The Outsider: Zephyr Teachout Will Never Be Governor, So Why is Andrew Cuomo Worried?

Categories: Longform

Caleb Ferguson

It was a strange July morning in Lower Manhattan, and getting stranger by the minute. On the Brooklyn Bridge, sometime during the night, someone had swapped all the American flags for bleached white ones. As police and reporters swarmed the bridge, less than a mile away, in front of the 150-year-old Tweed Courthouse, two political candidates who agreed on nothing at all had just announced a surprise joint press conference. The announcement, emailed to reporters minutes before the event, said only that Zephyr Teachout, the left-wing law professor challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo in the upcoming Democratic primary, would make a joint appearance with Rob Astorino, the starched, suited, Roman Catholic radio host and career politician running on the Republican ticket. It was an irresistibly odd matchup. The reporters not covering the white flag mystery showed up and waited on the expanse of concrete in front of the courthouse. And waited. And waited. A podium bearing a sign with the words "Clean Up Albany" stood empty. The candidates showed no sign of appearing. Perennial long-shot candidate and comedian Randy Credico arrived, fuming at not having been invited to participate. Dressed in a bunched-up blazer and a yellow tie, sweat streaming freely from his head, he cornered Liz Pitt, Teachout's finance director. "Nice to get a call from you guys!" he cried. Pitt smiled politely. Credico advanced. "You dissed me twice," he warned. "Credico has a mean streak in him that's hard to come out, but I think you got it."

"There she is!" Pitt replied, spotting her candidate in the distance. She made her escape. Undaunted, Credico turned to the closest reporter and continued holding forth. Teachout and Astorino made their way to the podium, apologizing profusely, explaining they'd met only minutes before and wanted to say hello. "I'm here today with a man I disagree with about almost everything," Teachout told the assembled reporters when she arrived at the podium. The reporters giggled. She and Astorino were there together, Teachout added, "Because recent events show that Governor Andrew Cuomo has not merely failed to clean up Albany, he has become part of the problem and an example of the very thing he once promised to fix."

Yet another scandal had enveloped the governor's mansion just days before: The New York Times presented a mountain of evidence that Cuomo had interfered with the Moreland Commission — a task force he had formed to probe allegations of corruption in New York state publics — essentially blocking any lines of inquiry that came too close to his friends. The commission was eventually scrapped altogether. "Shutting down an anticorruption commission when it comes too close to power would make Boss Tweed blush," Teachout said. In the same spot in front of the courthouse four years before, Cuomo had said something identical, vowing to put an end to what he called "Albany's antics."

"Professor Teachout and I agree on one thing," Astorino said when it was his turn to talk. "The average New Yorker can't get a fair shake in this state anymore. We're going to turn this state around, whether it's Governor Teachout or Governor Astorino."

As he spoke, the protesters arrived. There were five of them, and they were very young, in their early 20s. They wore office-casual — khakis, modest dresses starched shirts — and they seemed alternately nervous and bored, like teenagers squirming their way through church. "Professor Teachout stands for something," Astorino continued. "She has principles."

One of the young protesters made a loud, elaborate snorting noise. "Go back
to Vermont, Teachout!" another called. "Teachout, what state are you from?" another asked. They burst into nervous giggles. The reporters glanced at one another, then began attempting, unsuccessfully, to snap photos of the protesters, who promptly hid their faces with their signs. "Zephyr Teachout (D-Vermont)," read one. "Come clean, Astorino!" another of the protesters shouted. After a few minutes of disagreement among the group — "You first," "No, you go," — they marched slowly behind the podium and stood there as the two candidates continued talking, unperturbed. An Astorino staffer tried, unsuccessfully, to get them to move. "Come on, guys," he pleaded. They ignored him.

The whole thing seemed odd: Four of the five sign wielders were attacking Teachout. Yet public opinion polls at the time showed that hardly anyone even knew who she was, much less that she was inspiring enough ire for a protest. And the sign holders seemed strange, too — nervous, jerky, rehearsed — as if they were being paid to be there. Neither Astorino nor Teachout had any visible reaction to their presence. "Where are you from?" several reporters asked when the protesters returned to the front of the crowd. "We're just Americans," one young woman responded, mechanically. She edged away. The press conference ended and the little group walked away at a pace not much slower than a trot.

Days later, at another Teachout rally, they were back, this time with new signs: "Fly Away, Zephyr!" By then, Teachout's campaign manager had publicly accused Governor Cuomo's camp of sending them. Cuomo's campaign spokesman Peter Kauffmann did not initially comment on the accusation but later confirmed to the Voice that they had shown up at the direction of the governor's campaign. Kauffmann said he didn't know why they had declined to identify themselves or disclose they were with the campaign.

This time, Teachout seemed almost delighted to see young protestors.

"Governor Cuomo is getting nervous," she said, with a little smile. "Because this race is getting competitive."

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