The Outsider: Zephyr Teachout Will Never Be Governor, So Why is Andrew Cuomo Worried?
It was a strange July morning in Lower Manhattan, and getting stranger by the minute. On the Brooklyn Bridge, sometime during the night, someone had swapped all the American flags for bleached white ones. As police and reporters swarmed the bridge, less than a mile away, in front of the 150-year-old Tweed Courthouse, two political candidates who agreed on nothing at all had just announced a surprise joint press conference. The announcement, emailed to reporters minutes before the event, said only that Zephyr Teachout, the left-wing law professor challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo in the upcoming Democratic primary, would make a joint appearance with Rob Astorino, the starched, suited, Roman Catholic radio host and career politician running on the Republican ticket. It was an irresistibly odd matchup. The reporters not covering the white flag mystery showed up and waited on the expanse of concrete in front of the courthouse. And waited. And waited. A podium bearing a sign with the words "Clean Up Albany" stood empty. The candidates showed no sign of appearing. Perennial long-shot candidate and comedian Randy Credico arrived, fuming at not having been invited to participate. Dressed in a bunched-up blazer and a yellow tie, sweat streaming freely from his head, he cornered Liz Pitt, Teachout's finance director. "Nice to get a call from you guys!" he cried. Pitt smiled politely. Credico advanced. "You dissed me twice," he warned. "Credico has a mean streak in him that's hard to come out, but I think you got it."
"There she is!" Pitt replied, spotting her candidate in the distance. She made her escape. Undaunted, Credico turned to the closest reporter and continued holding forth. Teachout and Astorino made their way to the podium, apologizing profusely, explaining they'd met only minutes before and wanted to say hello. "I'm here today with a man I disagree with about almost everything," Teachout told the assembled reporters when she arrived at the podium. The reporters giggled. She and Astorino were there together, Teachout added, "Because recent events show that Governor Andrew Cuomo has not merely failed to clean up Albany, he has become part of the problem and an example of the very thing he once promised to fix."
Yet another scandal had enveloped the governor's mansion just days before: The New York Times presented a mountain of evidence that Cuomo had interfered with the Moreland Commission — a task force he had formed to probe allegations of corruption in New York state publics — essentially blocking any lines of inquiry that came too close to his friends. The commission was eventually scrapped altogether. "Shutting down an anticorruption commission when it comes too close to power would make Boss Tweed blush," Teachout said. In the same spot in front of the courthouse four years before, Cuomo had said something identical, vowing to put an end to what he called "Albany's antics."
"Professor Teachout and I agree on one thing," Astorino said when it was his turn to talk. "The average New Yorker can't get a fair shake in this state anymore. We're going to turn this state around, whether it's Governor Teachout or Governor Astorino."
As he spoke, the protesters arrived. There were five of them, and they were very young, in their early 20s. They wore office-casual — khakis, modest dresses starched shirts — and they seemed alternately nervous and bored, like teenagers squirming their way through church. "Professor Teachout stands for something," Astorino continued. "She has principles."
One of the young protesters made a loud, elaborate snorting noise. "Go back to Vermont, Teachout!" another called. "Teachout, what state are you from?" another asked. They burst into nervous giggles. The reporters glanced at one another, then began attempting, unsuccessfully, to snap photos of the protesters, who promptly hid their faces with their signs. "Zephyr Teachout (D-Vermont)," read one. "Come clean, Astorino!" another of the protesters shouted. After a few minutes of disagreement among the group — "You first," "No, you go," — they marched slowly behind the podium and stood there as the two candidates continued talking, unperturbed. An Astorino staffer tried, unsuccessfully, to get them to move. "Come on, guys," he pleaded. They ignored him.
The whole thing seemed odd: Four of the five sign wielders were attacking Teachout. Yet public opinion polls at the time showed that hardly anyone even knew who she was, much less that she was inspiring enough ire for a protest. And the sign holders seemed strange, too — nervous, jerky, rehearsed — as if they were being paid to be there. Neither Astorino nor Teachout had any visible reaction to their presence. "Where are you from?" several reporters asked when the protesters returned to the front of the crowd. "We're just Americans," one young woman responded, mechanically. She edged away. The press conference ended and the little group walked away at a pace not much slower than a trot.
