In a small, wood-paneled community center about five miles outside of New Paltz, New York, I sit in a semi-circle with about thirty other people on a sunny afternoon. Most of us are crumpled in folding chairs; some sit cross-legged on the floor; a few mill about by the kitchen where coffee and hot chili are offered. We are gathered to see Zephyr Teachout, the former gubernatorial candidate now running for Congress in New York’s nineteenth district, which is a wide swath of the Hudson Valley and Catskill mountains.
I sit next to a thirtyish man named Shawn and a sixtyish woman named Tanya. Tanya supports Teachout because “she understands that the structure of the system is the problem.” Shawn clutches Teachout’s 2014 book, Corruption in America, which castigates the modern Supreme Court’s campaign finance rulings.
A Fordham law professor, Teachout is lean and youthful, with blond hair and sharp features. Working a room, she is at ease and engaging, intelligent and funny. Dressed in a blue blazer and dark slacks, Teachout commences the afternoon with jokes about her rural Vermont childhood (“I was a champion runner growing up—I think it came from running so far to the school bus”) and her unique name (“I found out early it rhymed with heifer”), which draws big laughs.
Although she has never held elected office, Teachout, forty-four, is far from a political neophyte. Her first campaign, as a Howard Dean staffer, was twenty years ago, and she directed Internet-organizing for Dean’s 2004 presidential bid. But it was her Democratic primary challenge against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014 that thrust her into the spotlight and made her, as VICE Media put it, a “leftie favorite.” Teachout garnered a surprising 34 percent of the vote in that race, blasting Cuomo for disbanding an anti-corruption commission that was investigating conflicts of interest among New York legislators.
“She’s not so much campaigning for office as campaigning for reform,” The New Yorker wrote of Teachout at the time. Cuomo refused to debate her.
“People outside New York may not know that we have a serious problem with corruption and big money,” Teachout told me recently. She had supported Cuomo in 2010 but became disillusioned over his unwillingness to fight for public campaign financing and his refusal to let the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption complete its work.
“[Cuomo] said he was going to clean up Albany and look what happened over the past year,” Teachout says. “The head of the Senate and the head of the Assembly were both convicted on corruption charges.” This convinced her more than ever that “if we’re going to fight corruption in Albany, we have to change the way campaigns are funded.”
Teachout emerged from her gubernatorial battle as one of the nation’s most outspoken anti-corruption crusaders, decrying the ever-swelling sums of money that flood American politics, making public officials beholden to big donors and requiring them to spend ludicrous amounts of time fundraising. Along with Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Teachout is part of a new breed of progressive politician, attempting to reconfigure how political campaigns are run.
Sanders, for example, has refused super PAC money and brags that his average contribution is $27. Teachout also relies heavily on small donors, and has asked her opponents in the nineteenth district to reject super PAC support as well. She’s said her average contribution was about $40. On April 13, Sanders announced that for the first time he’d be fundraising for select Democrats. Teachout is one of them.
“I’d prefer to build this campaign with small donations but the fact is it’s going to be a $3 to $5 million race,” she says. “In our current broken reality, I also need to do high-dollar fundraising.”
Teachout’s views on campaign finance made her an ideological opponent of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. She has described her book Corruption in America as “an extended letter to the Supreme Court” aimed primarily at Justices Scalia and Kennedy. In the book, Teachout attacks the Citizens United decision and others which gave rise to “super PAC elections” and defined corruption so narrowly as to effectively strip it of meaning.
But do voters care passionately about corruption and campaign finance reform? Teachout is adamant that they do. And in light of the popularity of other candidates who’ve made them an issue recently—including Sanders, Warren, and even, to some degree, Donald Trump—they seem to be resonating now more than they have in years.
While Teachout is favored to win the Democratic primary, she has been criticized as a carpetbagger out of touch with her rural roots. In fact, she only recently moved into her district, relocating seventy-five miles north from Brooklyn to Dover Plains, and she continues to teach at Fordham, in Manhattan. Her main Democratic opponent in the June 28 primary, Will Yandik, is a fourth-generation local farmer.
Melinda Hardin, a Yandik supporter from Cooperstown, argues that Yandik, who is also a Livingston town councilman, will be stronger in the general election because of his extensive local ties: “If you want to support grassroots, you can’t get a whole lot more grassroots than Will.” Hardin, a local Democratic fundraiser, says she was “blown away” by Yandik’s grasp of the issues.
Both Teachout and Yandik are staunchly anti-fracking and big advocates of universal high-speed broadband, but there are key differences of focus. Teachout is particularly outspoken on antitrust issues and opposes the increasing consolidation in the cable industry, such as with the proposed Charter Communications-Time Warner Cable merger. Yandik, a contributor to AARP’s magazine and an adjunct professor of biology at a local community college, emphasizes job retraining for seniors and sustainable farming.
On the GOP side, top candidates are former state assemblyman John Faso and local businessman Andrew Heaney. Both are members of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program, which backs select candidates. New York’s 19th district is considered a key battleground because the incumbent, Republican Chris Gibson, is vacating the seat.
While the district went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, only one Democrat has won the House seat since 1993. This is why Hardin believes Yandik, with his deep local roots and proven crossover appeal, would give the Democrats a better chance to win in November.
But to the crowd gathered at the community center, Teachout presents a progressive platform infused with rural concerns: protecting the water supply, making small business loans easily accessible, clean energy investment, breaking up the big banks, and, of course, public campaign financing.
