Court says Zephyr Teachout is a New Yorker but Cuomo will Appeal Ruling

Zephyr Teachout
Anti-Common Core firebrand Zephyr Teachout is running for Congress.

Zephyr Teachout can continue running as a Democratic primary candidate against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a New York State court ruled late Monday afternoon, knocking down a challenge from the governor, who’s lawyer argued that the Fordham law professor hasn’t lived in New York long enough to run for governor.

The Cuomo campaign says it will appeal the ruling. Teachout sounded exhausted but triumphant when she was reached by phone after Judge Edgar Walker’s ruling that she’d been a New York State resident for five years.

“The last few months, Governor Cuomo has repeatedly tried to first keep me off the ballot, then kick me off the ballot,” Teachout told the Press. “This latest trial questioning whether or not I was a New Yorker was fundamentally baseless. I’ve been teaching at Fordham Law School at a tenure-track job for the last five years. It’s a pretty open and shut case.”

The decision did not surprise Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz, who has been a keen observer of our state’s politics for many years.

“The courts have been generous with regard to qualifying people on residency questions,” said Benjamin. “It’s a well-established fact that people will often challenge to knock their opponents off the ballot…That’s the nature of New York politics.”

Teachout could only speculate as to why Cuomo would try such a case.

“I don’t know whether he was trying to kick me off because he was scared of a primary or if he just couldn’t help himself, but the court’s ruling today answers any questions,” Teachout said.

Teachout has been hoping to use the governor’s reported mishandling of the Moreland Commission on Corruption—he ended it in March after nine months when he’d promised to let it go twice as long, amid speculation that he quashed investigations into his campaign donors—as an important campaign issue in the primary. Similarly, Rob Astorino, the Westchester county executive who is the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has been harping on the issue, calling Cuomo “the most corrupt governor in New York history.”

RELATED: Zephyr Teachout wants Andrew Cuomo & Common Core Out

Apparently, that corruption charge has little traction in the Empire State, according to a new Sienna College poll, which came out the same day as Teachout’s residency ruling. The survey found that most New York voters aren’t paying much attention to the Moreland issue or the ongoing federal investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who reportedly is considering whether the governor’s interference with the commission constitutes obstruction of justice, among other points.

Out of some 863 voters reached by phone between Aug. 4-7, only 13 percent say the actions of the governor or his staff regarding Moreland are “potentially criminal” and 63 percent admit they don’t have enough information to make a decision.

Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at MTA New York City Transit Headquarters on Thu., October 24, 2013. (MTA photo)

“When given a choice, by a two-to-one margin, or 49 to 25 percent, voters say they believe newspaper reports that the governor and his office interfered with the Moreland Commission’s work, rather than believing the governor’s explanation that they were appropriately providing information to the commission,” said Sienna College pollster Steven Greenberg. “Voters see corruption as a serious problem but not one they pay a lot of attention to.”

At the moment, the governor is riding high in the Sienna survey, leading Astorino by 32 points.

“Cuomo has the support of more than three-quarters of Democrats, more than half of independents and one-third of Republicans,” said Greenberg, who said that jobs ranks as the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds these days.

Benjamin was not surprised that the Moreland Commission hasn’t become a household name here, and he was skeptical that Teachout would be able to make it more of a factor in the Sept. 9 primary election because she doesn’t have the organizational support of the unions or the Working Families Party, which she would need because she’s at a distinct financial disadvantage, considering that Cuomo’s campaign has reportedly some $32 million in its coffers and she has $181,000.

“She’s not going to be able to put boots on the ground,” the professor predicted.

Yet, according to Teachout, she’s gotten a “huge influx of new small donors.” In fact, she said via text message, yesterday she’d gotten 85 new donors, “twice the number Cuomo had in his entire last filing.”

As for Cuomo’s effort to push her off the ballot, Benjamin said, “For insiders, this is hardball and this is the way it’s played. But for outsiders, it’s irrelevant.”

Clearly, this is what Teachout is staking her campaign on: a change from the run-of-the-mill “old boys’ network” of corruption that New Yorkers have taken as matter-of-fact for so long.

For a “very narrow constituency,” he thought her treatment at the hands of the incumbent would raise their rancor, but “they’re not a consequential portion of the electorate…They’re bitter-enders who want an alternative to the governor and she gives them one.”

Teachout, of course, doesn’t see it that way.

“When Andrew Cuomo picked a fight with me, he was really picking a fight with the voters of New York,” she said. “It’s quite clear the Democratic primary voters want a primary.”

Now that she’s won this round in court, Teachout said, “There’s no more excuse—we need to have a debate. There are many serious policy decisions that will be made the next couple of years… Let’s have a debate about Common Core. Let’s have a debate about school funding. Let’s have a debate about fracking. We’d all benefit from that.”

Along those lines, Benjamin regards Teachout as “not substantially different from any third party candidate” in New York.

“As a vehicle for advancing an agenda, this candidacy is wonderful,” he said. “She’s not going to get the visibility and the attention and the leverage that she would otherwise get.”

In some ways the GOP’s Astorino is in a weaker position politically.

“He’s situated to take advantage of an opportunity if one arises but he’s not situated to win if one doesn’t arise,” said Benjamin.

No election is ever won in August, as political junkies know well, but this September primary does have the potential to produce a surprising result, according to Benjamin. The lieutenant governor’s race pits Cuomo’s pick, Kathy Hochul, a former upstate Congresswoman, against Tim Wu, a constitutional law professor at Columbia University, who is Teachout’s running mate.

“Nobody knows who Kathy Hochul is and nobody knows who he is,” said Benjamin. “She’s got to run in a primary against him on her own. He’s not running against somebody famous! That’s fascinating… If the other one’s a thousand to one, this is a hundred to one.”

Wu’s supporters would disagree, touting his very visible and vocal career as a media and law scholar fighting for Internet freedom rights (he coined the phrase “net neutrality”), recognition from national publications (Wu was named to National Law Journal‘s 2013 America’s 100 Most Influential Lawyers,” among other lists) and regular contributions to New Yorker magazine.

Cuomo’s appeal against Teachout’s eligibility will be back in court Aug. 19.

The primary is less than 30 days away.