5 Reasons for the Zephyr Teachout Phenomenon, and 5 Reasons Andrew Cuomo Is Still Governor

Matt Stoller
Sep 10, 2014 · 11 min read

This photo is Zephyr Teachout talking strategy with Eddie Kay, legendary labor organizer and former head of SEIU 1199.

“New York’s a small town run by 1,000 decision-makers.” So says Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant in New York politics for more than 40 years and bouncer for the billionaire-fueled New York Democratic establishment. So how did Zephyr, who was not one of those decision-makers, have such an impact? I’ll try to answer that question and offer some observations her campaign and what it meant. My first stab at the question was back in July, in this Salon piece.

Here are some more thoughts, now that the primary is over. First, here are 5 reasons Cuomo won this primary (though he won it with a shockingly low percentage of the vote, roughly 20 points less than Spitzer got in his primary for Governor in 2006).

  1. Cuomo “won” because he spent more than $11 million on TV alone while Zephyr Teachout spent $500,000 on the whole campaign. Cuomo won for one reason — his opponent had no name ID, and he spent between $11M and $15M on this election. Money in politics is used to talk to voters through mail and TV. Without it, you are mute. Zephr Teachout didn’t do one piece of mail, or a single TV ad. There was a lot of evidence that primary voters, when given a light persuasion message, flipped to Teachout. She got a big chunk of the vote without spending very much at all. But there was no money to deliver such a message. Given a bit more money, or a bit more time, the outcome would have been different. To put it another way, Cuomo paid roughly $48 for every vote he got, where Zephyr paid roughly $2.70 (UPDATE: Philip Bump has a more accurate count, and calculated that it’s $60.62 for Cuomo to $1.57 for Zephyr, though all the data isn’t in yet). That’s a very big differential, in terms of the power of the messaging. If Zephyr had had a bit more money, she could have easily won.
  2. The liberal establishment went for Cuomo. Aside from money, Cuomo had the machinery of elections on his side. The list of establishment supporters backing Cuomo is long. It includes 1199 SEIU and the Hotel and Motel Trades Council, two of the most powerful unions in New York. Hillary Clinton did a robocall for Cuomo, while helping very few other Democrats in 2014. So did Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federal of Teachers. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, Senator Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Emily’s List all endorsed the ticket, with women’s group Emily’s List endorsing Cuomo’s running mate Kathy Hochul while refusing to endorse Zephyr Teachout for Governor despite her gender and pro-choice stance. Most Mayors in New York, as well as the entire Congressional delegation, went for the ticket. The Working Families Party endorsed him. The Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver did. And so on.
  3. The Occupy bloc isn’t enough, but it matters. Zephyr’s base bloc isn’t enough to win a primary, but it is part of a potential coalition that could do so. It’s the Occupy voter bloc, perhaps what Howard Dean had from 2002–2004 but infused with an economic justice frame. It is the only organized voting group that is able to sit outside the political establishment. They were willing to back a neophyte female candidate with no money and no establishment support against the marriage equality guy with $35 million in the bank who balanced the state budget four years in a row. It’s not a complete coalition, but it is a piece of a broader coalition.
  4. Andrew Cuomo will be Governor, but his career is over. Cuomo will win in November. He will govern for another four years, or until he is indicted. But he will not hold another elected office, because he has proven himself a very good machine boss but a very bad candidate. The level of petty vindictiveness reflects a brilliant man who simply cannot help himself but indulge his desire for control. Interestingly, Zephyr won Albany County, and people there know him best.
  5. The New York establishment hates and fears Andrew Cuomo. Zephyr Teachout is a great candidate, and she ran an excellent campaign. But Cuomo had a lot of enemies, and her campaign gave them all a chance to vent. It was like a dam broke, and every anti-Cuomo sentiment poured through the wreckage. I saw this up close as a volunteer for Zephyr; a surprising number of people at her rallies had had close experiences with Cuomo, and hated him for his micro-managing style and general petty vindictiveness. I heard from former state employees who complained of his staffs’ screaming and stapler throwing, librarians angry that Cuomo was selling public libraries to be bulldozed for luxury condos, and even the representative of an ultra-conservative wealthy plutocrat who said his boss hated Cuomo because “he is a fucking liar.” But that said, while hating him, they went along with him. For instance, New York politician Ed Koch still wouldn’t forgive Cuomo for a campaign stunt from 1977: “During the ugly 1977 New York City mayoral primary battle between Koch and Mario Cuomo, Cuomo campaign signs appeared throughout Queens — Cuomo’s home turf — reading, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Cuomo’s son Andrew, then 19, worked alongside his father on the campaign.” That didn’t stop Koch from cutting Cuomo a check for $1000 in 2010. (Koch passed away in 2013). Now that Cuomo’s control of the party is in question, his ability to govern will be dramatically weakened. He will be Governor, but no longer King.

