Zephyr Teachout is challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary for governor this month. She is a professor at Fordham Law School, and in 2004 she was the director of Internet organizing for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. She has been national director of the Sunlight Foundation.
Grant Reeher (GR): Make the case against the re-nomination of incumbent Andrew Cuomo for registered Democrats.
Zephyr Teachout (ZT): He’s not a Democrat. You know, I supported him four years ago, and he made a series of promises that were very important to me. One of them was the promise to veto any redistricting that was incumbent protection, and leads to Republican control in this very Democratic state. We haven’t passed the Women’s Equality Act, we haven’t passed minimum wage. His economic policy is indistinguishable from Ronald Reagan’s, and it is openly that way. It’s a trickle-down economic policy, tax breaks for the rich, tax breaks for a handful of companies. This is a really important moment for New York. What direction are we going to go in? I believe that we should stick with our traditional Democratic roots. Invest in our schools. Invest in our public infrastructure. Andrew Cuomo seems to have wandered off into the Republican Party.
GR: Is your campaign a political reform candidacy, or is it a progressive policy candidacy?
ZT: I don’t think it’s either of those. I do think these are deeply tied together. I think it is fundamentally about returning New York to its Democratic roots and its Democratic commitments, because that is how we are going to have a thriving economy, that’s how we are going to have a democracy that works for all of us. The way to get to the policies that I care about and most New Yorkers care about is really funding our schools, actually having a progressive tax code, funding our infrastructure. This isn’t glamorous stuff; it is the work of our government. The way to get there is to make sure first that we actually have a government that is serving all of us and not the wealthy and well-connected. So I can’t disconnect the two.
GR: Tell me more specifically about some of the initiatives that you would pursue?
ZT: I am in favor of actually funding schools. No kid should be going to a fourth-grade class where there are more than 20 kids in that class. I strongly support small class sizes, arts, guidance counselors in schools – a real support of our public school system. Second, we have to ban fracking and immediately move towards investing in renewable energy. Third, we have to actually invest in our infrastructure: roads, all of our bridges and not just a few bridges.
GR: How would you reorganize the tax system?
ZT: Right now, banks are not fairly taxed under the corporate tax code. The tax system works under the assumption that only 8 percent of their transactions are happening in this state, when we imagine it is probably closer to 40 percent. And the excuse for this extraordinary tax break is that the financial services industry, according to Andrew Cuomo, will abandon New York if we don’t give away these favors. Well, that is not true. The financial services industry is not leaving New York state, because it is a network. Other states have tried to lure some of the big banks elsewhere, and they failed. The only real reason to give these tax breaks to the big banks is because they are the big donors, and it is so important because it’s billions of dollars out the door.
I would return the “millionaire’s tax” back to its levels under Paterson, the estate tax. Overall, the tax system is upside down because the top 1 percent pays less as a percentage of income than the middle 20 percent. It shows where Andrew Cuomo’s priorities really are. At the same time as we have been taking money from our schools, we have been giving money away to the big banks. This year, his priority was bank tax repeal. That was a Reagan-like priority, that’s not a Democratic priority.
GR: Regarding political reform, I assume that you are advocating that in November: Voters should vote down the amendment about redistricting, and we should start over again.
ZT: Yes, that is absolutely right. Gov. Cuomo had the audacity to not only approve this gerrymander system where there is Republican control of this Democratic state, but also to support a referendum that leaves the power to district in the same hands. This is a true old-fashioned corrupt old boys club in Albany.
GR: What do you mean when you say this is corrupt? Is it people on the take, is it money coming out of drawers?
ZT: A system is corrupt when public servants serve themselves or their friends, as opposed to the public at large. I am not just talking about things that a federal prosecutor could charge. I am talking about things like when Bob Congel gets subsidies because he is making campaign donations that the small-business owner isn’t getting. Whether or not there was an explicit deal, you still have a few people benefiting instead of all of us benefiting. At the Constitutional Convention, corruption was a constant topic. We have to understand that our entire country is actually founded on the belief that one of the jobs of government is to fight against the threat of self-serving politicians. Politicians are always going to be self-serving, but they can be more or less so.
