Zephyr Teachout is an academic, activist, and former political candidate for governor of New York and New York’s 19th congressional district. She is an associate professor of law at Fordham University and the treasurer for Cynthia Nixon’s campaign for governor of New York. She focuses on issues of corruption and campaign finance reform.

The Politic: Cynthia Nixon recently announced that she is running for governor of New York State. What are your thoughts on her candidacy? Do you support her? And do you think she can win upstate voters?

Zephyr Teachout: I have gotten to know her over the last few months. I actually talked to a lot of different potential candidates for governor. And I am her treasurer, so I’m definitely supporting her. We have a serious problem in New York with Andrew Cuomo, who has, in a whole bunch of ways that are kind of like reindeer games—they’re not easy to explain, but they’re pretty devastating—empowered Republicans in New York State. He did it through gerrymandering. We have a very close Senate that is close to half and half Republican and Democrat, and he has supported, behind the scenes, by all accounts, a group of Democrats who actually vote to give the Republican leader veto power over all legislation. He hasn’t canvassed for Democrats. And it has also been pretty devastating. We have some of the highest levels of inequality in the country. We have voting rights laws that make it incredibly hard to vote. So we have some of the worst voter participation.

So two things: one is that it is incredibly important that Andrew Cuomo has a serious challenger, and she is a serious challenger, because the State can do better. And the second, I’ve just been really impressed with her. A lot of making a decision about whom you support for office is policy and character. And both on policy and character, I’ve been very impressed.

So a lot of people may have the reaction I did when I first heard she might be interested, which is, “Ehhh, not interested. You know, it’s a celebrity.” But not all celebrities are the same. And she has been involved in an education policy and organizing for over fifteen years. She has a really deep understanding of the issues facing the State. She’s incredibly smart. And I think she’ll make a great governor.

Look, it’s an uphill battle. He has thirty million dollars. He’s going to get almost all the endorsements. But after Trump, we have a more and more engaged Democratic Party primary electorate. I think Andrew Cuomo’s gotten away without a hard campaign for a long time. I’m glad we gave him a run for his money but still, that was 34 percent. This time she’s getting a lot more attention. She has a real chance.

In 2016, you ran for Congress in the 19th district.

I did.

You won 45.9 percent.

That’s a nice way of putting it.

Why do you think your district ended up voting Republican, and would you consider running again?

I really love politics, and I love being involved with all the people that I met. It was a really tough year. It was a district that swung substantially from an Obama district—Obama won the district handily—but then Trump won it by over eight points. So we were sort of right in the middle of that Trump wave. It’s an area that’s losing population, without a lot of new jobs, good jobs. People who have jobs often have more than one. And what I saw was both that Democrats stayed home and there were a lot people who just wanted something to change, anything. We did, in fact, outperform Clinton and most of the other local Democrats, so I’m proud of the race that we ran. Right now, I’m not planning on running for office, but I’m certainly staying in politics. You never know.

My next question was going to be about Andrew Cuomo’s job performance, but I think you answered that one.

I have some more to say about Andrew. I could talk about Andrew Cuomo for a long time. If you’ve been in New York City, you’ve seen the MTA doesn’t work. Now four years ago, when Tim Wu and I ran, we pointed this out. We were actually ten billion dollars behind in the repairs needed to make the MTA just safe and functional—basically just like really humming along but at 1990’s level. It’s now four years past, and Andrew Cuomo continues to take money from the MTA and use it for other pet projects. It’s a State issue, and it’s just an example of how he likes to say that he can get things done, but he can’t even get the trains to work.

Upstate, we have economic development programs, where he gives hundreds of millions of dollars to his friends, and it leads to a handful of jobs. So, one of the things that was very frustrating about running against him last time was this idea that he tried to project, this like, “I may be kind of tough, but I get things done.” The truth is he actually doesn’t get that much done. He hasn’t been able to get the Tappan Zee Bridge—it’s over-budget and behind schedule. The MTA isn’t working. Our sewage systems need repair. So, even if you look at him, in the non-ideological sense, just as the governor who’s responsible for taking care of the State, he’s failed on that. But it’s particularly striking in the Trump era where New York should be standing up—it’s as an unbelievably blue state. He’s enabled Republicans in the State, and the effect is these high levels of inequality. You can’t even pass a DREAM Act in New York because he’s empowered Republicans. I see him as a purely transactional politician. I don’t see him as someone who’s in it because he’s a conservative or centrist. He’s just trying to serve his donors and seem like he’s not too left or not too right. And we need a more public-spirited governor.