Then there’s the flip side of the coin. What was this Zephyr Teachout thing all about?

  1. Zephyr Teachout’s career is just beginning. Teachout is a star. The New York establishment ignored her at first, but was utterly charmed by her by the end of the campaign. She’s got a book coming out on political corruption, a good platform from Fordham Law School, a deep network of connections, a political base, and and the clear chops to be an excellent candidate at any level. Her campaign, led by the brilliant former WFP operative Mike Boland, suggests she has the ability to pull together an effective political operation. She is a star, if not a governor. That’s powerful. She needs a platform, but she will find one.
  2. This was a real debate of ideas. This was the most interesting election I’ve seen since 2006, when Ned Lamont challenged Joe Lieberman for the Senate seat. Lamont defeated Lieberman in the primary, but lost in the general election. That year, the Presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama — saw that the anti-Bush left that had emerged in the wake of the Iraq war to challenge the pro-war hawks was not dominant in the party, and resolved to crush it. They did. There has been such intra-party agreement for the past six years over policy that Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias both pronounced the party devoid of real debate, except over some minor details (Vox’s headline was “7 reasons the Democratic coalition is more united than ever”). This election, in 2014, is the first signal that there’s real dissent within the party, over big stuff. While the core disagreements incorporate economic justice as well as national security, it’s not a coincidence that Zephyr Teachout was the internet director of Howard Dean’s campaign in 2003–2004.
  3. The Occupy bloc has emerged. Zephyr drew her strongest — but not only — support from white liberals from the ages of 30–45 years. This is the Occupy Wall Street demographic. It is teachers, librarians, fracktivists, techies, and publishers. It is also heavily networked and organized. Some Cuomo insiders were making fun of the fact that Teachout couldn’t draw big crowds, while Cuomo could. But this is because Cuomo’s machine organizes constituencies in union halls, whereas Teachout’s are on listservs and on Twitter. It’s just a different frame of reference, union organizers organize at union halls, fracktivists organize on listservs.
  4. Antitrust is an extremely potent issue. Zephyr Teachout consistently drew her biggest applause line with “It’s time for some good old fashioned trust-busting.” She made a point of saying that big cable is too big, and that Amazon is a threat to open markets. Zephyr often said she is an old school Democrat. What she meant is not just that she backs more funding for schools, but that she believes in a redesigned relationship between powerful private actors and the state similar to the one implemented by FDR. This is first and foremost about a strong an antitrust agenda. Much of this can be traced to scholar Barry Lynn at the New America Foundation’s Open Markets Program, where Teachout was recently a fellow. An intellectual foundation rooted in a robust historical outlook has given Teachout the means to become a star, and this foundation rests on trust-busting in the private sphere and anti-corruption in the public sphere.
  5. Bill De Blasio is gunning for the Governorship, and then the Presidency. De Blasio played a key role in bringing down Zephyr, but also exposing what is different from his Clintonian progressive ideology and Zephyr’s intellectual tradition. De Blasio is not a throwback Democrat, he’s a slightly more left-wing version of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. His policy choices, such as Pre-K, paid sick leave, but continued Muslim surveillance and stock and frisk as well as coordination with large banks and real estate interest, are classic New Democrat moves. He believes that Wall Street should distribute a bit more lucre to the working class, but this is different than the Zephyr Teachout school of breaking up the banks or reorganizing corporate power and the state. With this campaign, De Blasio has made himself essential to the Democratic party in New York. The Working Families Party is now his machine, and he is going to ride it as far as it can go. He believes, with some justification, that he can win back any disaffected progressives alienated during this campaign, while at the same time he can bring into his fold a lot of the Cuomo world that didn’t trust him when he runs for Governor in 2018. (UPDATE: Since I published this piece, I’ve heard that there is real grumbling about De Blasio in his old district — nickname is OTB, One Term Bill. That will have to wait for another time.)

