Story and Photos by Christina Sterbenz
Ursula Rozum stands in her kitchen, her hands overflowing with strange, leafy greens. “Kale belongs to the Brassica family—the same family as broccoli,” she says. Suddenly, Rozum crinkles her nose. “Look—aphids.” She shows the undersides of a few leaves, revealing light green bumps. “They’re born pregnant, you know. I just won’t use these.” She opens a dirty container on the ground, the compost, and tosses the inedible stalks inside. She’ll use them later as fertilizer for the backyard garden, where she picked the kale only minutes earlier. But Rozum doesn’t spend all her time playing in the dirt. She has to campaign, too.
If Rozum, 28, wins New York’s 24th district election this November, she’ll become the youngest member of the current Congress. As the Green Party candidate, she raises money, meets with voters, attends debates—the usual activities. But she doesn’t do any like Dan Maffei (D) or Ann Marie Buerkle (R). They receive funding from companies like Goldman Sachs and Lockheed Martin. Rozum doesn’t have access to resources like that. She doesn’t even have health insurance. Through “peace, justice, and a Green New Deal,” she sets herself apart as contending candidate—even with only 7 percent of the vote.
Howie Hawkins, Rozum’s campaign manager, helped found the Green Party in 1984. According to him, only 19 percent of voters know about Rozum’s candidacy. Yet 37 percent who do, report they’ll vote for her. And Hawkins has experience with voters. In 2010, he ran for governor of New York. He didn’t win. But he gained almost 60,000 votes, allowing the gubernatorial ballot to include Greens for the next four years. For Rozum’s name to grace the congressional ballot, 5 percent of registered Green Party voters had to sign a petition. Of course, these barriers affect national politics too. None of the presidential debates featured another Green Party hopeful, Jill Stein. But her name will appear on 85 percent of ballots. “Our goal is to get Ursula featured in the media as much as possible,” Hawkins says. Proportions suggest that if all voters knew Rozum existed, she could expect about 72 percent of the vote. If only running for office proved that simple. The U.S. operates under a “winner-take-all plurality system,” as Hawkins describes. Whichever candidate gets the most votes, wins. Rozum and Maffei could each receive 30 percent of the vote, totaling 60 percent, while Buerkle lands 40 percent. Here, a Republican takes home the victory even though most voters supported a Democrat or Green, candidates with liberal policies.
Such vehement loyalty to the two-party system infects the political atmosphere with a dangerous syndrome: voting for the lesser of two evils. Sentiments like “A vote for Rozum is a vote for Buerkle” litter the comment well of Syracuse University Professor David Rubin’s Post-Standard guest column about the her candidacy. Historically, the public has only elected three presidential candidates without a major party affiliation— all in the 1800s. “People should vote for a candidate based on their character and platform, not because they know the system distorts results,” Hawkins says. “They shouldn’t have to settle for less than what they really want.”
Both Hawkins and Rozum believe The Post-Standard covered the Green’s campaign better than previous years. But CNY media still portray Rozum as an underdog, a quirky addition to the race without any real hope of winning. In his award- winning column “Sanity Fair,” Ed Griffin-Nolan of the Syracuse New Times writes that Greens should worry Rozum’s campaign will take votes from Maffei, sending Buerkle back to Capitol Hill. He never considers the opposite: Maffei sniping support for Rozum.The photo accompanying the piece also shows Rozum riding her bike. As the Green candidate, yes, she wants to better the environment, but Hawkins reminds voters that not all Greens have hippie sensibilities. “We’re mostly working class people,” he says. He would know. He and his Dartmouth education work the night shift unloading trucks for UPS.
Back in the kitchen, Rozum keeps spilling coffee all over her “Anti-capitalist, Pro- community” T-shirt. As members of the Bread and Roses Collective, a cooperative house in the Westcott Neighborhood, Rozum and her roommates pepper the inside with propaganda preaching similar slogans. A magnet on the vintage, maroon refrigerator reads, “An anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to tell them what to do.” But Rozum and her housemates embrace supporting a common goal. Everyone in the co-op has a job. While Rozum takes trash duty, others wash the compost buckets or tend to the garden. “We all spend one to two hours a week on chores,” Rozum says. “It’s not bad.”
