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The Nation: Zephyr Teachout Is Battling Big Money and Cynicism in One of This Year’s Tightest Congre

October 25, 2016

The Nation: Zephyr Teachout Is Battling Big Money and Cynicism in One of This Year’s Tightest Congressional Races

By Sarah Jaffe

The morning of July 30 is cool and sunny in Dutchess County, New York, and Zephyr Teachout stands at the foot of a giant inflatable staircase, dressed in a bright-blue running shirt and shorts. The law professor and congressional candidate had been a competitive runner in her youth and couldn’t resist the allure of the slides and adult bouncy castles of the Inflatable 5K, a race that has taken over the Dutchess County Fairgrounds. At 8:30 am, she is ready to go in the first heat of the race.

Teachout waves and gives a thumbs-up and then, with the start of the race, is off. Running alongside her are hard-bodied young men zipping over the inflatable obstacles, and families trotting along. Children hop with obvious glee. When Teachout comes bounding through the biggest obstacle—a massive blue inflatable cage with big green balls inside—she is red-faced but still smiling. After gliding down the slide that marks the finish line, she laughs, “It was really hard!” and makes a joke about the obvious metaphor for the obstacles she must face in her run for Congress.

Dutchess County and the rest of the 19th Congressional District were part of the swath of New York State that Teachout won in 2014, when she challenged New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary. In that race, despite little recognition of her unusual name and almost no institutional support from the party, she took 33.5 percent of the vote from the incumbent governor. Now a resident of the Hudson Valley, she decided to run for the US House of Representatives when Chris Gibson, the Republican who currently represents the 19th, announced that he would not run for reelection. Her opponent is John Faso, a former state representative and, as Teachout likes to point out, a former lobbyist.

These days, Teachout no longer has to spend as much time introducing herself to people; in the two years since she challenged Cuomo, she has gained national as well as local prominence, published a well-received book on corruption in America, and joined activists organizing in the district on various issues. She’s also garnered attention as part of the Bernie Sanders movement: Teachout, like the senator who shook up the Democrats’ presidential race, is a Vermonter who doesn’t mind taking on her own party. A dedicated progressive, she was among the first candidates endorsed by Sanders as part of his “political revolution.” In September, Sanders—who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Teachout from his supporters—stumped for her at a rally in New Paltz, a cozy college town with an enduring hippie vibe. “There are 435 members in the US House of Representatives. You are about to elect the most outstanding member, a leader at a time when we need leaders,” Sanders said.

The question on everyone’s mind since Sanders lost the Democratic nomination has been: Does that political revolution have legs? Teachout’s campaign, which is fighting to flip a red district blue in upstate New York, will be seen as a referendum on this question. Like Sanders, Teachout is running a broadly populist campaign focused on the economic struggles that Americans have faced in recent decades; like him, she is drawing on a small-donor base, touting an average donation of $19. She is an expert on political corruption who has focused much of her activism on the issue of money in politics, challenging a career politician and political operative who is backed by some of the richest campaign donors. And she is determined to frame her campaign as that of an outsider taking on a broken system. Her race is a near-perfect prism for the issues of the 2016 election, and right now she’s neck and neck with Faso in the polls. But to Teachout, the specifics of her district are just as interesting as the big national questions.

“I grew up about seven miles from a very large river, and now I live about seven miles from a very large river,” Teachout tells me as we sit in a small café in Cairo, New York, its lampposts festooned with posters of local military veterans. “The parallels are so intense to where I grew up: It was a farming community that was dealing with no longer being a farming community.”

Teachout moved to the Hudson Valley from Brooklyn in March of 2015, shortly after her run for governor. Having spent most of her life outside of big cities, from her childhood in Vermont to her time in North Carolina at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Teachout says the area suits her, and she can speak with authority on its problems as well as its opportunities, despite her opponent’s accusations that she’s a carpetbagger. “The whole district is just stunningly beautiful and has extraordinary resources,” she says. “There’s this wonderful phrase that fly-fishermen and -women use—‘the land of little rivers’—to describe the Catskills.”

Like most legislative districts in New York, the 19th is heavily gerrymandered, neatly skirting the cities where most people of color live. Its residents are mostly white, a mix of working-class and farm families, along with scattered hippies. What most parts of the district have in common, besides being almost entirely rural, is that they have suffered economically in recent decades: from the decline of the Catskills as a tourist destination to the disappearance of factories after NAFTA, to the loss of IBM—which slashed nearly 700 jobs in its Dutchess County facilities just a few years ago—to the effects of Hurricane Irene in 2011.

In many ways, the district is a perfect test for Teachout’s brand of politics, which is premised on small donations and lots of face-to-face conversations with voters about the problems they deal with every day, not on the debate inside the Beltway. It’s not a deep-blue or a deep-red district but a truly competitive one, despite the gerrymandering. “This is not an area where people start with their partisan preference in the way that they think about themselves,” Teachout says. “The real beating heart is independence. I mean that in every sense—changing your own tires, independence in business, independence in politics.”

