Cuomo challenger Zephyr Teachout talks SAFE Act, public corruption, upstate economy and legalizing marijuana


WATERTOWN — A few days after skipping the north country on her “Whistleblower Tour” of the state, Fordham law professor and upstart political challenger Zephyr Teachout promised to visit the area after she wins the Democratic primary against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“You have to understand, I grew up as a cross-country skier and I’m a big hiker and I just love the whole area,” Ms. Teachout said. “It just, we couldn’t make it work, but I have an on-the-record commitment to be there within a week after winning on September 9th.”

Ms. Teachout and her running mate, Columbia law professor Timothy Wu, have taken a break from the halls of academia to represent a significant challenge to the notion that Mr. Cuomo will automatically win the endorsement of the Democratic Party.

Their campaign, which is based largely on attacking what they view as Mr. Cuomo’s failure to address longstanding corruption in Albany, has picked up momentum of late, with media outlets providing a much-needed boost to a duo still largely unknown in the state.

In a poll released Aug. 20, Quinnipiac University reported that 88 percent of voters don’t know enough about Ms. Teachout to form an opinion of her. But in a New York Times editorial about the race, the paper endorsed Mr. Wu over Mr. Cuomo’s running mate, former Rep. Kathy Hochul — a signal that popular sentiment may be shifting.

In a phone interview with the Watertown Daily Times on Tuesday, Ms. Teachout discussed her positions on the NY SAFE Act, campaign finance reform, revitalizing upstate New York’s flagging economy and legalizing marijuana.:

■ On the SAFE Act:

Ms. Teachout said she disagreed with the way Gov. Cuomo’s gun-control legislation was passed but she agreed with many of its provisions. However, she said, she would have listened to gun owners before crafting the law.

“It was done in a deeply disrespectful way. We should have held hearings, listened to gun owners. … The key is just listening. Holding hearings and (the SAFE Act) being done in such a rushed way, there’s serious question as to its constitutionality. … I don’t think that’s a trivial issue. I think that’s a matter of respect. You can disagree with people, but you should at least hear their perspective first. What I’d want to do is hold hearings and then we’d actually have the full public discussion about each of the features of the act. Again, we may not come down on the same side, but your job as an executive is not to just govern by fiat.”

■ On the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which Gov. Cuomo disbanded in March:

“We’ve had Moreland Commissions that have been independent in the past. The (1987 Moreland Commission empaneled by Gov. Cuomo’s father, Mario M. Cuomo) was truly independent of Mario Cuomo and it said things that Mario Cuomo didn’t want to hear, but they genuinely investigated and went wherever they wanted to go. Andrew Cuomo made a mockery out of the independence of the Moreland Commission. If you create a commission, you have an obligation to maintain its independence.”

■ On public campaign financing:

“It changes what you do when you wake up in the morning as a politician. Right now my job is to wake up and think about the richest people I know and what they’re interested in and see if I can call them and ask them for $10,000, $60,000, in New York it’s up to $120,000 essentially, if they’re married. So we’re talking extreme wealth, and I have nothing against rich people, but I can tell you their concerns are not the concerns of middle- and working-class New Yorkers. … The problem is, at a very basic psychological level, our current campaign finance system encourages politicians to be servants of the oligarchs in our society, even the nice ones.”

■ On the upstate economy:

“I think we need to move toward public works. We have a desperate need for jobs. Startup New York isn’t working, so we need to actually be directly investing in hiring people, hiring teachers. … I’m very excited about hiring people directly to do renewable energy public works programs and then also building out broadband where we need it. You know, we built the Erie Canal; we can actually do public works projects in this state and connect ourselves to each other but in a better way. … Medium size dairy is my focus. … Basically, building off some of the co-op models, how can we get upstate dairy to downstate restaurants but cheaper and faster with some state support.”

■ On legalizing marijuana:

“We ought to be studying the Colorado model. Not only is it just a cruel way to treat kids who are smoking a joint, but there is a potential for our economy. Look at the jobs that have been created in Colorado.”

■ About the campaign:

“It’s been an extraordinary three weeks. At first people were unhappy with Cuomo for different reasons, and that’s why they came to us. Now there’s genuine excitement about the possibilities. Because we just see this state through different glasses. We see this state as being really abundant, full of resources; we’ve just got to invest in it. … It’s all about passion; it’s all about people getting excited, and we have a lot of that.”

Mr. Cuomo also is being challenged on the Democratic line by comedian and activist Randy Credico. The winner of the primary will face Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, and Chemung County Sheriff Chris Moss, his running mate, in the November general election.

Ms. Teachout declined to name a favorite in the race for New York’s 21st Congressional District, which pits Democrat and Working Families Party candidate Aaron G. Woolf against Republican and Conservative Party nominee Elise M. Stefanik and Green Party candidate Matthew J. Funiciello. Mr. Woolf declined to name a favorite in the governor’s race last week.

Ms. Teachout did, however, identify Lake Placid as one of her favorite skiing destinations.