Zephyr Teachout blows into primary, pressuring Gov. Cuomo on his left

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Downtown progressive Democratic club members were having a hard time finding reasons why they should support re-electing Governor Andrew Cuomo to another term. More to the point, there were too many reasons not to back him, they felt, such as his support for charter schools, his acceptance of the Independence Party ballot line and his indecision on hydrofracking, just to name a few.

In fact, some clubs — including Village Independent Democrats and Downtown Independent Democrats — had recently voted “no endorsement” in the Democratic primary for governor, an unusual move in such a high-profile race. 

One factor in D.I.D.’s snubbing of Cuomo was the governor’s role in the recently revealed “secret M.O.U.” (memorandum of understanding) to transfer $100 million worth of development rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s Center site in Hudson Square.

Assemblymember Keith Wright, speaking on behalf of Cuomo, had made a personal plea to V.I.D. at their April 30 endorsement meeting.

“As your Manhattan County leader, I need you to support Governor Cuomo,” Wright urged them. Club members peppered Wright with questions, taking Cuomo to task on his support of charter schools, in particular, and even on medical marijuana — the latter which Cuomo subsequently did recently legalize in New York State, albeit in a form that many advocates decry as too limited and watered down.

“I know that Governor Cuomo’s in favor of medical marijuana,” Wright responded, though adding, “I don’t know if medical marijuana is a litmus test for progressives.”

It was Cuomo who passed gay marriage in New York, Wright noted. But the skeptical questions continued.

Finally, Wright conceded, “The governor has some great progressive credentials. He also has some good moderate credentials. And he deserves to be re-elected.”

But V.I.D. was not convinced.

Zephyr Teachout speaking at an endorsement interview with the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club at the Caledonia apartment building, on W. 17th St., in Chelsea. The gay political club later voted to support her bid for governor.  PHOTOS by LINCOLN ANDERSON
Zephyr Teachout speaking at an endorsement interview with the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club at the Caledonia apartment building, on W. 17th St., in Chelsea. The gay political club later voted to support her bid for governor. PHOTOS by LINCOLN ANDERSON

A breath of fresh air
But then, after losing out to Cuomo for the Working Family Party’s ballot line in late May, Zephyr Teachout announced she was considering running as a Democrat, and — true to her name — it’s been like an uplifting breeze of fresh air for local progressives.

V.I.D. will hold a do-over this Thurs., July 10, on whether to endorse for governor, and, this time, it sounds like Teachout has a good chance of winning their nod. Similarly, D.I.D. also plans to reconvene and reconsider whether to endorse, and is doing so only because Teachout — a Fordham University law professor who worked on Howard Dean’s campaign — has entered the race.

Meanwhile, two other local clubs have already endorsed Teachout — Coalition for a District Alternative, the leading East Village political club, and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a gay organization led by Allen Roskoff.

However, the Village Reform Democratic Club, a more moderate club, at least by Village standards, is supporting Cuomo.

On June 12, Teachout came to V.I.D.’s membership meeting to introduce herself and her candidacy. She hadn’t yet actually committed to entering the primary, saying she would do so in the next few days, after seeing how her fundraising was going. She was excited, she said, but wanted to make sure she could “make a credible run,” as she put it.

However, the next day, she went all in. And she’s been busy collecting petition signatures to get on the ballot ever since.

This Thursday, by the midnight deadline, according to her campaign treasurer, Arthur Schwartz, Teachout will present her petition signatures, and there should be no problems.

“She’s well over 45,000. She needed 15,000 statewide,” said Schwartz, the West Village’s Democratic district leader.

Makes pitch to V.I.D.
A polished, upbeat and confident speaker, Teachout told V.I.D. at their June 12 meeting what many of them had wanted to hear from a gubernatorial candidate.

Starting out talking about her background, in a light tone, she noted that, ‘Teachout’ is not an invented name in the ’60s, despite what you might think.”

