Before Cynthia Nixon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there was Zephyr Teachout.
It’s been four years since Teachout, a Fordham law professor with a long history of anti-corruption work, mounted a primary challenge to Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She criticized the governor for being too corporate-friendly, for cutting taxes for the wealthy, and for not making larger investments in public education and transportation.
Cuomo, Teachout told The Nation at the time, is “a symptom of what’s happening in politics and a very disturbing one, when politics loses its representative nature and it loses its leadership. He’s fundamentally, actually, working for private power.”
She lost with 34 percent of the vote. But it’s clear now that was only the beginning.
Teachout is currently running to be New York’s next attorney general. Her campaign is part of a wave of progressive women taking on the Albany machine, from actress-turned-activist Nixon at the top of the ticket to a group of women facing off with members of a group of breakaway Democrats who vote with Republicans in the state Senate.
Last week, Nixon and Teachout cross-endorsed each other in a press conference held outside Trump Tower. Both campaigns also got a big boost recently from Ocasio-Cortez, the young socialist who shot to national prominence after she toppled Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), a 10-year party boss who had held his House seat for more than two decades.
Beyond simply the elevation of an endorsement, Ocasio-Cortez’s win also served to demonstrate, for many in New York, that other candidates like her have a path to victory in the state.
The small-dollar, grassroots powered campaigns run by all three candidates — and others like them up and down the ticket — are proof that something big is growing in the Empire State, something Teachout helped plant four years ago: Women in New York are forcing powerful people to fight for their jobs. They’re demanding to be welcomed into the halls of power, and once they get there, they’ve vowed to tear them apart.
Put another way, a specter is haunting New York, and all the powers of old Albany have, as they say, entered into a holy alliance to exorcise it — the luxury real estate developers and the wealthy corporations, Cuomo and Gillibrand, Republicans and Democrats.
A history of activism
In this particular political moment, Teachout sees her potential future job as two-pronged. Not only does it require taking on Albany, but Teachout has also vowed to take on the Trump administration.
“It’s arguably one of the most important legal jobs in the country when you can’t trust the federal government,” Teachout told ThinkProgress. “It’s absolutely critical that we continue the defensive — and offensive — work to stop illegal behavior by the [Trump] administration.”
Part of what makes her particularly qualified to be the Empire State’s next attorney general, Teachout says, is the fact that she wouldn’t be starting from scratch: along with a group of other progressive lawyers, she has already sued the Trump administration over violations of the emoluments clause.
In New York in particular, Teachout said it’s important for the attorney general to be comfortable prosecuting financial malfeasance. Additionally, she has promised to prosecute Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if elected.
At the state and local level, Teachout has promised to take on the work of investigating and prosecuting New York institutions — from the legislature itself to corporations in the state — that have enabled sexual predators.
“We’ve been stuck in the stone ages as far as the old boy’s network,” she said. “The #MeToo and #TimesUp [movements] have been really important in pushing to the forefront the sexual misconduct/harassment women face…. It’s much harder and more important work to transform institutions.”
Doing that, Teachout said, would be a priority should she become New York’s next attorney general. And that work seems particularly salient considering why the seat is up for grabs in the first place.
In May, The New Yorker reported the stories of four women who said they had been physically abused by then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Three hours after the story was posted, Schneiderman resigned. The story rocked Albany. But it didn’t really change anything, Teachout said.
Similarly, in January, another woman came forward and said Jeff Klein, the head of a group of breakaway Democrats who vote with Republicans and one of the most powerful members of the state Senate, forcibly kissed her in 2015. The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) has done nothing.
“It’s a protection scheme instead of an investigation scheme,” Teachout said of the watchdog agency.
JCOPE, in a statement provided to ThinkProgress, said no conclusions should ever be drawn from their silence.
“No conclusions can be, or ever should be drawn from the Commission’s silence when it is asked whether an investigation is possible, commenced, or finished. To divulge such information is a crime,” JCOPE chair Michael Rozen said. “The Commission has not responded to questions when it has been actively conducting investigations, or when federal prosecutors have asked it to ‘stand down.'”
It’s hard to overstate the influence Teachout’s dogged persistence on the issue — and issues of similar magnitude — has had on activists and other young candidates in the state. One of them is Julia Salazar, a young, Latina democratic socialist running for state Senate.
“Her career is really deeply inspiring to me,” Salazar recently said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “She has always been fighting for, you know, some of the most marginalized people in society that don’t have an advocate.”
Salazar is challenging a more moderate Democrat in the state Senate, and said she’s also been inspired by Teachout’s decision not to accept PAC or LLC money.
