Andrew Cuomo’s Primary Challenger Has More Than Just a Memorable Name

Zephyr Teachout’s background in campaigning, law and education makes her a venerable candidate in the race to become New York’s governor.

Sarah Jaffe

'I never want to see the minimum wage become a maximum wage,' says Zephyr Teachout about her resolution to improve New York's economy over the long term. (Photo courtesy Zephyr Teachout)

Like many progressives, I first learned Zephyr Teachout’s memorable name when I read it on countless emails from the Howard Dean campaign in 2003 and 2004, when the Internet was still treated as a strange novelty by most political hopefuls. She was the Director of Internet Organizing before that title really existed.

'The first solution is to have somebody in the governor’s office who wakes up in the morning and thinks about building a system that represents the public. It's become very clear that that is not Andrew Cuomo.'

Teachout, in other words, knows how to run a campaign. So when she says she’s challenging Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination to be governor of New York, she is serious about winning. Even without the backing of the Working Families Party, which ultimately decided to endorse Cuomo, Teachout has set out to draw sharp contrasts between herself and the incumbent governor, and to challenge the role of big donors in the Democratic Party. She has until July 7 to gather 15,000 signatures from across the state on petitions to place her on the ballot for the September 9 primary election.

Since 2009, Teachout has been a law professor at Fordham University in the Bronx. I first met her in a courtroom the day Occupy Wall Street was evicted from Zuccotti Park, when I sat next to her on a bench as she whispered explanations of legal terms and her evaluation of the hearing to those within earshot. She’s also worked as a special education classroom assistant and a death penalty defense attorney, a job she credits with making her a fighter.

Teachout met me in legendary Brooklyn diner Junior’s, where we discussed education, labor organizing, how to make New York environmentally sustainable and much more. 

Last time we talked, you were still deciding whether to get in the race. What actually tipped the balance?

I wasn’t going to run it if I couldn’t put together the resources. But we got a big boost when Tim Wu decided to join the race [for lieutenant governor]. I think Wu on the ticket really strengthens the ticket in a lot of ways. I have a fantastic team, and there are so many things I think we can do if I become governor. 

You have a book coming out on corruption in American government, and you’ve called out Governor Cuomo for his role in making that corruption in Albany worse. What do you see as the solution, and how does your campaign help to bring that about?

The first solution is to have somebody in the governor’s office who wakes up in the morning and thinks about building a system that represents the public. It’s become very clear that that is not Andrew Cuomo. 

Once you have that goal, the first thing you have to do is to change the way campaigns are funded. Right now, the campaign funding system leads to politicians basically being beggars at the feet of oligarchs. It’s what the progressives of another era called the invisible government: the private power that sits behind public power. Politicians are not making decisions based on what they think their constituents want or even what they think is best for their constituents. They’re making decisions based on who is giving them $60,000; that’s more money than any middle-class person can afford. 

It’s actually a technical and pretty simple fix. The only reason not to do it is that those who hold the invisible power — and politicians — don’t want to do it. What it would mean is providing public funding, the same way we provide public education, for a public good. If somebody shows they have enough grassroots support, either in small donations or signatures or some other way — I support the small donations model — they should get enough public funding to reach constituents and be heard.

We actually have a loophole in New York that allows LLCs to give as if they’re individuals, which allows direct corporate funding [of campaigns]. We have to close that loophole. That would actually make a huge difference in public policy. We’d save hundreds of millions of dollars a year if LLCs weren’t driving policy in New York.

Step two is looking to reform a whole set of laws that encourage concentrated power, instead of embracing the laws that we had in this country basically up through the early 1980s that encourage a deeply decentralized economy. Tim and I are steeped in the history of the trust-busters of a century ago, and we think it’s time for 21st century trust-busting.

One of the big issues in the state right now is the minimum wage — workers were in Albany today to demand both a raise in the statewide minimum and that cities like NYC be given the ability to raise their own even higher. What kind of a minimum wage would you like to see for New York state?

Municipalities should be able to raise their own wages. Andrew Cuomo represents consolidated power in every area: consolidated power in how he funds his campaigns with big donors, consolidated power in terms of whom he serves, which is big companies, and then consolidated power in terms of policy. He’s taking away power from localities on minimum wage and then also on property taxes, saying, I’m not even going to allow you to solve your own problems.”

