Every election matters. But 2018 finds the country—indeed, the entire world—teetering on the brink of multiple catastrophes, many of them brought on or seriously aggravated by the actions of Donald Trump, a man catapulted into the White House by the wealth, power, and celebrity he amassed through businesses based in New York. With the Environmental Protection Agency set to self-destruct, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under attack, Wall Street in the driver’s seat on tax cuts and banking, and the fossil-fuel industry dictating policy on fracking, attorneys general across the country suddenly assume a crucial role in ensuring that America remains a country of laws, rather than a bastion of crony capitalism and unbridled greed. This is especially true in New York, whose laws give an attorney general with the will to go after big business or tackle political corruption a powerful set of tools.
This year has also seen—in the extraordinary candidacy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—the first tangible sign that when Democrats stop cowering in the center and instead offer common-sense solutions on health care, immigration, the economy, and the environment, voters respond.
That’s why the race to become New York’s next attorney general is so important. All four candidates for the Democratic nomination on September 13 are decent. Though she now works as a lobbyist, Leecia Eve has a long résumé of public service. Sean Patrick Maloney is New York’s first openly gay member of Congress and previously ran for the AG position in 2006. Letitia James, New York’s public advocate, was the first citywide officeholder to win on the Working Families Party line. But only Zephyr Teachout could be described (as she was recently in The New York Times) as “the godmother of the current moment—the first of a spate of female candidates…to emerge from anonymity and reveal the depths of dissatisfaction with establishment politics.”
Teachout was also the only AG candidate to support Ocasio-Cortez’s primary bid. Returning the favor, Ocasio-Cortez has said she’s “proud to endorse the only candidate for attorney general that is rejecting…corporate money.” And as the board of New York Communities for Change, which voted unanimously to endorse her, points out, only Teachout “has refused to accept campaign contributions from the real estate industry.” (New York politics, Teachout has said, “is poisoned by real estate money.”) That willingness to take on the power brokers is why we believe Teachout is the only candidate for attorney general who combines an ability to use all the tools at her disposal with proven independence from the corrupt, corporate-friendly, centrist politics represented by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Perhaps because she literally wrote the book on the subject—Corruption in America (2014)—Teachout has been able to see and explain why corruption, not conspiracy, is the thread that connects New York’s lack of affordable housing with the Republicans’ death grip on the State Legislature (imposed by Cuomo’s friends in the so-called Independent Democratic Conference) and the lawlessness in the White House.
“I think the wrong people are in jail,” Teachout said in a recent interview with the editors of The Nation. If elected attorney general, she pledged “to enforce New York State laws against criminality at the top level in real estate.” In her view, that very much includes the developer in the White House, whose New York base makes him uniquely vulnerable to an attorney general determined to use the resources of her office to serve justice—and to protect the rest of the country from corporate power run amok.
“I see the job of attorney general as the single most important legal office in the country when you can’t trust the federal government,” Teachout explains. “When the EPA is run by people who want to poison…instead of protect us, where do you turn?”
New York, she continues, “should be the living counterexample to Trump’s America, and instead, we’re enfeebled at home and people are suffering.” This is because, thanks to Cuomo’s long collaboration with state Republicans (even as he spouts defiance for the cameras), New York lags behind other states on issues ranging from immigration and police accountability to public education, health care, and political reform.
Teachout reminded us that it was Cuomo’s decision to abolish the Moreland Commission, which was investigating political corruption, and his refusal to push for public funding for state elections that prompted her to run against him in New York’s 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary. That may have seemed quixotic, though she did well enough to give the governor a bloody nose—and to pave the way for Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy. This time, however, Teachout has a real chance to win.
In a way, Teachout has been preparing to be a state attorney general her whole life. As a young lawyer working on death-penalty cases in North Carolina, she saw the school-to-prison pipeline and the terrible consequences of mass incarceration at close range. She has long decried the “chickenization” of the US economy, which not only reduces farmers and small manufacturers to a kind of serfdom but also, she says, “leads to political fear” for the rest of us. Within days of Trump’s inauguration, Teachout filed a lawsuit accusing him of violating the US Constitution’s emoluments clause, which forbids government officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments. In March, a federal court allowed a similar suit by the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia to proceed; Teachout has promised that New York would join that suit if she’s elected.
Teachout’s rhetoric and record have made her some powerful enemies, not least in Albany. So it’s not surprising that Cuomo would strive to derail her candidacy—including trying to destroy the Working Families Party by pressuring its union backers to cut off funding. That’s why it’s disappointing to see Letitia James trade her independence for the governor’s endorsement—and his fund-raising clout.
Attorney General Teachout could be a formidable partner for Governor Nixon (indeed, the two women recently endorsed each other)—or, if Cuomo is reelected, a constant and independent goad to prevent him from abandoning all the progressive positions he takes during this campaign.
“We are at a revolutionary moment right now about what kind of society we want to live in,” Teachout says. “Monopoly and antitrust [laws] aren’t just technical, sideline issues. These are fundamental swords that you can use to restrict excessive power.”
With Zephyr Teachout as attorney general, New Yorkers can be sure those swords won’t rust from lack of use.