How Zephyr Teachout Taught Democrats a Lesson in Democracy

How Zephyr Teachout Taught Democrats a Lesson in Democracy

How Zephyr Teachout Taught Democrats a Lesson in Democracy

Andrew Cuomo’s challenger for Governor of New York State didn’t beat him in the primary, but she did prove that no candidate is invincible.


During the Democratic primary campaign for New York Governor, incumbent Andrew Cuomo barely mentioned challenger Zephyr Teachout’s name. He refused to debate her, even turned his back on her when she attempted to greet him at the Labor Day parade.

It is unlikely, though, that he’ll ever forget her name now.

No, Teachout didn’t beat the incumbent governor with the $35 million war chest, but she took nearly 35 percent of the vote Tuesday night, enough to leave a sizable gash in his left flank and do some permanent damage to his hopes of running for national office one day. She won nearly the entire Hudson Valley, a swath of the middle of the state, and even got 54 percent of the vote in far north St. Lawrence County, according to The New York Times’s election results maps. She took over 10,000 votes in the state’s capital, Albany County, compared to just over 6,000 for the governor. The 62.1 percent of the vote Cuomo garnered is among the poorer performances by an incumbent governor running for re-election in primaries since 2002—a figure that hovers somewhere between the tenth and fifteenth percentile of victory margins, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s pretty bad—the median percentage by which a governor won re-nomination was over 90 percent.

We should all hope too that Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu, did significant damage to the narrative of inevitability that hovered around Cuomo and that clings to far too many elected officials and candidates for office.

There is something fundamentally undemocratic about the idea that some people are simply unbeatable, that it is useless to try, that the best that we can hope for is to endorse them in the hope of getting a seat at the table. And yet over and over again we see people, even political activists and organizers whose very job is to attempt to make change, acceding to the notion that this or that elected is too powerful, has too many connections, has just too much money. We see the media narrative repeated and then echoed over and over again, because the mainstream press loves nothing so much as conventional wisdom. Never mind that not a single public poll on the governor’s race came out before Election Day.

“Why would you ever leave a primary unchallenged if you thought there were some deep failures in an incumbent?” Teachout told me when I profiled her for The Nation last month. She knew she was a long shot, but preferred to consider herself an underdog rather than a protest candidate; Teachout and Wu wanted to win and ran as if that was a possibility, even if their opponents preferred to think and act otherwise.

There was certainly something undemocratic about the way Cuomo carried out the race. His campaign repeatedly tried to kick her off the ballot with legal challenges, sent flunkies to protest her, reportedly threatened other elected officials with political reprisals if they endorsed her and refused again and again to debate. He basically refused to campaign at all. My partner and I received daily mailers from the candidates running for State Senate; I had a lively conversation about public education with a canvasser for Rubain Dorancy, the candidate who lost the District 20 State Senate seat in Brooklyn to Jesse Hamilton. From Cuomo I heard not a word. Perhaps he hoped that people simply wouldn’t know he had a challenger.

On election night the story flashed around Twitter that Teachout couldn’t even call Cuomo to concede personally, a campaign tradition, because he refused to give her his phone number.

As Harvard law professor, activist and Teachout supporter Larry Lessig pointed out, over the course of the campaign Cuomo recalled no one so much as Richard Nixon: hunkered down, refusing to debate, dodging public appearances, an ethics scandal hovering over his office. The New York Times refused to endorse him, as did the state AFL-CIO. The non-endorsements began to look as significant as the endorsements Teachout and Wu racked up—from the Sierra Club, New York NOW and, most impressively, the Public Employee Federation, a major state employee union that will have to negotiate its contract with the winner of November’s election and which received notoriously rough treatment from Cuomo last time around. (The Nation also endorsed Teachout and Wu.) Meanwhile, after striking a deal with Cuomo last spring, many of the state’s big progressive names and unions lined up behind the governor—even New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, both of whom have sparred with the governor regularly over priorities.

The Times declined to endorse Teachout, but did endorse Wu, adding fuel to another common press narrative as the weeks went on: that Wu could actually beat Cuomo’s running mate, Kathy Hochul, a notoriously anti-immigrant former Congresswoman from Buffalo, leaving Cuomo with a running mate not of his choosing. Yet even as these stories challenged one tale of inevitability, acknowledging the level of frustration within the Democratic party at Cuomo’s right-leaning choices, they accepted as a given that Cuomo—the actual source of the frustration, not his running mate—would win. They shrugged off Teachout as not a serious contender yet again.

Many of those voices now will be saying that they were right, that Cuomo wasn’t beatable. But they will be taking precisely the wrong lesson from Tuesday night’s results, and they will be disavowing their own part in ensuring those results. They will not acknowledge the way that money determines which candidates the press considers to be “serious,” not policy positions or political experience or work ethic. But money, as we have seen, isn’t everything.

Public campaign financing for New York State will likely be on the table should the governor win re-election; it was one of many unfulfilled promises from his first campaign for governor. What could Teachout and Wu have done with the kind of matching funds that helped Letitia James win citywide office in New York City? What could they have done with a requirement that the incumbent and his running mate actually turn up for a debate?

More important, what could they have done with support from more unions, from progressive groups with well-oiled canvassing machines and deep community connections? The Working Families Party, which originally recruited Teachout to challenge Cuomo on its ballot line in the general election, wound up agreeing to endorse Cuomo last spring when he committed to support Democratic control over the State Senate and to push for public financing of elections, as well as marijuana decriminalization and the right for cities to increase their own minimum wages. The concessions the governor made were real, and yet also some of them were part of his own agenda to begin with—items like campaign finance reform and a “Women’s Equality Agenda” that he promised but never delivered. It is hard not to wonder what message the WFP could have sent on a national level if Zephyr Teachout had won 34 percent of the vote in November as a Working Families Party candidate.

Cuomo still has to get through the general election and stave off the inquiries into his behavior around the Moreland Commission. Republican Rob Astorino no doubt smells blood, and Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones, on the Green Party ticket, will be looking to scoop up voters on the left who can’t bring themselves to vote for Cuomo even on the Working Families Party or the brand-new Women’s Equality Party ballot lines. (The Women’s Equality Party was pushed by Cuomo, among others, as both a consolation prize after the State Senate failed to pass the Women’s Equality Agenda and, presumably, as a way to bring disaffected women voters back into his fold. It is also seen as a swipe at the Working Families Party.)

But regardless of how the general election script plays out, progressives around the country should take inspiration from what Teachout and Wu achieved in little more than two months, with pennies to Cuomo’s dollars. Perhaps in places like Chicago, where Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis may be gearing up to challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel, local officials and unions will look at what happened here and realize that no one is unbeatable.

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