Not only do I think we should raise the minimum wage — I think about $15 an hour as a statewide goal — but we also should change the structures so that workers have more power to negotiate. I never want to see the minimum wage become a maximum wage. I don’t think we should celebrate people making $10 an hour. Instead, we can encourage an economy where workers have the power to organize and negotiate for $20 an hour. The real reason that people are paid less is because there are only a few feudal masters against whom workers are negotiating.

The other day Andrew Cuomo called me extreme left.” I feel like I’m not extreme left”; I’m just not corrupt. The ideas that Tim and I are sharing are the heart of the American democratic vision.

Andrew Cuomo has had a lukewarm relationship with many of the state’s labor unions, yet several of them have decided to endorse him despite wage freezes and cutbacks. Why do you think that is, and what kind of a relationship would your administration have with organized labor?

I really respect the choices of the institutions that have endorsed Cuomo, even though I disagree with the decision. I can’t look into their decision-making process, but I can say that unions in New York are in an extremely difficult position, because this administration has a reputation for using governmental power to punish political activity. Union leaders’ first responsibility is to their members, and if they’re making a choice based on fear of something that’s going to hurt their members, I understand and respect that.

The endorsement of a union still leaves every citizen free to make their own choice, and I trust that a lot of union members are going to act in their own long-term self interest and in the interest of the state. In the long term, I’m a much better friend of workers — both of workers’ rights and of workers’ dignity.

Cuomo’s economic development policy for the state has focused on things like tax-free zones and enabling casinos, while cutting taxes for big businesses and big banks. What kinds of things would you invest in to make sure all of New York has access to better jobs?

Tim and I have a very clear vision of the New York we want to see, and that New York involves well-paid jobs. So in addition to raising the minimum wage, we’re going to be focused on all the other ways that we can create the structure of good-paying jobs with benefits.

One of the most important things for workers around the state is that we actively invest in long-term infrastructure, because that’s good for short-term jobs and for building the economy that we want to ultimately have. That includes building roads and bridges and schools — schools are our infrastructure, they’re the infrastructure of our democracy — and investing in teachers, which means investing in jobs and in the families of those teachers. Most importantly it’s investing in the kids.

Or take transportation: What’s interesting is that an investment in the [Manhattan Transit Authority] is also an investment in upstate, if we do it right. MTA is one of the largest transportation economies in the world. Instead of barely making do with the MTA as it is, I would pursue an aggressive development plan, with the idea that the materials used are going to be manufactured upstate. This is harkening back to Eliot Spitzer’s One New York”— we should see New York as a unified economy and think of the ways in which New York City needs upstate and upstate needs the city.

One of the things that Tim and I would focus on is making New York state one of the high-tech innovation centers of the country. It already is, but we want to support that. And those same entrepreneurs who are building new businesses in the city are gonna be building new factories upstate. That’s my dream.

Unfortunately, right now there are these false promises [from Cuomo’s camp]. Casinos, fracking and tax breaks are all versions of the same thing: In the long term, they extract resources from the state. Our vision is that you actually take the natural resources of the state and build upon them, not steal them and steal from the future. We’re very interested in the Jacobson plan for sustainable energy, which would create short- and long-term jobs in building solar, wind, and water power structures. Retrofitting is important, but you have to move way beyond retrofitting to build a sustainable economy.

In 2008, we were hit with the national disaster of the financial crisis. There were many reasons for that crisis, but one of the key ones was a short-term attitude, the way in which those in the financial sector were making short-term decisions instead of long-term ones. That led to the collapse. It’s a very fragile and foolish way to build any kind of economy. I see something similar in Governor Cuomo’s economic plan. It’s all a series of short-term bets. The nice thing is New York has the resources to make long-term bets. This is not about raising taxes; this is just about getting rid of irrational tax breaks and tax loopholes currently in the system. If we actually have a rational tax system, we’ll have the revenue to do all these things.

You mentioned fracking, which has been the subject of another ongoing battle in the state; more broadly, New York took a beating from Superstorm Sandy, and many New Yorkers gained a newfound understanding of the realities of climate change. What do you think New York needs to do to deal with these environmental problems?

We should be the leaders in the country on sustainable energy. The energy source is going to depend on the region you’re in — if you’re in an area that works for wind, you want to construct for wind. The details matter, but the general principles are identifying local energy sources and really building up structures to be able to capture them. And we’ve got to be preparing by looking at our shorelines: There’s really exciting potential work that we can do just to protect against future storms.

