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Q&A: Would-be Cuomo-toppler Zephyr Teachout on the politics of engagement

New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout (Courtesy of the Teachout-Wu campaign)
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In some circles, Zephyr Teachout is well-known for being central to the creation of online politics, serving as the director of Internet organizing for Howard Dean's landmark 2004 presidential run. But Teachout has also been a law professor, a civic nonprofit leader, an author -- and is now gaining notice as a candidate to be the next governor of New York. On Tuesday, Teachout and running mate Tim Wu will face off in the Democratic primary against the state's sitting governor, Andrew Cuomo, and his pick for lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul.

While few are giving Teachout much of a shot against Cuomo, she's managed to shine considerable unfavorable light on the governor, and she's betting on a mix of voter frustration and media-driven momentum to see her and Wu through. But first, there's more campaigning to do. On Monday, the campaign stops at the New York City headquarters of the digital organizing platform Meetup for a last-minute unveiling of "Technology Policy for a Thriving Society," a four-page agenda on everything from driving down the cost of broadband to making the state friendly to so-called smart transportation.

In an interview Sunday, Teachout and I talked about "open-source staffing," the possibility of an emerging populist-tech coalition politics and how to interpret a video of a politician pretending his primary opponent is a ghost.

Why release a tech policy platform just a single day before people go vote?

We started the campaign with a critique of Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul and the system that they're a part of. Early on we had policy releases addressing existing constituencies and existing concerns. But we're in a second phase. What we've focused on really in the last 10 days has been on our own vision, things that haven't been on the table but should be on the table.

What we're finding is that people came to us initially out of unhappiness with Andrew Cuomo. But right now a lot of the energy is coming from people who are genuinely excited about how Tim and I represent a new kind of politics. And a big part of that is both our histories in Internet policy and politics. So we wanted to started putting some flesh on the bones of what that would look like.

It's one of those secrets that not a lot of politicians realize: The Internet is not a 10th-tier policy issue. It's not an add-on policy. It's something that affects everybody's life. When we talk in any room in the state about high-speed affordable Internet, we get some of the most heartfelt responses [on broadband]. People are really groaning at the cost and feeling completely frustrated at the service.

And it's just something that hasn't been part of politics, even thought it's been part of people's lives. All these politicians grew up when there was no Internet in the kitchen. So when they think about kitchen table issues, they're not thinking about broadband. But you don't get more kitchen table than broadband right now.

Beyond good and affordable broadband, what sorts of tech-related things are people asking you about on the trail? Net neutrality? The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger?

It's all sorts of things, depending on the community. But one of the exciting things about this campaign is that it's representing what I think is going to be a new kind of coalition politics: a combination of Elizabeth Warren populism with the SOPA-PIPA [digital copyright bills] protestors. People who cared about tech policy tended to be in one silo and people who cared about banking policy were in another. But there's a fusion happening. And in New York that includes genuine high-tech activists, where there's a lot of focus on net neutrality itself.

But, also, people have a lot more faith that Tim and I would be capable of really making New York state the next center of high-tech innovation -- with a focus on 21st century transportation technologies. That's something that we used to lead in. Look at our history: the Erie Canal or the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a public benefit corporation founded in 1965]. But, instead, today all of our transit systems are in a state of disrepair. Our vision is that the next generation of transit involves the next generation of information technologies.

Some of our earliest supporters were entrepreneurs. And a lot of them say that there's an opportunity here for New York to walk in and genuinely compete with California on tech. But we need a few things: affordable rent, high-speed affordable broadband and something Andrew Cuomo has really missed out understanding -- that if you want to build a high-tech economy, you have to have truly affordable higher education.

Just to go meta for a second, there's anger at cable and an excitement about people who will stand up for cable. But there's also genuine excitement about the sense that we have a vision for New York. Andrew Cuomo tends to have a more much despairing view, like, "We have to reduce tax rates because otherwise nobody's going to want to live here."

There's a certain appropriateness to releasing your tech platform at Meetup. A decade ago, that Dean supporters were flocking to Meetups was the earliest sign something odd was afoot with that campaign. Still, you've insisted that tech was Dean 2004's architecture, not its substance. "Within the campaign," You and a co-author wrote, "Internet technology was seen as a tool, as one tool among many, not as a cause." But 10 years later, the technology seems to have become the cause, no?

The Internet is an important organizing tool. But the goal of a campaign isn't to use the Internet for organizing; the goal is always to win, and to change policy and politics.

