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Meet Zephyr Teachout, the Anti-Corruption Crusader Running for Governor of New York

Does the left-wing long shot have a chance to win?

by Matt Taylor
Jun 17 2014, 6:15pm

Zephyr Teachout at a progressive organizing conference. Photo via Facebook

Even by the embarrassingly low standards of American democracy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is shady. Since disbanding his own corruption probe earlier this year, Cuomo has been getting scrutinized by everyone from Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara to progressive and labor activists upset about his ties to the rich. As a candidate and as governor, Cuomo has benefited from shadowy outside groups funded by business interests that air TV ads plugging his agenda; in return, he has rewarded this loyal constituency by proposing huge tax cuts and vowing not to impose additional regulation on their behavior. Cuomo's aides are notoriously hard-charging and amoral, well known among journalists for their vindictiveness and opacity; Barack Obama has raised eyebrows with his lack of transparency, but the Cuomo administration has found a way to set the bar even lower. And Cuomo is almost certainly to Obama's right on economic issues: His programs are tilted overwhelmingly toward the rich at the expense of the many poor black and Hispanic people who reside in the Empire State and whose children attend its segregated schools. 

The left is so dissatisfied with Cuomo's reign that earlier this month the Working Families Party (WFP), a third-party outlet for people who support progressive Democrats, considered nominating its own candidate rather than endorsing the governor, who is generally regarded as certain to win another term in November. The chief alternative to Cuomo at the WFP confab was Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University in New York City who has studied and written about corruption extensively. She got 40 percent of the vote among WFP delegates, but was outmaneuvered by a cynical Cuomo who dialed in via video and then speakerphone from his pad in Westchester to make a bunch of begrudging promises (which he has subsequently hinted may have been calculated lies).

Teachout hasn't given up, however, and late last week announced that WFP support or no, she's running against Cuomo in the Democratic Party primary. And even though Teachout's name makes her sound like a character out of a Syfy Channel original movie, in a series of phone conversations over the past week she came across to me as not just legit but worth getting at least a little bit excited about.

To be sure, Teachout—who conveniently has a book on corruption in America coming out this fall—faces an uphill battle. Cuomo is an incumbent with a $33 million reelection war chest, while Teachout is an academic and policy wonk who has never held elected office. But she's certainly not shy about attacking a governor she sees as being power-obsessed and way too eager to cater to economic elites at everyone else's expense.

"When Governor Cuomo took office in the middle of this recession, after a crash that was brought on by careless and reckless and selfish leaders in the financial-services industry, his first act was to give them as many favors as possible and to do so while looting our schools," Teachout told me in an interview. "What I see overall is a pattern of collecting power and then using that power to serve himself. Those are pretty serious defects in any governor, regardless of ideology, and they're particularly serious defects for a governor in a deeply Democratic state."

Teachout has spent her career fighting against the entrenched financial interests Cuomo is so friendly with. She co-founded a group advocating the breakup of big banks and was director of online organizing for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, which demonstated the existence of an independent progressive powerbase with separate interests from the corporations and labor unions that traditionally fund Democratic candidates. Her running mate, Columbia law professor Tim Wu, also has extremely solid progressive credentials and even coined the term "net neutrality." In other words, Teachout's campaign will look and sound a lot like that of current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran an insurgent bid against establishment (and Michael Bloomberg) favorite Christine Quinn last year and won thanks to plenty of strident rhetoric about how NYC has become two cities—one for the poor and one for the rich.

But de Blasio is a career politician, with all the pressures and instincts toward compromise that implies. Lately, he's taken to awkwardly defending Cuomo's progressive cred even as the left has soured on the governor. Indeed, it was the mayor's private and public pleas to the WFP faithful that helped get them in line after a revolt at the convention seemed all but certain.

That's where this could get interesting. Even if Teachout doesn't win (and at the moment, her chances don't appear all that great), she'll no doubt make things awkward for de Blasio. The mayor apparently wants New York, and his home turf of Brooklyn in particular, to become the mecca for progressive-movement politics in this country. Exhibit A is his bid to hold the 2016 Democratic national convention at the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets (and, it should be noted, a controversial development project de Blasio has been criticized by affordable-housing advocates for supporting). The problem is that with de Blasio backing Cuomo over Teachout as we head toward the primary in September, the mayor is going to find himself at odds with the very same left-wing supporters who propelled him to victory last year.

Teachout, then, is poised to test the bromance between the two most powerful men in New York—and specifically test it along the lines of economic justice and the scourge of big money in politics. In that sense, she is virtually guaranteed to achieve some good regardless of her performance in the election. 

"The most important thing is that the current governor of New York doesn't represent New York," Teachout told me. "He certainly doesn't represent Democrats."

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