How do you think it’s possible to improve the New York City subway system both physically and politically?

You have to deal with the underlying issues, which are signal issues. There’s actually a great Daily News reporter, Dan Rivoli, who has been covering the subway and showing the ways in which the MTA has actually been papering over its own problems. Whenever anybody is hiding something, or not quite telling the truth, you know you have a problem. But one of the core issues is fixing the signal system, which is going to cost a lot of money, but it is really important. And Cuomo’s priorities, instead, have been more cosmetic instead of actually deeply getting in there, dealing with signals.

There has been a lot of criticism of Facebook lately. Do you think that companies like Facebook and Amazon are monopolies?


Do you think that the government should use anti-trust law against them—


And if so, do you think that breaking them up would be sufficient? Or is trust-busting like a game of whack-a-mole? And would breaking up tech companies prevent the abuse of consumer data that seems to be an essential part of their business model?

Let’s just take Facebook. First of all, we have to understand that it is a digital advertising company that happens to use a social media service as a way to do its digital advertising. Facebook and Google are the most closely aligned, because they are both digital advertising companies.

They are monopolies. In the traditional understanding of the term, monopoly is somebody who has the capacity to set the terms of a deal. Basically, both Facebook and Google can charge whatever they want. We know that, because they are making unbelievable profits off their digital advertising business.

There has been a lot of talk about fake news. But let’s talk about one of the more devastating impacts of Facebook and Google, which is that they basically make money off of your profession, journalism. Between 85 percent and 99 percent of the new revenue in digital advertising has gone to Facebook and Google in the last few years.

How do newspapers make money? Newspapers make money off digital advertising. A newspaper invests in a journalist. The journalist goes to China, does original reporting, and if that story is going to be heard, Facebook and Google are acting as gatekeepers. So, if that story is going to be read, it could be that Facebook or Google would send readers to the Yale Daily News website, and then any advertising you have on the Yale Daily News would go to the Yale Daily News. Instead what they have done, and some of this is technological—it’s very much on purpose—is made it so much quicker to load newspaper stories if they are still within the Facebook wrapper, so that Facebook gets the advertising that the newspapers should.

So it’s not only that Facebook is enabling propaganda. It’s actually taking away—it’s like the troll under the bridge—taking away the value that newspapers are producing, which is killing local newspapers and really good news, and making some of the bigger newspapers, like The New York Times, go into a subscription model. Since Facebook and Google are going to be making all the additional ad dollars, then the only way to stay afloat is through the subscription model, which eventually leads to a walled garden model. So a broad anti-monopoly approach is important, because one of the things that anti-monopoly law is designed to do is say, “Hey, when you see outrageous monopoly profits, there is a problem.” And you also want to make sure that the producers of the good, not the intermediaries, retain the value that they create.

The parallel with Amazon is that Amazon is becoming a monopoly in the distribution of all kinds of goods, not just books, and can then put the squeeze on producers and basically say: “Hey, you want to charge 10 dollars for that? We’re going to make you charge only 5 dollars.” And once Amazon sells something for 5 dollars, that’s what it‘s worth, because nobody is going to buy it for anything more. So both are taking value out of key producers, whether it’s producers of stuff or producers of news.

There’s a whole bunch of different tools that we can use to take on something like Facebook or Google. Both of them are the result of mergers. I think we often see them as having grown totally organically, but Facebook acquired WhatsApp, acquired Instagram. Right now, in this propaganda moment, if people who wanted to delete Facebook could go to their competitor, Instagram—well they can’t. They can go to their Facebook-owned Instagram as an alternative. They actually have nowhere to go for the same value. So blocking those mergers and unwinding those mergers is incredibly important. Google acquired a company, [unclear], in the early 2000’s, and unwinding those mergers is essential.

But there’s other anti-monopoly tools that are also really important. For instance, we could say: “Hey, we think that, as a matter of public policy, people should own their own data sets.” And so if I own my own data set, then I can leave Facebook and take my data set with me and go to a competitor. If I don’t own my own data set, I have to start my social media world all over again. That’s an anti-monopoly tool. It’s not a “breaking up tool,” although it will have the same impact, because it will actually force real competition for value, instead of basically having no choices when it comes to social media.

