POLITICS
11/22/2014 07:30 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Zephyr Teachout Keeps Preaching 'We Can Actually Do Something' About Corruption

Andrew Burton via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Earlier this year, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout emerged as a political star among progressives when she challenged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary and performed far better than expected. Teachout received 35 percent of the primary vote and won over 20 counties despite raising little money. She ran on a strongly populist platform that emphasized the anti-corruption and anti-monopoly principles she hopes to bring to the fore of American politics.

In that vein, Teachout also published a book this year titled Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United, which traces the legal history of corruption. The book was intended, she said, to be a long letter to the Supreme Court's conservative majority showing how wrong they have been in major campaign finance cases.

The Huffington Post sat down with Teachout after she gave a talk at the Washington office of the New America Foundation on Nov. 17 to discuss her campaign, her book, the principles that she discussed in both and what she plans to do next. (Teachout and this reporter worked together briefly at the pro-transparency nonprofit Sunlight Foundation from 2006 through early 2007.) The interview has been edited for clarity.

In the past year, you challenged a sitting governor in a primary election who was embroiled in a scandal over shutting down his own anti-corruption panel. How did this run for office come about?

I’ve been involved in politics for a long time. I was director of online organizing for Howard Dean’s [2003-2004 presidential] campaign. I’ve worked on a lot of hyper-local campaigns as well and worked on banking reform, other forms of organizing. So I was approached in March to see if I would consider running against Andrew Cuomo, and I said I would -- actually I said no immediately, no because I need to get tenure. And then about two hours later, I called back the person and said I really want to talk more about this, and I came into a meeting with the folks who were talking to me about it and spent about a month deciding to run. Because of New York’s system you can actually run on more than one party line, and I was initially recruited to run on a blend of the Working Families Party line and the Democratic Party line. I’m a Democrat. It was Working Families Party who approached me, but I was always planning to run on the Democratic Party line. So it was an interesting month.

In your run, you had to get involved with the dirty part of politics -- raising money -- and Cuomo raised a lot --

Yes, he did.

-- raised a lot of money from hedge fund executives, a lot of Republican donors. How did you view the fundraising that you had to do?

First of all, it was my job. If I was going to run for governor, to win -- and again I knew the odds -- I needed to raise as much money as possible. I had a wonderful finance director. We used some consultants who gave us advice on how to raise money. And I’ll admit at first I was pretty bad. [Laughs] I wasn’t good at the ask. I would make every excuse to avoid call time. What our consultants told us is that I should spend 40 hours a week in the first month fundraising. You’re supposed to make 30 dials an hour, which still to me seems unlikely. Of the hits you get, you’re supposed to get 25 percent of the number to give. And you start with friends and family.

It was very awkward for me because the reason I wanted to run for governor had nothing to do with the sort of longstanding personal connections -- there was a sort of disconnect. It felt strange to call people to start talking about antitrust and schools and fracking, inequality. Honestly, a lot of early fundraising is based on people who believe in you, and that’s a hard ask. It’s much easier for me to ask people for money based on what I believe in than to ask them to back you as a person. We got better at it. The people who I called were much more comfortable with the interaction than I was. [Laughs] It was kind of a great surprise.

I think our biggest donors were in the $4,000 to $20,000 range. In New York state, you can raise as much as $60,000 from an individual or $120,000 from a couple. You have to understand that I was up against Andrew Cuomo, who was getting $120,000 from a couple [who] then bundle $1 million from a couple of people.

And I hated it, but it was my job. ... But I would often think this is not as bad a job as making $22,000 a year working at a crosswalk. And I would use that to motivate me. As terrible as this was, it was just part of what I got to do and it enabled me to do something I really cared about.

Did you learn anything about what politicians have to put themselves through to raise that money?

In some ways it’s not the individual call that is humiliating. Every call has its own virtues, especially if you’re talking to people you like, but there’s something almost hazing-like about it -- like a perpetual hazing of elected officials or candidates for office, who are constantly put in this situation of begging for $500 or $2,000 from a set of people whose decision whether to give $500 or $2,000 is gonna make a big difference in your campaign. And it’s this perpetual situation of begging and begging and being a sycophant in a lot of ways that I think has absolutely affected our politics in the last 30 years.

Actually, I think the public feels it. There’s a lot of analysis of why people aren’t voting. Well, I think one of the reasons is it’s hard to vote for somebody who feels like they are, you know, in a fundamentally subservient position to the wealthiest Americans as opposed to a fundamentally leadership position. It’s not just about the message. It’s that people want to vote for leaders. They don’t want to vote for people who feel like they’re beggars. And the job right now is to be a very, very, very good sycophant.

