Zephyr Teachout has little chance of becoming New York's next governor. But that hasn't stopped the Fordham University law professor from sticking it to Governor Andrew Cuomo — her opponent in the Democratic primary. (The primary election is Tuesday, September 9.)
Few New Yorkers would recognize Teachout on sight, and Teachout hasn't raised the kind of money that would allow her to do an aggressive advertising campaign. Cuomo, on the other hand, has plenty of money, name recognition, and the support of the state's Democratic Party machine. (Comedian and political satirist Randy Credico is also running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.)
But New York's progressive Democrats have longstanding complaints about Cuomo. They say he hasn't done enough to address economic inequality in the state. And they're particularly unhappy that Cuomo's pushed tax breaks and cuts for corporations, big banks, and the wealthy.
Teachout has emerged as a voice for those disenchanted Democrats. She's coming at Cuomo from the left and isn't shy about calling the governor out on his shortcomings. It's not just the tax cuts, which have meant less money for public schools and infrastructure, Teachout says. Cuomo's failed to deliver on other important issues, too, such as public financing of campaigns and a fracking ban, she says.
"He acts like he's serving his own presidential ambition or his donors, but does not act like somebody who is serving the interests of New York," Teachout says.
Teachout, former director of an open government nonprofit and director of online organizing for Howard Dean, positions herself as a crusader in the tradition of Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She says she wants state regulators to break up big companies and banks with too much political and economic power. And she says she wants wealthy, corporations and banks to pay more in taxes so that the state has more money for local governments, schools, infrastructure, and higher education.
Teachout says that as governor, she'd push for a public campaign finance system like New York City's, where candidates can get matching funds for small donations. The system would lessen the influence of wealthy donors who can write big checks, she says.
And she says she wants the state to ban fracking and invest more heavily in renewable energy such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric.
In recent interviews, Teachout talked about her campaign and some of the issues facing New York. An edited version of those conversations follows.
CITY: How do you effectively campaign against Cuomo, a sitting governor with a whole political machine behind him?
Teachout: I'm not going to try to compete on $100,000 donations. But I'll tell you, in the last three-and-a-half weeks, 37 people contributed to his campaign and 900 people contributed to mine. So we have people power.
We're doing community group meetings, big speeches, small meetings, and really reaching out to primary voters to let them know that there's a serious alternative to Andrew Cuomo — someone who believes in funding schools, someone who believes in banning fracking, and someone who believes that economic development policy doesn't begin and end with tax breaks.
We anticipate that this primary will have relatively low turnout: half a million people or maybe three-quarters of a million people. So it's really going to be a primary about Democrats who are watching closely, and those are the ones we're focused on.
What is driving economic inequality in New York?
A lot of it is taking money from the schools to pay for tax breaks. Some of it's taking money from infrastructure to pay for tax breaks. Andrew Cuomo, he doesn't find a dollar that he doesn't think belongs as a tax break for a big corporation or a major donor or business associate.
The tax code of the state is the moral code of the state. It shows what we value and what we don't value. And what Andrew Cuomo has shown is he values his donors and he values his business associates, and he values his cronies.
For years, New York's politicians and business leaders have said that the state needs to cut corporate taxes to compete with other states. Are they wrong?
New York doesn't have to engage in this race to the bottom and the evidence bears that out. We spent over $1.6 billion last year in tax breaks for businesses to lure them here or keep them here. That accounted for, in a recent study, less than 1 percent of the jobs created last year. So we're spending a lot of money with very little return. And many of those businesses are businesses that would have been here anyway.
It's just bad economic theory and it doesn't work. It ultimately ends up decimating the economy instead of investing in it.
People want to move to New York when they can trust that the schools are great, that the broadband is cheap and high speed, that the infrastructure works. Because there's a thousand other reasons to move to New York, including the extraordinary creativity and historical leadership role it has played in the country in progressive populist politics.
What is the alternative?
If we tax big banks fairly, that's an enormous source of revenue. Another is returning the millionaire's tax to the levels it was under [Governor David] Paterson's administration, which were much more fair.
Municipalities are limited in the resources they have because the state isn't paying its fair share. And the reason the state isn't paying its fair share is the top 1 percent and the big banks aren't paying their fair share.
You've been particularly critical of Cuomo's approach toward the banking industry. What would you do differently?
There are different ways in which we could more fairly tax the financial industry. One would simply be to fully reinstate the bank tax.
Probably the better way to go is to tax the banks fairly under the corporate tax code. Currently, they're only taxed for a fraction of the transactions they make in New York State. We could bring in billions of dollars a year with a more fair assessment of how much of the banks' activity actually occurs in New York State.
There's an insidious lie behind this approach, which is that the financial industry is going to leave New York. And it's a dangerous lie because it leads over and over again to the big banks getting special breaks while the rest of us have to pay far more.
How do you know that the financial industry wouldn't leave New York?
There's the Goldman Sachs building in New Jersey. New Jersey decided to get into the business of trying to lure the financial industry out of New York State, and so it granted a huge subsidy to build a big tower in New Jersey. And you can't pay a trader to go there. It's not where the activity is.
Banking has always been based in high-speed information and, quite honestly, gossip. And there's a reason why you don't see big banks buying buildings and the cheap land in the country and just relying on technology. It's because the social networks around the financial industry is the heart of it. And there is a powerful — powerful is an understatement — social network in the financial industry in Manhattan.
What, specifically, would you do to help small business grow in New York?
Right now, we don't have a level playing field. The game is rigged so big businesses are getting subsidies and tax breaks and small businesses aren't. That's one of the most essential first steps.
Second is making sure fines aren't replacing taxes as a source of revenue. Sometimes small businesses disproportionately bear the burden of fines. And the fines are high not because they're commensurate to the wrong, but because municipalities or other government agencies are trying to use them to fill gaps in their budgets.
And then we can bust up these big companies. That's what Teddy Roosevelt and FDR did. Some of these companies have unfair advantages just because they are large, not because they are producing anything better.
The governor doesn't act alone; you have the Legislature, and it's going to do what it wants to do. So how do you get lawmakers to support your agenda?
First of all, we're moving toward a Democratic Senate. And certainly, with a Democratic governor who unambiguously campaigns for Democrats, which I would do, that will make a big difference in what's possible.
Certainly I'd find allies in the Republican Party who found that Common Core, which I'm opposed to, should be halted.
Likewise, I think I'm going to find some agreement on the importance of small business. Republicans have given a lot of lip service to small business over the years, but in practice haven't supported them.
Cuomo's critics, including you, call him a bully. But hasn't his arm-twisting advanced important progressive issues including marriage equality and gun control?
I think that's true. Look, I don't think everything he's done is bad. I'm a reasonable person. I basically don't think he's governed as a Democrat in all these different ways. But he's pushed for things I agree with. I think we should have college education for inmates.
I don't have a per se complaint with using strength. I have a complaint with using strength in the service of your own political interests, instead of the interests of the people of the state.
New York has a problem with centralized power. We have to address that as a structural matter because time and again we've seen governors toppled by the arrogance that comes from having had too much power. That's a repeated pattern in this state.
I will use every tool at my disposal to get rid of the corporate capacity to donate to campaigns and change the way the campaigns are funded. To me, that is a core structural issue.