Zephyr Teachout lives in Fort Greene and is running for governor.
Roughly 10% of New York voters have heard of the Fordham law professor who specializes in corruption, but she insists that she's not campaigning out of vanity or to merely force Governor Andrew Cuomo to the left. "No, no, no, no, I'm running to win," Teachout insists, adding that she thinks she needs around 300,000 to 350,000 votes in the Democratic primary to run in the general election.
Cuomo has $35 million to spend on reelection, mostly thanks to real estate developers, corporations, and rich people [PDF]. Teachout recently raised $50,000 in 24 hours, though she has well under $1 million in the bank.
But due in part to his Moreland mess, the governor's 53% approval rating is as low as is ever been. Teachout is opposed to fracking, wants to remove Common Core, and supports the eventual legalization of marijuana, all issues where Cuomo has disappointed liberals.
And the governor has ignored Teachout's requests to debate her, while vowing to stop her name from appearing on the primary ballot because of residency issues. The governor's attorneys argued she had bounced around apartments in New York and Vermont, her home state, and therefore hasn't been a legal resident of New York for the required five years. A judge disagreed.
"Andrew Cuomo wanted to have a trial about whether or not I was a New Yorker, and what he proved is that the rent is too high," Teachout says. "I'm a very typical New York story. I came to New York with student debt and wanted to find an inexpensive place to live near where I worked. So the trial was a series of apartments, including a 5th floor walk-up in Chelsea where my rent was too high and the refrigerator didn't work."
Teachout's sentences are interrupted with long pauses as she strings on more points to her arguments, and occasionally she'll try on some wooden campaign-speak that doesn't suit her ("If the Grey Lady says it's time for a debate it's time for a debate"). Her favorite train is the Q.
"I'm a Q train rider. I love the Q," she says. "I even took a two-dollar van the other day. When was the last time Andrew Cuomo took a two-dollar van? We were actually thinking of challenging Andrew Cuomo to a subway race. Who could navigate the MTA better?"
I spoke with Teachout as she drove through Ulster County on the way to another campaign stop.
Cuomo has disappointed a lot of liberals. Why do you think he's still so popular with New Yorkers?
Well, when I look at these polls what I see is, it's all thin. There's nothing deep there. There's no passionate support. A lot of people are like me four years ago. Andrew Cuomo ran, he said he was going to clean up Albany, and that all sounded good. Only now are people starting to realize that he hasn't served them, he hasn't served their interests, he isn't fighting for the people of New York.
Could you point to what you think is the most egregious thing that Cuomo has done since he's been in office?
[Laughs] Most egregious? That would take several hours. Maybe the most egregious thing is his promise and failure to veto incumbent redistricting. If you ever had any question whether Andrew Cuomo was truly a Democrat, he answered that question when he didn't veto the gerrymander redistricting. We would have a Women's Equality Act if Andrew Cuomo wanted it. We would have the Dream Act. We would have publicly financed elections. We would have minimum wage and local wage authorizations. We would be funding our schools. All of those things would be true if Andrew Cuomo wanted a Democratic senate and used his power to get one.
I think what is happening is that voters take a while to wake up, and they're waking up. So maybe not every voter understands exactly what happened when Andrew Cuomo's top aide gets involved in subpoenas issued by Assistant Attorneys General deputized by Eric Schneiderman. That sounds a little complicated, right? That's a long complicated sentence. But what they understand is there's a scandal and their governor isn't answering questions about it. And that's what I see in the polls. The most exciting, shocking, surprising thing is that half the people of New York think a sitting governor is serving his own interests. That is the harbinger of the end.
The Urstadt Law prevents New York City from enacting more stringent rent control laws. Do you support its repeal? And can you talk about what you would do to improve the affordable housing situation here and across the state?
We've gotta repeal it. It's a can of worms, but it's the center, because people can't afford to live. They can't afford to live where their jobs are. Way too much of people's paycheck is going to rent, and more and more areas are getting out of reach of middle class New Yorkers. Absolutely out of reach. At the same time, the thing that we have to stop doing right away is rewarding campaign donors with subsidies. We don't need more luxury housing, we need more affordable housing. And if you look at all the money that's going into subsidizing developers, and then you look at all the empty luxury apartments, and the small, expensive apartments that families can't afford, you know something is deeply out of whack. But there's no silver bullet here.
How would you tame the real estate lobby?
Well the first thing is the way we fund campaigns has to change. Everybody knows that. They may not get into the weeds on fair elections, but I will tell you, any room I go into, people's heads start nodding when you start talking about politicians being in the pockets of their donors.
The Real Estate Board of New York is the architect of all this, and you have Extell as well. I think one of the most interesting things that came out of this Moreland scandal is trying to erase the name of REBNY, basically trying to erase the question of political power from the anti-corruption commission's report.
So the first thing you do is have a governor in office who wants to do something about it, and who would actually move to get rid of the corporate campaign contribution loophole. We can get rid of that tomorrow with a Democratic senate and with a governor who wants that to happen.
And public financing of elections is so critical here because how do you run for office without the support of real estate? It becomes very difficult and then it's an old boys club, a corrupt old boys club. What you have to do is first go in and open the books. Tell the truth about what's happening, and be very clear about what your visions for the state are.
I'm glad you said 'opening the books' because I want to ask you about the MTA. A huge chunk of its budget essentially goes toward paying down its debt [PDF]. So how do we get the MTA in a position where it better serves New Yorkers?
Well I think the most recent assessment is we're $10 billion short on what we need to get the MTA in a state of quote-unquote "good standing". This is an embarrassment.
I am a daily rider, I use the MTA more in a week than Andrew Cuomo does in a year. There's been more than one campaign event where I've had to leave a staffer behind because the floor was so packed during rush hour. You cannot ride our public transit system and not recognize that we have a serious deficit in taking care of it.
So I am passionate about public transportation. I actually think we shouldn't just be aiming for good repair, I think it's the future. I think New York should become the center for 21st century transportation technologies, and the start of that is investing directly in the MTA as well as intercity transit systems. And I think it's quite exciting because there's extraordinary opportunities to being one of the leaders in the country and leaders in the world.
You start with a governor who believes in the public and understands that transportation is the heart of public life, it's what connects us to each other. It's such a New York thing, too. Who we are and why we're great is in part, historically, because of the willingness to go above and beyond on public transit.
But how do we get there?
Well we stop using the MTA as an ATM. We are just above the margin here, and it is a bad year or a bad storm away from not being able to make ends meet in terms of the MTA. That's unacceptable.
Do you want to know how we fund it? Our tax system's upside down. We need to turn it right side up. I'm a traditional Democrat on taxation, and Andrew Cuomo is a traditional Republican on taxation.
There's this idea that higher taxes will frighten away our tax base. That the rich people are skittish so that if we raise taxes on them, they might flee.
Yeah, right. They've gone all the way to Jersey City. I've actually thought about doing a campaign event at the Goldman Sachs Tower there [laughs].
What I mean in a serious way, is that the Andrew Cuomo theory is that you have to beg at the feet of oligarchs or else they're going to leave the state. He has a very diminished view of the state and the resources that are here. He doesn't see the talent that's here. And I don't know whether he is serving his donors because he wants to run for president some day or if he just really doesn't understand. But as you know, the financial services industry is not leaving New York, and the joke I was making about the Goldman Sachs Tower is that you can't pay traders to go work there. And that's nearby!
That's because of the nature of how the financial services industry works. It's a social, not a technical, hub. And the network power is so powerful. People love New York because of its public schools and because of its public transit and because of connectedness of this extraordinary state. Not despite that.
What would you say to someone who says that you might make a great governor for New York City but that you're a little too far to the left for upstate constituents?
I actually have extraordinary support upstate for a whole bunch of reasons in the primary, but I think also in the general, the whole state is turning against fracking. And one of the most powerful sources of support that I have right now is in the anti-fracking community, which is a substantial and powerful force upstate. I'm anti-Common Core.
