The Democratic attorney general primary on September 13 features four candidates with similar ideologies but very different backgrounds. In a four-part series this week, City Limits takes a look at each candidate’s career for clues about how they might approach being “the people’s lawyer.”
Zephyr Rain Teachout is the kind of left-winger who sympathizes with the Tea Party movement. She supports classic big government policies, but mingles them with a desire for local control.
She thinks corporations are too big and powerful, and that politicians don’t listen. She sounds a lot like an average American—like someone too disillusioned to bother voting. Except Teachout is actually running for office, to be New York State Attorney General.
To get a deeper sense of who she is, City Limits put together this rundown of what she’s stood for as a candidate, an academic, and an activist:
•Teachout has long staked out the left wing of the Democratic Party. Teachout’s very first tweet was “dispirited by biden,” after then-Sen. Barack Obama named then-Sen. Joseph Biden his vice-presidential candidate back in 2008.
•As an academic, Teachout made her name studying corruption. She argues that fighting corruption, in the broad sense of the word, should be a constitutional mandate on par with principles like privacy and freedom of expression.
•Relatedly, she’s pledged to use the office of New York’s Attorney General to go after President Donald Trump. Teachout was an expert on the Foreign Emoluments Clause long before it was cool. She also worked on a lawsuit against Trump, over his continued ownership of his companies, that was dismissed last year. “We have ongoing violations of the United States constitution right here in New York by way of the Trump organization,” Teachout said on The Katie Halper Show: “When I am attorney general I will sue President Trump, asking for an injunction saying he has to divest those business interests that are taking foreign money to stop violating the constitution.”
•Teachout supports breaking up large companies, and strengthening anti-trust legislation to stop them from merging in the first place. She generally frames the issue in terms of corruption – their enormous power threatens the integrity of the government. In New York, she’s promised to continue the state’s fight against Spectrum Communications, the telecom giant. Teachout opposed Spectrum’s merger with Time Warner Cable. More recently, she’s spoken out against Google’s and Facebook’s duopolistic control of online advertising. She says she would use the attorney general’s powers to review and, when possible, potentially block the mergers of companies with a presence in New York.
•Teachout strongly advocates for public financing of political campaigns, and she’s been a dogged critic of the Citizens United ruling. In 2011, she wrote that Supreme Court justices’ had an “emotional” attachment to the first amendment, which she criticizes for the way it’s enshrined money in politics. Teachout isn’t taking campaign money from either corporate PACs or LLCs.
•Leaked emails suggest that in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign got her to stop loudly supporting Bernie Sanders in exchange for fundraising help from New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
•Teachout’s 2016 run for an upstate congressional seat also led to her lone conspicuous flip flop, over the state’s 2013 gun control law, the NY SAFE Act. In her 2014 campaign for governor, Teachout said she was concerned about the law’s privacy implications for gun owners, but was “largely in support.” Two years later, she declared herself “not a supporter.” She said that the it had “some features that didn’t make much sense,” while adding that she still approved of the provisions in the law that toughened background checks for prospective gun buyers. In a debate last month, Teachout claimed she only opposed the law in 2016 because the state didn’t hold public hearings.
•Teachout opposes Common Core. The federal standard is an “educational coup” by billionaire Bill Gates, who pushed them through without enough public input, she argued in 2014. She’s also against the widespread testing that accompanies the standards. In general, she wants localities to have more say over how their kids are taught.
•She has called for the abolition of ICE, the federal Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency. She has broadly criticized the idea that people could be “illegal,” or that immigrants could be a threat to national security. She made headlines by pledging to prosecute ICE “for their criminal acts.” In a recent article, Teachout highlighted the hundreds of alleged cases of sexual abuse by ICE staffers. She argued that they were the inevitable result of an agency that is “unaccountable, by design.”
•She often calls for more power for local governments. She’s wary of the power of the unelected officials in federal and state agencies. It’s a concern she shares with some right-wingers. At different points, she has described herself as a “left federalist,” a “Rockefeller Republican,” and a “Teddy Roosevelt trustbuster.” “I hope that we increasingly shift power to local governments,” she wrote in The Nation in 2009. “Collective decisions about health care and education are best answered on a local level. A government should not become too big to fulfill one of its most basic functions: representation.”
•She’s tweeted in memoriam of Aaron Swartz, an activist who was indicted for illegally downloading millions of academic papers. In a talk in 2016, Teachout said she and Swartz were “sporadic, close friends” who talked and strategized about politics.
•In a 2015 interview with Guernica Magazine, Teachout expressed sympathy for the Tea Party’s criticisms of US politics. ‘The Tea Party says, “You are out of power because of big government.” Then some Democrats tend to respond by saying, “No, you’re wrong, you’re not out of power,”‘ Teachout said. ‘I think the correct response is, “You’re right, you’re out of power. But you’re not out of power because of big government, you’re out of power because of a handful of corporate interests that have taken over politics.”‘
•Teachout probably wouldn’t be running for attorney general if not for the New Yorker investigation exposing allegations that Eric Schneiderman abused several women. Just months prior, Teachout argued that then-Senator Al Franken shouldn’t resign in the face of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. In an editorial for the New York Times, she called for “due process” for Franken. “Condemning a sitting lawmaker is a public choice and one our representatives should make judiciously.”
•In 2014, Teachout marched in a protest following the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department. She called for the decriminalization of “small amounts” of marijuana during her run for governor that year, citing the disproportionate rates at which young black and Latino people are arrested for possession. She also proposed raising the age of criminal responsibility, from 16 to 18 years old.
•Teachout has widened her critique of the criminal justice system in her current campaign. She called for halving the number of people incarcerated in New York during last month’s debate. She now supports fully legalizing marijuana, ending cash bail, and quickly releasing the names of police officers accused of killing people, among other things. “Eric Garner should still be alive. Akai Gurley should be alive. Saheed [sic] Vasell should be alive. And countless others,” Teachout tweeted in July, 2018. “We owe them and their families justice. We owe them truth-telling: systemic racism in criminal justice is killing people. Lack of accountability is [sic] kiling people.”
•Teachout foresaw how the Internet would threaten the integrity of american politics. “Because of the Internet, governments, corporations, and citizens of other countries can now meaningfully participate in United States elections,” she wrote in a 2009 paper, Extraterritorial Electioneering and the Globalization of American Elections.
•Teachout’s opposition to fracking was one of the pillars of her 2014 run for governor, and many think it contributed to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to ban the practice shortly after his reelection. Environmental concerns have receded in her current campaign, though she has drawn attention to the pollution in Newburgh, New York. A chemical spill from a nearby military base contaminated a local lake, and the Department of Defense has been accused of dragging its feet on the cleanup.