Another tool is to require basic neutrality principles. For a company like Google—this is what the European Union is doing—is saying, “Hey, Google, you can exist as a platform, but you can’t favor companies that you own in your search results.” That’s a very simple conflict of interest rule that we should apply. So it’s not just that we should be breaking them apart, but breaking apart the components parts that don’t need to be together, and applying reasonable regulations to the remaining parts.

This is an incredibly big picture question, but what do you think the federal government should do to combat income inequality?

So much!

Would you support a Federal Works Program or universal basic income, for example?

So much. For starters, we should be absolutely investing in our decrepit infrastructure. We certainly see that in New York. Just in terms of water infrastructure, the federal government used to support that a whole lot more. So it’s repairing what needs to be repaired. Building out, supporting infrastructure is absolutely critical.

One of the key reasons I care about anti-monopoly law is that monopolies also support inequality. There has been incredible research, just in the last six months, showing that concentrated markets pay workers less, which is no great surprise, but really important data to prove that we shouldn’t have these concentrated markets, where workers have no bargaining power.

We should be supporting union rights, and we should certainly support more robust unemployment insurance. If we’re going to have unemployment, which we know we’re going to have, then we shouldn’t be arbitrarily cutting people off. But to me the unemployment insurance response is secondary to the problem of not actually having a functioning economy where people are paid for their value. And that’s a problem of incredible concentration of weakened labor power.

You’ve been an outspoken proponent of campaign finance reform and the repeal of Citizens United, and of public financing of elections. What do you say to people who argue that Donald Trump somehow disproves mainstream narratives about campaign finance reform, since he was able to be the frontrunner without having a lot of corporate support at the beginning of his campaign?

The presidential race has always been really different. Basically, in political campaigns, there are two kinds of media. There is paid media, and there is earned media. Earned media is media where the media covers you, but you don’t pay for it, and paid media is the ads. So for a presidential race, earned media has always been more important, and paid media has always played a secondary role. There are a few presidential campaign ads that people remember. But when you talk about presidential campaigns, people mostly talk about debates, and what they saw, and what they said.

Totally different on a congressional or senate level—on a congressional level or senate level, like in the race that I ran, there’s about 18 million dollars spent, and the most likely way that any voter heard about either myself or my opponent was through paid media, not through earned media, partly because of the devastation of local news. So these things all tie together. But the presidential races have never been a good symbol of big money. The places in which big money has mattered in presidential races is in primaries, early on within the Democratic or Republican Party.

What super PACs have done is they have essentially kept alive candidates for far longer. It used to be basically the first three states only mattered. I think we need far better public financing of elections at all levels. And of course we need to be working towards overturning Citizens United. By the way, one of the great untold stories of 2016, because Trump sort of overshadowed everything, was that there was more dark money and more super PAC money in congressional races than ever, so it’s just getting smaller and smaller races.

I remember you had a great ad where you challenged to debate—

I did. I challenged my super PAC. I had three men who all gave 500,000 dollars to support my opponent. That’s a lot of money. So I was like: “If you guys are running my guy, I might as well debate them.” So I challenged them to a debate. They did not reply. So I challenged Robert Mercer to a debate, because he gave 500,000 dollars in my race to support my opponent. Robert Mercer, of course, is the guy behind Cambridge Analytica. So it’s all coming full circle.

New York City is currently facing a housing crisis.

Yes it is.

Many people have many different ideas about how to solve it. What is your opinion, and what do you think about zoning regulations and “Yes in my backyard” movements?

I think there are a lot of things that need to happen. The core, to return to money and politics, is that REBNY, the real estate lobby in New York has way, way, way too much power, mostly in financing campaigns. They give people like Andrew Cuomo campaign donations in 100,000 dollar chunks. Vacancy decontrol is important. Basically, there are a lot of vacant apartments. And so it is artificially inflating the costs of apartments that would otherwise come down.

It’s incredibly important to invest in public housing. We have levels of inequality that we should not have, and we have to be addressing them at other levels, but as long as they exist, and the levels of poverty exist, we have to invest in safe, clean public housing.

There are tax abatements. This is an area where I actually disagree with both the mayor and the governor. Tax abatements are for real estate developers. They don’t really help encourage the kind of development that we need. Density is incredibly important and encouraging density is key, but there are other approaches that we can bring to rent in New York.

When you came to Yale two years ago, I had the dinner with you at Mory’s, and you told an amazing story about when you were editor-in-chief of the YDN Magazine, and I was wondering whether you’d be willing to tell that story to The Yale Politic.