“I’m a super PAC target,” she tells the group. “We can overturn Citizens United, we can overturn Buckley v. Valeo. This is a real, real, real opportunity.”
Zephyr Rain Teachout grew up in a farming community outside Norwich, Vermont, the second oldest of five children born to Peter Teachout, a law professor, and Mary Miles, a lawyer who became a state judge. She attended high school just across the border in the well-off, overwhelmingly white town of Hanover, New Hampshire.
This may seem an unusually privileged upbringing for a populist firebrand—Sanders was raised in the Brooklyn melting pot and had three relatives die in the Holocaust; Elizabeth Warren grew up in Oklahoma City on the edge of poverty after her father suffered a heart attack—but Teachout says her parents shaped her worldview and career path.
She tells me a story about her father, a lieutenant during the Vietnam War.
While stationed in Japan, Peter was asked to deliver a speech on the Geneva Conventions to a group of fellow officers. As he was researching the speech, Peter concluded that U.S. policy in Vietnam might in fact violate the conventions, but delivered the speech anyway. Teachout praises his “willingness to stand up, even in front of a potentially unfriendly crowd, to say what he’d uncovered.”
From her mother, Teachout was inspired by her “deep-down democratic belief that everybody is worthy of respect and worth listening to.”
After receiving degrees from Yale University and Duke Law School, Teachout worked as an aide to a special education teacher before accepting a position as an attorney defending death row inmates. Of the latter job, she says, “I really saw then that the law worked differently depending on how much money you had.”
That government should seek to level the playing field between rich and poor is a core belief of progressives. Sanders and Warren often say the American economy is “rigged” to favor the wealthy. In April 2014, Princeton University published a study that bolsters this argument. It found that when average citizens wanted something done independent of the will of economic elites, the chances of legislation being enacted were “near zero.” On the other hand, elites and business interests had “substantial independent impact” on public policy.
Appearing on the PBS show Moyers & Company, Teachout agreed with fellow guest Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor and author of Republic, Lost, that America is no longer a democracy but something closer to an oligarchy. Lessig told Bill Moyers that the Princeton study proved American democracy had “flatlined.”
But Teachout was quick to strike a note of hope. “We still have these forums that allow for access to power,” she said, noting that the Tillman Act, passed during the Progressive Era in 1907, banned direct corporate contributions to campaigns. “I find hope actually from history, because we’ve had this disconnect between our democracy and our formal rules before.”
In 2014, Lessig launched Mayday PAC, a crowd-funded, nonpartisan super PAC dedicated to funding candidates who want to get money out of politics, calling it “the super PAC to end all super PACs.” Teachout took over as CEO for the second half of 2015 but resigned when she launched her congressional campaign.
“Zephyr brings an enormous range of organizational skills, ideas, and talents,” says Lessig, about her time as CEO. “Perhaps the most important is her skill at speaking about how diverse the issue [of money in politics] is. Some people think it’s an old white man’s problem. But it’s not. It’s a sexism issue, it’s a race issue. Zephyr is very skilled at articulating how it affects everyone.”
Mayday spent $10 million during the 2014 midterms but only one of the candidates it backed prevailed. The group has since changed its focus to local, grassroots organizing. Teachout says Mayday still has a candidate funding arm and could legally help fund her congressional run. But she’s asked that it not do so to avoid “perceived conflicts.”
For Teachout, our current campaign finance system is detrimental to good government and to democracy itself.
“Everyone knows that our private finance system leads to politicians being effectively forced to hold positions acceptable to big donors,” she says. “That is a huge problem. But what most people don’t realize is how much time it takes up. So much, in fact, that elected officials don’t have time for two really important things: to deeply engage on the issues and to nurture relationships across the aisle.”
She says members of Congress spend between 40 percent and 70 percent of their time fundraising. (Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur once told me that she knew a member who spent 90 percent of his time fundraising.)
“What that means is they leave their Congressional offices and go to an off-site building—because you’re not supposed to fundraise on campus, as it were—and make as many calls to donors as they can. Every day, every week, every month that they are in Congress. That is time not spent learning about trade policy or renewable energy investments or the heroin epidemic. So as the fundraising of our leaders goes up, their expertise goes down.”
Teachout also believes the need to fundraise contributes to gridlock.
“There is no time to socialize with members across the aisle who you might find common ground with,” she says. “I care about broadband, for instance. If there is time to have dinner and talk to people across the aisle on broadband policy, there’s a much better chance for collaboration.” But there isn’t time for that to happen.
In April, Teachout endorsed—and Lessig joined—the Democracy Spring movement: a ten-day march from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., for a week of civil disobedience to draw attention to the corrupting influence of money in politics. Lessig marched for four days, some of that time in rain and hail. Once in D.C., more than four hundred protesters were arrested on the first day. But as The Intercept noted, on April 11, when most arrests were made, the big cable news channels devoted only thirty seconds to the demonstrations, including just twelve seconds by MSNBC, widely acknowledged as the most liberal cable news channel. (MSNBC’s parent company is Comcast, one of the largest spenders on political lobbying, The Intercept observed.)
The unlimited spending unleashed by Citizens United means enormous sums are now flowing to advertisers, PR firms, political consultants, and media outlets. With so many people getting rich off the current system, can we hope to reform it?
“We are in a really difficult place,” Teachout replies, after a pause. “I don’t want to underplay it. But there have been other times in our history where we could have said, ‘Well, we’re stuck. Just give up.’ But luckily people did not.”
Jake Whitney is a journalist based in New York. In addition to The Progressive, his work has appered in The New Republic, The Daily Beast, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications.