The New York Times endorsement of Zephyr Teachout has supercharged her campaign for New York attorney general, with more than 3,000 contributions coming in the five days since it was announced, according to the Teachout campaign. The contributions averaged $62 a pop, totaling more than $200,000, a significant boost as the race heads into its final stretch.
“The wind has really shifted in the last few weeks,” Teachout told The Intercept in an interview Friday.
The Times made its endorsement based on the candidate’s independence from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a willingness to use the power of the office to hold President Donald Trump accountable, terms Teachout has long argued make her the strongest candidate.
Letitia James, New York City’s public advocate, has been both boosted and hampered by her connection to Cuomo, who has endorsed her. James has said criticisms for her ties to the governor unfairly overlook her decades of progressive and independent accomplishments.
The man on the minds of many Democratic primary voters, however, will be Trump, who has been floating the prospect of pardons of those caught up in the Mueller probe, even as he has himself been implicated by his longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, in a campaign finance violation.
On Friday, the rising progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a new endorsement video for Teachout and rallied with her in Long Island. A day earlier, Teachout picked up the endorsement of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which also backed her failed 2016 congressional run in upstate New York, and was the only national group to back her 2014 challenge to Cuomo. Teachout was criticized recently by the New York Daily News for getting more than half of her money from outside of New York, and while the PCCC has tens of thousands of New York members, it is a national organization, likely to bring in still more small dollar donations from out of state.
The charge underscores a paradox of the new small-donor movement in Democratic politics. In order to match big dollar fundraising, candidates need a national following, even if they are running for a House seat or a statewide office. But that leaves them vulnerable to the criticism that their support isn’t homegrown.
It remains to be seen whether that will be a potent criticism within the party in the long term, but in Teachout’s case, it’s plain to see why people outside New York are interested in who will be the next prosecutor with authority over the Trump Organization.
“New York state attorney general is in the process of becoming critical, absolutely critical in the Trump fight.”
“New York state attorney general is in the process of becoming critical, absolutely critical in the Trump fight,” Teachout said, “but also absolutely critical in financial regulation, in environmental protection, absolutely critical in taking on pharmaceutical companies, because we can’t trust the federal government. Who thinks that [U.S. Attorney General] Jeff Sessions is going to protect people’s civil rights? The role of this office and the importance of this race is really central to [the New York Times’s] endorsement. And I was really proud of that.”
Teachout said that she is the only candidate in the race who has called for a return of the Moreland Commission, which was investigating corruption in Albany until Cuomo shut it down in 2014. She added that she was the first candidate for attorney general to call for state lawmakers to repeal laws protecting defendants against double-jeopardy prosecutions, a loophole that could protect convicts such as Cohen or Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chair, from being prosecuted at a state level if they are pardoned by Trump.
James recently called for the legislature to be brought into a special session to close the loophole. State lawmakers in April introduced legislation to do just that, but Senate Republicans refused to bring a vote on the pardon bill to the floor.
It is only because of Cuomo and the Independent Democratic Conference that the Republicans were able to block it, Teachout said. The IDC, which was created by Cuomo and disbanded earlier this year, was a group of Democrats who caucused with Republicans, giving the GOP control of the Senate. By dividing the power of the legislature, Cuomo accrued more power, freeing him of the obligation to pass the full suite of progressive legislation he had campaigned on, as he had a ready foil in Senate Republicans.
“Understand why it didn’t pass last time: It’s the IDC, and Cuomo’s support of Republicans in the Senate set up a structure where there was a Republican veto and this critical, critical legislation for holding Trump to the rule of law was not able to pass,” Teachout said. So these machinations that were designed for other reasons have these terrible, terrible, grotesque side effects, both in terms of not being able to pass the DREAM Act, not being able to codify Roe v. Wade, but also not being able to amend New York’s law to allow for prosecution in the case of a self-serving pardon. And I’m the only candidate that’s supporting all the IDC challengers and I’ve been outspoken about that.”
A third candidate in the attorney general race, Sean Patrick Maloney, represents a congressional district in upstate New York, where Teachout’s support was strongest in her 2014 run against Cuomo. He is seen as a Teachout spoiler, and his ability to siphon votes away from her may prove decisive. Her campaign has blasted him for endorsing a Republican for state Senate four years ago.
Teachout’s campaign has touted its refusal to take corporate money to contrast it with the James operation, which has gotten a fundraising boost from Cuomo and the companies who back his machine. The Times argued that James’s ties to Cuomo rendered her less likely to be able to take Albany on.
Ms. James has for decades been a standout fighter for tenants, children and other vulnerable New Yorkers. But she has embraced political contributions from donors to Mr. Cuomo, who held a fund-raiser for her earlier this summer.
Ms. James has countered that she is “unbossed and unbought,” and described suggestions she is too close to Mr. Cuomo as “disrespectful,” insinuating that they are asked only because she is poised to become the first black woman to win statewide office. But given the political landscape in New York and elsewhere, the state attorney must be absolutely independent. Such political contributions could become a conflict of interest for any candidate.
Cuomo, according to multiple news reports, endorsed James for attorney general after she agreed not to seek the endorsement of the Working Families Party, with which she had long been allied. Cuomo is in a feud with the WFP over its support of his gubernatorial challenger, Cynthia Nixon. James acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that Cuomo “had a conversation with me” about the WFP endorsement. (Her campaign did not comment in time for publication.)
Teachout said that independence from Cuomo is key because he has shown a willingness to intervene in corruption investigations, particularly by shutting down the Moreland Commission. But, she said, he never legally rescinded some of its authority, so the next attorney general will be able to bring it back. “There’s existing authority both under an existing executive order to investigate corruption in Albany, which Andrew never formally rescinded, Executive Order 106, and that order was actually the order that created the Moreland Commission. He shut it down in a press conference, but he never formally rescinded the order and I’m fully ready to use that,” she said.
The “gold standard,” Teachout said, “is a full legislative grant of authority, criminal and civil, to look into Albany corruption.” While her opponents agree with her on this, she said what sets her apart is that she’s the only candidate willing to confront Cuomo over it.
“The glaring absence is the willingness to turn around and face Andrew Cuomo squarely and say, ‘Start the Moreland–restart the Moreland Commission tomorrow,’” she said. “It’s a marker of independence that is going to be necessary because there’ll be a thousand more moments where the attorney general is called upon to speak up to the governor, whether that be Governor Cuomo, or Governor Nixon, and be very clear about the authority that she needs, and you’ve got to know that your attorney general is not going to hesitate to publicly ask for that authority and to force the governor to justify why he or she isn’t giving it, instead of to quietly make backroom deals.”
Update: August 26, 2018
On Sunday, The Daily News also endorsed Teachout, after opposing her against Cuomo in 2014.