I was the editor-in-chief of the magazine. We got this great pitch, which turned into a wonderful story called “Ladies of the Party of the Right,” which was a really creatively written story. The author interviewed the women in the Party of the Right, which still exists, right?

Yes, and has had controversy since.

And then used their own words to give their answers about their experience as women in the Party of the Right. The experiences of the Party of the Right were not particularly complimentary. So we—you know, it’s the Yale Daily News Magazine, and we’d walk up and down Church Street, my business manager and I, begging for ads to fund our publication. And I think it cost something like 350 dollars, which doesn’t sound like a lot to you guys, but was a lot at the time. It was definitely many of my dining hall checks worth to fund an issue. And then the issue is distributed, and the morning the issue is distributed. I went out, as a proud editor-in-chief, [expecting] to see all the magazines with a wonderful black and white image on the front of silhouettes of women. They were all gone, totally gone. Somebody had stolen every copy of our issue. The title was “Ladies of the Party of the Right.” So I forget exactly what I told you last time, but I put up a little signs saying, “Does anybody know who has stolen my magazine?” We went to Betty—I don’t remember Betty’s last name—at the administration and said I’d heard that the Party of the Right had stolen my magazine. Representatives of the Party of the Right said they had not. So I started, as my response, I started going to all the Party of the Right debates. And I would just show up every time. And I would participate in the debates. And I guess the theory was that if they had done this to me, they were not going to sleep quietly. But it led to real controversy, because one time I was at a debate, and I went to sit down after proposition, and I’d made my statement. And I went to sit down, and somebody pulled out a chair, so I fell on my backside. It was very embarrassing. A lot of people laughed, but some people were really angry about how rudely I was treated. So a few people quit. It led to some real controversy. And I had to personally pay out of my paycheck, because I worked at the dining hall, for a reprint of all the copies of the magazine. There’s no end to the story. I’m still fighting the Party of the Right.

Who would you like to see run in 2020?

Oh my gosh! Is it that season already? If I say somebody, it doesn’t mean I’m going to endorse them. They’re just people who interest me. Ro Khanna. He’s a new congressman, but I just love how he’s talking, love what he’s doing. He’s a congressman from California. I think he’s fantastic. People like that—there are really interesting, exciting things happening in politics. By the way Ro is a big anti-monopolist, but also just a straight talker and really dynamic, unafraid to talk about any quality, unafraid to talk about [how] we may need to make some real changes, take on the hedge-funders and powers in our society. But he does it with a lot of joy. Who else? I’ll wait and see who runs.

That’s very reasonable. It’s the perennial question. Now The Politic has these things called rapid-fire questions which is a new thing we’re trying this year.

If I don’t answer them quickly enough, do I get a buzzer or something?

No, no. So where do you get your news?

That’s a great question. I read The New York Times. That‘s sort of the default. There are a lot of great local political reporters in New York. It has Times Union, Daily News, POLITICO, and [I read] Washington Monthly, because they cover a lot on monopoly stuff. The truth is I use Twitter as a search—I go to Twitter to search topics that I’m interested in often for news, like updates on something. I’m not sure this is a very efficient way to get news. I think this is one of the most central questions, where people get their news. So I do sometimes read a local paper, the Poughkeepsie Journal, but not as often as I should.

What place would you most like to visit?

True rapid-fire questions. OK. Jordan.

If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

I’d be an investigative journalist in Bosnia or a minister.

Which living person do you most admire?

Oh, come on. That’s too hard.

What keeps you up at night?

Depends on the night. Actually, I go to bed early, and I sleep well. But what gets me up in the morning is Amazon, and Facebook, and Andrew Cuomo.

What’s your favorite book and TV show?

My favorite book is Middlemarch and TV show is The Liar.

What is your advice for college students? That’s a question we always ask.

Did I give you guys advice when I met you last time?

I don’t think so.

I took all seminars. I had a theory at the time that I should only take seminars with interaction. But there are some lectures that I really missed out on. But there are very few people who’d only take all seminars, so I don’t think most people need to know that. But if there is a great lecture, don’t miss it.

Actually, that was my philosophy until this year.

To take all seminars?

Yes, and this year I started taking lectures and I was like, “Oh, I missed out.”

I know! So anyway, that is my advice to you. Take those lecture courses. Keep taking the seminars, but there are some spectacular lectures at Yale. You shouldn’t miss them.

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