the slogan "Tax and Spend."

Yet the Wall Street rally shows how hard it is to chip away at what Greens call the two-party "duopoly." None of the speakers—including Brian McLaughlin, president of the city's Central Labor Council, and former mayoral nominee Mark Green—mentioned Aronowitz. Green told the Voice he felt "awkward" appearing at the rally, since he didn't back Nader in 2000 and he doesn't support Aronowitz now. "I obviously believe you can advance corporate governance by running as a Democrat," Green said. Would McCall promote that agenda? "Absolutely," Green replied, pausing for effect—"compared to Pataki."


"Compared to . . . " These words have haunted the Greens ever since the last presidential race, when Nader (arguably) threw the election to George W. Bush. This year, a Green challenge to Paul Wellstone of Minnesota threatens Democratic control of the Senate. There are real consequences to these insurgencies, especially for union members and minorities, two natural constituencies for the Greens that are largely resistant to its appeal. Not a single local has endorsed Aronowitz (though several still may), despite his impressive record as a labor organizer. Still, he sees the seepage of union support from McCall and to Pataki as a sign of things to come.

"The Democrats can't elect a governor or a mayor," Aronowitz says. As this impotence grows chronic, "the unions, who think they need the favors of governors and mayors, become disaffected." Then there's the looming racial schism between what Aronowitz calls "the liberal, primarily white leadership and the black and Latino leadership. It's a split between an older machine and a newer one." Aronowitz calls these developments "cracks," and in them he sees an opening for his party.

"You might say there's an ooze from the Democrats to the left in New York State that represents at least 100,000 votes," he contends. The Greens are well positioned to sop up the spill. Half of their 20,000 members are under 30, many of them students. In addition, Aronowitz identifies three core segments of the party: environmentalists, public-sector workers, and the self-employed (including farmers, freelancers, and small-business owners). Each of these groups stands to suffer as the government tracks public money to corporations and the military. Rising tuition costs, horrific climate changes, and new assaults on labor, combined with a long-term recession, could favor the Greens. "The current alignments aren't stable anymore," says Aronowitz, "and the left better get its act together."

Aronowitz is taking his own act on the road. In a car as cluttered with books and papers as his Greenwich Village apartment, he has made more than 80 stops all across the state. A swing through the Adirondacks last month was typical. It began with a press conference at the legislature followed by a speech to students at SUNY-Albany, a Rockefeller-era campus with an eerie resemblance to Brasília. In this setting, Aronowitz the prof was on familiar turf, striking an agile balance between stats and sound bites: "We are the 47th state in expenditures on higher education. There's no money to clean up toxic waste. Have you heard anything in this campaign about these things?" His description of the two front-runners would make a great Green commercial, if the party could afford one: "See no evil, hear no evil, talk about nothing, and accuse your opponent of being a little more corrupt than you."

To the inevitable question about being a spoiler, Aronowitz replied: "What am I spoiling?" After all, he isn't running against a progressive like Wellstone, but against two centrists; one compassionate, the other canny, both corporatist.

"Pataki and McCall each say the other is bad on the issues," Aronowitz told a rally at Plattsburgh State University. "I'm here to say they're both right." He was speaking in the central plaza as students headed for lunch. It was a hard crowd to hold, but Aronowitz succeeded, weaving his remarks around a skateboarder. By the time he finished, his audience had grown to about 75—not bad for a campus where the Green Party chapter has seven members.

One reason why the Greens draw crowds is their roster of unlikely candidates. This year, there's a fire-fighting veteran of 9-11 running for Congress, a truck loader at UPS running for comptroller, and a sex radical (Penny Arcade) running for the state assembly. Then there's Aronowitz, who is well suited to bring the utopian vision of the '60s to a generation that has yet to grasp its power. When he said, "We are voting to keep the voices of protest, of resistance, of alternatives alive," the skateboarder stopped and applauded. Briefly.


Still, there's a downside to working for change in a party that is itself a testament to unfettered democracy. The zany narcissism that bedevils the left is in full flower here. Aronowitz was bemused when the podium that had been set up for his Plattsburgh rally was moved to the far corner of the plaza because another Green speaker—a write-in candidate for Congress—didn't want to breathe fumes from the nearby street. Aronowitz despairs of the party faithful who "drift away from me on the issue of protein; they are against me because I'm a meat eater." But as "an old organizer," he is fit for this fray. "It's a hard party to work with," he admits, "but I enjoy the give-and-take." At his coaxing, the podium was moved to a more visible location, fumes and all.

The future of the Greens depends on their willingness to breathe the stench of political reality without succumbing to its toxic effects. In New York, at least, it seems possible. The party has cross-endorsed several Democrats, black and Latino insurgents running against their machines. Aronowitz thinks the Working Families Party, currently a progressive auxiliary of the Democrats, could break from its moorings "as the Democrats drift more to the right." As cuts in federal funding and a sinking economy push the state budget gap toward $10 billion, as Pataki betrays his labor allies, as the city becomes a hellish hothouse with soaring asthma rates in the ghettos, and as the two parties fail to address these issues, a new alignment will be forged—or so Aronowitz believes. "These are just the seeds of a multiparty system," he says. "If the two big parties are to survive, they will have to make alliances on the left and right."

That's precisely what the national Republican Party has done. The Democrats have not—but with whom would they ally? The left is a congeries of often-warring tribes. Can these fractious groups become a force? Who knows? But as Leonard Cohen, the poet of democracy, sings, "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."

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