NEW YORK—The Staten Island Democratic Association meets every month at Karl’s Klipper, a seafood joint just a few blocks from the ferry, where the management is thoughtful enough to provide presidential-themed placemats. Tonight’s meeting will start early because a candidate for governor—someone named Zephyr Teachout—has to be right in and right out.
“This is the guy running against the governor?” asks Marie Dwyer, the association’s secretary.
“Zephyr, you know, it sounds like one of those names the hippies gave out in the ’70s,” says a retiree, poking through his tuna melt.
Wrong, and—well, not wrong, although a glance at the candidate essay and photo provided at the meeting could have solved the gender conundrum. When Teachout arrives, clad in a yellow business suit and trailed by one aide, she works the room and apologizes for her roughened vocal chords. “I’ll speak for five or 10 minutes and take your questions,” she says.
The bar blares ’90s radio rock. An errant radio is playing the All-Star game. Teachout rolls with it. Still, some of her lines are greeted with polite, blank looks.
“A lot of the people supporting our campaign are inventors and entrepreneurs,” she says. “The founder of a thing called Wordpress. A CEO of Digg. These are high-tech companies that see that New York’s future will depend in part on whether we make this state more amenable for small businesses.”
Then she starts talking about how to do that—education spending, more rails, a better MTA, a ban on fracking, a gay and transgender rights bill. The chatter slows, then stops. Teachout has the room.
“I supported Gov. Cuomo four years ago,” says Teachout. “I believed in him. I actually even tried to volunteer for him. He said he was going to clean up Albany. He said he was going to veto gerrymandered districts. I believed that he was going to fight for Democratic senators and a Democratic Senate. And having grown up loving Mario Cuomo, with a Time magazine with his picture on the cover hanging in my bedroom, I believed that he was going to fight for traditional Democratic values. I have been so disappointed.”
Teachout is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s avowedly progressive primary challenger, in a year when few Democrats are sweating the left flank. No red state Democratic senator—not even the ones who broke with the party on immigration or gun safety—drew a 2014 primary challenger. No Democrat is seriously organizing to challenge Hillary Clinton’s expected presidential bid. Cuomo, who dismisses Teachout as an avatar for the “extreme left,” has raised $35 million for his re-election bid. Teachout has raised $277,360.
But she’s running, and she’s running avowedly to force Cuomo to the left. Teachout was the director of Internet organizing for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, the great lost cause that adopted then empowered the liberal “netroots.” Dean’s campaign changed the boundaries of the debate in the Democratic Party. The 2006 primary defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman cemented those changes. But there’s been no great shift since then, and Teachout frames the New York race as a guilt-free, risk-free chance to move the party left.
“I think it’s time to have a Democrat in the Democratic primary for governor in the Democratic state of New York,” Teachout says in Staten Island. “We know who Gov. Cuomo thinks he can take for granted, which is Democrats, and who he thinks he needs to play to, which is the Republicans.”
The story of “Andrew Cuomo, closet right-winger” is well-known among progressives and obscure for everybody else. Cuomo won an easy 2010 race against one of the year’s most self-destructive Tea Party candidates, and when he’s made national news, he’s done it by driving left. He signed gay marriage into law. He signed a gun safety bill. He warned “extreme conservatives” not to waste their time in New York, which made him a dunk-tank villain on Fox News. Polls give the governor supermajority support from self-identified Democrats.