On Saturday, three days before he was to stand before voters in a Democratic gubernatorial primary, Andrew Cuomo stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and did everything he could to ignore that as Election Day was approaching.
His opponent, Zephyr Teachout, was there, too, at the start of New York City’s annual Labor Day parade, and she did everything she could to get Cuomo to do something he refused to do over the course of the past several months: Acknowledge that she, and even her campaign, even existed.
She tried the direct, how-do-you-do handshake approach, but was blocked by a burly aide-de-camp. When Teachout, a Fordham law professor who specializes in public corruption, and who was making her first run for office, wiggled past Cuomo’s protectors, he turned around and looked the other way. When that ruse reached its endpoint, the governor began calling out to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a onetime Cuomo aide with whom the governor has recently sparred.
“Where’s Mayor Bill de Blasio? Where’s the mayor when you need him? Where’s the mayor?” Cuomo shouted to the throng of elected officials gathered at the head of the parade.
A video of the encounter has since gone viral:
“That was the campaign in metaphor,” Teachout said in a phone interview this afternoon, a few hours after she shocked most of the political establishment by pulling in more than 34 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, despite getting outspent almost 40-1.
“First he made an effort to block me,” she said, referring to Cuomo’s weeks-long effort to keep her off the ballot. “Then he made an effort to ignore me. And when that didn’t work, he had to call in the progressive reinforcements.”
After the final vote was counted, Cuomo’s aides tried to spin his victory as an impressive one, and in a sense, it was—a 28-point spread in which the governor scarcely campaigned (or even acknowledged there was a campaign going on) until the final weekend. But it is impossible to not acknowledge how unlikely Teachout’s 35 percent was.
A little-known academic and political activist who ran the digital outreach for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, Teachout was lured into the race by the powerful Working Families Party, a labor-backed coalition that helped de Blasio win in New York City in 2013 and which has steadily turned the city and state a deeper shade of blue. After Cuomo promised to be a better Democrat and fight for their issues—including working to help Democrats take back the state senate (he engineered a GOP-controlled body after winning election in 2010) to raise the minimum wage and to push for campaign-finance reform—the WFP reversed course and dropped Teachout.
This left the law professor with no institutional support and no money, going against someone with a $40 million war chest, one of the most famous last names in state politics, and barely disguised aspirations for higher office.
Pundits set the benchmark at 16 percent. That was what Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist who challenged Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate in 2006, received. That figure, however, could have even been a little inflated, because Clinton was an all-but-certain presidential candidate the next year, and she was dogged locally for her support of the Iraq War.
But without airing a single ad, without standing on a single debate stage alongside her opponent, Teachout’s dogged campaigning around the state more than doubled that total. Although Cuomo won in New York City and western New York, places where the party machine is strongest, Teachout won a wide swath of counties from the suburbs north of the city to the Canadian border. Her running mate, Tim Wu, did even better. Her performance bested not just Tasini, but any primary challenger to a sitting governor in state history.
“It seems pretty clear that where we got media attention is where we won. We spent a lot of time in the Hudson Valley because it was just easier to get media attention, honestly. If you just show up, you get to talk about your issues, and downstate we only started getting media attention in the last week, and that was never attention about our issues. The trajectory was incredibly strong and the more people knew where we differed from Andrew Cuomo, the more they supported us,” Teachout said.
Cuomo has a well-deserved reputation as a master political operator. Albany functions better than it has in years, in part, at least, through his maneuvering to keep the GOP in power. But he has governed as someone who acts as if the energy behind the Democratic Party is, or will be, in its business-friendly wing, positioning himself as someone who can
bring the unruly progressives to heel. He cut taxes for millionaires. He defended real-estate and telecom interests. He raised millions from GOP-friendly donors. He reneged on promises to clean up the state, shutting down a commission that was supposed to investigate Albany corruption. There were progressive achievements, like legalizing same-sex marriage and putting in place new curbs on gun laws; but for liberals, support on those issues is now taken for granted. It is the economic questions—about the gap between rich and poor—that animate the party now.
“This is a victory for accountability,” said TJ Helmstetter, a spokesman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group that was one of the first to support Teachout’s campaign. They ended up raising nearly $50,000 for the campaign, and made nearly a half-million phone calls in support. “Andrew Cuomo ran as a Democrat and governed as a Republican, and now his presidential aspirations are kaput. This is a lesson to anybody, right or left, who is looking to run for president. People are looking for someone who is accountable to the voters, not the lobbyists and billionaires.”
Teachout said that she hoped that her showing against a governor who has come to dominate the state’s political life would mean that Democrats who have rolled over the past four years will cease to do so. “The politics of fear in Albany is unnecessary. It turns out that Andrew Cuomo does not control the state. Democrats can stand up to him and should stand up to him and they will find broad public support if they do.”
That war chest that Cuomo brought into the race with Teachout, became for her, central to the rationale of her candidacy: that the governor was too cozy with entrenched interests, and unwilling to change the status quo, why he reneged on his promise to implement campaign-finance reform and institute nonpartisan redistricting, and why he shut down his ethics commission, when it began to look into his administration and its allies.
“People say you can’t run on corruption and get any attention. Well, we ran on corruption and on public financing and we got a lot of attention,” Teachout said. “The received wisdom that voters don’t care about money in politics is getting upended.”
For Cuomo, the strategy of ignoring Teachout—quite literally in some cases—made a certain amount of sense. By refusing to even acknowledge that there was a campaign kept major polling and media organizations from surveying the race. Had they done so, they may have found that Cuomo was not as safe as he tried to project, which would have only garnered Teachout more attention.
“We are aware that this is not exactly the most lovable of guys,” said one Cuomo aide.
Meanwhile, the labor unions and liberal groups that nominally backed Cuomo could not be more thrilled to see him stumble. Had Teachout never caught fire, and Cuomo coasted, they feared that there would have been more of the same over the next four years as there was over the last four, never mind Cuomo’s promises to the contrary. That he had to rely on labor, on the WFP, on the whole Democratic establishment to back him up, means that doors once closed may be now open.
“This is great for all of us,” said one labor leader. “He owes us all now.”
As for Teachout, asked if there was anything that surprised her about the political process after a career spent criticizing it from the outside, she said, “Absolutely. Are you kidding me?” If anything, she said, she was surprised that the Cuomo campaign seemed at times to be so blundering, making sure that she was ignored ready than defeated.
“People are so much less strategic than you think. I was ready for so much worse.”