New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has a Zephyr Teachout problem.
What’s a Zephyr Teachout?
“I’m a law professor and I’m running in the Democratic primary against Governor Andrew Cuomo,” Teachout told about 50 people who came to hear her speak last week at the Midtown Tap and Tea Room in Albany.
Teachout, 42, will be introducing herself a lot more over the next month as she mounts a battle against a popular incumbent with a $35 million war chest. Once considered dead on arrival, her campaign was energized after the New York Times reported July 23 that Cuomo’s aides interfered with an anti-graft panel he created and then disbanded. Watchdog groups and newspaper editorials assailed the governor, who campaigned in 2010 on a pledge to clean up Albany.
“The New York Times piece breathes new life into this campaign,” said Chad Radock, a 39-year-old education advocate from Saratoga Springs who attended the talk in Albany. “She taught about public corruption. She has that experience, and we could use that type of person.”
A member of the faculty at Fordham University’s law school in Manhattan, Teachout has made a career fighting graft. Her 2009 article for the Cornell Law Review, “The Anti-Corruption Principle,” was cited in Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which ended government limits on political spending by corporations.
‘Governor 1 Percent’
Teachout’s supporters at the Tap and Tea Room label Cuomo “Governor 1 Percent” for his corporate campaign donors and for not raising taxes high enough on the wealthy. Many attendees, including Teachout, backed the former attorney general when he ran for governor four years ago.
“The best thing that’s happened on this campaign is you guys, and the second-best thing is Andrew Cuomo,” Teachout told the crowd. “So we have a big, wide opening here, and I know you guys are going to be with me as we drive right through it.”
Cuomo, 56, has gone from ignoring Teachout to trying to keep her off the ballot. His campaign filed suit July 22 in New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, challenging the Vermont native’s New York residency. Teachout gathered 45,000 petition signatures, three times as many as needed to get on the ballot for the Sept. 9 primary.
Zephyr Rain Teachout -- she says her parents just liked the name -- grew up in Norwich, Vermont, and was a champion cross-country runner at Hanover High School in New Hampshire, across the Connecticut River. Her mother, Mary, is a judge, and her father, Peter, teaches at Vermont Law School.
She says her first political act was at age 15, when she took a Greyhound bus from White River Junction, Vermont, to Washington for a march supporting abortion rights.
While she may lack name recognition, Teachout, who is unmarried, is no political newcomer. In 2003, she drove from North Carolina, where she was representing death-row inmates after graduating from the Duke University School of Law, to Vermont to join Governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.
She intended on playing a policy role. Instead, she became director of Internet outreach, helping Dean go from a no-name candidate to front-runner within months.
Teachout is carrying lessons learned from that campaign to New York by tapping supporters through events promoted on Twitter, Facebook and her website. She met a woman at the Tap and Tea Room with a press-relations background who may help run her local media operation.
“I’m not going to try and compete with Andrew Cuomo and a $35 million war chest, but I know the art of war,” Teachout said in an interview. “There’s a different way to wage it, which is really, genuinely engaging the intelligence and capacity of citizens.”
She said the same philosophy would carry over to a Teachout administration, which, in contrast to Cuomo’s micromanagement, would be decentralized, with staff trusted to carry out policy initiatives.
Before she gets there, she’ll have to effectively tap a sentiment in New York among some Democrats that Cuomo isn’t fit to lead the ticket.
Though the governor pushed through a law legalizing same-sex marriage, some Democrats have become frustrated with his refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy and failure to restore cuts made to education in the aftermath of the recession that ended in 2009. He also hasn’t fulfilled his pledge to establish public funding of campaigns and curb contributions.
No ‘Free Ride’
The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club in New York, which supports the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, endorsed Teachout in June after backing Cuomo in 2010.
“We wanted someone who could talk about the issues that the socially progressive and labor people really care about,” Allen Roskoff, president of the group, said by phone. “It would have been negligent of us to give Cuomo a free ride.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio who, like Teachout, was considered a longshot in the Democratic primary last year, is on the club’s board of governors. De Blasio, whose positions are more aligned with Teachout’s than Cuomo’s, backed the governor’s attempt to stop her campaign early.
At the May convention of the union-backed Working Families Party, the mayor successfully lobbied for Cuomo rather than Teachout to get the party’s guaranteed line on the ballot in November, blocking her potential path to Albany.
As part of the deal, Cuomo promised to put Democrats in control of the senate and throw his support behind a de Blasio-backed measure that would allow localities to raise the minimum wage without state authorization.
Teachout still picked up 41 percent of the convention vote, encouraging her to instead make a direct challenge to Cuomo in the Democratic primary.
Teachout’s running mate for lieutenant governor is Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who coined the term “net neutrality,” an approach to Internet regulation that keeps large corporations from dictating who gets access. If they win, they say they would rebuild New York’s infrastructure to attract business and boost funding for public education. They would also block the merger between cable giants Time Warner Cable Inc. and Comcast Corp. to protect consumers.
“We’re talking about cable on this campaign,” Teachout said. “That’s something that maybe hasn’t been part of traditional politics, but it’s part of people’s lives.”
Whoever wins the primary will face Republican Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, in November. He was trailing Cuomo by 37 percentage points in a July 21 poll by Siena College in Loudonville, which also showed 91 percent of Democrats unfamiliar with Teachout, and the governor with an approval rating of 61 percent.
Teachout acknowledges that she’s the underdog. While she is in the race to win, she said she’s also running because of the “power of the primary,” something the Tea Party has learned on the Republican side.
“I hope this campaign inspires people all over the country to run primaries,” she said. “You can move policy that way.”