Zephyr Teachout, New HV Resident, Makes A Move For Congress

New York’s progressive breeze is intensifying these days with Zephyr Teachout now running for the state’s 19th district congressional seat, which represents half of the Rural Intelligence region. If you don’t know who she is by now, you will soon. The former Democratic gubernatorial primary underdog is now the early (presumptive) favorite to replace outgoing Republican Chris Gibson, and that is a big deal for the ideological balance locally and nationally. So we met Teachout for a beer at the Chatham Brewing Company Monday to talk to her about how her larger agenda scales to our local issues.

“I love breweries,” Teachout said, splitting an IPA with her campaign manager. “That’s another reason we have to protect our water from fracking.”

In 2014, the Fordham law professor, with a long background in public advocacy, mounted a strong primary challenge against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, sending a shockwave through the entrenched state Democratic establishment. She won 34 percent of the vote, and while that may not seem like a lot, it’s impressive given the size of Cuomo’s war chest and her previous obscurity. More impressively, she won every county in the Hudson Valley, every county in the 19th District, Cuomo’s bedroom (Albany County), and a lot more. Her highest margin of victory was in Columbia where she won a staggering 77.5 percent of the Democratic vote. According to local sources, after the primary, the Columbia County Democratic Committee was sent a message from Cuomo’s office to shape up.

“I feel pretty well connected to the district, not just because of the gubernatorial run but after the race I continued to be really involved with the local communities I met,” Teachout said, on her way to Peint O Gwrw for the Chatham Democrats’ Chili Fest. “There are at least three different times that I did pretty extensive tours focusing in counties in this district: one, recruiting teachers to run for office and trying to recruit women and young people to run for office; one talking about public financing of elections; and one really focused on renewable energy technologies. I’ve stayed very close to the groups fighting to ban fracking here.” (And the way to stop fracking long term, she adds, “is to invest in renewable energy. If just 10 percent of people switch over to getting their energy from renewable sources it has a pretty significant market impact.”)

Much of Teachout’s appeal comes from being seen as a progressive outsider. She has worked in politics, most notably on the short-lived but well-run 2004 Howard Dean campaign, which many analysts consider the prototype of the modern tech-savvy campaigns we see today. On policy issues, Teachout sounds a lot like progressive icon Elizabeth Warren. She wants to break up the banks, tax Wall Street to fund expanded social services, schools and universal healthcare, and opposes trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP, saying they crush small businesses’ ability to be competitive. When she ran for governor, she nearly stole the Working Family Party endorsement away from Cuomo, which would have been a major coup for those to the left of the governor. 

Outsider or no, in the forthcoming Democratic primary, Teachout finds herself in the peculiar position of favorite against Columbia native son, farmer and Livingston town councilman William Yandik. Yandik is well respected and received the endorsement of the CCDC but has an uphill battle against Teachout’s name recognition and recent accomplishments. John Kehoe of Woodstock and executive director of the Thorium Institute for International Peace has also jumped into the primary.

But this election, in a district with deeply conservative pockets, will not be easily won.

“My entire life for the past 15 years has been standing up for people whose voices have been shut out,” she said. “I work at Fordham but I was fighting the big banks in 2009 — I cofounded a group dedicated to breaking them up. I was recently running Mayday, an organization dedicated to fighting corruption on a national level.”

“It’s a very diverse area,” Teachout acknowledged, “I actually think it’s pretty hard to put a lot of people’s politics in a box. That’s true throughout the district. People think for themselves, and I’d say it’s hard to put my politics in a box, too. Republicans and Democrats really care about corruption. Republicans and Democrats really care about fighting Common Core, which doesn’t fit in these neat left-right boxes. Protecting the health and safety of our water doesn’t fall into a neat box. And those are the three most important things to my campaign.”

“I moved to Dover last March. I’m from a rural area. I like the sound of silence. I like the sound of birds. I certainly didn’t expect to run for Congress,” she said, saying she anticipates her opponents will use her status as a newcomer against her.

Now a resident of southeastern Dutchess County, Teachout said she moved to the district from Brooklyn before she was approached to run for the seat, after Gibson announced he would not seek reelection this year in order to focus on running for governor in 2018. Just for posterity’s sake, however, it should be noted that within state political circles, Gibson was floating test balloons for a run at the state level before the ink dried on 2014 ballots. Though it’s feasible Teachout didn’t know that.

But new residents representing the 19th is nothing new. The district has been re-gerrymandered so many times that some people might not even know they’re in the district. In the last redistricting session, local State Rep. Didi Barrett’s house was drawn out of her district and she had to move. But being labeled a carpetbagger might be one of Teachout’s biggest challenges moving forward. Still, regardless of where she has lived before, she maintained she has worked on important issues in Columbia and Dutchess.

“There’s a deep independent streak. People value self-reliance and independence pretty highly,” she said. “The idea of community is important. There are certain parts of this district where there is a lot of loneliness and people are looking for community and places where they will encounter each other. Another thing that’s unifying in the wealthier and poorer parts of the district is a concern about public education. I really care about arts and sports and social work in schools. I have a deep belief that arts and sports are essential to education.”

If she wins the primary, Teachout could potentially face a general election against Andrew Heaney, former State Assemblyman John Faso or Bob Bishop, with Faso, the former Assembly leader, probably leading the pack. But after giving up his seat in 2002, he has only lost races, first for comptroller (2002), then governor (2006). Given the progressively more liberal makeup of the district and Teachout’s perceived momentum, her chances of victory are better than average.

“I think the job of a Congressional member is 80 percent constituent service and local issues,” she said. “I thought about this very seriously. I asked people in every corner of the district and they said ‘we want somebody who is going to understand us.’”

Even if she were to lose this election, Teachout appears to be the type of politician on the rise right now. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been calling for a revolution that requires a new class of progressives willing to seek office. Teachout is answering that call.