She grew up in a small town in Vermont, where her father teaches law and her mother is a judge.

In 2004, she was the director of online organizing for Dean’s surprising presidential campaign.

“It’s the kind of campaign I want to run, but make it better,” she said.

She said she’s been a New York resident for five years. This spring, the Working Families Party asked her about running for governor.

“I had thought about running for office before,” she told V.I.D. “If I hadn’t been approached, I probably would have waited a few more years. But New York has a very long tradition of electing people who have not spent as much time in New York, even not as much as I as I have.

“Honestly, I really want to do this,” she said. “The Working Families Party approached me in late March, and I thought about it for 30 seconds… .”

She got 45 percent of the W.F.P. vote — even with Mayor de Blasio making phone calls to lobby on Cuomo’s behalf to curry favor with the governor.

“I am a Democrat,” she noted.

Plans to pressure Cuomo
During her speech at V.I.D., Teachout said that while she planned to be “in it to win it,” she also hoped to pressure Cuomo on the issues. A strong run by Teachout, even if she doesn’t win, could put a dent in Cuomo’s presidential ambitions, many say, denying him the overwhelming mandate he wants.

“I would love to be the governor of New York,” Teachout said. “But I would also like to get this governor of ours back inside the Democratic fold, get a little discipline, actually listen to the deep, very heartfelt concerns of the Democrats of this state.”

She hammered Cuomo on fracking, saying she hopes that during the campaign he will “feel pressure” to announce a ban on the hotly debated drilling technique. The governor, she declared, should “commit to protecting our state from poison, and commit to sustainable energy — sun, solar and wind — that would not only create a sustainable state, but also create jobs.

“It is embarrassing that New York is not leading on this,” she said of sustainable energy. “It is the governor and his interest in himself and his big donors that is keeping us from doing that.”

She also hit Cuomo on education, charging that he has “completely abandoned schools.”

Campaign finance reform
Similarly, she criticized the governor on campaign finance laws, accusing him of not living up to his promises to pass “some serious reform on public financing of elections,” while he personally can rely on big-bucks contributors.

“He seems quite happy with the current position he’s in,” she said of Cuomo. “He needs to make just a handful of phone calls to some of the richest people in world history — many of whom are not Democrats — and see where that gets him.”

She continued that she’s “completely committed” to home rule on issues affecting New York City, which would give the city — instead of the state — control over its own housing laws, for example.

“The idea that you can’t be solving these very serious problems that you see?” she said. “It’s a deep philosophical commitment of mine.”

On healthcare, she stated, “I am committed to single-payer, that’s what I want to get to. … The number of hospitals that have closed under Cuomo’s watch is quite depressing,” she added.

‘Gonna tell the truth’
“My commitment in this campaign is — I’m gonna tell the truth,” she told V.I.D. “I believe that right now there’s just a sense that not only is politics distorted by money, but political language is distorted — and we don’t gain anything by that.”

Also, she hopes to help grow the progressive movement in New York State, which admittedly might take a little time. It’s all part of her vision — for now, as well as the near future.

“One of the goals is to actually bring out the progressive New Yorkers who feel totally forgotten and ignored right now,” Teachout said. “That may not happen in one [election] cycle — but I’d like it to happen in one cycle. That means talking to far more people under 40 than politicians usually do. That means going to communities that aren’t usually gone to.”

$5 donations are fine
As for her fundraising, she said the first two weeks she would start out with higher-dollar donors.

“But after that, as much as possible, I want to engage people to bring in the $5 donations,” she said, referring to smaller contributors.

“I’m not going to turn down any $120,000 contributions,” she noted, adding, “but my heart is in engaging people, both as volunteers and contributors.”

However, speaking to the Jim Owles Club, Teachout said, by necessity, she’ll keep her public message simpler, sticking to three main themes: anti-corruption, education and the economy. She expects her media coverage will be limited, so plans to streamline her sound bites.

