Zephyr Teachout fights against political corruption in the classroom and on the campaign trail.
In her 2014 book Corruption in America, Zephyr Teachout, the legal scholar and Fordham Law professor, chronicled how the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission placed American democracy in jeopardy. Two years later, Zephyr Teachout, the Democratic candidate for New York’s 19th Congressional District, watched on TV as her warnings materialized during the commercial breaks in the game show Jeopardy.
Teachout faced an onslaught of attack ads funded by six-figure donations from a pair of hedge fund billionaires and a beauty supply mogul who portrayed her positions in a distorted, overly negative light. This questionable gambit would have been impossible prior to Citizens United in 2010, she says. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that political spending was protected free speech, thus eliminating restraints on how much money corporations could funnel into political action committees (PACs) designed to advocate for or against a candidate.
“I’ve been writing about corruption for a long time, and I felt like I walked into my own book,” says Teachout. “People would be watching Jeopardy and every single ad would be about our race. People started getting sick of it. Politics should be about door-to-door, what the voters see, what they like, what they want.”
Unbowed by her congressional defeat, Teachout has engaged in a variety of political and civic activities on the local, state, and national levels in 2017, encouraging resistance against the Trump administration and greater citizen participation in government. As of July, she has held a seat on the Democratic State Committee’s 106th Assembly District in the 19th Congressional District. She also teaches the occasional civics lesson in her Hudson Valley community.
At the national level, Teachout sits on the board for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a bipartisan watchdog group, and she has represented the organization as a lawyer in CREW v. Trump, a case that alleges the president has violated the Constitution by receiving payments from foreign governments. While Teachout views Trump’s election as a “tragedy,” she acknowledges that progressives must fight to change the way elections are funded in order to preserve and rebuild democracy. The current election funding model has inspired a “plague of silence” that scares politicians away from action on key issues because they fear losing larger donors, she explains.
“It’s important to do everything we can to use legal and political power to demand Donald Trump follow our Constitution and not destroy institutions,” Teachout says. “But if we don’t address the underlying reasons why Donald Trump came along, then another Donald Trump will come along.”
Teachout first received widespread attention for her progressive, anti-corruption politics in September 2014, when she garnered 34 percent of the Democratic primary vote in a spirited effort to unseat New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. When she entered the race, many state and national political observers questioned why Teachout, an extreme long shot with little name recognition, would bother challenging the incumbent.
Her intrepid spirit dates back to the early 2000s when she worked as a death penalty lawyer in North Carolina. In one memorable instance, her client, who was scheduled for execution the next morning, requested clemency from a governor who had initially brought charges against him. A local judge granted a stay based on an Equal Protection argument, but the state’s supreme court dissolved the stay after a 90-minute phone conversation. Her client was executed that morning.
“What was so horrifying was the carelessness with which the person’s life was taken,” Teachout says.
In 2003, Teachout made the move to politics, serving as director of online organizing for then-Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. As she continued working in politics and eventually as a law professor, the insights she had gained advocating for death row inmates in North Carolina stuck with her.
“The political lesson, as well as the legal one, is that you have to fight—period—because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of chances of success,” Teachout says. “No one is sitting around saying, ‘We have a 30 percent chance, so let’s file this motion.’ If you have a 1 percent chance, you file the motion.
“When I had a trivial chance of running for governor, the question was not what are my chances of winning,” she adds.
Teachout praises Fordham Law’s administration for “being incredibly generous with me,” allowing her to take a summer off from research for her gubernatorial race as well as six months for her congressional race.
“Fordham Law School has a culture of openness and free thinking,” she says. “You can push your own ideas and push your own curiosity in whatever direction it takes.”
In Corruption in America, Teachout presents two structural reforms offered by current jurisprudence to change the post-Citizens United electoral landscape: public funding of elections and new anti-monopoly laws. Her next book project and forthcoming scholarly articles investigate the latter, emphasizing how antitrust issues are deeply related to corruption.
“I am arguing that the antitrust regime since 1981 has been a disaster—especially for politics,” she explains. Antitrust has largely been seen through an economic lens over the past four decades, allowing the dismantling of traditional anti-monopoly laws designed to ensure companies don’t become so large that they are a form of private government. She notes that while the country was transfixed by last year’s presidential election, the highest merger rate in American history unfolded. Mergers this year have also proceeded at a brisk clip, with Amazon’s $13.4 billion purchase of Whole Foods as one prominent example she says demands more scrutiny.
Teachout’s forthcoming work also spotlights the importance of the anti-monopoly movement throughout American history, as when third president Thomas Jefferson sought an anti-monopoly clause because he and other politicians realized corruption and publicly enabled private power were related. Teachout fears that today’s American populace will run to the modern monopolists with the expectation that these corporate titans will take a stand against the Trump administration’s assaults on democracy. This hope in big business as savior of the republic would be misguided, says Teachout.
“It’s an absolutely existential threat posed by the Trump administration’s lawlessness and complete refusal to follow some of the basic provisions of the Constitution,” Teachout says. “At the same time, another threat is the very quick set of mergers and consolidation of power in the private sphere forming a different kind of tyranny.”
“We’re facing not one but two basic threats to self-governance,” she emphasizes.
How does Teachout plan to fight these threats?
She does not rule out running for office in the future, but stresses she does not see elected office as the only way to create a better future for her community, her state, and her country.
“I am going to be deeply invested in writing, thinking, teaching, and organizing to protect the country from undemocratic threats and also to build up a vision of a more centralized economy with more freedom,” she assures. “There’s not just one tool to do that.”