The Importance of Zephyr Teachout

Robert Borosage
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New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout speaks at a press conference accompanied by Rob Astorino outside Tweed Courthouse, July 22. Creative Commons Photo by Michael Gareth Johnson/Flickr

Zephyr Teachout is slated today to lose the New York Democratic primary for governor to incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Many voters will be seeing her memorable name for the first time when they cast their vote. She has run a shoestring campaign against a powerful, lavishly funded governor who refused to debate her. But whatever the outcome, her campaign has already had dramatic significance for progressives across the country.

Teachout is a law professor at Fordham and a national expert on the deeply corrosive influence of big money in our politics. Her new book, “Corruption in America,” provides a probing analysis of the history and concept of corruption in American politics and law.

Teachout is a new-generation political activist. She cut her teeth in national politics as the head of Internet organizing for the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign. She was a lead organizer in the battles around curbing Wall Street’s abuses. She provided legal help to Occupy Wall Street. She’s an ardent advocate of net neutrality, champion of renewable energy and opponent of fracking. Yet she is steeped in the core traditions of the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, when Democrats were the party of the people, standing with workers and the poor, arguing in FDR’s words that “government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.”

Andrew Cuomo is the antithesis of that politics, a New Democrat 2.0. The original New Democrats argued that to win presidential elections, Democrats had to distance themselves from socially liberal causes – affirmative action, choice, gay rights – while championing “market-based reforms” and a muscular military. In the age of Reagan, they tacked right to ride with prevailing winds. New Dems 2.0 realize that the Obama majority is socially liberal. Cuomo has championed gay marriage and gun control in New York, while adhering to the economics of the Wall Street wing of the party – cutting taxes on the rich, cutting spending on education, and blocking populist Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempt to raise the minimum wage in New York City, leaving the government, as The New York Times concluded, “as subservient to big money as ever.”

In post-Occupy New York, Cuomo’s education and economic policies outraged many activists. Cuomo had promised to clean up New York’s seamy politics but soon reverted to business as usual. He even shut down his own creation, the Moreland Commission on Corruption, when it began investigating his donors and activists. That has triggered an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in New York.

The question was whether anyone would stand up to challenge this powerful politician who had millions in his campaign chest, all the connections, the famous family name, widespread public approval, and a reputation for bearing grudges for those who cross him.

In New York, the progressive Working Families Party has an independent line in the general election. If the party’s activists were to nominate Cuomo, their votes would be added to his total. If they were to nominate an independent candidate, they could significantly cut into his totals. With Cuomo wanting to rack up a big margin to set himself up for a potential national run, this gave them significant leverage.

With Cuomo initially refusing to respond to the Working Families Party demands, activists within the party recruited Teachout as a potential challenger. That finally brought Cuomo to the table, where he agreed to a range of demands, most importantly to consolidate a working Democratic majority in the State Senate to move forward on public financing of elections and raising the minimum wage. With Mayor de Blasio playing a significant role in cutting the final deal, the party decided after extended debate to endorse Cuomo.

Many activists were dismayed, including Teachout. She decided that Cuomo’s brand of politics had to be challenged in the state of New York. Despite the odds, she threw her hat in the ring and recruited a strong ally, Timothy Wu, to run with her as lieutenant governor. (Wu is legendary in geek circles as the legal scholar who coined the concept of net neutrality, playing a major role in trying to defend open access to all.)

Teachout put corruption at the center of her campaign. Cuomo is the big-money candidate, his politics serving his donors and adding to, rather than challenging, New York’s glaring inequality. His education policies burdened teachers with high-stakes testing rather than insuring every child a fair start, from universal preschool to smaller classes in the early years to after-school and summer programs. He cut education funding while putting a lid on property taxes and lowering taxes on the rich. He’s raised a war chest of $30 million, which doesn’t come without cronyism.

Teachout’s run was always against the odds. Many of the most powerful and progressive unions joined the Working Families Party to endorse Cuomo. Bill de Blasio marched with him. Hillary Clinton cut robocalls for him. Teachout lacked the resources for ads, so Cuomo’s strategy was to ignore her publicly, refusing to debate her. He then dispatched his lawyers to court to try to knock her off the ballot, and interns to disrupt her events with catcalls.

But Teachout did have the energy to stump the state. Her indictment of Cuomo was substantive and serious. She called on Democrats to decide what kind of party they wanted to be. And she started to gain attention. She received the endorsement of The Nation magazine; the Public Employees Federation, the state’s second-largest public-employees union; and the state chapters of the National Organization for Women and the Sierra Club. The largest teachers union and the largest public-employees union decided to make no endorsement. Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday anti-corruption PAC endorsed Teachout, calling her the “most important anti-corruption candidate of any race in America today.”

Stunningly, in what it termed a “Teachout Moment,” the New York Times editorial page refused to endorse Cuomo in the primary, stating that Teachout’s description of the state government as a broken system “where public servants just end up serving the wealthy” was “exactly on point.” The Times editors argued Teachout was too inexperienced to gain their endorsement, but that a vote for her would send “a powerful message to the governor … that a shakeup is needed.” Later, the Times endorsed Wu over Cuomo’s choice for lieutenant governor, former U.S. Rep. Kathy Hochul, a conservative Democrat previously known mostly for her anti-immigrant postures and votes against Obamacare and gun control. As buzz about her campaign grew, the Cuomo camp clearly started to get worried. He spent millions on ads in the final days before the primary.

Political professionals scorn protest campaigns. Generally, they get little attention and attract few votes. Sometimes, by happenstance, they can be destructive, as demonstrated by Ralph Nader’s third-party campaign in 2000. Unlike the sustained strategy of efforts like the Working Families Party, they generally don’t build power. Worse, they usually underperform, marginalizing rather than advertising the actual appeal of their substantive stances.

But these are not normal times. America’s extreme and growing inequality, its falling middle class and its obscenely corrupted politics demand the end of politics as usual. As Teachout argues forcefully, the Democratic Party faces a fierce debate about its direction and basic values. The gap between its deep-pocket Wall Street and corporate donors and the working families it claims to represent is now a chasm. A new economic populism has begun to build.

And that means that campaigns like Teachout’s – and sustained, independent efforts like the Working Families Party – are increasingly important. Like Elizabeth Warren, Teachout has helped educate activist and concerned citizen alike. She has helped activists learn how to make their case. (One of the great disparities between right and left is that the activists on the right know the lines to their songs and repeat them easily. Liberal activists are often comfortable arguing about social causes – choice, civil rights, gun control – but are less-well-versed on the emerging populist economic issues.) She has demonstrated that lavishly funded, powerful candidates from the Wall Street wing of the party will not go without challenge.

The implications for our national politics are apparent. The divide between what might be called the democratic wing of the Democratic Party and the Wall Street wing is stark. As Elizabeth Warren has argued, this economy does not work for working families because the wealthy and powerful entrenched interests have rigged the rules to benefit themselves. All Democratic candidates must decide which side they are on.

By putting corruption at the center of her campaign, Teachout is a tribune of this emerging mode of populist politics. “We want to see this race set off a movement of people challenging corporate right-wing Democrats,” says Teachout. Her efforts even earned recognition from Politico, the political journal for Washington insiders, which named New York’s populist Mayor Bill de Blasio, Teachout and Tim Wu among the 50 “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter” and “heralds of a politics to come.”

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