Her running mate for lieutenant governor is Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor who is a leader on Internet neutrality. Teachout told The Villager that — as seen with Senator Elizabeth Warren — it just seems to be a time when candidates — like herself and Wu — are increasingly emerging from academia to confront the entrenched problems in our political system.

Connects with local clubs
Her message is clearly resonating with Downtown progressives.

Sean Sweeney, a leading D.I.D. member, said Teachout seems to be a shoo-in for when they take another try at endorsing for governor.

“I fully expect her to be endorsed,” he said. “Cuomo has engendered a lot of antagonism amongst the D.I.D. grassroots, while Zephyr better embodies their beliefs.”

Sweeney also cited Cuomo’s “resistance to taxing the wealthy.”

And on medical marijuana, he said, “The problem with his bill is you can’t smoke it.” The new law allows medical pot to be ingested only in nonsmokable form, such as pills, oils and vapors.

Sweeney conceded that, in his opinion, voting for Teachout is “a protest vote,” but that nonetheless her campaign can hurt Cuomo.

“If she gets 25 or 30 percent, that’s embarrassing,” he said, noting that, in any race, the typical protest vote is only around 15 percent. “She could bloody Cuomo’s nose, which would certainly affect his ability to garner the Democratic nomination in 2016.”

Teachout, for her part, told the Jim Owles Club, “I know I’m an underdog — there’s a difference between an underdog and a protest candidate.”

Zephyr Teachout in Chelsea on a 14th-floor deck at the Caledonia, overlooking the High Line after her endorsement interview with the Jim Owles Club. The endorsement interview was held in a community room located off of the deck.
Zephyr Teachout in Chelsea on a 14th-floor deck at the Caledonia, overlooking the High Line after her endorsement interview with the Jim Owles Club. The endorsement interview was held in a community room located off of the deck.

CoDA blown away
Meanwhile, Ayo Harrington, co-president of Coalition for a District Alternative, said, again, whereas her organization had a “laundry list” of issues with Cuomo, they really liked what they saw of Teachout when she recently came to speak to them. About three-quarters of CoDA members subsequently supported the upstart candidate for governor.

“Some of the members cited a number of reasons why they were disappointed with Cuomo,” Harrington said, “which included the premature disbanding of the Moreland Commission, budget maneuvers regarding the [state-versus-city] inequities in education — basically Cuomo’s response to the C.F.E. [Campaign for Fiscal Equity] agreement — and support for charter schools over regular public schools.

“She was just forthright and really refreshing,” she said of Teachout. “And when she said that she believes that education is the infrastructure of democracy — I knew at that point that she was someone that I wanted to support.”

But does Teachout have a chance?

“I don’t know,” Harrington admitted. “But CoDA is very grassroots, and we stand by principles which she seems to champion.”

Remember…Chris Quinn?
For his part, Roskoff, of the Jim Owles Club, said Teachout can’t be counted out — that she could very well pull off a stunning upset, just as de Blasio did against Christine Quinn in last year’s mayoral race.

In a release, Roskoff said, in part, “Zephyr Teachout embodies the progressive ideals of the Jim Owles Club and has articulated a vision of economic equality for all New Yorkers. Her bold ideas, including reducing the prison population by granting clemency to those too harshly sentenced are being ignored by the powers that be. … Governor Cuomo has been heartless in his refusal to grant anyone in prison clemency.

“We disagree with him on charter schools and his refusal to allow New York City to raise the minimum wage and to increase taxes on the wealthy. Cuomo’s watered-down version of allowing for the ridiculously limited use of medical marijuana is something you would expect in Texas. …

“While we recognize the governor’s role in achieving marriage equality, we are not a single-issue organization,” Roskoff said. “We expect a sizable portion of the L.G.B.T. establishment and political organizations will endorse Cuomo, as they did Christine Quinn. We believe, however, that the community is to the left of these organizations — as was proven in last year’s mayoral race. At this point in the mayoral race, Quinn had the most money and was far ahead in the polls. History has been known to repeat itself.” 

