Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo irritant, vows to press on

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Zephyr Teachout. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
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COLONIE—Most of the delegates had already left the floor of the Working Families Party convention this weekend when Zephyr Teachout, the party's would-be standard bearer, climbed onto two chairs and began quoting Maya Angelou.

“The line I return to all of the time is that 'we must confess that we are the possible. We are the miracles, the true wonders, of this earth,' ” the 42-year-old Fordham law professor told the quieted crowd. “You create your own world every day. I congratulate you on the power you have exercised in this past week, but let's keep confessing, and finding even more possibilities.”

Much to the audible chagrin of the more than 200 state committee members, activists and officials who gathered at a suburban hotel for the W.F.P.'s quadrennial convention, Teachout's last-minute candidacy was rejected after Governor Andrew Cuomo promised party leaders he would throw his might behind flipping the State Senate into Democratic hands.

Cuomo had already secured the support of major unions, and top party brass was able to whip enough delegates to hold Teachout to 41.34 percent.

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The open question, though, is whether Teachout will still assume the mantle of Cuomo's left-flank needler-in-chief, a mission for which her longtime associates say she is perfectly suited.

Teachout, an enrolled Democrat, says she is weighing a primary challenge to Cuomo. She would not win. But she could succeed by making a point, calling attention to the ideals she believes in and believes have been ignored by Cuomo, and maybe even creating a lingering infrastructure when the dust settles.

And while she has many of the flaws of a first-time candidate, Teachout has experience as an impactful loser, cutting her teeth as a top aide to Howard Dean's unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004.

Nicco Mele, who sat next to Teachout in the Dean campaign's Burlington headquarters, remembered her doing everything from crafting get-out-the-vote strategy to writing blog posts that in the pre-social media world were the principal tool for organizing and communicating with thousands of activists around the country.

“Anyone who works on a political campaign, especially an insurgent political campaign like Howard Dean's—you have to have a certain grit to get you through the ups and downs,” Mele said, recalling Teachout's return to campaign headquarters after Dean's game-ending scream.

Hearts were heavy, he recalled, but, “Zephyr was telling us how we had changed the discussion in the Democratic Party, specifically about the Iraq war.”

A Vermont native, Teachout has been a visiting scholar at Harvard's Kennedy School and settled in New York in 2009, when she accepted a tenure-track position at Fordham. She is writing a book on political corruption, and became involved in the campaign to create a system of public campaign finance several months ago.

“She would actually challenge Cuomo intellectually about the policies around progressive ideals because she probably knows the policies better than he does,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and a colleague of Teachout's at the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government. “She has the ability to articulate them and challenge him to explain why he hasn't fought for them stronger as governor. She's no shrinking flower.”

While their public posture is to shrug off Teachout's challenge—“It's a free country,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Cuomo campaign adviser—it apparently caused enough agita for an immediate smear push.

Marty Connor, an election lawyer and the former leader of the State Senate Democrats, pulled Teachout's voting records and spent Friday and Saturday sharing them with journalists, noting that she claimed to be a permanently disabled voter (this lets her vote by absentee ballot), had no record of voting in New York in 2011 or 2013 and questioned whether she met the five-year residency requirement to be governor.

“She's an election law expert who doesn't vote?” Connor said.

Teachout may have long roots in liberal activism, but she was a newcomer to the W.F.P. Many of her allies in the party—and even people seconding her nomination—couldn't pronounce her name. (It is pronounced exactly as it seems.)

While delegates mingled in the meeting room that served as the convention floor, Teachout sat in a nearby courtyard, alone, writing her remarks. She chatted with Alliance for Quality Education executive director Billy Easton, and smiled broadly as she was approached by random delegates, but she was far from a homegrown hero.

Still, some of the party's professional staff—even after the Cuomo deal was cut—offered help. Teachout held a five-minute press conference in which W.F.P. spokesman Khan Shoieb called on reporters (even if they didn't have a question) and tried to shut down the question about Teachout's residency.

“I moved here in June 2009,” Teachout replied, relatively unfazed. “I’ve been deeply involved in the community in New York. I’ve organized, I’ve engaged in theater in New York.”

This was simply the latest act. And after Cuomo was announced as the victor, she suggested it wouldn't be the last.

“I plan to be a watchdog on that deal and hold him accountable,” Teachout said. “I hope to be around not just this year for the deal, but for the future, because we've had a problem with promises before from Cuomo. I hope this promise sticks. I want it to stick.”

“I'd love to run against Cuomo,” Teachout continued. “I care so much about the Working Families Party and it was so important to bring people together tonight. But if I were free to really talk about, tell the truth about Cuomo's record in a Democratic primary, I think some pretty exciting things could happen.”