Earlier that day, in the town of Catskill, which is just beginning the type of revitalization that remade Hudson as an artsy tourist destination, Teachout sat at a long table in a café for a meet-and-greet campaign stop. When she arrived, eight people were already waiting for her; as the conversation went on, the number grew to over 20.

She began by asking them for “statements, not questions”; rather than telling them what she thinks, she wanted to know what they need to be fixed and which solutions they’d prefer. Several were small-business owners, including one who said she supports a $15-an-hour minimum wage because it would level the playing field for people like her who want to pay their employees well but then wind up underpriced by competitors. Several commented on the need for better cell-phone and Internet service. One man challenged her on the issue of money in politics, wondering whether it’s actually possible to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Wonky but accessible, Teachout relished the sparring, citing the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which struck down limits on campaign spending, and challenging even the liberal justices’ reading of corruption law. When she made an argument for public financing, she once again rooted it in local issues. “This district costs a lot of money to reach people,” she noted, with a nod to the struggles of local newspapers.

Watching her interact with her would-be constituents, I wondered if Congress might suit Teachout better than a governorship would have. The House of Representatives would give her a platform to be a leader on national issues that she cares about—trust-busting, broadband, the environment, trade policy, corruption—as well as a way to represent the people in a district that she has clearly worked hard to understand.

It was hard work on issues she cares about that helped Teachout learn about the area, and that helped her make the decision to run when Gibson announced he was stepping down. After challenging Cuomo on the campaign trail over fracking in 2014, Teachout hit the road with Gasland director Josh Fox in early 2015, touring areas, like the 19th Congressional District, that had been at the heart of the successful fight to halt fracking in New York State. She advocated not just for a permanent ban on fracking but for a real investment locally in renewables and energy efficiency.

Between her campaigns for office, Teachout also teamed up with education activists and the movement to opt students out of high-stakes standardized testing, working with the statewide teachers union to recruit teachers to run for office. “Across the state, the opt-out movement has been a huge force, and the Hudson Valley has been one of their stronger areas,” says Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) and a resident of the 19th District. “People from that movement tapped into Zephyr’s campaign…for governor,” he says, adding that they saw her as “someone they could relate to.”

Teachout, Easton notes, has also worked alongside AQE in the fight for fair and equitable funding for public schools, a perennial issue across New York. Public schools in poor areas get the shaft from a woefully lopsided school-funding system that New York State’s highest court has found to be in violation of students’ constitutional right to a “sound and basic education.” Plenty of areas in the 19th District, Easton says, can’t support schools with their limited tax base, and the issue cuts across party lines. Republicans angry at the Common Core rollout and frustrated with underfunding for education have gravitated to Teachout because of her visible passion for education and her willingness to challenge her own party on its failures. They also like the fact that she took on Cuomo.

Teachout says she still believes in the “possibility of Congress.” 

Bernie Sanders also did well in the Hudson Valley, confounding easy narratives about the left. But for Teachout, the tension in the district is less of a left-right split than an inside-outside one, or even a top-down one. “I talk to Trump voters all the time,” she says. “People do come to him for very different reasons…but they are so right to be angry and to feel like this ’90s robot politics doesn’t make any sense.” This feeling that most politicians are simply spouting the same answers that they have for decades, she says, is driving people to look at candidates they might have written off not that long ago. “People are really open to saying, OK, it’s not working, let’s figure it out. We’ve, bit by bit, built this elaborate, corrupt machine, and we’ve got to take it down.”

There has been, says Michael Kink of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, a lack of courage among many Democrats when it comes to policy, a reticence to step into the populist moment. Teachout is different: Despite the fact that her campaign style is more one-on-one chatting than pulpit-pounding speechmaking, she understands the anger that many feel. “Pissed-off Bernie voters and pissed-off Trump voters and pissed-off Fox watchers and pissed-off Democracy Now! watchers can all get behind a lot of what she’s saying,” Kink observes.

Teachout, who spent time holding teach-ins on corruption at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City in 2011, is both willing to make big changes and, at bottom, a believer in the system. When she talks about Sanders, she comments on something that few media observers would note: his patriotism. “He so clearly just loves this country,” she says. Her book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, draws from the founding fathers not just examples of potential corruption but a framework for combating it, and expresses hope for the potential of American democracy.

It’s not just posturing for a swing district filled with voters who want to “Make America Great Again.” When I ask her what she thinks is possible with a divided, deadlocked Congress, she says, “I still believe in the possibility of Congress. It’s totally broken now, but if a car breaks, you either leave it on the side of the road or fix it.”

On Monday, August 15, Teachout holds a press conference with a group of supporters in her Kingston office. The sign on the door is hand-drawn with marker; inside, on the wall, hangs a butcher-paper banner emblazoned with “I’m supporting Zephyr Teachout because…” Written beneath, in multiple colors, are comments from supporters: “She’s not taking SuperPAC money”; “her experience fighting money in politics”; “She’s a longtime advocate for public financing of elections.” This last entry is underlined heavily.