Facing a ‘formidable foe’
However, one V.I.D. member, requesting anonymity, said, while Teachout seems to have a lot to offer, the timing of her candidacy — and the high office she’s ambitiously running for — are problematic for him.

“I like her stand on the issues,” he said. “I find her to have a good presence. She’s a dynamic speaker. I’m just concerned that her first campaign is for governor against a very formidable opponent.”

Treasurer: She’s money
Meanwhile, Teachout campaign treasurer Schwartz — like Roskoff — also strongly feels she’s no mere protest candidate, but the real McCoy.

“The people who are giving her money don’t consider her a protest candidate,” he said. “There’s a lot of money coming in.”

All that cash has been going right out, since it’s been a big petitioning effort to get on the ballot, he noted.

“At Gay Pride, she was very well received,” Schwartz added. “She was slapping five and taking pictures with people the whole route.”

As Roskoff noted, primary elections can be surprising.

“Once she gets on the ballot and she gets her word out — it’s a very liberal electorate in the primary,” Schwartz said. “And if she polls over a certain number — 5 or 10 percent could be enough by early August, but I think she’ll be higher — then the networks will make Cuomo participate in a debate with her. … And that will be interesting.”

Déjà Liu (all over again)?
But while some leading Downtown Democratic clubs are championing Teachout, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the ultimate barometer for this election. After all, last year, V.I.D., D.I.D. and CoDA all backed John Liu for mayor in the primary, feeling he was the most progressive candidate. But hamstrung by a campaign finance scandal, Liu wound up finishing fourth.

And while many Downtowners detest charter schools, even Keith Wright said the main problem, for him, isn’t charters per se, but co-locating them in buildings with regular public schools.

“Co-locations have torn at the fabric of my community,” the Harlem legislator told V.I.D. “I’m not against charters. [But] co-locations are horrible.”

And, in fact, many inner-city families see charters as a pathway to a better life for their children.

And we still don’t know where Cuomo will come down on fracking. And, well, some medical marijuana is better than zero medical marijuana, some might say. In short, many moderates might see Cuomo more favorably.

V.R.D.C. bucks the trend
In that vein, Ray Cline, a leading member of the Village Reform Democratic Club, said they don’t share the same view of the governor as “more radical” local political outfits, and won’t be holding a revote in light of Teachout’s late entry into the primary.

“V.R.D.C. endorsed Cuomo for governor as the best Democrat for the job,” Cline said. “As far as I know, we will not be reopening the endorsement process. Yes, there were some members of V.R.D.C. that didn’t want to endorse Cuomo for various reasons. We did a straw poll and they represented less that 15 percent. 

“CoDA and Jim Owles are more radical in their opinions than we are,” he asserted. “I can only speak for myself, in that, I personally think he has done a good job. If you compare him to the Republican candidate [Rob Astorino], he is far and away the best person for the job. Yes, you might have problems with some of his decisions, but that doesn’t make him a bad candidate.”

Glick sticks with Cuomo
And while local political clubs are being wowed by Teachout, elected officials aren’t ready to toss Cuomo overboard. Assemblymember Deborah Glick’s home club is V.I.D., but she said she’s supporting the governor for re-election — though she hasn’t issued a formal endorsement statement.

“I don’t know her. I haven’t heard her speak,” Glick said of Teachout.

“When you’re a candidate, it’s one thing,” she noted. “When you have to govern, it’s different. Being governor is a tough job.

“I’ve certainly had my differences with the governor,” Glick said. “But, on balance, he has demonstrated that government can work, at a time when the opposition — and I mean the Republicans and conservatives — are saying that government can’t work and should be done away with. And through the floods and emergencies, he’s demonstrated that government can do things, and there’s a reason for government.”

However, she added, “I am supporting him, but I’m also hoping to convince him to ban fracking. I think a lot of anger comes from his indecision on that, when the environmental and health issues are so clear.”