Who Is Zephyr Teachout?

Who Is Zephyr Teachout?

Who Is Zephyr Teachout?
May 29, 2014

Much of the recent political intrigue in the New York State gubernatorial race has focused not on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's re-election prospects or on Republican nominee Rob Astorino's hopes of a monumental upset, but on whether the Working Families Party--a labor-backed third party dedicated towards pushing progressive causes--will go with its own candidate or endorse Cuomo to ensure that the party secures the 50,000 votes necessary to keep their ballot line. 

Several names have been floated as potential Working Families Party candidates, but a new name emerged recently, according to recent reports and sources close to the WFP: Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University professor and relative unknown in the political world. Compared to education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch, whose name was also floated this week, Teachout certainly has a lower political profile. But the focus throughout her career--public campaign finance and political corruption, among others--happens to be issues that are at the forefront of the political discourse in New York City and state. 

Here are six things to know about Zephyr Teachout:

An Academic

Teachout is an associate professor of law at Fordham University, where her bio reads that she "brings a rich background in laws governing political behavior, both domestically and abroad, as well as the insights of her original work on corruption and its constitutional history." Before that she was a visiting assistant professor at Duke University, a lecturer at the University of Vermont and a "non-resident fellow" at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Teachout completed her undergraduate studies at Yale University, and holds a M.A. in political science and a law degree, both from Duke. 

An Author 

In addition to the numerous legal essays and opinions Teachout has published, she has also written books, including a memoir about her experience working on Howard Dean's ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign. Her latest book, "Corruption in America: From Ben Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United," is set for a September release. 

An excerpt from the blurb for the forthcoming book reads: "For two centuries the framers’ ideas about corruption flourished in the courts, even in the absence of clear rules governing voters, civil officers, and elected officials. Should a law that was passed by a state legislature be overturned because half of its members were bribed? What kinds of lobbying activity were corrupt, and what kinds were legal? When does an implicit promise count as bribery?" 

The book also touches on the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision which gave corporations the right to spend unlimited money to influence elections. Teachout writes that the Citizens United decision transformed American politics for the worse, again speaking to her background as an advocate for public campaign financing.

Teachout helped orchestrate Howard Dean's influential presidential campaign 

Howard Dean is probably best remembered by the general public more for his bizarre scream after the 2004 Iowa Caucus than his unsuccessful bid for the White House, but Dean was also lauded at the time for his innovative approach to campaign fundraising, capitalizing on the reach of the Internet to raise money. The brains behind that operation were Teachout, Dean's director of Internet outreach on the campaign, and Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager. Teachout and Trippi came up with the idea of using online "Meetups" as a means to build a network of supporters and to solicit donations. Teachout was also heavily involved in creating "DeanLink," a Facebook-like program that allowed Dean supporters to connect to one another. Teachout even wrote a memoir on her experience, titled "Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics."

Her experience with Dean is a clear indication that Teachout knows how to mobilize people on the grassroots level, an attribute that will surely come in handy if she ends up as the Working Families Party gubernatorial nominee. 

Moreland Commission Ties

Before Cuomo's ballyhooed Moreland Commission on Public Corruption was disbanded, Teachout was one of several candidates considered to author the commission's preliminary report, which was released in December. Teachout was considered because she had significant expertise in the areas of the Commission's focus, specifically public corruption, but she was ultimately passed over in favor of Alex Camarda, the director of public policy and advocacy for the good government group Citizens Union. Camarda's selection was later rejected by executive chamber staff, who objected to having an independent, good government report writer. 

Teachout also submitted testimony to the Moreland Commission, giving historical context for public corruption laws, and making a case for public campaign financing. An excerpt from her testimony reads: "New York has a choice right now: to rely solely on improving laws targeting corrupt individuals and continue to rack up corruption prosecutions, or to attempt to change the political culture by adopting public funding of campaigns that changes donor and candidate practice."

Occupy Wall Street  

When the Occupy Wall Street movement hit the streets of Lower Manhattan, Teachout embedded herself within the movement as an observer, as a participant in both the nightly General Assemblies and the "Spokes Council" (the body which became responsible for project funds) and as an active member of the Occupy Wall Street Activist Legal Working Group. She was also part of the legal team that worked on drafting a brief about the status of Zuccotti Park as a public forum. Teachout published several essays reflecting on her work with the Occupy movement. Given Occupy's liberal activist roots and messaging, her participation will likely be looked on favorably by the progressive voters the Working Families Party hopes to target this fall.  

On Stage 

Teachout's repertoire extends beyond the political and academic realm, as she has moonlighted as an actress for small theater companies in Vermont. She played Winnie in Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days," garnering positive reviews, and played a role last summer in the play "Heartbreak Hotel," a satire of the popular television drama "Downton Abbey." Given this experience, Teachout might also be comfortable as a key player in the theatrics of political campaigning. 

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Nick Powell