Election seasons are supposed to provide an opportunity for sitting officials to explain their records, and for challengers to question them. And when a top official is facing intense scrutiny based on recent revelations—as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is in the aftermath of reports regarding his administration’s handling of a corruption inquiry—the need for election season accountability is that much greater.
So it only makes sense that Cuomo should accept the debate challenge posed by his Democratic primary foe, Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout.
Cuomo took a hard hit when The New York Times reported on July 23 that a high-powered commission he established to root out corruption “was hobbled almost from the outset by demands from the governor’s office.” That followed an earlier report in the New York Daily News that “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission killed a subpoena to the state Democratic Party that he controls.”
Cuomo says it is “false” to suggest that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption had its independence “trumped” by his aides. But the Daily News says, “Cuomo insisted Monday that the commission operated independently—a rather stunning statement, given his past gyrations.” And the Times says, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo ran for office four years ago promising first and foremost to clean up Albany. Not only has he not done that, but now he is looking as bad as the forces he likes to attack.”
No matter how hard Cuomo and his allies may try to defuse the issue, it’s going to stick with him through this election year. And the governor will only make things worse for himself if he is seen as avoiding public forums for addressing the issues that have arisen.
That’s one of the reasons Cuomo should accept Teachout’s proposal for at least three debates before the September 9 Democratic primary.
Teachout lacks Cuomo’s name identification and campaign treasury. But she is a uniquely credible challenger in this race, and for this debate. As the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation, which has been in the forefront of advocacy for increased transparency and accountability government and politics, she’s an actual expert on corruption issues—and on how to address them. She has written widely on, spoken about and debated issues of money in politics at the local, state and national levels for years. And she has earned national acclaim as a lawyer, an academic and an author on numerous books, including the upcoming Corruption in America, which will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.
And Teachout has made a uniquely credible case for why debates are needed.
“The Cuomo administration’s handling of the Moreland Commission distills what plagues our democracy: a special class of insiders in Albany, connected through financial and political clout, have immunized themselves from the law,” she says. “Governor Cuomo has taken this corruption and elevated it to new levels.”
The governor would, undoubtedly, disagree with that assessment, as he would with Teachout’s argument that “[t]he corruption in our Government is threatening the very basis of our democracy. Albany is working for big money, instead of the people of the state.”
But when a credible challenger, with background and expertise on a central issue, makes such a charge, that is precisely the point at which an incumbent officeholder should be expected to respond.
What makes Teachout’s invitation even more worthy of a response is the fact that she makes it not as a partisan who has always been at odds with Cuomo but as someone who once backed the governor. “I supported Andrew Cuomo in 2010 because I believed he would follow through on his promises to clean up Albany. In his campaign booklet of 2010, Andrew Cuomo said that State government was plagued by scandal,” says Teachout. “I believed him when he said, ‘In many cases the dysfunction has metastasized into corruption that would make Boss Tweed blush.’ I believed him when he said we must restore honor and integrity to Government.”
Now, argues the challenger, Cuomo has become an example of what he said he would address. “Shutting down your own anti-corruption commission when it gets too close to power,” explains Teachout, “ is something that would make Boss Tweed blush.”
Incumbents and front-runners don’t like to debate primary challengers.
But primary debates have a great history in New York Democratic politics. When Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch were running against each other for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982, they debated close to a dozen times—taking their sometimes intense discourse to every corner of the state. Mario Cuomo won the primary and the governorship.
Twenty years later, when Andrew Cuomo first bid for New York’s governorship in 2002, he participated in a series of debates with his Democratic primary foe, State Comptroller Carl McCall. Cuomo lost that year, but he came back eight years later. In 2010, he secured the Democratic nod without a serious fight, but Cuomo willingly participated in a wild fall debate that included not just Republican nominee Carl Paladino but five candidates representing smaller parties. (Primary and general election debates should include all the candidates who have qualified for the ballot.) Stressing his determination to root out fraud, abuse and corruption, Cuomo was generally seen as having won the debate—as he did the ensuing election.
Debates are good for democracy. But they are not merely exercises in civil duty. Debates allow for the airing of complex issues of personal and political integrity that can never be adequately addressed in thirty-second attack ads on television.
A debate -- preferably, multiple debates -- before the Democratic gubernatorial primary in New York would allow capable candidates an opportunity to wrestle not just with questions about the Moreland Commission and money in politics but with a range of pressing issues.
Teachout wants debates on education, immigration and hydrofracking.
“But,” she adds, well aware of the turn New York’s 2014 campaign has taken, “all three would end up in a debate about corruption.”
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