That said, we're in a battle royal for the future of the Internet. That's something that largely has been outside of the context of electoral politics. And I am proud that Tim and I are part of bringing it into electoral politics. I hope that two years from now I think it's possible that you can't run for office without saying where you stand on the [Comcast-Time Warner Cable] merger or something like it, that net neutrality becomes a important campaign issue.

You've argued that "decentralized power" needs to return to New York, that consolidation has a long and destructive history in the state. In the early 1900s, you point out, it was big banks and the railroads. So more than a hundred years on, how is resisting that dynamic any different? Is the role of the citizen the same as it was?

New York has really thrived both upstate and downstate when there are tens of thousands of small businesses all representing their different creative impulses. But in the past decades we've seen a radical shift toward a consolidation of the economy. At one point it was the banks. Now it's cable -- and the banks. And for either good or ill, I think this is a time that places high demands on citizens. The rapid consolidation of power, both in politics and economics, really requires a lot of us. Luckily we have the tools to do it.

We have a few great sources of power in this campaign. The "fracktivists" are huge. New York State was supposed to have hydrofracking just like every other shale-rich state. And they stopped it, without Big Green, without big national politicians, without mainstream media. They stopped it through a network of listservs, really. It's an astounding story of one of the great environmental victories of the last few decades. Also, the support of Larry Lessig has been essential. He has called our campaign the most important money-in-politics race of the year, and asked his supporters to get engaged. And the support of people in the "Save the Internet" world has been essential, too.

We're not inventing much. We're building on social networks that already exist and that were only enabled by the Internet.

You helped get the Sunlight Foundation off the ground, with a focus on cultivating a civic-transparency grass roots. Open government has been a boon to your campaign; I'm thinking of revelations about Cuomo's fraught relationship with the state's anti-corruption Moreland Commission. But it was still the New York Times digging that up, not citizen activists.

Look, the Internet's totally transformational, but we've still got a lot of power structures to handle.

That said, I have a North Country press secretary because one of our Twitter followers was complaining that we hadn't been there. So I asked him to help out. He got us on two radio stations and got us a local endorsement. So many of our best interviews have been because of our Twitter followers. Early on, they did the work for us. And I still think even 10 years later it is relatively unusual for a campaign to empower their supporters that way.

I think a lot of campaigns mis-learned the lessons of Obama 2008. They overly focused on the particular tools, and less so on the fact that the Internet enables a kind of culture of trust to be translated into real power. This campaign does not have a fancy [digital] tool kit. We made that decision early on. But the Internet has played a central role in our campaign because we have chosen to basically open-source our staffing.

We see everybody who walks in the door -- and by "walk in the door," that can mean they send us a tweet -- as a complete person who might have great strategies, who might be able to organize part of the Southern Tier for us. We have a campaign staff of hundreds with a paid campaign staff of 16, because when someone says that they want to work full-time from Mamakating, we say, that's great, you can work full-time from Mamakating.

Say you win on Tuesday and go on to become Governor Teachout. How do you change New York State's closed and insular "three men in a room" governing apparatus?

Some of it's structure and some of it's temperamental. Even the fact of me and Tim running together, when it comes down to policies, we'll argue. The lieutenant governor is an independent constitutional office, but lieutenant governors in New York have an unfortunate tradition of just being extensions of the governor's office. That I'm not telling Tim what policies to support itself breaks up the three men in the room.

And if you look at my whole career and Tim's whole career, you can see that temperamentally we're going to be transparent. Given my history, if I don't have the most transparent state government in the country, I'll be ashamed of myself.

There's a video going around of you approaching Gov. Cuomo at a recent Labor Day parade in which he does all he can to act like you just don't exist. Mayor de Blasio finally steps in between you two. You've written about how tricky it can be to interpret viral political content. What information do you think this clip should convey to voters?

Part of the reason it's going viral, I think, is because people understand it as a metaphor for the entire campaign: Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly tried to avoid the fact of a Democratic primary and has called on progressive allies to speak up for him because he doesn't have the guts to speak up for himself.

Andrew Cuomo is clearly trying a strategy of non-engagement. That's a not-unusual strategy for incumbents. But you can't not engage in an era of Internet politics. There is engagement. We see that with reporters picking up questions on Twitter and then asking them of Andrew Cuomo, and then you see in that video: His effort to non-engage itself becomes a kind of engagement. The politics of the past just don't work in this era. Primaries are extremely healthy. Engagement is extremely healthy. It's obviously what voters want, and that's a very healthy thing.

Correction: Updated to clarify that Kathy Hochul is not currently the sitting lieutenant governor of New York.