Do you think that attracts a certain type of person to the office?

Well, I do think there are some amazing people who go into public life. Look, I’m not gonna criticize all politicians because I am one of them. Good luck with getting me to slam everybody! [Laughs] I think the bigger tragedy is the number of people who are turned off by it.

I am a huge supporter of public financing, and I thought all the time about how different my job would be if we had public financing of campaigns in New York. First of all, I love talking to crowds. That’s also hard. It’s also work. It takes work to do the policy research, it takes work to learn about the town, it takes work to speak well. But if we had public financing of elections, I would have spent all of my time talking and listening to people because I would know that every $50 I raised would be matched by the state by $300 -- instead of spending so much of my time just making lists of people who make over $100,000 a year, in a lot of cases over $200,000 a year. It would have been hard, and I think in a way it would have served the public a lot more.

You sort of got your start in 2003 doing Internet politics with Howard Dean. How does Internet politics translate to this more retail politics, and what did you bring from that experience to this campaign?

I was the director of online organizing for Gov. Dean, which meant in practice a lot of human interaction because what we were doing was using this tool called Meetup to enable local groups to come together and build their own power and strategy. And my focus was really on the non-strategic states outside of Iowa and New Hampshire. So, actually, I hired some of the first programmers on any presidential campaign. We built tools to basically -- an early version of MySpace or what we now think of as Facebook perhaps. We built a social media network for our supporters. We built call systems so that people could call from afar. Now these are standard in campaigns.

When there was about five months out, I felt like my basic job with tool building was done. So I went out on the road and visited 25, no, maybe 27 states in a 10-week road trip and went from group to group in the states -- not the key states that were Iowa and New Hampshire -- giving speeches about the campaign and then talking to the organizers.

That was unbelievably valuable to actually have the face-to-face meetings and then to have the practice of giving speeches. I’m a huge fan of Emerson and the old tradition of giving talks as a way to connect. It’s something I always wanted to be good at. I actually at one point wanted to be a minister. I applied to divinity school and law school, and I got into a better law school so I went to law school. [Laughs] This is certainly engaging something that I’ve always wanted to do, and I got some training in 2003.

But the key lesson that I learned in Howard Dean’s campaign was not about technology, but it was about power. Because we had three months to run this campaign against Andrew Cuomo, we could not build any tools and we did not have any money to buy the best tools. So we used Facebook and Twitter. But otherwise we had a very similar model -- we empowered local groups to do their own organizing, and that made a huge difference because we had a tiny staff until we raised money.

I went to Poughkeepsie in June, and there were five reporters there because the local group had organized an event. We said we’d come if they organized an event. They called all the local papers, and we had an event and got in the local paper. Actually I went to over half the counties in the state, and a lot of the places where we did well were places where we got a lot of hyperlocal media coverage. And we got that local media coverage because we empowered local supporters. I won in the north country, where I never went, but I had this guy who we called the north country press secretary who was always getting me on the radio in the north country and with hyperlocal papers. And we just gave him the power to do that.

You write a lot about corruption, a particular type of corruption, a conception of corruption. It seems like in your run against Cuomo, you were sort of running against an archetype of this --

Yes!

-- sort of the corruption you’ve been writing about.

I felt like I was living my book so often, because one of the things the founders cared so much about was the corrupting force of centralized power. New York state has the most powerful governor, and the governor’s office repeatedly was corrupting local lawmakers and shutting them up from talking about real issues because he holds the power of the purse. I felt like I was living my founders’ fear of monarchy.

I was sort of wondering, just looking at Cuomo -- a Democrat, a member of the traditional, historical party of labor and working people -- whether the policies that he is pursuing and adopting are representative of a larger shift in politics or society?

Yeah, I wish he was not representative. He is kind of an outlier in how right wing he is as a Democrat in a deeply Democratic state. New York is 60 percent Democratic, 30 percent Republican, you know, and has an extraordinary Democratic tradition. And Andrew Cuomo is a Wall Street politician. He works for Wall Street. He works for hedge funds. The more involved they got, the more he became a spokesperson for charter schools, at the same time he was radically cutting public school funding and class sizes were increasing. You may not know this, but New York state is both the most unequal state in the country and has the most segregated schools. And Andrew Cuomo’s tenure -- cutting schools and creating more tax loopholes for the big banks and wealthiest New Yorkers -- was not helping in either of those trends -- in fact, hurting.

