Three of a kind: Candidates for the 25th
Congressional District, (from left) Howie Hawkins, Dale Sweetland and
Dan Maffei, faced off at an Oct. 6 forum at Henninger High School. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
But who is he? After he’s been in the
public eye for four years, few people have a gut feeling for Maffei. He
was best described to me by someone who backs him as “a suit.” When you
hear him speak, you know that he’s smart, you know that he knows
everything you can learn from a book or a PowerPoint, but you wonder
sometimes where the heart is. You wonder if he has experienced anything
relevant to ordinary people’s lives.
The Republican critique of Maffei is
that he comes from Washington. Jim Walsh says that Maffei has no
connection to the 25th Congressional District, which isn’t fair, given
the family roots, the Nottingham years, and the vigorous involvement
with community groups in the past few years. Still it is fair to say
that most of Dan Maffei’s adult life has been spent learning how to
work in the halls of Congress. Which is not a bad thing, after all,
when you consider that he’s asking for us to give him the job of
working in the halls of Congress. Also, Dan Maffei is the only
candidate I know who has business cards printed up that say, under his
What’s weird is how hard it is to find
people who really know Dan Maffei. I’ve asked around, and mostly what
you hear from his supporters is that people like his positions and his
policies, but when you ask if they really know him well, there’s a bit
of a shrug. He is a hard person to know. That’s part of the deal.
Dale Sweetland, his Republican opponent,
is as easy to get to know as the weather. Sweetland is ordinary, and
honest, and he certainly is representative of some parts of this
Congressional District. He also has real-life legislative experience,
which should count for something in a time when descriptions of
relations between the two major parties start at poisonous, and get
worse. Dale Sweetland couldn’t utter a dishonest word under torture.
He’s as solid and straightforward as they come.
Yet you wonder if in his sincere heart
he can ever really understand what goes on in the lives of people whose
America is different from the rolling hills of southern Onondaga
County. Can he really get it? Could he be counted on to genuinely
represent people, say, on the South Side of Syracuse? Hard to imagine.
Maybe not impossible, but it would be a stretch.
What you have to like about Dale
Sweetland is that when he doesn’t know something, he isn’t afraid to
say, “I don’t know.” I just get worried about how often he has to say
Then there’s this other guy, a little
rumpled, wearing a borrowed jacket and tie. Like his hero, Ralph Nader,
Howie Hawkins would clearly rather lose the tie and roll up his
sleeves. He sounds like New Orleans more than New England, where he cut
his teeth in the anti-nuclear movement, but his ideas, like the wind
power he espouses, are a breath of fresh air in this largely scripted
campaign. When he is barred from debates, as he was when the Greater
Syracuse Chamber of Commerce hosted one two weeks back, even the other
two candidates seemed to miss him.
Howie Hawkins has run in a political
race nearly every year since moving to Syracuse in the early 1990s. He
still sounds like the community organizer he was (for many years more
than Barack Obama), but he doesn’t sound much like the stock politician
he is not. He’s a former Marine who wants to see massive redirection of
military spending to public works. He’s a member of the Teamsters union
who is not afraid to talk about a living wage and guaranteed health
care for all Americans. He’s a radical, in the real sense of the word,
meaning that he wants to get to the root of the problems, and he’s not
afraid to name names.
He’s a peace activist (the only veteran
in the campaign) who doesn’t just complain that the war in Iraq was
poorly run. He calls it a crime, and wants to impeach the criminals who
ordered it. He stands for an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq
and Afghanistan, and for an end to threats against Iran.
In running for Congress, Howie Hawkins
may have found a job description that suits his talents. For all the
valuable ideas he contributed to the discussion on public power in the
mayoral campaign of 2005, no one has ever suggested that administration
is his strong suit.
Legislators get to talk ideas. Today’s
problems are big and getting bigger. Everyone acknowledges that change
is coming, that change has to come.
So why not vote for the guy who really
wants change? If we could have Maffei’s insider knowledge, Sweetland’s
winning ways with people, and Howie’s fearless radicalism, that would
be, like, totally awesome.
But we can’t. So let’s give it up for the man in green. Send Mr. Hawkins to Washington. It sure would be fun to watch.