Why is the academic, author and political activist Zephyr Teachout running for Congress in New York state's Hudson Valley?
"Because I live here," she says with a laugh. "I live here and the seat opened up. I seriously did not expect that to happen."
Not the most existential question about an election, but it had to be asked. In 2014, Teachout ran for governor of New York in the Working Families Party and Democratic Party primaries. Both parties already had a governor — Andrew Cuomo. But progressives saw Cuomo as too cozy with Albany's indictment-friendly political culture, untrustworthy on education, hostile to labor unions.
"Having grown up loving Mario Cuomo, with a Time magazine with his picture on the cover hanging in my bedroom, I believed that [Andrew Cuomo] was going to fight for traditional Democratic values," Teachout said at a campaign event I covered that year. "I have been so disappointed.”
Teachout did better than anyone expected; a Cuomo effort to kick her off the ballot, equal parts vicious and hamfisted, did not hurt. The Vermont-born insurgent, a veteran of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, won 34.3 percent of the vote and dominated Cuomo in the Hudson Valley. If you are a Hillary Clinton supporter suddenly shocked by the progressive energy around the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), you obviously did not pay enough attention to Teachout.
"So, you've met me, so you may have some sense of who I am," Teachout said. "I am a country person. I enjoyed my years in the city, but I was very excited to move up here. These are the people I want to be drinking beer with and playing cribbage with."
Teachout moved to the district 10 months ago, to a home in Dutchess County, where she had beaten Cuomo by 17 points. That was weeks after incumbent Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) announced his early retirement, and Democrats immediately started scouting local talent. Gibson had just demolished Sean Eldridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, whose "district-shopping" — the couple literally moved twice before deciding the 19th was winnable — became a national joke.
In order to run, Teachout was slowing down work on her second book (about small business) and stepping away from the leadership of the anti-money-in-politics group Mayday PAC. But in comments to Roll Call's Simone Pathé, local Democrats worried out loud about a Democrat who had just moved from Brooklyn being subjected to the same attacks as Eldridge. The Quebec-born investor had at least spent millions of dollars on the race. Teachout would be running a Sanders-style grass-roots campaign. In a typically dismissive press release, the National Republican Congressional Committee called Teachout a "tax-happy Brooklyn resident."
Teachout expected that — but seriously, she said, she was happy to be out of the city.
"In the primary, I probably spent more time in this district than any other," she said. "I worked with anti-fracking groups, and I learned a lot about ideas people had for renewable energy. I got very excited about ground source heat pumps, I’ve got to tell you. Then I did a tour trying to get more teachers to run for office. Oh, and before that I did a book tour that was heavily on these towns. I kept driving around meeting people. Even this last month, when I was talking to people about getting in, I ran into so many friends."
Those friends include progressives who were happily surprised by Teachout's 2014 run, and had been egging her on to run again. They see the 19th District, which went for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by six points, as a proving ground for new, populist politics.
"I have a strong Rockefeller Republican streak," Teachout said. "Wall Street has access to capital and small businesses don’t. There are incredible resources here, not just the water resources in Sullivan County, but the human resources all over the Hudson Valley. And I've been a real critic of high stakes testing, with many others, and working to lift up the voices of the parents and teachers who are resisting on the ground what's being pushed on them from above."
Still, there are obvious openings for Republicans who want to portray Teachout as impossibly liberal. In December she endorsed Sanders for president, writing in the Huffington Post that he was right on the Iraq War, right on trade and "has spent his career fighting private prisons and overcriminalization." Tellingly — considering that she was not yet in the race — she noted that Sanders has "always been practical, with a long career of working across all party lines with respect."
Would Teachout describe herself as Sanders has described himself, as a socialist?
"No," she said. "I often call myself a populist. I’m drawn to the populist tradition. That means taking on big companies, and it also means a basic respect for people and a focus on decentralized power. And there are some decisions that should be made at the state level."
While few Washington Democrats expect Sanders to win the Democratic presidential nomination, Teachout is one of several candidates seeking office in a swing area — a place where Clinton is expected to have coattails — but running closer to Sanders. John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pa., has put together a Senate bid there with echoes of the Sanders strategy. "I’ll always choose the innovator over the evolver," Fetterman wrote to supporters after making his endorsement.
Neither he nor Teachout had a problem with backing the front-runner if Sanders fell short. "I'm very excited about both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton," she said. But unlike Fetterman, Teachout has already clashed with the Democrats who run the party and the state.
She agreed with Cuomo on at least one issue: Letting Syrian refugees come to New York: "We have an incredible tradition of openness and generosity in this country." But she did not expect the governor who once snubbed her at a parade, with cameras rolling, to help put her in Congress.
"Look, I’m independent and I’m not afraid to stand up to the political establishment," Teachout said. "But I also was raised to be very polite and talk to everybody. I’ve reached out to Democratic leaders across the state; I’d leave it up to them to talk to you and say how they thought it went. I think it’s really possible to be independent and honest, and have great human friendships, while fighting for what you believe in."