What I do see is that there is a fight within the Democratic Party. There’s a fight for the soul of our country with big money, and that’s very serious. I think the house is on fire in terms of our democracy. We are very close to having nonrepresentative democracy in government because of how much candidates and elected officials work for their donors as opposed to the public. And then there is a fight within the Democratic Party which mirrors that, which is that some Democrats are becoming so corporate that they aren’t representing the middle class at all. I think Andrew Cuomo is like that.

The trend is towards Democrats who are working for a new class of donors, who are big banks and concentrated power and who have a deep libertarian streak, who have a trickle-down economic theory. Andrew Cuomo’s economic theory is indistinguishable from [President Ronald] Reagan’s: trickle-down. And I don’t think it’s because Andrew Cuomo has that belief in a deep way. I think it’s because that’s where his donors are.

A good friend of mine who I work with, [Harvard law professor] Larry Lessig, is sort of focusing on corruption in both parties, and I respect that and I would be thrilled to see more Republicans come out as populists as well. But, as a Democrat, I think that if we don't actually stand up for the FDR Democratic Party and the party that really cares about the middle class, then nobody is.

Do you have any kind of conception or historical analysis about how we got here? When did this turn? When did politics so heavily begin to tilt toward the rich?

There’s a few different moves. One is 1976 when the [Supreme] Court in Buckley v. Valeo strikes down spending limits. After the Watergate crisis, I think the country realized we were moving towards too much big money, and with great popular support [Congress] passed laws that limit campaign spending, which they have in most other countries. That got struck down by the court. And so, if spending increases, so does fundraising, and if fundraising increases, so does obligations to the donors.

Also, you see that labor money formed a significant part of the Democratic Party funding base from, really, the 1936 election through the '70s. Though labor still tends to contribute to the Democrats as opposed to Republicans, the percentages of overall funding is much smaller such that, fundamentally, they don’t play the same bulwark role. They were really, really important in being a source of funding that’s basically small-dollar funding, because labor funding is based on dues, which is based on working-class Americans providing those dues.

After 1896, most political money came from outside politics instead of inside politics. Before 1896, you have some business money, but you see more political money come from basically the spoils system, basically the people who were working in politics contributing to the party’s campaigns. After 1896. you have a private funding system in this country that has never been truly stable and has never provided a long-term meaningful way to be a political party that works for the working class. The closest we got was from the '30s to the '70s, when there was enough labor funding to basically allow Democrats to be more populist and care about inequality. After the '70s, you see this increasing of big money, and then it really gets exaggerated at a few points, like after [the Supreme Court's decision in] Citizens United.

We’ve got to get rid of this private funding system because private funding inevitably leads to the corruption of politics. Right now, we don’t have a system of funding that allows you to be a populist Democrat and run for office, even if your ideas are wildly popular. We don’t have that system, we haven’t built it. In New York City, they’ve built it because they have a public funding system. In Maine, they built it. In Connecticut, they built it because they have public funding systems. But in a federal elections system, we don’t have that.

We need to build a sustainable system for populists because Americans still want their public schools and they still want equality and they still want an economy that works for entrepreneurs, but that’s not where the big money is.

In your campaign and in your talks about the book, you talk a lot about antitrust, mergers, acquisitions, trustbusting. I’m sure to a lot of people these seem like really old concepts, like why are we talking about this in the 21st century? I was wondering if you could explain why these are things that are so important to pay attention to.

Thomas Jefferson wanted an anti-monopoly clause in the Constitution, and for most of American history, people have understood that you cannot have a truly responsive democratic power and radically concentrated industry. That if you have monopolies, whether it’s Comcast/Time Warner or what’s happening with the big banks, that they will take over government in so many ways. They will fund campaigns. They will become too big to fail. They will directly influence their employees. They will start having a feudal relationship with other industries, like the way Amazon in some ways owns part of the publishing industry and therefore owns our access to ideas in some way.

A premise of democratic self-government is decentralized economic power. It’s also a premise of innovation. You see a lot more innovation when you have decentralized economic power. In 1981, Reagan basically killed antitrust law, and most Democrats went along with him redefining antitrust as something that’s just about efficiency. ... So, for 34 years now, we have had a critical American concept that has been taken out of American political life, and it’s amazing if you take a word out, if you take out a concept, it’s hard to organize around.

