Just six weeks ago, I talked to Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu about their hopeless, optimistic campaign to govern New York. Teachout, a Howard Dean campaign veteran, was running in the Democratic primary against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Wu, the man who invented the term "net neutrality," was challenging former Rep. Kathy Hochul, a conservative Democrat from the Buffalo area who'd been hand-picked by Cuomo as his next lieutenant governor.
Teachout and Wu, who'd never run for anything, were cheerfully explicit: They wanted to move Cuomo, and the Democratic Party, to the left. "There's a battle going on for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party right now," Wu told me, "and there are some deep ideological divides that sometimes we paper over because there's a Democratic president." Just as the Tea Party had changed what Republicans stood for—and what they could stand for, if they hoped to win primaries—Teachout/Wu would change the Democrats.
One week after I talked to the candidates, the New York Times released a rich blockbuster investigation into how Cuomo had shuttered an ethics commission when it sniffed too close to his own garbage. Days later, not-so-mysterious protesters started showing up at Teachout events, heckling the candidate and challenging her to prove she wasn't a secret Vermonter trying to break the state's five-year residency rule. The protesters foreshadowed a legal challenge from Cuomo's campaign, a three-day ordeal that may go down as the biggest own goal of the 2014 elections. A media that had its doubts about covering a "long-shot campaign" was instead covering two quotable candidates who wanted to humble Andrew Cuomo. The Sierra Club endorsed Teachout/Wu. Local Democratic campaigns started singing Teachout's praises.
Yesterday, the New York Post's Fred Dicker reported that Wu had spooked the Cuomo campaign enough that contingency plans were being drawn up should the academic and writer defeat Hochul. There's been literally zero public polling of the race, but there's real panic about Cuomo losing more than a third of the vote to Teachout, and losing his choice of a running mate. I talked to Wu today.
Slate: So what did you make of the Fred Dicker story?
Tim Wu: I’ll be honest, I liked it! We’ve been sort of hearing that there’s a sense of panic in the Cuomo campaign, and a sense of desperation in the Hochul campaign, and I guess it confirms what we’re hearing from back channels. They’re doing more internal polling than we are. A lot more. And they're worried.
Slate: Would you be comfortable running on the same ticket as Andrew Cuomo?
Wu: I remain hopeful that Zephyr will in fact win an upset. There's no polling—it’s very possible you’ll see a Cantor/Dave Brat situation. Everyone’s flying blind. But should Cuomo win, and I win, I have a very different vision of what the lieutenant governor of New York should be. I view it as similar to the New York City public advocate—I would weigh in and disagree, or agree, independently. Washington might have a problem of too many checks and balance. Albany has, generally speaking, a problem of too few checks, of having too much concentrated power, so it would be nice to have at least one independent voice in Albany.
Slate: Have you gotten a chance to debate this with Hochul? Actually, are you going to debate her at all?
Wu: NY1 invited Hochul and I to debate, and the debate will be Wednesday if she agrees. That would require acknowledging that I exist.
Slate: What was the campaign impact of the residency lawsuit?
Wu: It was a complete backfire. So, I’m a fan of the historian Paul Kennedy, and if you read his book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, you're reminded that imperial overreach is always what leads to downfall. Cuomo was in a very strong position, but he overreached with the residency lawsuit. It's allowed us to focus on Hochul again, for example, and I'm running against a Democrat who voted to hold Holder in contempt.
Slate: I covered Hochul a little and knew she had conservative votes, but I don't even remember that.
Wu: Remember when Democrats had the big walkout to protest the Holder contempt vote? She stayed with Speaker Boehner and voted with him. She took several votes to repeal Obamacare. Her environmental record is probably the most conservative in the caucus. That was all supposed to be secret and hidden. But it’s like a time bomb.
Slate: Doesn't it matter that Nancy Pelosi has endorsed Hochul, and that some other Democrats are saying it's not worth tossing her aside in the primary?
Wu: A few congressional Democrats have endorsed her, and the sentiments they've offered were the kind of things you'd find on a congressional Christmas card. In my experience, if you get three congresspeople supporting a bill, you don’t actually have support for it. Hochul was able to come up with three supporters after nearly two years in Congress. And part of Pelosi’s job is to support people who were with her under her leadership.