When the Washington Post ran an essay by Zephyr Teachout, they prefaced it by observing that she is "to say the least, not the kind of person you'd expect to run for office."
That seems fair. Teachout is a Vermont-born law professor. In profiles of her by those who know her, she comes across as humble. In her own writing and speaking, she comes across as supremely capable. And she is shaking up the race for New York's governor's seat.
While the GOP has been wrestling visibly and noisily with battles between True Believers and RINOs, the Democratic Party has quietly divided into a party of traditional Democrats and corporate operatives. Arguably, Corporatism has become a third party in American politics that has embedded itself in both Republican and Democratic camps.
Nobody typifies the Corporate Democrat brand better than Governor Andy Cuomo. The playbook is remarkably similar to the Corporate Republican playbook-- if you make the right moves on some splashy social issues, your constituents won't pay much attention to what you're doing on the wonkier issues of money and power. The down side is that every once in a while, somebody emerges who makes a clearer case to your party base, and you have to put a little more effort into looking like an actual member of your alleged political party. And so now Cuomo, who has made occasional Democrat noises while governing as a corporate conservative, finds himself running against an actual Democrat.
This wasn't how it was supposed to work. Cuomo was supposed to win in a landslide so convincing that he would emerge as a national player, maybe even a 2016 prospect. That means that Teachout doesn't have to beat him to hurt him. Even in defeat, Teachout can make Cuomo look a not-so-special governor with political liabilities both to the right and to the left.
Teachout is not some crazy old guy with a beard and a stunt candidacy. Both New York and national media are paying attention, from the Daily Kos to The Nation to David Weigel at Slate. Cuomo took her seriously enough to stage an eleventh hour bid for the support of the Working Families Party. It was an ugly deal that drew a promise-ish statement to act more or less like a Democrat (and it held up for just a few hours), but it was also a signal that Cuomo knows he has a problem.
So Teachout is a threatening candidate for Cuomo. But is she a credible candidate for the voters of New York in general and teachers in particular? What does she have going for her?
She's smart. She has an understanding of issues that is both nuanced and clear. For instance, she gets what the Supreme Court apparently does not get about corruption and the ways in which money has eroded the integrity of our political system. She gives every appearance of a person who figures out what is right to do based on core principles, rather than a politician who figures out how to make what she wants to do anyway appear to fit her alleged principles. She has, for me, some of the same appeal as Ron Paul-- regardless of how you feel about her principles, you admire that she has some and lives by them.
She's an experienced activist. She helped the Howard Dean campaign pioneer some tech methods for their groundbreaking run. She has worked with the Occupy folks. And unlike some activists (yes, even some education activists) she appears to do her work without much concern for her own ego or garnering attention. I mean, surely if you had heard her name before, you'd remember it. Her low profile and high activity suggest a person who is more concerned about results than attention.
Her running mate. Less attention has been paid to Teachout's running mate, Tim Wu. But Wu, the father of net neutrality, has a history of real activism of his own in addition to a career of tech and media scholarship. He's no lightweight.
She lacks one of the Democratic Party's less attractive qualities. At their worst, the Democratic Party embraces an attitude of "Just sit down and shut up while the best and the brightest tell you what's best for you." Reading about Teachout, one frequently encounters a thread of people empowerment-- the idea that people have been shut out. In her "Five Questions" interview on USA Today, one finds this quote:
People are out of power now, not just in their politics where they feel
that their voices don't matter, but in their workplace and in the
marketplace. I want to revive the old American belief -- exemplified by
Jefferson (who wanted an anti-monopoly clause in the Constitution), Teddy Roosevelt and FDR -- that concentrated private power threatens democratic institutions.
She understands the big picture. Teachout certainly has something to say directly to teachers under fire from Common Core and other reformster initiatives. But in discussing these issues, she ends up here:
Bill Gates' coup is part of a larger coup we're living through today –
where a few moneyed interests increasingly use their wealth to steer
public policy, believing that technocratic expertise and resources alone
should answer vexing political questions. Sometimes their views have
merit, but the way these private interests impose their visions on the
public – by overriding democratic decision-making – is a deep threat to
our democracy. What's more, this private subversion of public process
has come at the precise time when our common institutions, starved of
funds, are most vulnerable. But by allowing private money to supplant
democracy, we surrender the fate of our public institutions to the
personal whims of a precious few.
Yes, Teachout is a credible candidate and a real choice for the people of New York State.
Can she win? Weeellllllllll.......... She is going to be up against a mountain of money, and she's going to be swimming in the shark-infested swimming pool that is New York politics. So it's admittedly a long shot. And yet it's a valuable long shot. Here's why.
Democrats need to learn a lesson. Lordy, lordy, lordy am I tired of a Democratic Party whose slogan is, "We may screw you over and stink to high heaven, but you know you're going to vote for us rather than a GOP candidate." The Democratic Party has taken its constituent groups for granted so long it has completely forgotten that it earned those constituencies by actually listening to them and considering their concerns. The Democratic Party-- particularly the Democratic Party of New York State-- needs a serious wake-up call.
New York State voters need to learn a lesson. You know what one of the raps on teachout is going to be, sooner or later? "How can an honest person hope to get anything done in our corrupt system?" It will be phrased as questions about her ability to "play ball" or "get things done," but with any luck, NYS will get around to asking itself the big question-- "Are we so resigned to having a corrupted system that we will only consider electing corrupt officials to work with it?" That would be a good question to think long and hard about.
Cuomo needs some help writing policy. The governor has forgotten an awful lot about being a Democrat. Even if he has to move and co-opt Teachout's platform to defang her, that's a win for the state. Granted, Cuomo has proven highly adept at making promises he won't deliver on. But he can't be held accountable for promises he doesn't make.
I think Zephyr Teachout is the real deal, a candidate who can mount a credible shot at the governor's mansion that, at a bare minimum, forces state government to address some of the issues that Cuomo has left sitting in a rolled up carpet on the back porch.
You can follow the campaign here.
More importantly, you can donate to the campaign here. You know money is going to be pouring into Cuomo's coffers from all around the country. But even for those of us not in the Empire State, Teachout's campaign is going to send a message that will resonate across the nation. So chip in. Heck, you'd spend twenty bucks just to take a date to a lousy Transformer's movie, and this campaign is going to be way more entertaining that that.