How Far Can Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu Push New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 18 2014 12:05 PM

The Left Flank

Progressives Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu are on a mission to push the New York governor’s race to the left.

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Progressives, Teachout especially, didn’t think the other Cuomo story was getting told. Cuomo had spent his tenure working with a Republican state Senate—in marked contrast to former Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer—and giving school boards less than they asked for while proposing property and estate tax cuts. After his lieutenant governor bowed out, he chose former Rep. Kathy Hochul as a running mate—Hochul, who had won a tough western New York district by running to the center, Hochul who even took credit for quashing a bill that would have given driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

That tore it. The Hochul choice was enough to get Tim Wu, the net neutrality advocate and legal theorist (and sometime Slate contributor), to join Teachout on her ticket.

“Cuomo wants to win by some massive margin, to prove that he’s a national candidate,” says Wu. “That’s why he picked Hochul. He wants to be what Chris Christie used to be known as. I just don’t think that’s a responsible way to govern the state. There’s a battle going on for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party right now, and there are some deep ideological divides that sometimes we paper over because there’s a Democratic president. On immigration, I think we should be having an open debate in the party.”

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So far, it’s almost working—and ironically, that may be due to an early setback for the progressives. Teachout entered the race days before the Working Families Party convention, where activists would determine the progressive third party’s ballot line. She’d been approached to run months earlier, at a time when polls suggested that a WFP candidate could pull a quarter of the vote. All of it would come from Cuomo’s left. Any of it would cost Cuomo him his expected landslide. Too much of it would elect a Republican governor.

The progressives were cut off at the pass. Cuomo scrambled, cutting a video to court the WFP endorsement, then cutting another to make sure the details were right. The governor who’d already been making election-year deals with labor unions made specific concessions to the left. Deny Teachout the WFP line, and he’d try to elect a Democratic Senate. Once he had that Senate, he’d get their way on a New York version of the DREAM Act, on marijuana decriminalization, and on public matching funds for state campaigns.

It worked. Cuomo won the nomination with close to 60 percent of the vote. But that removed any threat that a Teachout and Wu ticket could spoil the Democrats.

“Boy, you want to see this club go nuts?” says Dan Florentio, a retiree and regular at the Staten Island meeting. “Mention Ralph Nader. If she ran and somehow cost Cuomo the election, she’d be the devil incarnate.”

Since she’s not running in the fall, since she’s only now primarying Cuomo among Democrats, Teachout is instead copping a move from the Tea Party. Conservatives stayed inside the Republican Party to force it further right, and Teachout watched it with a combination of dread and jealousy.

“The tea parties represent a genuine, authentic civic anger,” Teachout wrote in The Nation in 2009. “I think the public anger is warranted. We are spending billions of dollars on bank bailouts that will not serve us. People are profoundly, and rightly, insecure about their jobs, where they live, their health care, and the economy. They are concerned, rightly, that the government’s response seems to be driven by the financial industry. They are concerned, rightly, about the cost of the programs and the degree of deficit spending.”

The left-wing Tea Party never happened. Occupy Wall Street happened, and Teachout spent time with New York activists, encouraging them to focus on “Madison’s idea of decentralized power.” The internal Democratic Party policing just never happened. Even in Chicago, where one possible progressive challenger to Mayor Rahm Emanuel led him by 22 points, the establishment scared her off with a tower of campaign money.

Teachout will be outspent, too. Whoever was going to run against Cuomo was going to be outspent. In Staten Island, she ends her pitch with a real-life allegory about her family’s Vermont farm, an idyllic place roamed by cows and chickens, and then, eventually, a bull.

“We weren’t ready for the bull,” says Teachout.

She walks the crowd through the ensuing crisis, and how at age 8 she was dispatched to taunt the bull into running from a neighbor’s property back into theirs. “My job was to walk up to the bull, bother him a little bit, maybe tickle his nose, and then run as fast as I could.”

Teachout pauses and grins wide.

“So now I’m running for governor of the state of New York.”

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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