That same emphasis on personal responsibility motivated Rozum to run in the first place. “I was looking at my opponents, and I just didn’t see a choice there,” she says. Rozum waited to hear discussions that never came: student debt, the environment, the military industrial complex. “I didn’t see someone that was going to offer any long term solutions,” she admits. She couldn’t have. The public rarely knows whether candidates can deliver results because candidates hardly ever take firm stances on issues. A study published in the October 2012 Journal of Management Inquiry shows that voters consider vagueness a virtue—whether they realize or not. The authors write, “Specific policy proposals are usually ineffective in winning votes because they appeal to relatively narrow audiences and often alienate groups needed to forge consensus.” As Hawkins sees, voting now relies more on ethos than pathos. “We are sold candidates the same way they sell Pepsi versus Coke. It’s about appealing to voters’ emotional side instead of any substance.”
Unlike others, Rozum doesn’t shy away from taking stances on the issues. Her website, ursulaforcongress.com, has a tab entitled “Issues,” which outline her goals in plain language. She even quantifies some of them: 50 percent cuts to military spending and net-zero carbon emissions by 2025. “It might not happen, but at least we’re setting a goal. That conversation has to happen,” Rozum says. She also supports free public education from pre-school to graduate school, Medicare for all, and most important, the Green New Deal. Reminiscent of economic stimulation surrounding World War II, the Green New Deal addresses what Rozum and others before her see as the U.S.’ two biggest concerns: unemployment and the environment. “We need to get out of the recession through direct public employment,” she says. “The Green New Deal would create jobs in the transition to sustainable energy.” President Roosevelt saw Germany as a threat, and to oversimplify, he used the war as stimulation for the economy, ending the Great Depression. While Rozum supports peace, she sees non-renewable energies, including hydrofracking, as a threat just as serious as war. And she’ll use job creation to combat these issues. “Climate change is a crisis. Unemployment is a crisis. We need to have that same kind of imperative like we had back in the forties,” she says. While Rozum admits much of the funding for jobs would come from the federal level, Greens also favor government decentralization. Local municipalities, instead of the national government, would decide which jobs to create to meet the needs of the area.
Rozum does that almost every day at work. As the sole staff organizer for the Syracuse Peace Council, the oldest grassroots organization focused on peace and social justice in the country, she creates “people power.” She mobilizes the public to participate in the local community. Every Wednesday, Peace Council employees take turns making lunch. Today, Rozum plans to cook black beans and rice. She got the recipe when she studied in Cuba, where she also learned Spanish—just one of the four languages she speaks. As she chops onions, one of her roommates strolls into the kitchen. “I spent so much money on rice today—like $8,” Rozum complains. With $30,000 in student loans, this ballot newcomer has to watch her spending. Her campaign therefore relies entirely on volunteers, much like the Peace Council. “I always think that if I just had a little bit more money, I could hire a staff and get my numbers up,” Rozum admits. She does, however, stand firmly against “corporate personhood,” a term she uses when large corporations flex their monetary muscles. Her campaign even promises a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United decision, a landmark case which upheld unions’ and corporations’ right to fund political parties.
Busy campaigning, Rozum confesses she sometimes neglects her chores at the Bread and Roses Collective. “The hardest part is when you feel like you’re not pulling your own weight,” she says. “I know that’s a problem for people who can’t find work or have a hard time supporting their families. They get frustrated.” Rozum thinks if everyone shares responsibility, the U.S. will run more smoothly. Her campaign doesn’t depend on the government’s size, like Democrat and Republican platforms, but instead, government’s role. “A lot of the debates have been about whether we need big government or small government,” she says. “I think it’s an issue of good government, government by the people.”