The other thing Sandy showed is that people were nine meals away — three days away — from starving. Governor Cuomo’s response has basically been to advise people to get an emergency kit or get a better flashlight. That is not a reasonable response to the inevitable future disasters. Tim and I are both really interested in building a food system where you’re not just relying on one or two distributors, which is one of the reasons we’re so fragile.

My entire focus is on the public at large, not whether a few people have access to good information and good food, but whether everybody has access to good information and good food.

Some recent big political fights in the state have focused on education: both early childhood education, and public schools versus charters. There’s also an ongoing struggle against standardized testing, in which New York has emerged as one of the battleground sites. You’ve taught in public schools—what would you do for education in New York?

My hairdresser talks about her son coming home from school — he used to love school, and now he’s filled with stress. There’s student testing — when we use Common Core or any other system to test and reward or punish teachers, that leads to extraordinary stress in the classroom. Everything we know about teaching suggests that stress is not the way for kids to learn.

There’s a whole mess of issues that are all entangled together in education. But one simple thing is, we have to fund our schools. Period. We have to fund at CFE levels and beyond. There should be no debate about funding and small class sizes. There should be no debate about making arts of some form and counseling available to every kid.

Some of the debate you see comes from funding scarcity. When resources are extremely scarce, when the schools are starved, then people who would otherwise be aligned because they care about education end up battling over those scraps. I tend to think that charter schools are a bit of a distraction because I think we should fund first, and then we can talk about the appropriate role of charter schools. The vast majority of our kids go to public schools anyway. It’s a really important point to focus on public schools because that’s where our kids are.

That was one of the points made around Cuomo’s big pro-charter school rally in March. Charter schools serve a tiny number of New York City kids, let alone New York state kids.

He likes to think of himself as somebody who’s in touch with upstate. But his education policy shows that he’s not in touch with upstate, and he’s certainly not in touch on education. As far as we can tell, he’s been to a public school once in four years, and that was when Obama was in town. What I find troublesome is that his engagement in education policy didn’t come after visiting dozens of schools and talking to hundreds of teachers. It seemed to be more driven by donors.

I know you’ve worked as a death penalty lawyer. Criminal justice is always an issue in New York, but more importantly, how has that history shaped your political work?

In so many ways. It made me understand how law is a moral and political art and not just a set of rules. I remember one night in March 2001, when Willie Fisher was supposed to be executed. We were filing an appeal showing that the governor of North Carolina at the time had actually played a prosecutorial role, saying he shouldn’t actually get to decide clemency if he’d also been a prosecutor in this case. We got a stay from one judge, and then the State Supreme Court met on the telephone to decide whether or not to dissolve the stay. It took place from like 12:30 at night to 3 a.m. It felt like such a casual use of law. In a very visceral way, I felt then that the idea of being equal under law — which is a very powerful idea for any lawyer — is not always true.

So in terms of policy in New York, I think there’s a lot that we should do. We’ve had basically 30 years of bad policy on incarceration in general, so we have to both figure out how to make sure that we’re not putting people in prison for stupid reasons and that we figure out a better system to release people early who are stuck in prison because of political rhetoric from 1995.

I spent a lot of time in prisons and jails, and I also spent a lot of time visiting families tied to witnesses in communities around the state, looking for evidence on behalf of my clients and other people’s clients. I believe that nobody should lose the ability to vote when they go to a prison because one of the things I saw is that, if one member of the family thinks they can’t vote, then if you’re at a barbeque with two ex-felons present, nobody’s going to talk about the election on Tuesday. And so taking away the vote has much deeper societal effects. I think a transformational thing we can do in the state is be a real leader in granting universal franchise.

You challenged Lt. Governor-candidate Hochul’s record on immigration, and noted that your running mate, Tim Wu, is the proud son of immigrants. A couple of state legislators introduced a very interesting bill this week that would give immigrants state citizenship,” granting them access to financial aid for college, drivers’ licenses, healthcare, voting rights, and more. Cuomo has also been pressured to pass a state DREAM act. Would you support these bills or some like them?

I have to look into the bills, but they sounded really interesting. However, I think the DREAM Act is a no-brainer. Immigrants built — and continue to build — New York. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of; this state loves our completely global heritage. One of the things I’d be looking at is how can we be supporting, say, the second-generation Guinean-American business owner, or the first-generation Yemeni-American who may not quite have the language yet. How can we make sure that the Small Business Administration speaks every language?

There are a thousand ways to be deeply open in our democracy, and New York shoots itself in the foot every time it sends signals that we’re closing the door.

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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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