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Did New Yorkers Just Start a Left-Wing Democratic Party Insurgency?

Defeat, inspiration, and optimism at Zephyr Teachout's election-night party.

by Matt Taylor
Sep 12 2014, 3:00pm

Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu celebrate their defeat. Photo by the author

On Tuesday night, I showed up at Hudson Terrace, a moderately swanky nightclub in Hell's Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan, to find that fashion week was still in full effect. Hordes of models, industry people, and hangers-on scampered past, having just finished up at a designer's after-party. But I wasn't there to gawk. Zephyr Teachout, the longshot anti-corruption candidate in New York's Democratic gubenatorial primary, had brazenly scheduled a "victory party" at this spot, complete with complimentary hor d'oeuvres and overpriced booze. It wasn't exactly the New Brooklyn scene you might expect from a left-wing Democrat challenging Wall Street's grip on our political system, but I'll take substance over style any day.

The Empire State's spectacularly powerful and vindictive Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, was hugely favored to win his party's nomination for another term. Yet the vibe inside was a jubilant one almost from the start. A spate of positive press in prominent outlets like the New Yorker for Zephyr's candidacy, along with a steady drip of critical stories about how Cuomo hates interacting with other human beingsnot to mention all the corruption allegations—left room for die-hard fans like myself and the few dozen people around me to hold out some hope.

Immediately, I ran into Teachout's running mate, Tim Wu, who was thought to have a legit shot at beating Cuomo's pick for lieutenant governor, former upstate Congresswoman Kathy Hochul.

"I'm really nervous," Wu, the Columbia Law School professor who coined the term net neutrality, told me. "It's kind of old-fashioned. There's no polls. If I were betting, I would not bet in either direction—honestly."

Over the next hour or so, as returns started to drip in, they were announced on a microphone to vigorous applause. Everyone knew actual victory was unlikely, so the news that Teachout had claimed 40 percent in one county, or even won a handful of counties, was enough to send the crowd into a Burning Man-esque state of delerium.

The vibe was generally a convivial one, with political reporters nursing beers as they chatted up supporters and the few people who worked for Teachout and Wu. (One problem for the duo is that they raised almost no money and couldn't afford to hire the kind of staff necessary to take on the Democratic machine.) I kept running into people who used to show up at Occupy Wall Street rallies—not anarchists, but left-leaning types who wanted to see all that populist anti-corporate anger gel into a tangible force that could engage with the political system.

When a friend said, "We have a real shot at this thing," around 9:30—and did not appear to be joking—I tried to envision what the impact would be if some obscure academic actually dethroned the most powerful dude in the tri-state area. Would Cuomo run as an independent in the general election, as Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman did in 2006 after lefty challenger Ned Lamont beat him in the Democratic primary? Would Teachout suddenly find herself having to deal with the messy transactional politics of governing New York State, which is simultaneously a left-wing stronghold and a bastion of monied, compromised liberalism?

Early returns showed Zephyr winning counties like Albany, home of the state capital where Cuomo micromanages the financial capitalist dystopia that is modern New York. If you think American politics is generally a tool used by the 1 percent to enact policies that favor rich people, Cuomo has taken courting the wealthy—and Wall Street in particular—to a whole other level. Upon taking office in 2011, he immediately began showering corporations and the rich with tax breaks, while cutting social services for the poor. He thumbed his nose at Occupy protesters, blocked minimum wage increases, and leaned on the largesse of Wall Street tycoons to pass his signature gay marriage law. To this day, he undermines unions and other activist groups, insulates himself from criticism, and generally seems to think that public service is about making the world safe for billionaires.

In return, financial titans have ponied up dough—more than $33 million, at last count. Teachout was outspent by over $13 million—it turned out Cuomo spent about $60 for every vote to $1.50 each for the law prof. The lack of cash for TV ads, glossy mailers, and all the other crap that reminds people we live in a democracy proved decisive.

Still, that someone as entrenched as Cuomo—who was backed by everyone from the Clintons to New York City's mayor Bill de Blasio—was being made to sweat it out a bit gave everyone in the room a tangible buzz.

Eventually, a local political reporter obsessively refreshing his Twitter feed told me that the Associated Press had called the race for Cuomo, and Hochul was projected to win her race a few minutes later. The local press corps was obviously sympathetic, having dealt with Cuomo's insane staff, which is known for going off on journalists (in addition to denying access to their boss). But the quixotic protest candidacy was over, with Teachout claiming about a third of the vote.

The question immediately turned to whether any of it this matters, whether Teachout is representative of some larger thing happening in our politics. Lefty activist types have been prodding the US political establishment for at least 150 years, and though they've won some victories—we've got Social Security now, and minimum wage; women can vote and children don't work in factories anymore—America remains basically a winner-take-all affair rigged in favor of those who are already ahead. I'd love to think this is the start of some kind of progressive revolution, a Democratic Party revolt. After all, Teachout made corruption—Cuomo's insistence on playing the inside game, hoarding power, punishing his enemies, and tapping financial capital to power his neoliberal agenda—the only issue in the race.

But how many times have we been told some new politician or movement is on the cusp of transformational change? We've heard this story before, and it ends in millions of dollars in unregulated campaign cash flooding the next election cycle and the voting public returning to its routine cynicism and apathy. I canvassed—hard—for Barack Obama on the streets of decrepid Rust Belt cities like Sandusky, Ohio, in 2008, convinced his primary opponent Hillary Clinton was the worst person who could possibly run the country. It turns out they're almost exactly the same on every issue, something I couldn't grasp as a junior-year poli sci major who dropped out for a semester to organize neo-confederate rural Michigan for Obama.

Nevertheless, I find myself clinging to the optimistic takeaway: Teachout has demonstrated how lefties can challenge a big-money Democrat who shamelessly cozies up with the super-rich, even if this particular quest fell short.

"I don't think most reformers were naive about the odds of success here," Janos Marton, a special counsel to the Moreland Commission that Cuomo disbanded when it started to probe his own shady dealings, told me at Teachout's party. "The fact that she did so well is inspirational. What she did really well is make the case that corruption is not a single issue, like ethics as distinct from all other issues, but corruption colors every issue."

In America today, corruption really is the ballgame. Want climate change to be averted? It's not happening because of the stranglehold of fossil fuel companies on Congress. Want fewer wars and drone attacks? Military-industrial complex, baby! Concerned about the yawning gap between rich and poor? Just look at the gilded liberals who play off class antagonism without addressing it (Obama is brilliant at this charade). So if nothing else, Teachout clarified the stakes, and the specific nature of the problem. That the entitled dick she ran against isn't going anywhere—at least until the feds indict him—is a bummer. But her message was loud and clear. It's left to the rest of the country to pick up where she left off.

"I hope what we've shown is that it's all right to speak up," Teachout told her supporters when she took the stage to claim something other than failure. "Democrats don't need to be scared."

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