Zephyr Teachout is on fire.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s challenger in the September 9th Democratic primary seems to have blown in out of nowhere, but as endorsements pour in from such groups as the New York State chapter of the National Organization of Women, the Sierra Club, and most recently, The Nation, it’s clear that she may be more than a passing breeze.
Despite Cuomo’s attempts to knock the Fordham University law professor off the ballot by challenging her New York residency (she hails from Vermont, but has lived in New York for the requisite last five years) twice, and his refusal to acknowledge her demands for a public debate, she is inching her way into the public’s consciousness.
Teachout is hoping to capitalize on the left’s disappointment in Cuomo’s right-leaning positions and leadership, which had promised an end to corruption in Albany but has instead highlighted just how entrenched that corruption is. She’s been hammering Cuomo on these and many other topics while swinging through communities across the state on a recent “Whistleblower Tour,” attempting to chip away at the giant lead his monumental advertising budget, incumbency, and name recognition provides.
Any potential—and what would be, historic—upset depends on dissatisfied, hardcore Democrats showing up for the primary next week, she told the Press on a recent campaign stop at the Southampton Farmers’ Market on Sunday, August 24.
Apropos, then, perhaps, that her first name is Greek for “west wind”—as she is a force blown in from the left.
“There are going to be 700,000 votes,” she explained while moving booth to booth shaking locals’ hands and asking them questions about how to get their needs met by state government. “We can beat him with 350.”
Teachout has been conveying these messages to the public since her tour’s launch on August 27 at the foot of One57, the luxury high-rise on West 57th Street owned by the Extell Development Company and a subpoena target of the now-dismantled Moreland Commission—the anti-corruption unit Cuomo assembled, then disbanded, after allegedly altering its probes of subjects linked to his administration.
Teachout’s campaign really began to pick up momentum, she said, following a July 23 New York Times expose questioning the commission’s disbandment and Cuomo’s role in interference in several of its investigations.
The Whistleblower Tour has taken her through New York and into Pennsylvania, tackling her favorite issues: hydrofracking—something the governor’s been quiet on—and corruption—a subject on which her upcoming book Corruption in America is based.
On the first, she taps into a prime concern of the voters she covets. Her stance against hydrofracking had earned her the endorsement of the Sierra Club.
“Ms. Teachout is an articulate, engaging leader who will play a critical role in the resurgence of the Empire State, with a vision to rebuild New York through a robust clean energy economy and reinvigorate our democracy so that it works for everyone—not just the wealthy and well-connected,” said Jeff Bohner, chair of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, in a statement.
Teachout has been equally outspoken against Common Core, the education reform created by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of State School Officers and implemented to what many are calling disastrous results under the leadership of Cuomo and his appointed Commissioner of Education John King.
Teachout said the first order of business if she was to beat Cuomo would be the elimination of Common Core, and King as 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, and is the wrong person for the job,” she said.
“Listening” is a key component of being governor, she stressed amid the market. “He’s not a good listener.”
Business owners spoke to her on a range of topics, from regulations forcing farmers to drive several hours to large-scale slaughterhouses, to fishing regulations, small business economics, solar energy, and several times throughout the morning, education policy.
One supporter approached Teachout almost shyly.
“Can I shake the hand of the next governor of New York?” she asked.
Teachout responded with a wide grin and an enthusiastic outstretch of her hand.
“I read that you would be here so I made a special trip to say hello,” the woman said. “I also want to give you something. It’s not a lot—I’m a retired schoolteacher, but I wanted to contribute to your campaign.”
She handed Teachout a check, on which she’d written in the memo section “Words Matter.”
It was a tangible gift in support of a candidate who promises to put her money where her mouth is, to combat the “Old Boy’s Club” that has dominated Albany to the detriment, she accuses, of the state.
“We need more women in state politics,” stated Teachout. “Luckily we have women who are representing us federally, but not in Albany. And it’s affecting priorities. I believe it’s affecting education policy. And across the board. You know it’s a broken system when there are no women because it’s not that people don’t support female leaders, it’s that it’s a closed club.”
Her campaign staff reflects that statement, she said:
“My campaign staff is the most diverse campaign I’ve ever worked on. There are a total of four or five white men out of 15, 16 staffers. It is about half women, all ages, from 20 to 84. My youngest staff is 20 and organized the anti-Keystone rally in Washington, but it’s also biographically diverse. People like Marc [Kagan, her special assistant], who are schoolteachers.
“It’s an amazing campaign,” she continued. “Campaign staffs tend to be young men. We used to have a phrase on political campaigns: ‘YMD—Young Men’s Disease.’ I have no problem with young men on campaigns, but if it becomes overly male, it affects the issues you talk about.”
Those issues are not limited to, but most certainly include, the Women’s Equality Agenda, a robust initiative Cuomo introduced with great promise in the beginning of his tenure that passed through the Assembly but failed in the state Senate. Teachout credits that failure with a lack of Democratic support from Cuomo in the Senate.
“He could have fought for a Democratic Senate,” Teachout said, cautioning that this might be a “wonky” idea. “He could have vetoed the districting that led to the Republican Senate or Republican control. He could have pushed against the IDC, and with any of those steps, all the prongs in the women’s equality act are passed.
“Cuomo doesn’t have a lot of women in his decision-making circles,” she said. “So he has the audacity now to create a Women’s Equality Party now, to in part, it’s been reported, to claim authority because I’m running.”
Audacity, a word that became popular when Barack Obama, once upon a time another long-shot politician with a funny name, used it in the title of his 2006 memoir The Audacity of Hope. It’s also a word that can be used to describe Teachout, who has little political experience yet is challenging one of the most well-known Democrats of our time.
“You’re definitely an underdog,” a registered Republican manning a cheese booth told her. “Isn’t it difficult?”
“Well, you’ve undertaken a difficult task,” Teachout responded. “It’s difficult, but it’s important.”
This mantra has taken her from a farm in Vermont to first Yale University and then Duke. Her involvement with Occupy Wall Street, her outspokenness against the power of monolithic banks and her Internet expertise working on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign all serve this narrative. When the Working Families Party failed to endorse her earlier this year in favor of Cuomo, she was undeterred and announced via Buzzfeed that she would challenge him in the primary.
“I’ve spent maybe three hours thinking about it, because it would be impossible to know the possible other future,” she explained. “But I will say that Tim [Wu, her running mate, who the New York Times recently endorsed for lieutenant governor] and I have an extraordinary amount of freedom to tell the truth as we see it. And that meant that early on we had to scramble to get attention, but people are really hungry for that kind of unabashed truth-telling and moving away from that ad-like politician and Cuomo is the classic ad-man.
“He’s using Sandy relief money for ads,” she charged.
Cuomo has not publicly acknowledged Teachout as his challenger, nor responded to her repeated requests for a debate. This has served only to invigorate her campaign, she said, as they find creative ways to get her message across to likely Demcratic primary voters.
On August 28th, Teachout launched #AskCuomo, a Twitter campaign that generated hundreds of responses within a few hours. These ranged from: “Was shutting down Moreland Commission when they started investigating your donors an example of reducing corruption?” to “Why are you posing as a liberal?”
Teachout was thrilled with the response.
From her wide grin, infectious laugh, and earnest conversations with potential voters in Southampton, it was obvious that she was enjoying every minute of her campaign—or at least, savoring every second at the famers’ market, sampling artisan cheeses and the specially brewed lemonade sold by a 10-year old entrepreneur. She engaged each person she met with focused attention, asking detailed questions about their particular plights or business objectives, nodding along.
People crowded around, asking quietly, “Who is that?”
People in the know responded: “That’s Zephyr Teachout.”