Zephyr Teachout makes debut in improv comedy to blast IDC

Zephyr Teachout socks it to the State Senate’s breakaway Democrats in “Drunken Civics.” (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Zephyr Teachout, the law professor who challenged Governor Andrew Cuomo in the last gubernatorial election, lent a helping hand to a new show at the People’s Improv Theater called “Drunken Civics,” borne out of the 2016 election results and combining comedy and learning about local government. Teachout appeared in the show on Monday evening at the theater on East 24th Street to discuss the Independent Democratic Conference (the Senate breakaway Democrats who are aligned with Republicans).

“I guess how this works is that I’ll say things and they make fun of me, which is kind of what it was like running for governor,” Teachout told the crowd, who chuckled in response.

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Teachout: I’d repeal Urstadt Law, support retail diversity

Zephyr Teachout  (Photo courtesy of campaign)

Zephyr Teachout
(Photo courtesy of campaign)

By Sabina Mollot

Despite allegations that the Cuomo administration compromised the governor’s own corruption watchdog panel and despite the fact that Cuomo’s opponent in the primary has been interviewing non-stop — thanks to an unusually interested press in a longshot candidate — that opponent has still retained her title of just that, a longshot.

Still, there’s no doubt at this point that Zephyr Teachout is gaining momentum. Cuomo recently attempted, unsuccessfully, to have her tossed off the ballot over allegations she didn’t live in New York for the past five years. Meanwhile, the move to keep her from running may have backfired. Along with pointing out that Teachout, a Fordham law professor, was an underdog candidate, it also alerted New Yorkers to a fact many weren’t aware of previously, which was that there was even a primary election at all.

During a recent interview over the phone, Teachout shared her thoughts with Town & Village on why voters are starting to pay attention to this race. She also spoke about her ideas on what can be done to keep New York affordable for tenants (including small businesses) and why developers like Extell are part of the problem. (The interview has been edited for length.)

Why do you think people are finally noticing your campaign? Do you think it’s just the Moreland Commission?

There’s a latent, deep frustration about our economy, about how New York State has the most segregated schools; it’s the most unequal state. It’s a closed all-boys club in Albany. It’s supposed to be an egalitarian state. I’m anti-corruption. Extell gives $100,000 in campaign donations — and this is Extell of the poor door fame — and Extell is getting subsidies that other New York businesses aren’t. What I think people are starting to see is that Extell is not just a developer. They’re spending so much money on developing political power and connections. One thing about me. You’ll always know where I stand. Andrew Cuomo is hiding from the issues. He’s hiding from a debate right now. He’s scared of bringing more attention to the campaign. I won’t tell you that the reason people are (paying attention) is any one thing, but Moreland is pretty shocking. I think he’s governing like an ad man. He’s putting on a lot of ads, but he doesn’t engage reporters. We like to say that Andrew Cuomo is my biggest campaign donor. That (Cuomo has taken me to court) has perked up a lot of reporters’ ears.

As a political outsider, how do you feel about political alliances, like the recent announcement that the Independent Democratic Conference was breaking away from the Republicans, and the expectation of a Democrat-led Senate as a result?

Not to toot my own horn, but Andrew Cuomo only started fighting for a Democratic Senate when I entered the race. I entered the race at the end of May and within three days Cuomo was making all kinds of concessions that he hadn’t agreed to in years. He could have made a Democratic Senate years ago if he vetoed the redrawn districts, which had been a campaign promise. There’s no excuse for not having a Democratic Senate in New York. The reason we don’t is Andrew Cuomo. If it was in Democrat control we’d be a lot better off in terms of affordable housing.

As a political outsider, how would you handle the actual politics of governing? Dealing with the various alliances in order to get things accomplished?

I think the job is leadership. You’re not going to win every fight. My vision of leadership is hiring great people and respecting people who work for the state.

In Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, everyone’s rent-stabilized, so there’s concern over the fact that the Rent Stabilization Law is coming up for renewal in 2015. What would you do to strengthen it?

I’m very familiar with Stuyvesant Town. I used to live near there on East 7th Street and I would go up there to go swimming at Asser Levy. (On Rent Stabilization Law), there is precisely a role for the city to play. We need to repeal the Urstadt Law. At a minimum the city should be free to directly do things. It’s a crisis of people living in expensive housing. It’s a crisis for our economy.

In ST/PCV, some people pay affordable rents, while others pay double for the same apartments. A big concern is all the legal ways owners can raise rents from major capital improvements (MCIs), to individual apartment improvements (IAIs) to vacancy bonuses.

Rent stabilization is still one of the best sources of housing for low income people in the city. We have to make sure affordable means affordable, not unaffordable.

Zephyr Teachout with running mate Tim Wu, candidate for lieutenant governor (Photo courtesy of campaign)

Zephyr Teachout with running mate Tim Wu, candidate for lieutenant governor (Photo courtesy of campaign)

It seems that more and more small businesses are being priced out of their locations and being replaced with chain stores. What do you think of the idea of rent regulation for commercial tenants?

We have two different visions. One is commercial rent control for small businesses. The other is making sure big box stores aren’t getting an unfair advantage. We have to make sure our lending system is accessible to entrepreneurs who need it. You have to have a blend of strategies. We also have to make sure for retail diversity that there’s a range of minority owned businesses.

What made you write a book about corruption?

I began writing it years ago. I began writing in 2008 because the New York Supreme Court’s vision of corruption was narrow and cramped. They said it was only about illegal bribery, so it wasn’t about Extell. If you’re giving $100,000 in donations and getting tens of millions in subsidies, it is a violation of democratic principles. I think the core of it is if you want to be a public servant, you have to serve the public and not just serve yourself.

When you meet with voters, what are their top concerns?

Housing is one of the top concerns. People just don’t have the money to meet the basics. Another concern is people feel there aren’t enough (services) for people with psychiatric disabilities, but the more mainstream (concern) is housing. Upstate it’s property taxes and schools are central. With schools, it’s high stakes testing and over-crowding.

What would you do to alleviate classroom crowding?

There needs to be smaller classes, no more than 20 in a class. I used to be a special ed teacher’s aide, and you can’t give each child the attention they need when there are 33 kids in a classroom. There needs to be art and music for every child. They’re not extras. They’re essentials. We should be the best public school system in the country.

What’s your opinion of charter schools?

Charters have a role, but a very small role. Eva Moskowitz’s assault on education is not what charters are supposed to do. I am opposed to colocations and I don’t think charter schools should get money that was intended for our public schools.

What would you do to create jobs?

I’m a traditional Democrat. One (idea) is investing in the infrastructure, in the MTA, in transit. Upstate it’s in renewable energy. All of these create jobs in the short term and enable jobs in the long term, and affordable higher education.

If elected, what is your first priority?

My first priority is taking on the old boys’ network that allows corruption to continue. The school system is unequal and there’s immigration. Andrew Cuomo has a running mate who’s anti-immigrant. Every child at the border should see New York as a sanctuary.