Cuomo Gets More Of An Opponent Than He Bargained For

Sep 7, 2014

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was supposed to cruise past next Tuesday's primary election in New York on his way to a second term.

But the powerful Democratic incumbent may have more trouble than many expected. For one thing, his main opponent, a little-known law professor named Zephyr Teachout, is mounting a respectable challenge from the left. For another, Cuomo could potentially wind up with a running mate he doesn't want.

This week, the local cable news channel NY1 tried to host a debate between Cuomo and Teachout. Teachout was the only one to show up.

A veteran of Howard Dean's presidential campaign, Cuomo's challenger is also a distinguished legal scholar with a recent book, Corruption in America.

Corruption has been Teachout's top issue. For months, she's been hammering Cuomo for allegedly interfering with the work of his own anti-corruption commission earlier this year.

"Voters will forgive a lot of things," she said. "But they won't forgive a politician who's self-serving or serving their donors. And increasingly, that's what Democratic primary voters are thinking, is that Cuomo is out for himself."

Cuomo denies interfering with the commission. The Justice Department is investigating, but no charges have been filed.

While Teachout has campaigned vigorously, Cuomo has all but disappeared. He's made few public appearances in recent weeks.

"I've been in many debates that I think were a disservice to democracy," he said, explaining his decision not to take part in the event at NY1. "So anyone who says debates are always a service to democracy hasn't watched all the debates that I've been in."

It's a classic front-runner strategy — especially when the opponent has a bit of a name-recognition problem.

Teachout's name recognition, however, may be higher with the kind of people who vote in Democratic primaries. Jeanne Zaino, political science professor at Iona College, says she doesn't think Cuomo is going to lose, but if Teachout does well, Zaino says, it could hurt Cuomo's standing as a possible presidential candidate down the road.

"It is something that I think could potentially weaken him," she says. "It's probably not going to throw him out of the primary, certainly, or the general election. But it could certainly make him look less attractive to Democrats, and that's something that's going to matter to the governor."

Another way Tuesday's outcome could matter to Cuomo: Under a quirk in New York law, the governor and lieutenant governor run on separate ballot lines, and Cuomo's running-mate may be vulnerable. Former U.S. Rep. Kathy Hochul comes from western New York, the only part of the state where Cuomo under-performed in his first campaign four years ago. But Hochul's relatively conservative record on issues like guns, the environment and immigration suddenly looks like a liability.

Hochul tried to shore up her liberal credentials this week as she picked up the endorsement of Mayor Bill de Blasio and other New York politicians.

"I'm so proud to be standing here with New York City's prominent, progressive leaders," she said. "You call me anti-immigrant at your own peril. That is not true. I have a history of being in this arena and fighting for people all my life."

Hochul is locked in a surprising primary battle with political newcomer Tim Wu. A Columbia University law professor, Wu was best known for coining the phrase "net neutrality," until Teachout tapped him as her running mate.

Wu has picked up the endorsement of The New York Times, and he's been a quick study in the art of politics.

"Kathy Hochul's positions are really far out of line with the Democrats who vote in a Democratic primary," Wu says. "She's in a really difficult position."

Wu says he wants to reinvent the role of the lieutenant governor as an independent voice inside the administration. That would be a big change for a job that critics describe as little more than a cheerleader for the governor's agenda — and possibly the last thing Cuomo had in mind when he imagined his second term.

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was expected to cruise past next Tuesday's Democratic primary. But the incumbent may have more at stake than many expected. For one thing, his main opponent, a little-known law professor name Zephyr Teachout, is mounting a respectable challenge from the left. And for another, Cuomo could potentially wind up with a running mate he doesn't want. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: This week, the local cable news channel NY1 tried to host a debate between Andrew Cuomo and Zephyr Teachout. Only one of them showed up. (SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION DEBATE)

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: I wish that Governor Andrew Cuomo was here with us tonight.

ERROL LOUIS: Uh huh.

TEACHOUT: I don't see the empty chair but I feel the empty chair.

LOUIS: Well, we thought about the cardboard cutout but that's so passe.

ROSE: Zephyr Teachout is a veteran of Howard Dean's presidential campaign. She's also a distinguished legal scholar who's just published a book called "Corruption in America." And corruption has been Teachout's top issue.

For months she's been hammering Governor Cuomo for allegedly interfering with the work of his own anticorruption commission earlier this year.

TEACHOUT: Voters will forgive a lot of things. But they won't forgive a politician who's self-serving or serving their donors. And increasingly, that's what Democratic primary voters are thinking, is that Andrew Cuomo is out for himself.

ROSE: Cuomo denies interfering with the commission. The Justice Department is investigating but no charges have been filed.

While Teachout has campaigned vigorously, Cuomo has all but disappeared. He's made few public appearances in recent weeks. Here's how Cuomo explained his decision not to debate.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: I've been in many debates that I think were a disservice to democracy. So anyone who says debates are always a service to democracy hasn't watched all the debates that I've been.

ROSE: It's a classic front-runner strategy, especially when the opponent has a bit of a name-recognition problem.

Have you ever heard of Zephyr Teachout?

LINDA SOLDO: That's a crazy name for governor.

JIMMY WALKER: I have no idea who that person is.

ROSE: Have you ever heard of a candidate named Zephyr Teachout?

SALLY MERCEDES: Yes.

ROSE: But do you know who she is?

MERCEDES: No. Not, like, actually.

ROSE: That's Linda Soldo (ph), Jimmy Walker, and Sally Mercedes (ph). But to be fair, Teachout's name recognition may be higher with the kind of people who vote in Democratic primaries.

Jeanne Zaino teaches political science at Iona College. She doesn't think Cuomo is going to lose but if Teachout does well, Zaino says, it could hurt Cuomo's standing as a possible presidential candidate down the road.

JEANNE ZAINO: It is something that I think could potentially weaken him. It's probably not going to throw him out of the primary, certainly, or the general election but it could certainly make him look less attractive to Democrats. And that's something that's going to matter to the governor.

ROSE: And there is another way Tuesday's outcome could matter to Cuomo. Under a quirk in New York law, the governor and lieutenant governor run on separate ballot lines. And Cuomo's running mate may be vulnerable.

Former U.S. Representative Kathy Hochul comes from Western New York, the only part of the state where Cuomo underperformed in his first campaign four years ago. But Hochul's relatively conservative record on issues like guns, the environment, and immigration suddenly looks like a liability.

KATHY HOCHUL: I am so proud to be standing here with New York City's prominent progressive leaders.

ROSE: This week, Hochul tried to shore up her liberal credentials as she picked up the endorsement of Mayor Bill de Blasio and other New York politicians.

HOCHUL: You call me anti-immigrant at your own peril. That is not true. I have a history of being in this arena and fighting for people all my life.

ROSE: Hochul is locked in a surprising primary battle with a political newcomer named Tim Wu. Wu is a Columbia University law professor. He was best known for coining the phrase net neutrality until Zephyr Teachout tapped him as her running mate. Now Wu has picked up the endorsement of the New York Times, and he's been a quick study in the art of politics.

TIM WU: Kathy Hochul's positions are really far out of line with the Democrats who vote in a Democratic primary. She's in a really difficult position.

ROSE: Wu says he wants to reinvent the role of the lieutenant governor as an independent voice inside the administration. That would be a big change for a job the critics describe as little more than a cheerleader for the governor's agenda, and it's possibly the last thing Andrew Cuomo had in mind when he imagined his second term. Joel Rose. NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.