In September, Zephyr Teachout challenged incumbent Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor, has published a book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff box to Citizens United. Teachout was director of Internet organizing for the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign. She has also been a national director of the Sunlight Program.
Grant Reeher [GR]: Is there a particular way you’re using the word “corruption” in your book?
Zephyr Teachout [ZT]: The inspiration for the book came from the way the Supreme Court has been defining corruption. It’s an essential term in recent cases in which the Supreme Court struck down campaign finance laws, because it says that those laws weren’t serving anti-corruption purposes. I was really interested in what corruption has meant in American history in the legal system. My argument is when you go all the way back to the Founding, you see a pretty consistent understanding of corruption as when public servants — including citizens or people in public roles — use those public roles for selfish or private ends. In Citizens United and this recent case McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court says corruption only means criminal bribery when there is an explicit exchange. In contemporary American political life, the major threat to democratic self-governance does not come from bags of cash, but from what is perfectly legal: campaign contributions, Super-PACs, other … ways in which folks with really enormous amounts of wealth are taking over the political system. This broader definition of corruption that I have, and that I think we really had as law in this country until 1976, encompasses that.
(What was) exciting to me as I researched this book — I really focused a lot on the Founding era and the Constitutional Convention — was how much (James) Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and all the framers focused on money and politics and corruption. So don’t think of this just as something that started post-Watergate; this is the longest and in some ways the most extraordinary American tradition. Our country was founded as an anti-corruption country, so the hard work of protecting against big money and politics is in a lot of ways a deeply patriotic act.
GR: Tell me the story of the snuff box.
ZT: Benjamin Franklin was leading a diplomatic tour in France, and the king of France gave him this fancy jeweled box with the portrait of the king on it. People were very concerned that it would corrupt Franklin. They didn’t have any evidence that there was a bribe or there was an explicit deal, but just the fact of accepting a gift of that value. It would make Franklin in the future perhaps pay more attention to French economic interests instead of actually serving the young country. And so we included in the Constitution a provision that forbids taking a gift of any kind whatever from a foreign power if you are an officer of the United States. And listen to the language: “any kind whatever.” It’s like the First Amendment, that kind of extreme petulance. We are putting a line in the sand here. This was totally against the European tradition. And later, when somebody was explaining it, they referred to Benjamin Franklin’s snuff box as the motivation for this clause. Fast forward 230 years, and you see in Citizens United the Supreme Court says these kinds of things are not corrupt, unless there is a deal. It is such a radical shift in the understanding of the threats of gifts.
GR: Is your book advancing a prescription for a cure?
ZT: I am a big fan of (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and FDR threatened to pack the (Supreme) Court when the court got so off the rails, and I think we have a court that is off the rails. A court-packing threat might be in order here. I certainly think, depending on who the president is and what happens with the justices in the future, the Supreme Court could easily overturn these laws and that would be valuable. Part of what I was doing is giving ballasts of historical support to the dissenters.
But I also think there are things we could do without waiting around for the court. We haven’t really built a system nationally or state-wide where anybody could run for office based on their ideas. Our current system of private funding for campaigns is deeply broken. It means that you have to go beg daily at the feet of the wealthiest Americans to get permission to run for office, and so I advocate for a public financing system to replace the private financing system.
GR: Maybe you were the one who broke the mold that you just described. You had a pretty good run, and you got 33 percent of the vote. That was a lot more traction than I think anybody would have thought going in. What was your key to break through?
ZT: Well, I like to think that if we had public financing of campaigns, I could have won. I am not going to settle for a third of the votes, but I actually was lucky in a lot of ways. One thing is, I have actually worked on campaigns for a long time and that was really important. I accepted my fund-raising job as a serious job. It’s really hard. I’m so grateful for everybody who gave me money, but basically for a month of the 3½ months that I ran, I was sitting in a room dialing for dollars. Just think about what that means: 10 minutes a call, you’re supposed to make as many dials an hour as you can. You’re supposed to hit 25 percent. It’s not pleasant. It feels like you are sort of a sales person, and you very quickly learn what kinds of issues resonate with people who can give $1,000 or $2,000. I would have loved to be in (Gov.) Andrew Cuomo’s shoes where I could raise $60,000 a pop, but I never got one of those donations. We raised about $800,000. If we had a public financing system, that would have been about $4 million. We didn’t do a single TV ad; with a public financing system, I could have done TV. We didn’t do a single mailer; we could have done mailers. And it’s kind of circular, but one of the most important features of fund-raising is if you are a successful fund-raiser, then the press takes you seriously. My biggest challenge was getting the press to take me seriously in the first two months of running. Reporters were honest with me; they would say, ‘I can’t cover you, because if we do a head-to-head poll, you are going to be way behind, nobody knows who you are, and you don’t have any money.’
I got some lucky breaks, the biggest being that Andrew Cuomo made a lot of mistakes. He sued me to try to get me off the ballot, which was a major mistake. I have been involved in politics long enough to actually be shocked. It’s basic politics that if you have an insurgent that nobody knows, you don’t try to popularize their name. and I was really lucky about that. But I don’t think we broke the mold. It’s still a deeply broken system, and not everybody can count on the breaks that I had.
GR: Did you learn anything about corruption through the campaign experience that you hadn’t already learned by researching your book?
ZT: Yes. A lot of it was about the call-time, the dialing for dollars. One is that the conversations with people who might give you more than a couple hundred dollars are really pretty explicit about where they agree with you and where they don’t agree with you. I cared deeply about funding public education, and I’m opposed to raising the cap on charter schools. I would hear over and over again in a call, calls with wealthier potential donors, here’s where I disagree with you on charters, I’m pro-charter. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that this interaction is going to affect how much money they give you. So it just felt so much closer to a quid-pro-quo kind of exchange of campaign support for dollars. We raised money from 9,000 individuals, and the average contribution was $57. Well, for so many who are not raising in those kinds of increments, they are really going to change what they fight for, and that matters.
GR: On that point, some elected officials, speaking off the record, have told me that the way that money affects things is not that a vote is bought. It’s that, of all the things that they could push or not push, they might just be more quiet on some issues. They will say that if they are getting a lot of money from this particular group, it is not that they are going to vote one way or another; it’s just that they are not going to get up on their horse about that, they’ll just let it go.
ZT: I think that is so important. One thing that occurred to me in this mid-term election is that Democrats felt silenced on issues because they weren’t priorities for their major donors. Just as you say, they weren’t changing their mind; they were just not speaking about it. Since 2008, there has been this massive assault on public education. You might think that Democrats around the country would have been using this election to speak up about that, and instead you just didn’t hear that much about it.
GR: What’s next for you politically?
ZT: I would love to run for office again. Having studied corruption so long, I was ready for the hard part. I had no idea how fun the rest of it would be. It’s the dirty secret of politics that it’s actually one of the most extraordinary things you can do. People will talk to you about anything. You can walk in to any community. It can be pretty brilliant. They have insights and ideas that are constantly exciting and funny and surprising and, of course, really inspiring.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.