Cuomo Opponent Unbowed by Underdog Status

Zephyr Teachout in The New York Times, August 24, 2014

Media Source

There she was, just to the right of the stage, waving her arms furiously, hoping that the event’s host, Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, would see her and give her a shout-out. No such luck; a tall security guard was in the way.

As Zephyr Teachout was leaving the gospel concert in East Flatbush, a man in a wheelchair called out, “Who are you?” Ever eager, she explained that she was running as a progressive against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

The man, won over, pointed to a homemade campaign button pinned to Ms. Teachout’s jacket. “Can I have your button?” he asked. She gladly obliged.

Just a few months ago, Ms. Teachout was a popular Fordham University law professor with ties to Occupy Wall Street and a keen interest in political corruption. But after the liberal Working Families Party approached her to run against Mr. Cuomo — before it arrived at a bitterly contested decision to stick by the governor — Ms. Teachout decided, with the encouragement of other liberal activists, to mount her own long-shot campaign.

Yes, she knows that few New Yorkers have heard of her. Yes, she knows that she will not have enough money for television ads. And yes, she knows that her best shot at statewide exposure — a debate with Mr. Cuomo — is unlikely. Still, she insists that she is gaining momentum, and is zestily campaigning with a kind of cynicism-free optimism that makes her a sunny surprise.

“I didn’t know politics would be this much fun!” she beamed after a South Asian festival in Queens a week ago.

Privately, Ms. Teachout’s admirers say that her campaign has already succeeded, by forcing Mr. Cuomo to embrace more liberal causes. If she gets more than 25 percent in the Sept. 9 primary, some argue, then Mr. Cuomo might need to worry about liberal angst heading into a general election against the Republican candidate, Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive.

Ms. Teachout does not pretend that her task will be easy. But she said the worst that could happen would be that she got only 1 percent of the vote, and that she became known as an idealistic but politically naïve professor.

“We’re underdogs, we know that, but we’re serious underdogs,” she said at a house party near her apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Ms. Teachout and her running mate for lieutenant governor, Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, talked about winning over the small number of Democrats who actually vote in primaries.

They hope to tap into disillusionment or even anger with Mr. Cuomo among teachers, public employees and upstate residents opposed to hydraulic fracturing.

“In the face of Andrew Cuomo’s silence, I am being loud,” she said in Fort Greene.

Mr. Cuomo has not publicly mentioned Ms. Teachout by name, and his campaign has declined to comment on her candidacy.

Still, avid Democrats are getting to know her. A Vermont native, Ms. Teachout, 42, worked as a death penalty lawyer in North Carolina and co-founded an organization intent on breaking up Wall Street banks. The author of a coming book on political corruption, she is on track for tenure at Fordham early next year.

Her most formative political experience came in 2003, when she became the director of online organizing for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

“She was terrific; she was hard-working,” Mr. Dean said during a 10th-anniversary celebration that Ms. Teachout attended for Democracy for New York City, a Dean-inspired group.

She often mentions two United States senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — as role models. She also raves about State Senator Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx and Letitia James, the New York City public advocate.

She even buys into the anti-“crony capitalism” message, if not the prescription, of Dave Brat, the Virginia professor and Tea Party upstart who defeated Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, in the Republican primary in June.

Like Mr. Brat, Ms. Teachout has little money. But contributions have increased so much since Mr. Cuomo unsuccessfully tried to kick her off the ballot that a highly targeted online advertising campaign is planned. She has a paid staff of about 10, and shares a cramped office in Midtown Manhattan with lawyers, real estate brokers and a casting company.

On the trail, she often asks people what they want in a governor. She has also honed a stump speech, talking about her unusual name (yes, that is her first name, and her last name is Dutch), then touching on public schools, small businesses, transportation and infrastructure.

“In my vision we can have an economy and a democracy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy and well-connected,” she said at a street fair outside the Bronx Zoo a week ago, eliciting a few “that’s right” replies.

To get around, Ms. Teachout usually takes public transportation or relies on rides from volunteers, especially when she travels to Ithaca, Binghamton and other areas to fire up “fractivists.” One afternoon she spent $65 to take five people, including an aide and an independent filmmaker, from the Bronx to Queens by livery cab.

Things do not always go according to plan.

At the Chatpati Mela celebration in Jackson Heights, for example, she could not distribute any campaign literature (black-and-white photocopies) or speak onstage — it was a strictly nonpartisan affair.

Unfazed, she talked excitedly with vendors until she stumbled upon some Bangladeshis selling saris. After hearing about the travails of establishing small businesses, she bought an orange one for $20, and tried it on.

“Should I wear this to my debate with Governor Cuomo?” she joked.