Right now you say people don’t even know what I’m talking about when I say antitrust, honestly, or monopoly. But they know what I’m talking about when I talk about Comcast/Time Warner or what’s happened at the big banks, and I think we should revive this old Jeffersonian concept of trustbusting because we need to save our democracy. Because we have far too concentrated powers leading to less innovation, less power, less entrepreneurship and, most importantly, those monopolists are taking over our government.

I don’t have any fantasy about the founders being perfect. They’re deeply imperfect, to put it mildly. They got race and sex wrong, and tragically and terribly wrong. But I do think at this moment in genuine crisis, it’s valuable to call back on some of the best ideas in American history -- one is the anti-corruption idea and the other is the anti-monopoly idea -- as deeply American ideas and revive them. I just think there’s a sleeping giant out there on anti-monopoly laws. I will tell you that if you get in a room, people believe that too much power is held by too few. It’s why they’re dropping out of politics. It’s why they’re despairing about their jobs. It’s why they don’t feel like the gifts that they bring to political or economic society are even being heard, because there’s basically a few very powerful forces.

There are lots of excuses bandied about, reasons why the Democrats didn’t do very well in the 2014 elections or did worse than maybe expected, including that they didn’t run on anything. One thing that I noticed is that they did a lot of running against billionaires, wealthy corporate interests, but it sort of seemed disconnected from any potential policy response.

Right, so you have to explain we can stop Comcast/Time Warner and see candidates out there saying I am going to try and stop Comcast/Time Warner, not just bad billionaires. Or we can break up the big banks. So candidates explicitly saying not only is JPMorgan a problem in campaign funding, but let’s actually talk about breaking it up. And, yeah, that’s real exciting leadership.

A lot of the problem with campaign spending stems from the Supreme Court redefining corruption as strictly quid pro quo bribery.

Some of it does but, to be clear, a lot of it doesn’t. The Supreme Court is responsible that we do not have spending limits, that we have fewer contribution limits and that corporations can get involved in campaigns. The Supreme Court is not responsible for the fact that we’ve never passed a public financing system. In fact, it’s perfectly constitutional to have the New York City-Maine-Connecticut system.

There was that hearing in Washington where they condemned Citizens United recently. What exactly happened? It was Democrats holding a hearing against Citizens United.

For the constitutional amendment [to overturn Citizens United].

I’m fully in favor of a constitutional amendment. That would be great. But it’s too easy by half because you can sit there and say I want to overturn Citizens United, knowing full well it’s not going to happen.

What we need is to take real responsibility. Don’t let your representatives just say that they’re opposed to Citizens United. You have to actively support public financing of elections. And don’t let them get away with just the opposition because our elected officials have to take at least half, if not more than, the responsibility. It should be toxic to support private funding. There’s no good theory that explains why private funding would lead to democracy. Like that doesn’t actually make any sense. It should be toxic to defend that.

The Supreme Court’s notion of corruption, which you write pretty explicitly about -- it seems that the definition is not as narrow as they claim it to be over history.

Yeah, the Supreme Court is totally out of touch. This 2014 case [McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission] is sort of amazing. Corruption is defined by a reference to a criminal bribery statute. If it’s not criminalized in a criminal bribery statute, it’s not corruption. Ask anybody else in history what corruption means, and they will say it’s not defined by a criminal bribery statute. It is this harder, vaguer, really important idea that private interests are taking over our public channels.

Could you delve more into how the definition of corruption has shifted over time? How we got to this really narrow view?

During the founding era, they talked about corruption all the time and their understanding of corruption was broad. It encompassed all those situations in which public officials use their public power for selfish ends, private ends -- whether it’s their own or maybe their sponsors' or maybe their donors' or maybe the king’s. But that was a broad understanding. And arguably, the Constitution was written as a kind of anti-corruption protection document. A document to protect against England and elsewhere. Then really until the 1970s, courts understood corruption in a broad way. You see references to Montesquieu sort of scattered throughout criminal and contract law cases dealing with corruption. Then starting in the 1970s and then accelerating in the last decade, corruption has come to mean only this criminal quid pro quo definition.

The reason why that has mattered is because the Supreme Court will strike down any law that involves political spending unless it serves an anti-corruption end. So this is Citizens United -- they basically said limiting corporate spending does not serve an anti-corruption interest. Everybody knows this is crazy except the Supreme Court. [My] book is a long documentary letter proving that that not only doesn't make sense now, but that is an aggressive misunderstanding of over 200 years of history.