I had a lot of fun with this campaign, and I hope you did too. At first I observed it from afar, but then I got involved on the ground. What a glorious ride. Cuomo is a fascinating and dark figure in American politics, and the New York political establishment is both hilariously parochial and immensely powerful. Thanks, Zephyr, for making this ride possible.

UPDATE: So some New York contacts read this piece and are giving me additional insight. One key part I didn’t, but should have mentioned, is the role of running mate Tim Wu and the New York tech community. The tech world helped finance the campaigns, and Wu played a bridge between that world and Zephyr’s world of anti-corruption activists. Wu is a serious and credible candidate. He helped propel the campaign when he got the New York Times endorsement for Lt. Governor (which Zephyr nearly, but did not, receive).

Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Forum are organizers of New York tech politics. They wrote this broad letter to Cuomo in 2012, and a lot of important venture capitalists signed it. It was a request for public financing of campaigns. Many of those people backed Teachout/Wu, as well as Larry Lessig’s Mayday PAC. If the tech community starts to put serious money into anti-corruption politics, that would be interesting. We’re already seeing engagement on public financing and net neutrality, but traditionally VCs have also been interested in antitrust because their startups are crushed by monopolists. There are of course cross-pressures here.

Micah wrote: What I find most intriguing about this is the way some tech VCs and entrepreneurs really seem to understand their success as tied to (or born up from) the open Internet and how we may link that to open politics or open democracy (defined as a system where the little guy can enter and compete on an open playing field, rather than one dominated by political and economic monopolists and duopolists). In other words, Comcast and Verizon are to the 21st century economy what the Democrats and the Republicans are to the political system.

The second important observation from a few folks is that Zephyr crushed it upstate. She won over 20 counties outside of New York City, and this is largely due to her stance on fracking, as well as the really bad rural economy that results from neoliberal urban focused financial politics. Cuomo has tried to assuage this with lots of tax credits and development deals, but, according to Hunter College professor Ken Sherrill, “it seems like all that vaunted economic development hasn’t reached the average voter.” That’s true. It’s pretty much common sense — you don’t do tech startups in cow country, you make dairy profitable. Also, Zephyr, though portrayed as a big city professor from New York, grew up on a farm in rural Vermont. Upstate farmers are actually her people. Here are counties she won (or nearly won). There’s a great map of the regional breakdown at the New York Times site.

• Putnam- 53.5% • Dutchess- 57.5% • Ulster- 70.0% • Sullivan- 67.6% • Delaware- 63.3% • Greene- 62.1% • Columbia- 77.9% • Rensselaer- 63.4% • Albany- 61.9% • Schoharie- 71.7% • Washington- 63.8% • Saratoga- 67.3% • Fulton- 54.3% • Montgomery- 54.5% • Otsego- 72.7% • Chenango- 49.9% • Madison- 46.8% • Cortland- 60.6% • Tompkins- 70.9% • Tioga- 49.7% • Schuyler- 60.7% • Yates- 61.5% • Ontario- 50.8% • Seneca- 56.3% • Wayne- 49.1% • Warren- 56.7% • Hamilton- 51.7% • Essex- 48.6% • Clinton- 49.4% • St Lawrence- 54.6%

And the third observation is that the Progressive Change Campaign Committee really mattered. They did a GOTV campaign and talked to a lot of voters, which was Zephyr’s main weakness.

Below are a few pictures.


This is Barry Lynn speaking at a Zephyr event of librarians. Lynn is the intellectual force behind the antitrust plank of her campaign. Here he speaks about the threat Amazon poses to libraries and the New York publishing industry.

Zephyr talks strategy with her brilliant campaign manager, Mike Boland.

Running mate Tim Wu, a very chill and equally brilliant Lt. Governor candidate.

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