Zephyr Teachout, constitutional law professor at Fordham University and now the Democratic primary challenger for governor of New York, grew up with a picture on her bedroom wall of a man she idolized: then-Gov. Mario Cuomo.
She admired his traditional Democratic ideals, his strong character, and his vibrant leadership. When his son Andrew threw his hat in the ring for governor of New York in 2010, Teachout was enthralled enough to inquire about volunteering for his campaign. But soon she grew so disillusioned that she was transformed from avid supporter to current rival.
This June, demonstrating what some are calling a “lefty Tea Party” movement, Teachout, 42, announced she would challenge Cuomo in the Democratic primary after losing the nomination for the Working Families Party to him.
This Thursday she gave a phone interview to the Press to discuss exactly how she believes the current Gov. Cuomo has failed New Yorkers by not staying true to the traditional Democratic values he’d campaigned on, including what she says is his “abandon[ment] of public schools,” and how the current Moreland Commission scandal sheds light on his leadership.
After The New York Times broke the story Wednesday that during anti-corruption investigations by the Moreland Commission Cuomo’s close associates intervened whenever the panel of prosecutors began focusing on groups politically linked to him, Teachout seized on the scandal as an example of the fellow Democrat’s “violation of the public’s trust.”
“If Governor Andrew Cuomo directed or even knew that his top aide was obstructing and interfering with the Moreland Commission, he should immediately resign,” she tells the Press.
Teachout calls the revelations of his alleged misconduct “shocking” and says the accusations portray his governorship as “profoundly corrupt.”
“The powerful—and devastating—New York Times piece on Andrew Cuomo’s top aide meddling in the Moreland anti-corruption commission is the worst example of old-boy network Albany, where the rich and powerful play by different rules,” she said.
That “old-boy network” in Albany is exactly what Teachout is looking to change. Although she concedes that Cuomo’s progressive stance on gun control and gay marriage are steps in the right direction, she believes that he is a “corporate Democrat” who has used the “bully pulpit” to advance his own agenda. He doesn’t represent the people, but rather corporate interests.
If elected, she would start by restructuring New York’s campaign finance laws to incorporate Connecticut’s public funding of campaigns.
“Nominations should not depend on rich friends” she insists, but instead place a preference on grassroots campaigns that directly emphasizes citizens’ interests. “New Yorkers are very egalitarian people, yet we live in the most unequal state.”
She believes that the recent election of Bill DiBlasio as mayor of New York City proved that the electorate is ready to embrace a progressive candidate who would represent the true Democratic values that she says Cuomo has abandoned.
“When [Cuomo] picked [Kathy] Hochul for lieutenant governor, it showed that he is taking his Democratic voters for granted,” Teachout explains. By choosing a running mate who is “anti-immigrant and has not stepped away from that accusation,” she says that Cuomo could be courting right-leaning supporters for a possible presidential campaign.
“He promised to clean up Albany, to change the way campaigns are funded, to fight for a Democratic [state] Senate and to veto gerrymandered districts,” she tells the Press. “He broke all those promises, and instead has governed as a trickle-down Republican taking advantage of the lack of good anti-corruption laws in this state.”
She believes that one of the biggest failures of Cuomo’s governorship has been the disastrous implementation of the Common Core education reform. If she becomes governor, Teachout says she “would immediately halt Common Core and lead a delegation of parents and teachers to Washington to argue that we can and should develop our own standards, and not use high-stakes testing to judge teachers.
“The stress of these tests brings anxiety into classrooms that should be places of learning, curiosity, and engagement,” she continues. “Students thrive when teachers are trusted, schools are well-funded, and they suffer when teachers are treated like suspects and tests replace learning.”
Teachout claims she’s found tremendous support on Long Island, where there is a robust anti-Common Core movement that she finds impressive. Her supporters here have “come out in droves,” she says. She finds it telling because “they were not bought. They are just looking out for the children,” the children she believes that Cuomo has “abandoned” to corporate donors like Bill Gates, who has invested millions of dollars in Common Core’s nationwide rollout.
“I’ve visited more public schools than [Cuomo] has,” she states. “Why is that?”
An advocate for a decentralized government, she criticizes the Common Core curriculum as a federal takeover of education that removes the freedom of teachers to adapt to the individual needs of their students. This usurpation strips the teaching profession of autonomy and is precisely the vision of Gates, who, Teachout claims, is saying he knows better than educators and parents.
Teachout would adapt a new system based on the input of education professionals who would set a high bar while still responding to the needs of the children.
Her vision of an overhaul of New York’s education system would include the replacement of the often-criticized Education Commissioner.
“John King has failed to listen to parents and teachers who have spoken up forcefully about the problems with high stakes testing and privatization of public schools,” she says, adding that he “is the wrong person for the job.”
Many observers believe that with Cuomo leading Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate, by nearly 40 points and possessing a vast campaign war chest that dwarfs his rivals’ coffers by millions of dollars, her campaign is a lost cause. Teachout is not one of them.
Asked whether she thinks she can beat Gov. Andrew Cuomo, without hesitation, she says enthusiastically, “Yes, I do.”