Days later, at another Teachout rally, they were back, this time with new signs: "Fly Away, Zephyr!" By then, Teachout's campaign manager had publicly accused Governor Cuomo's camp of sending them. Cuomo's campaign spokesman Peter Kauffmann did not initially comment on the accusation but later confirmed to the Voice that they had shown up at the direction of the governor's campaign. Kauffmann said he didn't know why they had declined to identify themselves or disclose they were with the campaign.
This time, Teachout seemed almost delighted to see young protestors.
"Governor Cuomo is getting nervous," she said, with a little smile. "Because this race is getting competitive."
The governor's race is not, in fact, getting competitive. Not only is Andrew Cuomo the incumbent, but he is also immensely well connected and still somewhat popular, even in the wake of the Moreland scandal. A recent Marist poll showed that while 62 percent of voters thought his staff shouldn't have had "input" into the commission's work, less than a quarter saw it as a deciding factor in how they would cast their votes come Election Day. His favorability rating, hovering around 53 percent, is the lowest it has ever been, but Cuomo is still projected to beat Astorino handily in the general election. Meanwhile, more than 75 percent of voters haven't heard of Zephyr Teachout and have no idea she's running. There's also the matter of money: Teachout has raised $230,000 since the start of her candidacy. In July alone, Cuomo raised $3 million. She also lacks the backing of the Working Families Party, the progressive group whose leadership originally asked her to run. At the end of May, during a contentious convention, the WFP membership instead voted to endorse the governor again, with the delegates voting in his favor 59 to 41. And she has little support from the other major Democratic power players, like unions — although one big one, the Public Employees Federation, did recently endorse her. In a primary election, where few people turn out to vote in the first place, all of that almost certainly spells disaster. Cuomo has yet to even mention Teachout by name.
Yet there's no denying that the governor's campaign team seems uncomfortable. Sending the young protesters to dog Teachout struck many political observers as unwise, even bizarre; their presence at her events was widely reported and may even have served to raise her profile. In July, Cuomo's team also started trying — aggressively — to have Teachout knocked off the ballot. Two college students, who the governor's staff later confirmed were affiliated with the campaign, filed residency challenges with the state election board, arguing she hadn't lived in New York the entire five years required to run for governor. It's unclear whether the governor was directly involved in the decision to challenge Teachout's residency, and Kauffmann says Cuomo did not know his team was sending protesters to her events. But Albany insiders say Cuomo doesn't delegate much, preferring to stay deeply involved in every aspect of both governing and campaigning. "He has a very tight circle of people he has a tendency to micromanage," says one veteran New York Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He's very controlling."
"This is a very hands-on administration," Blair Horner says, more diplomatically. He's the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research group (NYPIRG), an Albany-based think tank that, despite describing itself as nonpartisan, advocates for a number of progressive issues, including better environmental protection, government reform, mass transit and public health. "Decisions are made by the second floor," he adds, referring to the location of the governor's office. "It's very much a top-down administration. I think the governor himself is personally engaged in a very granular level in what the government is doing."
That might not extend to sending interns to heckle his opponents, but over the years, a number of stories has helped paint a picture of Cuomo as intensely image-conscious, hungry to burnish and protect his legacy, with a preference for getting things done behind the scenes and with very little public comment. Sometimes that can be productive: Earlier this year, the governor helped avert a strike between Long Island Rail Road workers and their employer, although critics grumbled that he'd waited until the situation was almost resolved, then swooped at the last minute to declare victory. And Cuomo's hand is not always subtle: Earlier this year, as he and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio traded polite jabs over their slightly differing visions for universal prekindergarten, reporters suddenly received a blizzard of unsolicited statements from public officials saying they were in support of the governor's version.
At times, though, Cuomo's preference for offscreen string pulling can look more like furtive, borderline-improper behavior. In 2012, when his name was first being batted around as a possibility for the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times reported that the governor sent aides to the state archives and removed documents relating to Cuomo's time as attorney general. (Cuomo is still widely believed to be mulling a White House run in 2016.) Several news outlets, including investigative site ProPublica, have reported receiving emails from the personal email accounts of Cuomo administration members. (Those can't be sought through a Freedom of Information request, unlike emails from state accounts.) More recently, the Albany Times-Union reported that under Cuomo, the state Office of Information Technology Services has quietly implemented a new policy that deletes emails after 90 days. That, too, makes it harder for reporters and public-integrity organizations to get them.