How would you personally define corruption? At least in America.

How would you define equality? How would you define love? Or even separation of powers? Or liberty? All of these, you understand that these are meaningful concepts, but you don’t try to make them a single sentence definition where you can answer it and put it in a statute. And corruption is more like those words than not like them.

Broadly speaking then, I understand corruption in America to be when those with public power use it for private ends. But I think, like equality or with federalism, it’s a longer conversation.

Do you think that American politics are corrupt?

Yes! Clearly! Yes! I mean right now you see a blend of things with the revolving door and congressmembers going to become lobbyists. You see, pretty straightforward, people using public office for private ends, using Congress as a steppingstone to becoming a lobbyist.

But then more broadly, the deep corruption comes from private powers. It’s Dan Loeb in New York spending $1 million to serve his own interests in the New York Senate elections. He’s a hedge fund guy. Or the Koch brothers. Or highly self-interested private parties using our public powers for their own selfish ends. And that’s the deepest corruption that I see right now.

Do you think that this entrance into the public sphere by these wealthy private actors goes beyond just campaign funding? You have Bill Gates and the Waltons and you mentioned Dan Loeb and lots of other hedge fund billionaires in New York who fund, you know, charter school advocacy groups. How do you view this sort of new version of philanthropy that seems to overlap into political advocacy?

Yeah, it’s a really great and complicated question because I’m not opposed to all philanthropy.

Part of the reason that I’m such a trustbuster is that [Justice Louis] Brandeis said that you can have concentrated wealth or you can have a democracy, but you can’t have both. As a structural matter, we have given permission for this radically concentrated wealth that’s then used in a whole variety of ways. Some of which might be truly benevolent. A lot of which is questionable, like the advocacy groups that you’re talking about. So you’d have to give me a particular instance, but if we’re going to look at the system that allows it, you see this growing rise of quasi-feudal powers within what should be a capitalist democratic system.

Are there any people out there sort of embodying this spirit? In the Progressive era, Lincoln Steffens, the journalist, was touring state capitals trying to uncover corruption and then started hearing about this guy Bob La Follette in Wisconsin. They kept saying, oh, he’s actually not corrupt and really believes in what he’s doing, and Steffens didn’t believe it until he went there. Are there people like that out there or on the horizon?

I’m extremely excited about [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren. About [Sen.] Sherrod Brown -- every time I hear Sherrod Brown speak, I just want to hear him talk more. Warren, [Sen. Jeff] Merkley, Brown, [Sen. Al] Franken -- I’m missing some. Individually they’re very powerful, but as a club they’re even more powerful so that we have this potential truly trustbusting populist coalition in the Senate. I think it’s really important to give that shape and name and not just make it about personal politics. And all of those are senators that I’m extremely excited about.

I think part of our job is to give permission to people to tell the truth about what they see. The value of trustbusting and Warren’s leadership, among other things, is to say you can talk this way. You’re not alone.

What’s next for you in politics?

Well, I’d love to run for office again. It’d sure be a lot easier if there was a public financing system. [Laughs] If you’re going to take on big cable and big banks and a big governor, it would certainly be helpful to have public financing because I know I can raise the money in small-dollar contributions. But I certainly hope to run for office again. I don’t know particularly what.

In the meantime I’m probably back teaching and figuring out my next research project. And I’ll certainly be focused on these monopolistic powers and the existing laws that limit what we can do about these new giants and proposing new laws that can actually break them up. I think a lot of people know they’re giants but they feel totally powerless, so I feel like what I can contribute is to be able to say, no, we can do this. We can actually do something about it.

And then I’ll be very involved in New York politics. We’ve got a [legislative] session where we have to protect our public schools, and the hedge fund money that came in during this state Senate election in New York was really anti-public school money. So I’m very, very concerned about what’s going to happen.

Institutionally, I work with Every Voice [Action] and Mayday, both of which are groups that work on public financing of elections.

But I would love to be a part of getting 30 people to run for office next year. If I can convince some people who think they aren’t candidates, they don’t fit the profile. You know, Andrew Cuomo sued me trying to get me off the ballot because I’ve been in the state for under five years, but I think deeper down it was because I didn’t own land. [Laughs] Because I didn’t have a lease for five years. You know, I’m just a renter. Well, we need more people who are renters running, who don’t fit the traditional profile, whose lives haven’t been defined around a kind of superficial ambition. So if I could be part of encouraging 30 new people to run for things on this platform, I’d be thrilled.

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