Amid all the mixed emotions prompted by the meteoric fall of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the report that Zephyr Teachout is even considering running for the post is seriously good news. Schneiderman—who resigned within hours of a New Yorker article detailing allegations of physical abuse by four women—had become a hero of the #MeToo movement, bringing charges against disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein and suing the Weinstein Company to ensure restitution for the survivors. He’d taken the lead in the legal opposition to Donald Trump, dating back to his 2013 civil suit against Trump University, which forced the president into a $25 million settlement with former students. Schneiderman was also seen as a potential backstop to Robert Mueller, should the special prosecutor be fired, both because he was investigating Paul Manafort and because he’d asked the State Legislature to pass a bill allowing him to prosecute people pardoned by the president.
Schneiderman’s departure, which he maintains is not an admission of guilt but a recognition that he can no longer be effective in office, leaves an enormous gap on both fronts. While the #MeToo movement is better-off without yet another man whose public pronouncements are at odds with his personal behavior, the battle not just to contain Trump—on issues ranging from the treatment of immigrants, the rights of Muslim-Americans, the erosion of civil liberties, and the rollback of environmental protections—but to hold him and his administration accountable is now at risk. (Trump Jr.’s gloating tweets make it clear just how much of a threat the family considered Schneiderman to be.)
Yet in Zephyr Teachout, New Yorkers would have a candidate uniquely qualified not just to fill Schneiderman’s shoes—both as a champion of women’s rights and as a defender of civil liberties and the Constitution—but with the potential to surpass him. After all, it was Teachout’s gubernatorial bid that helped expose Andrew Cuomo’s lousy record on women’s rights, leading him to conjure up the Women’s Equality Party as a cynical distraction from women’s issues. And though it hasn’t benefitted from the media’s breathless obsession with Russia, the lawsuit accusing President Trump of violating the emoluments clause by accepting gifts and favors from foreign governments—in which Teachout is a lead plaintiff—is still very much alive and working its way through the courts.
Recruited and then abandoned by the Working Families Party to challenge Cuomo in 2014, Teachout courageously decided to take on the governor for the Democratic Party nomination, winning 34 percent of the vote and carrying half the counties in the state in a shoestring campaign that gave the previously indestructible governor a bloody nose. And though she lost her 2016 congressional bid to flip a historically Republican district, Teachout seemed far more disappointed by Hillary Clinton’s defeat that same night. Yet quitting never occurred to her. As the news from Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania flashed up on the screen, Teachout rallied her supporters. “Once in a generation, we are called upon to restore American democracy. You’ve seen what’s happened across the country tonight. It’s urgent, and it’s going to take all of us. We may have lost this race, but we are not going away.”
In a way, Zephyr Teachout has been preparing to be a state attorney general her whole life. As a young death-penalty lawyer in North Carolina, she saw the school-to-prison pipeline, and the terrible consequences of mass incarceration, at close range. “You realize,” she once told me, “the degree to which law is profoundly political.” As a disciple of Louis Brandeis, and one of the most trenchant critics of our current Gilded Age, Teachout has long decried the “chickenization” of the American economy, which not only reduces farmers and small manufacturers to a kind of serfdom, but also, she says, citing Google’s dominance as a search engine and a source of news and the way Amazon has used its power over publishing, “creates political fear” for the rest of us.
More than anything else, it is Teachout’s deep understanding of political corruption that makes her uniquely qualified to serve as New York’s attorney general. Perhaps because she literally wrote the book—Corruption in America (2014)—Teachout is able to see, and explain, why corruption, not conspiracy, is the thread that connects the Flint water scandal (where General Motors was given access to clean water from Lake Huron while city children were poisoned) to congressional paralysis in the wake of mass shootings to the high cost of prescription drugs to the lack of accountability for police shootings to the criminalization of marijuana to the suppression of climate science. A movement that opposes racism and sexism and militarism and economic oppression while ignoring corruption is fighting with its hands tied. Which is why, Teachout says, she’s trying “to bring corruption back. Not as a societal ill—but as an idea. Everything I do is about, in some ways, fighting against concentrated power.”
Her rhetoric, and her record, have made Teachout some powerful enemies, not least in Albany. Attorney General Teachout could be a formidable partner to Governor Cynthia Nixon. Or if Cuomo is reelected, a constant goad to prevent him from abandoning all the progressive positions he takes during this campaign. So expect to see her record ridiculed and her chances minimized in the press, eager as always to curry favor with those in office. But then nobody expected Teachout to do well in her first race, either, when as an unknown 13-year-old she won the New England Cross Country Championship. Not being taken seriously has never slowed her down.
“We are at a revolutionary moment right now,” says Teachout, “about what kind of society we want to live in. An enormous number of people—left and right—are saying, ‘Definitely not this.’ Monopoly and antitrust aren’t just technical sideline issues. These are fundamental swords that you can use to restrict excessive power.”
You can be sure that with Zephyr Teachout as New York attorney general those swords won’t rust from lack of use.