Teachout and some of the governor's other critics have implied that Cuomo is a Chris Christie-ish figure, personally vengeful toward people who cross him. But there's little evidence of that in the public record. "I've never experienced it," says Mike McGuire, the political director for the Mason Tenders District Council, an influential group of labor unions representing some 15,000 workers in New York City and Long Island. He also helped found the Working Families Party. McGuire says Cuomo's reputation for being personally vengeful isn't backed up by facts. "That's the prevailing wisdom, but I couldn't point a finger to anything."
But McGuire does believe that Cuomo very badly wanted the endorsement of the Working Families Party, even though it's unlikely to make or break his reelection. "The WFP delivers a couple of percentage points, generally" to their chosen candidate, he explains. "But with his future ambitions, he wants historic or near-historic numbers."
That could explain the Cuomo campaign's seeming preoccupation with sidelining Teachout. Still, challenging her residency in court seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a largely unknown candidate that the governor will have little problem crushing come Sept. 9, the day of the Democratic primary. The veteran Democratic strategist, like many Albany insiders, finds it baffling. "I would have completely ignored her if I was advising him," he says. "It's very hard to understand the thought process because I don't agree with it. It's stupid."
But Kauffmann, Cuomo's campaign spokesperson, says the challenge was simply about the law. "The challenge to her residency is because she doesn't meet the residency requirements to run for governor in New York state," he told the Voice in July, shortly before the case went to trial in front of an elections judge in Brooklyn Supreme Court. "If someone's going to run for governor, they should be qualified to run for governor, right? There are certain criteria that the law establishes to mandate that the person running for governor be a New York resident."
Teachout, not surprisingly, sees it differently: She believes Cuomo is challenging her because he's afraid of what she represents for the future of the Democratic Party, both in the state and nationally. "Right now there's a debate going on in the Democratic Party about who we are," she says during the first of three interviews with the Voice, this one held in July at her modest Midtown headquarters. "Governor Cuomo represents a radical break from traditional Democratic values."
For Teachout, those traditional Democratic values include a few core tenents: she's pro-public education, anti-fracking, pro-renewable energy, and anti-government corruption — that means, chiefly, that she supports public financing of elections and limits on big corporate donors. She's also steadfastly opposed to the proposed merger of Time Warner and Comcast, which she sees as a particularly disastrous example of corporations being given undue control over a huge sector of New York's economy.
"I represent a traditional Democratic platform, " she says. "I think [Cuomo] has abandoned some of the traditional things that made New York great, which made it a leader. Take public education: Governor Cuomo has been to a public school once, as far as we can tell, as a governor, and started his governorship proposing the largest education cuts in state history. Since then, every single penny that has been added to the state budget for education, he has fought. Inasmuch as he's engaged in the state education policy at all, it's been privatization."
The Teachout campaign is a small operation, 15 to 20 full-time staffers operating out of a spartan office suite that the candidate refers to as a "rabbit warren." Yet, they've managed to achieve some startling things: After the WFP declined to endorse Teachout, she decided to continue her campaign anyway, an effort that required her to gather 15,000 signatures to get on the Democratic primary ballot. Her team gathered 45,000, something she says is due to a large, impassioned volunteer base, as well as several full-time staffers who were focused on directing them. In recent weeks, she's also gotten the big endorsement from the Public Employees Federation, the state's second-largest union, and another from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig's influential Mayday PAC. That nod led to a surge in campaign donations, which, while modest by Cuomo standards, was still a huge boost for the campaign.
In a series of energetic stump speeches, Teachout has been absolutely merciless in her criticism of Cuomo's governership. After the Moreland Commission scandal broke, she issued a statement urging him to "resign immediately." "He's liberal on a few social issues," she acknowledges, including marriage equality, which he strongly backed in New York state. "But his economic policy is simply a trickle-down economic policy."
