Although the New York Times editorial board couldn’t bring itself to endorse Zephyr Teachout in her insurgent progressive bid to unseat Andrew Cuomo as the Democratic Party’s nominee for New York governor last August, it did allow that her candidacy was—pun intended—“A Teachout Moment.”
By way of explanation, the paper applauded Teachout for energizing “her audiences with humor and biting criticism of the governor’s ethical failings”; for denouncing Cuomo’s “tax breaks for the rich”; and for calling out his multiple failures to reform campaign finance, fix gerrymandered congressional districts, and pass laws protecting women’s equality. The paper noted, favorably, that Teachout described the incumbent governor as part of a “broken system” in which “public servants just end up serving the wealthy.” That is about as close to a full-throated endorsement as you can get without actually getting one.
That’s the way it goes for Zephyr Teachout: Technically a loser at the polls, she’s been a winner in the court of public opinion, where people are eager to hear what she thinks on a variety of important topics. After losing the primary to Cuomo on September 9—in which she garnered a surprising 34 percent of the vote and won half the state’s counties—the once and future candidate has enjoyed many more such “Teachout Moments.”
In the wake of her defeat, Teachout hasn’t shown any signs of fading into the background. She has traveled tirelessly across New York State in recent months, finding converts wherever she brings her upbeat message. She was a big hit during recent appearances on two popular late-night Comedy Central shows, and the book she’s been promoting, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, has generated significant media coverage and critical acclaim. It all adds up to the conclusion that we’ll likely be hearing a lot more about Zephyr Teachout in the future.
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In its non-endorsement, the Times could have hailed Teachout for encouraging the state’s “fractivist” movement. Her campaign pledge to ban fracking on her first day in office drew enthusiastic support from environmentalists, and her strong stance on the issue helped push Cuomo toward his unlikely postelection decision to enact a statewide ban. “I’m not going to deny him that that was his moment of leadership,” Teachout tells me, “but that does not make him a great governor.”
She has also kept the spotlight on Cuomo’s ethical breaches in the shuttering of the Moreland Commission, the supposedly independent panel that was looking into corruption in Albany. Referring to the efforts of Larry Schwartz, a former senior Cuomo adviser, to stymie the investigation, Teachout says: “I think it is so deeply troubling to have the governor’s top aide interfering with subpoenas.” Then, referring to Cuomo, she adds: “I think he still owes the public a story about whether he actually knew what was going on there…. He has lost all credibility as somebody who cares about corruption.”
A constitutional-law professor at Fordham University and a legal expert on the subject of political corruption, Teachout testified before the Moreland Commission and was considered briefly as a possible author for its report. (In the end, there was only a preliminary report written by a staffer in Cuomo’s office; the commission was shut down before a final report was completed.)
“In my view, the most impressive, well-funded, fair-minded prosecutors cannot convict our way out of the current culture of corruption,” Teachout told the commission in September 2013. “Prosecutors are like emergency doctors, and we should praise their skilled surgery. But when we start seeing lots of car-crash victims, we might also want to look at the rules that allow drunk driving.”
The remarks were notably prescient, especially given the recent indictments on corruption charges brought by Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, against the state’s powerful former Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, and State Senate majority leader Dean Skelos. Today, Teachout says, “We can’t allow Preet Bharara’s decisions, whatever they may be, to define our public response to what’s happening in Albany…. My repeated hope is that we get at the root issues and use these moments to talk about real structural change.”
Cuomo faces his own risk of getting snared in Bharara’s web. Glenwood Management, the real-estate developer that emerged as a central figure in both indictments, appears to have traded millions of dollars in contributions to Silver, Skelos, and Cuomo for easy access to them and favorable legislation on tax breaks. Glenwood and its various affiliates spent nearly $1.5 million to help re-elect Cuomo in 2014, making the developer one of the governor’s largest donors.
Teachout makes clear that she knows nothing about Bharara’s investigation except what she reads in the press, although she does know a little more than most people about the governor. “Despite his tough-guy exterior, I think Andrew Cuomo is always worried,” she says. “I think that’s part of the reason he doesn’t talk to the press that much.” But in terms of whether Cuomo should be worried about the Glenwood donations in particular, Teachout demurs: “You know, the reason I can’t answer that question is, I’m a lawyer and a law professor. I feel like the implications of that question are: Is there evidence that I see that he’s done something illegal? And right now, the closest to illegality that I see is in the well-reported sources and actually goes back to the interference with the Moreland Commission.”
When Teachout appeared on The Daily Show nine days after losing the primary, Jon Stewart asked her how she managed to disrupt Cuomo’s coronation. She said the answer was simple: “People want politicians who fight for them, and they don’t want politicians who are fighting for big money.” In January, as part of a Nightly Show panel on the corrupting role of money in politics, Teachout elaborated on the same point. “One of the things the election showed is how many people are looking [to take] on money in politics directly,” she said. “I ran as an anti-corruption candidate…. Let’s really talk about who has power in this society, why they have power, and whether or not it is democratic.”
