It was a beautiful evening overlooking the Hudson River in Ossining, New York, and Zephyr Teachout was standing on a small wooden stage with the sunset behind her. A law professor at Fordham University who first made her name as the online organizer for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, she drew laughter and cheers from the crowd of teachers, anti-fracking activists and public employees who had come out to see her. She was telling them a story about a bull.
When she was growing up, she said, her dad got a bull to go along with the chickens and sheep and “occasional pig” on their small farm in Vermont. But the bull didn’t like to stay fenced in, and so in order to get the bull to come back, she would “walk up to him, tickle him on the nose and then turn around and run as fast as I could until I got to the other side of the fence with the bull chasing me and then my dad would close the fence and I would climb back outside.”
She paused for effect.
“So I’m running for governor of the state of New York.”
The audience broke up in laughter, instantly recognizing Teachout’s story as metaphor as much as memoir. The bull, they understood, was meant to be Andrew Cuomo, the powerful incumbent governor—and son of another powerful governor, Mario Cuomo—who is known for his strong-arm tactics and relentless pursuit of his political goals (including a potential run for president in 2016). The child, of course, was meant to be Teachout, the unlikely primary challenger, who manages to outmaneuver her foe using swiftness and wit.
With the September 9 Democratic primary just a few weeks, Teachout has been doing her best to agitate the bull by calling out Cuomo for what many see as his betrayal of basic Democratic principles in favor of stock Republican positions: his attacks on organized labor, his support for charter schools and high-stakes testing, and his penchant for cutting taxes for the rich while cutting services for the poor, to name a few. Embracing a brand of populism that stands in sharp contrast to Cuomo, Teachout has framed these differences as more than a series of policy quibbles. They are, in her formulation, a decisive choice between organizing political principles: between the corruption of private, insider power and the equality that can prevail through true democratic processes.
Until a few weeks ago, these efforts seemed destined for well-meaning obscurity, with Teachout’s candidacy serving, above all, as an opportunity to cast a principled protest vote. With little fundraising muscle or institutional support—the establishment has lined up behind the governor—Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu, were (and still are) the clear underdogs.
But the last few weeks have shaken up the landscape in ways that shift both the significance and, potentially, the prospects of Teachout’s campaign. As she and Wu have traveled parts of the state, they have managed to tap into some of the profound frustration that people feel with a governor who has come to symbolize the corporate-friendly wing of the Democratic party. But they have also, and perhaps far more significantly, emerged as the anti-corruption crusaders running against a candidate who has been been hit, mid-campaign, by a bruising ethics scandal.
This scandal centers on a commission Cuomo created in 2013 to investigate public corruption and then disbanded months later because its members began to look too closely at some of his friends and donors. Such campaign-season scandals are hardly new, but the fact Teachout is about to publish a book about just this type of political corruption—Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United—and is considered a leading scholar of corruption has injected her campaign with a powerful sense of relevancy. Of all candidates, few have formulated as robust a critique of today’s politics of corruption as Teachout.