Teachout is 42, with short, blond hair and, while campaigning, a nearly permanent, polite smile, as if she's always listening to an overly long but still enjoyable story at a cocktail party. Her ancestors are from Sweden; her great-grandparents, stone-quarry workers, immigrated to rural Vermont, where her family remains and where Teachout grew up. She still stores her car and many of her possessions in her parents' barn. These days, after subletting a series of crappy apartments all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, she's settled in Fort Greene, where she lives alone, not far from the park. Teachout started her working life as a special education assistant, just after college, before attending law school at Yale and then working as a death penalty lawyer in North Carolina. In her second year in New York, she participated in Occupy Wall Street, joining the legal working group and once even holding her office hours in Zuccotti Park. In 2004, she also served as the director of Internet organizing for the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who was briefly considered the Democratic front-runner. Of all those experiences, Teachout points to Dean as the biggest influence on her run for governor; she uses it often as an example for what her own campaign can accomplish. "When he started out, he was an asterisk," she says, "and also the only one opposed to the war in Iraq. By the end of the primary season, all the other candidates were opposed, too. I saw the power of primaries."
Several people credit Teachout with popularizing blogs among presidential candidates. In 2004, almost no one knew what a blog was, but when the other candidates saw the success of the one she'd created for Dean, they quickly hopped aboard. Dean's run, though, also eventually created a minor maelstrom of controversy for Teachout, when she revealed on her personal blog, after Dean was no longer in the running, that his staff had hired two popular left-leaning bloggers as consultants. Teachout said she and the Dean campaign had paid Jerome Armstrong of myDD.com and Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos. The implication was that the two men had been paid in return for good press. Arguing for greater disclosure among political blogs, she wrote that they'd paid the men a great deal more than other staffers of "similar backgrounds," adding, "while they ended up also providing useful advice, the initial reason for our outreach was explicitly to buy their airtime. To be very clear, they never committed to supporting Dean for the payment — but it was very clearly, internally, our goal."
Moulitsas was outraged by the suggestion that he'd participated in any type of pay-to-play, pointing out that he'd posted a disclosure on his site. Nine years later, he's still clearly not a Teachout fan, writing on his blog in May, before she was officially in the running, that she had "zero name ID, no candidate experience, and [is] utterly lacking the heft and accomplishments necessary to spark a movement." He urged the Working Families Party not to run her as their candidate. (Moulitsas did not return a request for comment.) In the end, even though Teachout didn't get WFP's endorsement, the decision was clearly a struggle for its membership. The party was founded in 1996 as an alliance between labor unions and the progressive group Citizen Action, designed to marry progressive social and economic policy. These days, they deliver a solid bloc of votes to their chosen candidates, and Cuomo openly coveted their endorsement.
But for several months before the May WFP convention, its top leaders were broadcasting their discontent with Cuomo: his failure to support, in any real way, their efforts to create campaign finance reform, his lack of funding for public education, and his support for tax breaks for the very wealthy. In the end, though, after a heated floor debate — and after Cuomo sent over three successive video statements promising to support the WFP's pet causes, he finally won their nomination. One of the biggest deciding factors, according to multiple reports from the convention, as well as conversations with people who attended, was his promise to rein in the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of five state Senate Democrats who broke away in 2011 and began voting with the body's Republicans. The IDC, led by Senator Jeff Klein, has been a persistent turd in the punch bowl in the intervening years, keeping the Senate Democrats from having a strong majority to pass some of their most cherished causes: a bill to raise the minimum wage; a small-donor matching system, similar to the one New York City has, in which the state would match the donation a citizen gave to a candidate participating in the program; the 10-point Women's Equality Act; and, they hope, marijuana decriminalization (a bill Cuomo is unlikely to sign, given his tepid support for even medical marijuana). Soon after Cuomo won the WFP endorsement, both he and Klein issued statements saying the breakaway group would rejoin their fellow Democrats.
The next legislative session will be the time when the state sees if they actually adhere to that promise.
Karen Scharff, the WFP's co-chairwoman, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Teachout's, but says the decision to endorse Cuomo was the best way to ensure those things have a chance of getting done. "Our focus in the WFP is making sure we elect a senate to make sure we pass a progressive-policy platform," she says. The minimum wage, campaign finance reform, passing the DREAM Act, the immigration reform bill, she adds, "those are things that are going to have an impact on people's lives." As for the renegade Democrats: "Senator Klein and the IDC made a firm commitment that they'll create a coalition government with the Senate Democrats. That'll give us a solid Democratic majority that we feel confident will pass a legislative agenda in the interest of working people in New York," she says.
Some cynics have suggested that the WFP didn't put up Teachout as a legitimate candidate but used her as a scare tactic to extract promises from the governor. Scharff is adamant that's not the case: "That's definitely not true. Definitely not true. It wasn't, like, 'Let's pretend to run another candidate.' For me, personally, as of Thursday night" — the convention ended on a Saturday — "I thought we were going with her, because we hadn't gotten the commitments we wanted [from Cuomo.] We were totally prepared to run a different candidate."
