Zephyr Teachout Is Ready to Run for Attorney General

After nearly a decade as, effectively, a whistleblower for New York's rotten Democratic politics, has Teachout's time finally come?

Zephyr Teachout Is Ready to Run for Attorney General
Photo:Andrew Burton (Getty Images)

If Tish James runs for governor of New York, which appears highly likely, Zephyr Teachout will throw her hat in the ring for New York Attorney General.

Teachout ran for governor in 2014, Congress in 2016 and Attorney General in 2018, losing by narrow margins each time, while consistently pointing out the shadiness, hypocrisy and sexism endemic in so much of New York’s political scene. She’d vowed, running for AG before, to use the office as not just a shield for New Yorkers’ rights and protections, but a sword against abuses of power, political corruption and the vampiric corporations that characterize so many of the American economy’s heavy hitters.

Speaking now in an exclusive interview with Jezebel, she’s seemingly reinvigorated, typically earnest in her excitement as to what that office holder could do for criminal justice reform and real economic development, not to mention breaking up the mega-monopolies “designed to extract and abuse people actually doing the work.”

Teachout was an early, insistent voice on the importance of breaking up Big Tech long before millionaire-Senator Richard Blumenthal made headlines by asking Facebook executives if they would commit to ending “Finsta.” I brought this up to Teachout, and she audibly cringed before, in typical fashion, excitedly pointing out how many savvy anti-monopolists have made it into the Biden administration in the past year: Teachout’s lieutenant governor running mate, Tim Wu, from back in 2014 is currently advising the White House on technology and economic competition, and their policy advisor from that campaign, Lina Kahn, is now chair of the Federal Trade Commission.

“We were trustbusters in 2014!” Teachout tells me, laughing. “At the time, people were like, ‘Who cares?’ In 2014, we felt kind of lonely out there. But we’re in a different moment now.” Teachout is especially excited by the anti-trust lawsuit the New York AG’s office led 48 states in filing against Facebook (the dismissal of which New York is currently appealing). It does seem like her moment may have finally arrived—especially in the wake of Andrew Cuomo’s decisive fall from grace.

The post-Cuomo time we’re in is “such a compelling, powerful moment right now in New York,” Teachout says. And yet, the same day I talked to her about her possible run, the chair of the state Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, held a bizarre and unnecessary press conference endorsing current Gov. Kathy Hochul, who stepped in when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace. There is currently no one officially running against Hochul, though there are several promising Democrats exploring possible runs: Tish James and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams are among them.

Jacobs even inexplicably volunteered the information that he called Cuomo that morning to tell him he was going to endorse Hochul. Why? For what purpose? Did he also call George Pataki? David Paterson? Eliot Spitzer? May as well call all the living former governors if you’re going to call one, no?

Jacobs praised Hochul’s “loyalty,” a quality he said is in too limited supply in New York’s political class, and which is also fundamentally meaningless to New York’s voter class. If anything, voters are harmed by the type of “loyalty” Jacobs values, which is better termed “patronage” or, really, “cronyism.”

I asked Teachout about Jacobs’ little performance, and she laughed ruefully. “It’s an example of just… fearfulness and pettiness and control and the desire to control for control’s sake,” she says, pausing before pouring out the second half of that sentence. We talked more about the frustration that is the New York Democratic Party, an institution I am increasingly convinced needs to be burned to the ground and left as ashes. Teachout doesn’t agree, and her argument is compelling.

A party is supposed to be what a union is for workers, she tells me. “I’m not Pollyannaish about it; it’s not going to be perfect,” she says. “But it’s a mechanism for listening to people who don’t have dental care, or who feel like they’re stuck in short-term contract jobs.” Instead, in New York at least, the Democratic Party has served one purpose, and that’s a purpose Jay Jacobs seemingly just can’t quit: kissing Andrew Cuomo’s ass.

“We need to reform the Democratic Party in New York and actually have a party,” Teachout tells me. “The whole idea of a party, of having an institution is bottom-up. It’s not a talking head who is picked by the governor.”

Like so many things in New York, the Democratic Party doesn’t have to suck, but it has sucked for so very long, few people remember how it could be any other way. When I asked people I assumed would know whether the chair—Jacobs, for now—can be elected or has to be appointed by the governor, several people weren’t sure. Eventually someone reached out to a state committee representative for me who said that the “chair is ‘elected,’” elaborating the governor appoints the leader of the party “and then everyone ‘votes’ for him.”

This is the frustrating truth of the “compelling, powerful moment” for which I can’t seem to summon Teachout’s enthusiasm: The rot in New York didn’t end with Andrew Cuomo; it remains in the system. It’s in the Assembly that “investigated” Cuomo for the same amount of time James’ office did and came up with nothing, and in the Judiciary Committee that allowed Cuomo to give himself 14 days in office and refused to impeach him, to take away his pension or censure him in any way, despite the rampant corruption in which he was caught engaging, repeatedly.

But maybe that’s why Teachout is equipped to run for office and I am not. I am Arya Stark writing a furious list of the at best lazy, at worst corrupt Assembly Judiciary Committee members who chose to do nothing; Teachout is David, recognizing that the monster slayed wasn’t actually Goliath—Goliath is much bigger, much more complex, but somehow, to her, still beatable.

“I have been talking about this for eight years,” she reminds me. “Not just Andrew Cuomo, but the culture of secrecy, the way bills get passed, how the party has a real problem… We have so much work to do to make this government worthy of the people.”

And the interesting thing is, she doesn’t waste energy being frustrated by someone like Jacobs. I point out how frustrating it is that Jacobs (and Hochul, for that matter) have refused to support India Walton, the rightful winner of the Democratic mayoral primary in Buffalo. She agrees, lamenting, “What is a party if it doesn’t support its nominee?” But she also points out that Jacobs tried to deter the slate of challengers that dismantled the Cuomo-enabled IDC (Independent Democratic Conference), and failed miserably at that. Those victories brought a new day for Democrats in New York, not because of Jacobs, but despite him. How embarrassing is that, for the so-called leader of the party?

And so Teachout is correct when she tells me that “the good news is Jay’s announcement today isn’t going to change what’s going to happen.” Essentially, Jacobs’ actions have been and continue to be meaningless.

But the bad news? “I want a party!” she tells me. “I am a Democrat. I believe the Democratic Party should be fighting against concentrated power and fighting for justice and for people who got left behind. I want the party to actually be a party.” A powerless party is not what anyone should want.

Teachout gets excited telling me about how she talked to some of the New Reformers in Queens that day. “The party is lucky that they’re not walking away. They are people who are running to join the party and do the bottom-up work.”

And that’s why, she says, audibly realizing how far we’ve strayed from our original point, “we have to take this post-Cuomo moment and run into it with love and a new ethos of openness and engagement and a new vision of economic development.” The Cuomo version of economic development had people showing up to kiss Emperor Andrew’s feet and wait for him to “pass out favors like the Hunger Games,” she said.

And while someone like Teachout has obvious appeal to the more leftist, DSA-leaning base of the Democratic Party, she’s insistent that her bid against cronyism and monopolies appeals to a broad base.

“One of the big lies that big corporate monopolies want to tell you is that there are city problems and country problems, and they are totally disconnected. But if you talk to despairing farmers who are facing the monster grip of Tyson or the big drivers of dairy, their stories are the same as the drivers of Uber,” she says.

“I don’t want to deny that there are going to be significant disagreements on partisan lines,” she adds. “But I want to make sure that we point out these similarities so that we can take on these corporate monopolies who are corrupting our government—with solidarity.”

Here’s hoping New York is finally ready for that solidarity.

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