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Teachout, 43, comes by her progressive instincts naturally. She was born in Seattle but grew up in rural Norwich, Vermont, across the river from Dartmouth College. Her father, Peter, is a constitutional-law professor at Vermont Law School; her mother, Mary Miles Teachout, is a state judge. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Yale, Zephyr headed south to Duke, where she earned both a master’s degree in political science and a law degree and served as editor in chief of the Duke Law Journal.
Teachout spent seven years in Durham, North Carolina. After graduating from Duke Law in 1999, she worked as a law clerk for a federal appellate judge and as a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. She was also the cofounding executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative, which advocates on behalf of capital defendants. “I have a lot of friends down there,” she says of the city.
In 2006, she moved to Washington, DC, to serve as the first national director of the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation. She has also been a lecturer at the University of Vermont and a nonresident fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School.
Teachout’s first real taste of the political spotlight came in 2004, when she advised Howard Dean, then Vermont’s governor, on his unsuccessful but noteworthy presidential campaign. In 2006, she briefly considered running for one of Vermont’s congressional seats, but decided against it. In June 2009, she moved to New York City to teach at the Fordham University School of Law, where she was recently recommended for tenure. (During the 2014 primary, Cuomo questioned Teachout’s state residency in order to challenge the legitimacy of her campaign. Many saw this as dirty pool. After Teachout produced pay stubs from Fordham and other documentary evidence of her residency, a judge ruled that she could remain on the ballot.)
Teachout remains undeterred by her loss to Cuomo; if anything, she seems even more fired up. She says she loves campaigning and sharing her views with New Yorkers. Soon after the election, she hit the road on a book tour of her own devising. (Her publisher, Harvard University Press, wouldn’t spring for one.) She made 20 visits to communities in upstate New York and several more in and around New York City, hoping to reconnect and strengthen ties with the people who had been supportive of her campaign. “I love, love, love reaching out to people,” she says. “I’ve been able to do the best part of politics without the fundraising or the press.”
She has also joined with Josh Fox, the writer and director of the two internationally acclaimed anti-fracking Gasland documentaries, to give another 13 talks as part of his Solutions Grassroots Tour. “We’re going back to the core of the fractivist movement,” Teachout says, “and talking about how, if you banned fracking, that’s great, that’s wonderful—more than great and wonderful, it’s a pretty unlikely political outcome, and they did extraordinary work. But if you ban fracking in New York, you still haven’t banned it, because we’re just importing it from Pennsylvania; there’s no fundamental difference. So how can we repurpose these pretty extraordinary groups to demand solar energy, thermal energy, and small hydro?”
Another alliance has put her on the road with the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers Union, which is trying to get teachers across the state interested in running for office. The first of 18 planned events took place in Syracuse on June 2, and Teachout followed that with a speech in New York City on June 15. She knows that convincing people to run for office is a difficult sell, but she senses that teachers have an instinct for politics—as evidenced by their clout in state capitals across the country—and she wants to tap into that energy. “I don’t think most people go into teaching in order to run for office, but they didn’t go into teaching to protest either,” she told Gannett’s Albany bureau chief, Joseph Spector. “And they’ve become this incredible, powerful political force, and my hope is to engage some of those teachers who are political and hopefully get them elected and have more formal political power.”
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Still, Teachout knows from experience that politics can be a tough business. “You don’t own your own reputation,” she observes. “You have to give that up and sort of own giving that up. I’ve been lucky so far, but I don’t anticipate I’ll stay lucky.” She expects to run again for office in New York, although she’s not sure at the moment whether that would mean another run for governor in 2018 (assuming that Cuomo doesn’t run again) or for an office like state attorney general (assuming that the incumbent, Eric Schneiderman, decides to challenge Cuomo). She also wonders about the political aspirations of people like Preet Bharara and Benjamin Lawsky—the state’s first superintendent of financial services, who recently resigned to set up his own consulting business—and what their political aspirations would mean for her own.
But mostly, Teachout seems sufficiently intrigued by the promise of politics to pursue it further. She realizes this may well be her moment, and she’s energized by the possibilities. Politics, she believes, “is one of the most interesting, creative, and extraordinary businesses. Where else do you have—except perhaps as a journalist—this implicit permission to just talk to anybody, to walk in any door and ask them, ‘What’s wrong with the world? What would you do to make it better? What was your interaction with government yesterday? What was that like—what works, what doesn’t work?’… To ask those questions and have that permission is actually kind of magical and beautiful.”
There is an alchemy of sorts that occurs when you speak to people as a candidate for office. “I feel like the keys to the city get opened,” Teachout says. She hopes to convey that sense of empowerment to the teachers she’s been meeting: The country is in a “once-in-a-century democratic crisis,” she argues, and it’s incumbent on Americans to use the tools at their disposal to change laws and to elect new, more progressive representatives. Failure to do so means “we’re giving up part of the fight.”
To drive the point home, Teachout mentions last year’s sit-in protests in Hong Kong. “These people would kill to be able to just run for office and not get preapproved,” she says. “That’s what they were camping out for.”
In this country, however, apathy is much more of the problem. “I almost see this like oil dripping out of the car,” she concludes. “We’re just leaving latent power on the ground. I think we have some obligation to pick it up.”