Teachout is careful about what she'll say about not winning the WFP endorsement after being urged by the party's leadership to run. "I was surprised," she says, mildly. "But I do respect the choices of those who decided the governor was offering a good deal. That's clearly what it was about."
She also believes Cuomo wouldn't have offered such a sweet deal without the pressure of her candidacy: "I'm very proud of the role I played in helping the WFP get a bigger deal." That said, she adds, "From the beginning of talking to the WFP, I said I wanted to run in the Democratic primary. And nothing that happened at the WFP convention changed that."
Teachout's independent crusade doesn't come as a surprise to Matt Stoller, a political activist and sometime-blogger and essayist who's been a friend since her Dean years. "She's a true believer," he says. "She really believes in making the world a better place, and that she, personally, can do it." Even as a long-shot candidate, he adds, "This is a meaningful campaign.
Because it's an illustration of how you try to go up against these guys, even when it looks difficult, and when there might be political retribution."
For Teachout, primary campaigning means speaking to the state's innumerable Democratic clubs. They're tiny groups of party diehards —usually older people with very long memories — and they make up the majority of the people who bother to vote in primary elections. On a recent weeknight, Teachout was circulating among a small, very posh crowd in a comically enormous Greenwich Village living room. It was a wine-and-cheese night, and a wine-and-cheese kind of crowd. They greeted her warmly, if not with wild enthusiasm. "In March, the Working Families Party approached me to run," she tells them, adding that even after they didn't endorse her, she was committed to running against Cuomo anyway. "He's basically a Republican in the name of a Democrat. I supported him for four years. I admired his father. He said, 'I'm going to clean up Albany, return honor and dignity to the office of governor.' He hasn't done any of that." The crowd was nodding. "I don't think he believed I would run," she tells them. "He didn't know who I was. I think he was surprised I got 41 votes at the WFP convention. I heard he called somebody and said, 'What does she want?' Well, Governor, I think she wants to run for governor of the state of New York."
"He's got the party behind him," Frieda Bradlow says of Cuomo. She's in her 80s, and has been participating in city, state, and national politics since 1948 (The biggest lesson she's learned, she says dryly, "is that there are rotten apples all over the country.") Barlow has belonged to the Village Independent Democrats, the neighborhood's political club, for many years. They recently voted to endorse Teachout, one of a handful of neighborhood groups and progressive organizations to do so. "The Democratic Party organization, including the state delegates, has just rubber-stamped him. But ordinary people resent the fact that he's refused to tax the wealthy. He's neither his father's son nor his mother's. We have to send a strong message to him that you can't do things like this to the state of New York." She'll politely admit, though, that Teachout isn't the favorite to win the primary. "I'd have to vote for Cuomo over Astorino" in the general election, she says, sounding less than thrilled. "He's the lesser of two evils. You hold your nose and vote."
Teachout and her running mate for lieutenant governor, Tim Wu, have received some of their largest donations from the tech industry, including Brad Burnham, a New York-based Tumblr board member and venture capitalist.
Wu is a mellow, direct law professor at Columbia University. He's best known for popularizing the idea of "net neutrality," the concept that Internet providers should provide access to everything on the net equally, without favoritism or roadblocks. He keeps earning his plainspoken reputation. In one joint campaign appearance, a protest outside Cuomo's office, Wu talked, in a blue kind of way, about public corruption. Referring to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he said, "People in New York City wander around, walk around, and they look at Port Authority Bus Terminal, they look at Penn Station, and they can't understand why these places are still miserable shit holes after billions and billions in dollars in spending."
The governor's race and the lieutenant governor's are entirely separate. There's a chance, one that's increasingly being discussed in Democratic circles, that Teachout could lose her primary, but Wu could win his. That's a distinct possibility, especially given how lukewarm the support is for Cuomo's pick, Kathy Hochul, a former Congresswoman for New York's 26th district. Hochul is a social and fiscal conservative on many issues, best known for aggressively campaigning against illegal immigration during her run for Congress.