“It’s a commitment I’ve made as well, but to make that choice when you’re running for statewide office… it’s a testament to her wanting to be fully independent,” she said.
Salazar, who recently endorsed Teachout, said Teachout’s experience with Cuomo four years ago makes her particularly prepared for a role that will require her to take on the notoriously vicious governor, should he manage to win his primary on September 13.
“She faced a lot of adversity and even dirty tricks from Cuomo and Cuomo’s allies when she ran against him for governor and she really showed resilience,” Salazar said.
Salazar also praised Teachout’s work taking on the Trump administration, saying she believes it demonstrates “her moral courage and her commitment to speaking truth to power.”
In recent weeks, Teachout has racked up endorsements from a number of other progressive, grassroots groups. In conversations with ThinkProgress, they echoed Salazar, praising her independence from corporate donors and the incumbent powers in Albany.
One of the most notable of endorsements was from the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN), a group that previously announced it would remain neutral in this year’s race. That changed, however, after Teachout’s biggest rival, New York City Public Advocate Tish James was endorsed by Cuomo, NYPAN co-chair George Albro told ThinkProgress.
“In politics, you make decisions,” Albro said. “[Tish James] has, we think, gone over to the wrong side.”
Do you have any idea how powerful NYC Real Estate is in New York politics?
And how much some titans do not want an Attorney General who has no ties to that power?
I'm ready to look into tenant harassment, money laundering, tax fraud, campaign contributions, and pay-to-play.
— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) August 10, 2018
Many of Albro’s concerns center around Cuomo’s fundraising work for James. That funding ultimately came from many of the same places Cuomo gets his own cash, including big real estate developers, which raised a red flag for Albro. Additionally, James — with Cuomo’s help — received $15,000 from Cablevision, a notorious union buster.
“It seems really quite contrary to Tish’s background and we were very upset about that,” Albro said during a recent phone call.
Teachout’s independence from both Cuomo and any big corporate donors was part of what drove Indivisible Nation BK, a branch of the grassroots activist network Indivisible, to endorse Teachout as well.
“I’m a huge fan of Tish [and] I also think she would be an amazing attorney general,” Lisa Raymond-Tolan, one of the group’s leaders recently told ThinkProgress. “But that fact that Zephyr isn’t accepting any money from PACs or LLCs really sets her apart from Tish.”
James’ decision to tie herself to Cuomo also raised red flags among Indivisible members, Raymond-Tolan said.
“That was a real turning point,” she said of Cuomo’s endorsement, noting Cuomo’s history of working with Republicans and supporting the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC), a group of breakaway Democrats who caucus with Republicans. In practice, Raymond-Tolan said she believes James would speak out against Cuomo if elected, but called the endorsement “concerning” nonetheless.
Teachout, without naming names, says her independence from the Albany power structure is in fact one of the main selling points of her campaign. “I have been pointedly independent,” she told ThinkProgress. “[This job] requires publicly disagreeing with the governor, whoever that governor might be.”
James’ allies, on the other hand, have begun to argue that Teachout’s recent endorsement of Nixon undercuts that argument. A spokesperson also told ThinkProgress they believe Teachout’s suggestions about James being in the pocket of Cuomo’s people constitute a “disrespectful” line of attack.
“As everyone in New York City politics knows, Tish James is her own woman capable of making her own decisions. The suggestion that she needs Gov. Cuomo, or any other man, to mount a successful, independent, and well-funded campaign for attorney general is disrespectful.”
The Teachout camp has in turn been quick to point out the major differences between siding with Nixon versus James siding with the incumbent governor.
“He turned over the keys to the state Senate,” Albro said, referring to Cuomo’s backdoor dealing with the IDC. “In addition, [Cuomo] has never lifted a finger for anybody running for Congress…. He doesn’t care about any Democrat except himself, so to make an alliance with essentially a Republican is very, very disturbing.”
Teachout’s campaign has also argued Nixon’s support came with no conditions, unlike Cuomo’s endorsement of James, and that Nixon won’t be raising any money for Teachout. In her endorsement, Nixon herself praised Teachout’s independence.
“I’m honored to stand with Zephyr Teachout, who embodies independent progressive leadership,” the gubernatorial candidate said last week. “She challenged Andrew Cuomo four years ago and showed the world that establishment Democrats aren’t just unpopular, but beatable in New York State.”
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Salazar’s opponent as a member of the IDC. It has been updated to reflect that he is a mainline Democrat. It has also been updated to include additional comment from JCOPE.