GR: Let me push you a bit on the tax and the spending issue: I’m concluding from what you’ve said that overall, the [state] revenues have to be higher than they are now.
ZT: We would have much higher revenues than we do now. Absolutely.
GR: Any study I have seen on overall state and local tax burden has New York as the highest or the second highest in the country. What is the likely public appetite for more spending?
ZT: The question is who is paying the taxes, and right now New Yorkers are really burdened by high property taxes because the state isn’t paying its fair share. The question with taxation is not just how much, but who. In Andrew Cuomo’s administration, there is one set of laws for his cronies and there is another set of laws for the rest of us. So when we look at tax burdens, we also have to look at the loopholes, we also have to look at tax breaks and we absolutely also have to look at subsidies. Because right now, New York state is subsidizing luxury development instead of really subsidizing the kind of affordable housing we need, the kind of infrastructure and public schools that we need. FDR is a real idol of mine. My policies are very much in line with the FDR traditional Democratic approach, which is that for long-term economic growth, you need to do long-term investments. And the advantage of those long-term investments is they will also create jobs.
GR: What particular issues do you think are most important for people upstate? Is it fracking, agriculture, things related to that?
ZT: Yeah, those are really essential issues. I have a very clear position on fracking: I think we should ban hydrofracking and move towards renewable energy, and that will allow this state to actually invest even more in sustainable agriculture. Andrew Cuomo has failed to answer questions about hydrofracking. It’s pretty extraordinary that after years of saying listen to the science, he is really silent on it and he has taken a million dollars in pro-fracking money in his political campaign. Landowners, farmers are uncertain right now because they don’t know what they can do or develop because of the potential threat of hydrofracking. He is stalling the development of agriculture in our state by not answering that question.
GR: Most voters don’t know much about you. How are you going to be able to change that without money to put out ads?
ZT: The way that most voters make up their minds isn’t because of ads. It’s because of what they read in the media. So our real challenge is simply to get coverage in the media, and we are getting more and more coverage every day. And what we know is we need at least a million New Yorkers to know there is a serious challenger in the Democratic Primary because the primary will be decided by half a million, maybe 750,000 voters. In order to win, I need 300,000 to 350,000 votes. Andrew Cuomo has done everything he can to try to keep me out of the primary. He’s been avoiding debates. I will tell you we don’t actually know current polling on Democratic likely primary voters, but Andrew Cuomo does. He spent over a $100,000 on internal polls, and I’ll bet you the reason that he is trying so hard to keep me off the ballot because he knows that he has a real problem in his hands.
GR: It seems to me that if this does start to get close and you do start to build more traction, there is going to be an enormous mobilization of the traditional Democratic voters, to essentially wash you out by bringing in more people, because the incumbent is in trouble.
ZT: But he doesn’t have that enthusiasm at all. Last week, I got the endorsement of the Public Employees Federation, which I’m really proud to get, and the AFL-CIO refused to endorse Andrew Cuomo. NICE refused to endorse Andrew Cuomo. These are extraordinary non-endorsements. A lot of the groups that would have been the troops on the ground are not going to be out there for him. There is extraordinary power in the fractivist community, and they are going to fight in this primary. And there is extraordinary power among the parents and teachers who see the train wreck of education, and they are going to fight in this primary. So, we have the people on the ground, and Andrew Cuomo may have a lot of money, but he doesn’t have the people.
GR: Andrew Cuomo may not debate you.
ZT: He has the audacity to say that the campaign staff would figure that out. So here is Andrew Cuomo, who seems to think that you are supposed to meddle in anti-corruption commissions, but not meddle in your own campaign. He seems to have it entirely upside down.
GR: How would you characterize your leadership style?
ZT: Well I think that the job of a governor is to lay out a very clear vision, and I am very clear on where I stand. Hire the best people, trust them and then engage on the ground, so you are constantly re-evaluating whether your programs are working.
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.