In a campaign ad called "Deserve to Hear," which is still available on YouTube, she touted the fact that, in 2003, as the Erie County Clerk, she'd opposed then-Governor Eliot Spitzer's effort to let undocumented immigrants apply for driver's licenses. This year, seven years after the ads first ran, she's said that she only opposed driver's licenses for undocumented people on national security grounds, telling the New York Observer, "[T]hat license allows them to get on a plane, and God only knows where they would go with that. That was the situation. People that I've spoken to understand that dynamic."
But Wu has pressed Hochul on those words, releasing a statement that said, in part, "Kathy Hochul made her name based on her anti-immigrant policies; my family story is an immigrant success story." (Wu's father is from Taiwan and his mother is British; he grew up in Toronto.)
Teachout's supporters, like the ones at her Greenwich Village fundraiser, think that even if she doesn't win, she'll still force Cuomo to move further to the left, and to denounce or at least somehow qualify Hochul's positions. "It's not all about winning," says Jim Ledbetter, editor of Inc. magazine and one of the hosts of Teachout's Greenwich Village fundraiser. (He is also a former Village Voice columnist.) "It's also about raising the right issues." Teachout refuses to put it in those terms, refuses to consider herself merely a symbolic or a protest candidate. She also refuses to entertain any questions about what she'll do if she doesn't win the primary. "I'm not answering those questions," she says. "I am completely focused on the primary. Completely."
An avid card player, Teachout has been playing poker intermittently with the same group of people since 1993. When pressed about her long odds, she reaches for a gambling metaphor. "I know I'm an underdog," she says. "I know the odds aren't in my favor. But as anybody who plays cards knows, the fact that you have less than a 50 percent chance doesn't mean you have no chance."
Corruption is sewn into the fabric of New York politics; a layer of grime has coated Albany and New York City alike for hundreds of years, from Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall to Eliot Spitzer. According to the New York Times, in the past seven years alone, more than 30 New York state politicians have been indicted or convicted of a crime, or else formally censured or accused of misconduct. According to the national Center for Public Integrity (CPI), between 1998 and 2007, New York state saw 704 politicians indicted, good for second in the nation during that period. (Florida led the nation, with 824.) The CPI gave New York a "D" for its public accountability and risk of corruption, ranking it 37th in the nation for ethical behavior and transparency in government. (Bruce Roter, a professor at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, has even started fundraising for a Museum of Political Corruption. He hopes to enlist ex-con politicians as docents.)
The two New York governors before Cuomo fared especially poorly. After Spitzer resigned over his patronage of sex workers, his replacement, David Paterson, was accused of witness tampering in a domestic violence case that involved one of his staffers, who was accused of choking and shoving his girlfriend. Paterson wasn't criminally charged after an independent prosecutor determined he'd demonstrated "errors in judgment" but hadn't actually broken the law. In the end, though, he got in trouble for something far dumber: taking five free Yankees tickets, for which he was fined $62,000 by the state Public Integrity Commission (now known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics). The tireless, foolhardy people fighting to make Albany a more honest place still somehow maintain hope that the city's veneer of sleaze can be washed clean. "When you're a reformer in Albany, hope springs eternal," Horner, the NYPIRG director, says.
Horner and NYPIRG sent a set of government reform recommendations to Cuomo's Moreland Commission during its brief life. "We were hopeful that it would create a pathway to meaningful reform," he says. But soon after the panel was created, they began to suspect that wasn't going to be the case. "We started to see the press reports that the commissioners were frustrated by the fact that they were limited in terms of what it was they could look at. In the Albany echo chamber, you can hear things going on."
In December 2013, before its death, the Moreland Commission released one preliminary report, calling existing laws on both campaign financing and preventing the bribery of already-elected public officials weak and ill enforced. "Our state's bribery statute is singularly weak," wrote members of the commission in an executive summary. "We have no law on the books against undisclosed self-dealing; we have no means of preventing corrupt officials from reentering public life; and our criminal procedure laws make it difficult to crack open inherently insular corruption schemes. We recommend tough new laws, and penalties that fit the crime."
