October 22, 2021

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Churchill: Zephyr Teachout wants to be New York’s attorney general – Times Union

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ALBANY — If Letitia James runs, Zephyr Teachout is in.

Let me elaborate: If James, the state’s attorney general, decides to challenge Kathy Hochul and run for governor, then Teachout will run for James’ job.

“If there is an opportunity and an opening with the AG’s office, I would seize it,” Teachout told me during a phone conversation Friday. “If she does run for governor, I’ll be running.”

Consider this part of the continuing fallout from Andrew M. Cuomo’s departure as governor, a seismic event that has New York’s political class jostling like riders on a packed subway car. James, for one, seems ever more likely to take on Hochul, setting up a compelling primary race.

“Stay tuned,” James told Ulster County Democrats on Thursday night in Kingston, adding: “The question for me really boils down to this: What is the best way that I can make transformational change in the state of New York?”

Yeah, she’s running. When politicians start talking about “transformational change,” they always are.

But James is unlikely to be the only Democrat entering the primary against Hochul, who has already said she will run. Likewise, the field to replace James as attorney general would be crowded. Political junkies are in for a ride.

Teachout, 49, would enter the race with relatively high statewide name recognition, stemming, in part, from her unsuccessful runs for governor in 2014 and attorney general in 2018. In both campaigns, Teachout targeted Cuomo’s corruption. The message has aged well, I’d say.

“The emperor had no clothes,” Teachout said Friday of the former governor. “The lie was revealed. And the lesson we should take from his downfall is that bullying is not an effective form of governance, cronyism is not economic development and secrecy is not acceptable.”

When I think of Teachout’s 2014 campaign, I think of an unforgettable Cuomo moment, a snippet that foreshadowed much of what was to come. 

It happened at the Labor Day parade in Manhattan, shortly before that year’s September primary. Teachout attempted to approach the governor to say hello only to be repeatedly body blocked by Joe Percoco, the former Cuomo aide subsequently convicted of bribery and corruption.

When a determined Teachout still managed to get within chitchatting distance, Cuomo pretended he doesn’t see her, then turned his back. Hochul, then the lieutenant governor, did the same. 

How small and petty they were, refusing to offer the grace of a hello and a handshake. Cuomo also refused to debate Teachout that year, calling the events a “disservice to democracy,” and wouldn’t even say her name when forced to discuss the race. He ghosted her.

Looking back, Teachout talked about that race with pride, noting that she raised many of the issues that would lead to Cuomo’s downfall seven years later. She credited James, who defeated in her in 2018 attorney general primary, for ultimately exposing the former governor’s bad behavior.

Teachout described the January James report, the one calling out the undercounting of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents, “a crucible moment for New York,” and she said the subsequent investigation into sexual harassment allegations “showed what professionalism and thoroughness can really do.”

That’s not exactly how Team Cuomo views the report, of course. Aide Rich Azzopardi maintains it was a political hit job motivated by James’ desire to run for governor, a narrative that could gain traction if James enters the race so soon after Cuomo’s departure.

“Told you so,” Azzopardi said Friday, when I asked about James’ likely candidacy.

But let’s get back to Teachout, a law professor who now lives in Manhattan. What do we think of her chances?

Well, she is clearly of her party’s progressive wing, and some conservatives will shudder at the prospect of her as attorney general. Yet her consistent focus on government corruption and concentrated corporate power — she has written books on both topics — may help Teachout appeal to moderates and Republicans concerned about, say, the stifling influence of Big Tech. 

In our conversation Friday, Teachout talked about how crony capitalism suffocates competition and snuffs out economic growth, how it fails taxpayers but works for politicians who reap campaign contributions from the favored companies.

“It isn’t a side issue,” Teachout said. “When you have concentrated corporate power, it leads to political power, and it makes things really difficult for small businesses.”

Expect to hear more talk like that during the coming Teachout campaign — assuming, of course, that James runs for governor and opens the door.

cchurchill@timesunion.com ■ 518-454-5442 ■ @chris_churchill

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