I'm a very traditional Democrat. I only have one challenge, which is getting my name out there. On the issues I'm with New York.
I mean this is a 60% Democratic state, and my values are very traditional Democrat and Andrew Cuomo's values don't align with that. I'm not worried about the general election. I'm even getting Republican support, one because of my stance on Common Core which is now across the board quite unpopular with parents, I think for very good reason. The other reason is it's very clear where I stand, and I think there's incredible hunger for a governor who is honest and straightforward and addresses difficult issues head-on.
A year ago Cuomo was talking about a large-scale decriminalization bill that never materialized because suddenly the problem of incarcerating minorities wasn't a problem anymore. And he denuded what advocates said would be the most important part of the medical marijuana law, which was allowing patients to use the actual plant. Why do you think he made that decision? If you were to take a pass at that legislation, what would it look like?
We're moving toward legalization. The criminalization we currently have has to end because it is so discriminatory the way it's used. The arrests are kids of color. People who should not be in prison, people who should not be in the criminal justice system, period. Even if you don't end up serving time, the entry into the criminal justice system is such a blow. Along with the fact that it's cruel to those who need access to it for medical reasons.
I'm looking very closely at the Colorado model and all the money that's brought in. I think that's the direction we have to be going in. And certainly that's where the state is. So the only way that I understand Andrew Cuomo's three step, or four-step, on this is that at some point he thought maybe he's going to run for president. Maybe that didn't fit into his vision of what a president should stand for. I can't look into his heart, but I can say that it seemed more like a political calculus than a principled decision, and people are suffering today because of it.
There's a kind of callousness in general. I will say that his failure to grant clemencies is so striking, because it suggests a lack of compassion. There are more than three people in New York prisons deserving clemency.
Do you know how his use of clemency has stacked up against previous governors?
I've just been so struck by his failure to grant clemencies.
But I think Jerry Brown in one month last year gave something like 150 clemencies, but it is extremely atypical to show so little compassion.
What do you make of Airbnb and where do you think it fits in in the city and state?
It's not unlike some other areas where our laws and our regulatory structure don't fit our current economy. So, unfortunately prosecutors are put in this position where the laws don't match our economy and I think we have to figure out laws that both allow for a sharing economy. I believe in regulations and I believe in innovations, both those things are important.
Unfortunately with the current legal structure people are too often on one side or the other saying, "No regulation at all because we've found this new sharing economy".
You see the puzzle? People are put in this situation where it seems like you have this binary choice, that's clearly not the right way to go. We have to make sure that we protect people from slumlords and unsafe conditions, but I don't think that's where the majority of Airbnb users or renters fall into. They're not trying to skirt existing law but—this is one of the areas where I think so often the Andrew Cuomo commission is just an excuse not to do something.
Like, we should raise the minimum age for incarceration, for being treated as an adult. We don't need a commission to study that. But this is an area where I would actually convene a commission of sorts to really study a way in which we can support the sharing economy while also protecting people from unsafe or abusive relationships with housing, renting, or hotel situations.
What's your position on taxing the ultra-rich who park their wealth in real estate in midtown Manhattan without ever actually living there?
A genuine question: Is there an existing proposal on this?
Serious people have offered proposals but no lawmakers have put anything in writing yet.
Right. I'm a serious person and I want to look at the particular proposal.
It's a huge issue. I guess I'm broadly in favor of the principle. I want to take a look at the proposal, that's where my hesitancy comes from. It's clearly something the state can weigh in on.
Across the state, you'll hear different language, but people are experiencing the same thing. Upstate it's "property taxes are too high," or "my house is getting improperly foreclosed on." And downstate it's "the rent's too high".
These are all variations on the same story. People are having the same experience, whether you're rural and your property taxes are too high or you're living in Queens and you're rent's going up too fast. It's that there are these subsidies for luxury buildings, yet you can't afford to live where you live.
Once you put those two things together, you know something is deeply out of whack in the economy and the priorities of the state.
Today is the last day to register for the Democratic primary on September 9. This interview has been condensed and edited.