Despite the tough talk, many of the specific recommendations were mild, at best: asking for lower campaign-contribution limits, recommending the governor pass an ethics package he'd been mulling for months. Horner was disappointed though not necessarily surprised. "My experience generally is that the longer the governors are in office, the more they become the status quo, the less they become the agents for reform," he says. "And that makes it harder. When [Cuomo] came into office, one of the big things he'd talked about was restructuring the government. He created a commission to look at that. What happened, though? Some change. Not a lot. And now his people are all in positions of power in those agencies. It'll be harder to merge agencies and reduce the number of patronage jobs." In reality, Horner says, "The longer you're governor, the harder it becomes to change the government. It's hard to articulate reforming yourself. The windows of opportunity for reform really occur in the early stages of an administration. That doesn't mean he won't try [if he's reelected]. But historically that's what I've seen: a lot of talk about reform and not a lot of doing."
Horner is politely skeptical of Teachout's chances in the primary. Still, as a longtime political observer, he's impressed by her and Wu's unlikely effort. Just gathering 45,000 signatures is no mean feat, he points out. "Even tapping into liberal discontent with the governor, you still need an operation to make it happen," he says. "They clearly do. You can't just stand out in front of Grand Central and get those kinds of numbers. I don't know how they did it. They clearly have something working for them."
'I feel great," Teachout said airily. It was the morning of Aug. 11, and in just a few hours she would find out whether Cuomo's effort to kick her off the ballot had been successful. At a greasy spoon diner not far from her campaign headquarters, she was showing no particular signs of strain, working her way through a cappuccino, a fruit smoothie, and a plate of eggs, over easy. "It's not fun to have someone staring you down, trying to throw you off your game," she said, spooning the foam off her cappuccino. "But it ended up just proving I was a New Yorker."
Cuomo's lawyer, Martin E. Connor, a former New York state senator, argued that Teachout hadn't lived in New York long enough to be governor, that while she'd moved here five years ago to teach at Fordham, she'd spent most of her time out of state. He'd handed Teachout a 29-point subpoena, asking for tax returns, real estate records, every address she'd ever had in New York, every utility bill she'd paid, and a list of every magazine and every piece of correspondence she'd received at her parents' house in Vermont. The subpoena revealed that she had listed her permanent address as her parent's house on both her tax forms and her driver's licenses up until this year. But Teachout and her attorneys also showed that in her day-to-day life — where she slept, where she ate, where she kept her clothes — she'd been living in New York for the time required. She moved frequently, leaving one apartment after only a few months because the stove and the refrigerator never worked quite right. "These are normal New York stories," she says. "I lived in a walk-up where the fridge didn't work. I came here with student debt. I needed to save money. I kept my car at my parents' place because I use public transit. Not all of us grew up in the governor's mansion."
Teachout comes across as an intensely private person, and the trial, which took two days, was clearly a bit of a struggle for her. (It also revealed that in her free time, she engages in some deeply nerdy pursuits, including hang gliding in New Hampshire and community theater during her summers in Vermont.) She lost her polite smile soon after Connor called her to the witness stand, and became teary-eyed for a moment during questioning, when asked about one of her roommates, Lynn Marie Ruse. The two were friends for years; Teachout moved into Ruse's apartment on East 7th Street and was her tenant for about a year. Ruse died last August. "The cancer she finally died of, we don't know what it was," Teachout says in the diner, her eyes fixed on her eggs. "We suspect it was an outgrowth of the cervical cancer she'd had previously."
Ruse was what Teachout calls "a classic New York story," a yoga teacher and modern dancer who had on and off health care all her adult life. "That's why they didn't catch it until it was stage IV," Teachout says. "She would have loved to be part of this campaign. She got a kick out of the fact that I was her tenant while going on Bill Moyers." She says New York needs to be preserved for people like Ruse. "This is a part of New York that's extremely important. We need to keep it a place that's not just for bankers but is also livable for artists and entrepreneurs."
Teachout previously called the trial "frivolous" and "baseless." "They never had a theory about where I lived that wouldn't have been refuted with one phone call," she says. "I came from a very small town. They could have called the general store and they would've told them that I don't live there." Teachout believes that the legal challenge was motivated by fear. "Look what's happening with people like Eric Cantor and the governor of Hawaii," she says, two recent incumbents who were unexpectedly and roundly defeated by upstart challengers. "The tectonic plates in government are shifting."
With the primary less than a month away, Teachout says she's now focused on trying to get Governor Cuomo to participate in at least one debate with her. ("There haven't been any discussions about debates," Kauffmann says.) "I think he'll do it at some point," she says, draining the dregs of her smoothie. Her smile is back. "It'll become increasingly embarrassing for him not to do it. I think the pressure will be harder and harder for him to ignore."
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