Bernie Sanders always said it would take more than just electing a president to bring about a political revolution. By the time you read this, Lucy Flores, running in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District and endorsed by Sanders, will know whether she’s won the Democratic nomination (the primary is today). On August 2 Pramila Jayapal, another Bernie-crat running in Washington’s 7th district, will face eight opponents in that state’s nonpartisan primary. But of all the Bernie-crats campaigning this year, probably the most closely watched is New York’s Zephyr Teachout, who on June 28 is running in the Democratic primary to take the 19th Congressional District back from the Republicans.
Teachout is the Fordham law professor who mounted what was supposed to be a quixotic challenge against Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 New York Democratic primary for governor. A crusader against corporate corruption and the influence of money in politics, and a supporter of Occupy Wall Street, Teachout, who had never run for office before—and had a total campaign budget of less than a million dollars—ended up winning 34 percent of the vote.
Teachout ran particularly well in the Hudson Valley, and when Republican congressman Chris Gibson said he wouldn’t seek reelection—reportedly to prepare for a gubernatorial challenge in 2018—Teachout, who had been living in Dover Plains, declared her candidacy. That was in January, and for the past six months Teachout has been clocking up the miles in a sprawling district that straddles the river from Hoosick Falls, just west of Bennington, down to Poughkeepsie, stretching west through the whole of the Catskills to Oneonta and beyond. I spent a day there with her recently, driving and talking politics.
It’s a mostly rural district, and our conversation often circled back to the way the concentration of Big Agriculture into a handful of monopoly processors—Tyson Foods or Pilgrim for chicken, Dean for milk—has allowed them to dictate not just prices but also the terms and conditions under which producers operate. Teachout calls this abuse of corporate power “chickenization.”
For Teachout, who describes herself as “a Brandeisian”—a devotee of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, known for his opposition to corporate power and his robust defense of free speech—the current wave of concentration in areas like banking and cable television represent a 21st-century reprise of the trusts that were such a blight on early-20th-century American life. “Our modern monopolists may be more attractive,” she says, citing Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon and also now owns The Washington Post. But their business practices, she adds, still “lead to fear” on the part of suppliers and competitors, “and to political fear” by potential critics and politicians who are supposed to act as regulators.
To voters, though, Teachout’s warnings about “a hidden revolution in our marketplace that is corrupting our politics” can sound pretty abstract—especially in a district where the biggest cities are Kingston and Saugerties, and where local issues like water quality, school funding, and the lack of fast broadband loom larger than anything that happens in Washington. So when Lou Saperstein, whose family store has dominated Main Street in Millerton for a half century, told her about the trouble he was having with Oshkosh, Teachout knew she’d found a way of bringing her issues to life. Because it turns out Saperstein doesn’t need to watch Teachout’s TED Talk to know what she means by “chickenization.”