In her book, Teachout argues: “Corruption, in the American tradition, does not just include blatant bribes and theft from the public till, but encompasses many situations where politicians and public institutions serve private interests at the public’s expense.” It’s an argument that she makes on the campaign trail, and one that seems well suited to this moment, when Americans from across the political spectrum are angry about a system that seems rigged in favor of the wealthy.

What’s happening in the 19th District could be a bellwether for the rest of the country.
To dramatize that analysis, Teachout is issuing a challenge to her “real opponents”: hedge-fund billionaires and GOP megadonors Paul Singer and Robert Mercer, each of whom has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a super PAC supporting her opponent. She calls for Singer and Mercer to debate her in public, in the 19th District, to explain why they’re spending so much money on a district they don’t live in. “Why do you think you deserve more power instead of the people right here?” she asks.

Early on, Mercer and Singer were leery of Donald Trump. While Mercer has since come around (and told reporters that he’s sticking with him even through the recent scandals), he is also spreading his money around, funding media ventures like Breitbart News in addition to campaigns around the country. Singer has stayed away from Trump, concentrating on down-ballot races and telling reporters that Trump’s seeming protectionism on trade was “close to a guarantee” of a “global depression.”

“Trade is about power; trade is about war and peace; trade is about where we do things,” Teachout says. In the deindustrialized Hudson Valley region, where NAFTA is a dirty word, Teachout has hammered on the issue, criticizing the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and talking about bringing manufacturing home. As with almost every issue I hear her address, she attacks the subject with both a grand vision and nitty-gritty details: While she dreams of an economy where one in five people in the district are making or growing something, she grounds it with an example of how apples from New York’s Ulster County are shipped to Texas to be sliced and packaged and sold to McDonald’s. “Why can’t we do that here?” she asks the crowd in Catskill.

“One of the things that the insider club has lost is any sense that the world can be any different than it is,” she continues. “One of my least favorite sentences—and you’ll hear lobbyists for the TPP say this all the time—is: ‘The horse is out of the barn.’ I’m like, ‘I know it takes a while, but you can get the horse back in.’ Your metaphor isn’t working!” For the hedge-funders, an insider like Faso, who also assumes that outsourcing jobs is a done deal, might seem like a good investment against Teachout. (Faso, as well as Singer and Mercer, did not respond to The Nation’s requests for comment.)

Republican Party and super-PAC-funded ads have flooded the district, accusing Teachout of everything from carpetbagging to planning to raise property taxes to facilitating nuclear war through her support of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Not to be outdone, the Faso campaign released an ad calling her “crazy.” Teachout, in response, has run ads mocking the over-the-top critiques and continues to challenge the big donors to come out of the shadows.

“These guys don’t create their money sprinkling fairy dust over unicorns,” says Michael Kink, who also works with the activist organization Hedge Clippers. “They get rich outsourcing jobs and driving down wages and raiding pension funds—everything that regular people hate about the way the economy is going is being caused by these guys that are trying to take out Zephyr. Do you want a government that is bought and paid for by the most destructive forces and the inequality-exploding billionaires?”

For Kink, as for Teachout, the battle against corruption isn’t an abstraction, but a struggle on behalf of the everyday people who are trying to make ends meet. “It’s almost astounding that the woman who is America’s foremost expert on the corruption of politics by billionaires and big money is being attacked by the most corrupt billionaires and the biggest money,” he says.

After leaving Catskill, Teachout and her very small entourage (just me and one campaign staffer) head for the Greene County Youth Fair. There, she chats with a librarian about the need for swimming lessons for kids; someone else wants to talk to her about funding for Lyme-disease treatment, as the disease has spiked in the district and remains under-researched. She charms a young girl by asking about her rabbits, and poses for a photo with a cow named Beyoncé. As Teachout shakes hands with all the firefighters at a firefighters’ booth, I make small talk with one of her supporters. A middle-aged man, he tells me that his teenage son, still too young to vote, introduced him to Bernie Sanders, and that Sanders was the first candidate for whom he’d volunteered and donated money. With Sanders’s presidential hopes finished, he’s turned his attention to Teachout’s campaign.

“I just love listening to people talk,” Teachout says, returning from the firefighters. “If we aren’t listening, we’re just missing all the secrets of what’s really happening.”

What’s happening in the 19th District could be a bellwether for the rest of the country. Is it possible to win a swing district by talking honestly and openly about progressive policies if you couple those with a razor-sharp analysis of what’s broken about the system and, perhaps most important, a rock-solid belief that it can, in fact, be fixed?

“I do think that the real love of what this country can be…. I think it’s important to tap into that to get people back engaged,” Teachout says. “Yes, it’s about jobs, and yes, it’s about corruption—but it’s also about…this fundamental American idea that love of the public is the job of public citizens.”

Zephyr Teachout, at least, is betting that she can beat cynicism and big money that way.