After decades of political dormancy, the progressive left has again emerged as a powerful force in American politics. Leading the resurgence in New York is Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor who unsuccessfully challenged Andrew Cuomo during the 2014 gubernatorial race. Last week she announced that she will run for a congressional seat upstate where the Republican incumbent, Chris Gibson, will not seek re-election.
“Washington is broken. Big corporations are getting their way and it’s impossible to get things done for people,” Teachout told The National Memo. “Normal people lost their voice. I’m running for people whose voices have been locked out.”
Although she is running for the Democratic nomination in the state’s 19th Congressional District, Teachout’s candidacy goes beyond ordinary partisan politics. Her most important endorsement so far comes from the Working Families Party (WFP), a labor-backed, progressive party that supports left-leaning Democrats in the general election with an additional ballot line.
“‘A Democrat that can win is what we need’ — I think that resonates with the 19th district. Absolutely,” said Elliott Auerbach, the WFP-backed comptroller of Ulster County, which is in the 19th district. “Not only is she a Democrat who can win, I take the stand that she is a Democrat that we need.”
The 19th Congressional District is home to 700,000 residents spread across 11 distinct counties; colleges dot the area, along with many farms and orchards; and New York City residents, who lean toward Democratic and progressive candidates, have been moving into the district in increasing numbers. “There’s been this huge migration of Brooklyintes and Manhattanites coming up here,” Auerbach said, explaining that the proximity of so many Republicans and Democrats in one area has led to a less polarized district compared to the polarization seen at the national level.
“Economic policy is central. These are areas that are really struggling. Broadband, transportation, healthcare, those are some universal demands and concerns throughout the district,” she said. “More broadly, support for small businesses and family farms is an issue.”
Teachout’s message bears a strong resemblance to that of Bernie Sanders (I-VT), even if she denies it — and they both hail from the Green Mountain State. Like Sanders, she is focused on fighting corporate influence and big donors. “I think the biggest thing is my history of standing up to big corporations, standing up, speaking my own mind and raising other people’s voices,” she said. “I think those are the most important qualifications.”
Ulster County legislator Jennifer Schwartz Berky, who was also backed by the WFP, praised Teachout’s qualities as a candidate. “She connects with people, is very personable, and explains her point of view without platitudes,” she said. “I don’t think [her popularity] was just because of discontent with Cuomo, although some of that was in play and she cuts through the nonsense, to use a safe term.” Berky said she voted for Teachout during the 2014 gubernatorial race.
Her Republicans opponents have attempted to portray her as part of the “looney left,” campaigning on ideas practically Marxist in nature. “She may be a fringe candidate, but she’s bold and I have a word of caution for Republicans of the 19th district: Don’t get Berned,” said Bob Bishop in a release posted on Facebook, a farmer and one of the Republicans vying for the nomination in the 19th District. “In today’s political environment, if we run a career politician or a candidate closely tied to Wall Street, Zephyr Teachout will win in November.” Bishop, who has been described as a political newcomer, is running against John Faso, minority leader in the New York State Assembly, and Andrew Heaney, a businessman.
Teachout was undaunted by the comments. “I think they are probably just replying to my funny name. I think you just need to look at my record,” she said. “I’m talking about pretty bread and butter issues.”
Teachout is also a political outsider. She has positioned herself as someone with ideas outside the political mainstream, namely advocating for publicly-financed elections and a tax on stock transfers to help pay for education funding. But she has to win election in a district that’s evenly split between Democratic and Republican voters.
Still, she may have an advantage in wooing voters with weak partisan loyalty. Many registered voters in the district have voted for the opposing party, which is one of the reasons Democrats think they can win the 19th district this year. “It’s a little more Republican-leaning, but I think Zephyr brings to the table an intelligent way of seeing the needs of the district and I think that will translate nicely in the general election,” said Auerbach.