Democratic Candidate Zephyr Teachout Calls Cuomo's Residency Challenge To Her Campaign "Baseless"
Teachout, in blue, with supporters at a rally before her court appearance.
Photo by Anna Merlan
There's still some debate about how long one must live here before they're considered a true New Yorker: Ten years? Twenty? But for the purposes of running for governor of the state, it's clear: You have to have lived here for five years. It's on those grounds that Governor Andrew Cuomo's campaign is mounting a legal challenge to try and knock his Democratic challenger, Zephyr Teachout, off the ballot. In Brooklyn State Supreme Court this morning, at the start of a trial expected to last several days, Cuomo's lawyers got Teachout to admit she'd used her parents' address in Vermont as her permanent address on her tax filings for the entire time she's lived in New York.
Teachout has acknowledged that she used her parents' address on her tax forms, but still says that for all legal and practical purposes, she's been a New York resident for the past five years. She called Cuomo's challenge "frivolous" and "baseless" and said it, and the subpoena, was designed only to intimidate her.
Teachout is a law professor at Fordham University. She moved to New York and began teaching at the school in 2009. The challenge to her residency didn't come directly from Cuomo's camp; in late July, two college students, Austin Sternlicht and Harris Rye, filed the challenges; Cuomo's campaign spokesperson Peter Kauffman later confirmed that the campaign backed the two men. Cuomo's attorneys issued an incredibly detailed 29-point subpoena asking Teachout for tax returns and real estate records, every utility bill she's paid for the past five years, and even copies of any mail or magazines she received in Vermont, where her family is from and where she has lived on-and-off as an adult.
It hardly seems necessary for Cuomo to challenge Teachout; a recent Marist poll showed that even in the wake of revelations that his office may have tampered with an anti-corruption Moreland Commission , 54 percent of registered voters are still leaning towards voting for Cuomo, versus 23 percent for his Republican opponent Rob Astorino. Meanwhile, 78% of them hadn't heard of Teachout at all, and only eight percent said they had a "favorable" opinion of her.
But Cuomo campaign spokesperson Peter Kaufmann told the Voice last week that the poll numbers are irrelevant. The challenge, he said, is about the law. "She doesn't meet the residency requirements to run for governor in New York state," he said. "If someone's going to run for governor, they should be qualified to run for governor, right?"
But Teachout's campaign team believes the real point of the challenge is to waste time. While she's in court, she can't campaign, and her small staff can focus on little else. Her running mate for lieutenant governor, Tim Wu, is in San Francisco handling a family emergency. Meanwhile, although Cuomo doesn't have many campaign appearances scheduled, his running mate Kathy Hochul has a number of events lined up over the next several days.
In court this morning, Cuomo's lead attorney, Martin Connor, called Teachout to testify, and pressed her on the fact that she'd used her parents' address in Vermont on her tax returns from 2009 to 2013. On a 2009 tax return document, she originally wrote that she'd lived in New York for "zero months."
Teachout called that "clearly a mistake," noting that she'd been teaching at Fordham during that time period. She and her accountant amended that tax return in May of this year, she said, "because I was thinking about running for office. I went to an accountant who looked over my returns, found some mistakes, and filed an amendment."
Most of Connor's questions centered around the fact that wherever else Teachout has roots, it's not New York: she's returned to Vermont every summer, she once owned property in New Hampshire (which she said she bought because it's near where she hang glides), and she maintains a license to practice law in North Carolina, where she was once a death penalty lawyer, but doesn't have a bar card here.
"You clearly have some community ties to Vermont," Connor said to her at one point.
"I grew up there," Teachout replied. "I have lived there as an adult. All my family is there." But she said she hasn't lived at her parents' house since she graduated from high school in 1989, and used it only as a "mail drop" while she moved for law school and then for work.
Teachout's attorneys, led by Lawrence Mandelker, told the New York Times that they'll show concrete evidence that she's been living in New York since 2009, things like receipts from Metro Cards, Starbucks and Whole Foods. Her campaign staff indicated to the Voice that they'll also use Facebook posts from the time period in question to prove she was living here.
"In the wake of the real scandal and the missteps of the Moreland Commission, Andrew Cuomo would rather I'm not on the ballot," Teachout told reporters today. She accused him of using the court challenge as "a fishing expedition, as opposed to having a debate." She said the governor had "a pattern of suing subpoenas as threats, sources of intimidation, or pulling them back as rewards."
Teachout called the subpoena issued against her "aggressive and invasive," adding, "He's nervous about having a wide open primary in New York. In Andrew Cuomo's New York, there's not supposed to be a primary. But we're going to win this, and then we're going to win the primary."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.