The law professor with a lesson for Hillary Clinton

Only one in five New Yorkers have heard of her, but Zephyr Teachout is on a mission to take the Democrats back to their progressive roots

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My new hero is Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University who wants to unseat New York governor Andrew Cuomo and fellow Democrat by challenging him from the left. When I met her recently at a party thrown in her honour, we talked extensively but I didn’t ask the obvious question: are you nuts?

Look at what she is up against. Only one in five New Yorkers has heard of her, according to one poll. Mr Cuomo has more than $32m for his re-election; she has $230,000 on hand. Mr Cuomo, whose father, Mario, was New York governor before him and who served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet, has all the moneyed supporters he needs and a sense of entitlement that provides a momentum of its own.

But now I think Ms Teachout, who ran the internet outreach effort of former Vermont governor Howard Dean when he ran for Democratic nomination in 2004, is not nuts but canny. Mr Cuomo is worried enough that he sued to block her challenge, arguing she hadn’t lived in the state long enough to be on the ballot for the September primary. A state court rejected that argument on Monday. As she said, “Game on!”

In Ms Teachout’s eye, Mr Cuomo is to the Democratic Party what Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson became to the Labour Party, symbolising the party’s drift away from its core values and putting Corporate Man before Common Man. She senses a loss of patience among progressive liberals in New York, who wonder what the Democratic Party stands for nowadays. If she can’t beat Mr Cuomo, she can pull him left.

But this isn’t just about New York. It’s a national narrative also, which brings us to Hillary Clinton. Not everyone thinks it is such a good idea that the Democrats seem to be rushing headlong to nominate her for president in 2016, particularly given her record so far this summer of astonishing botches. First she said she and Bill had left the White House “dead broke”, drawing attention to the extraordinary sums of money they have been pulling in ever since. Second, in an interview last weekend, she publicly rebuked President Barack Obama for not having armed Syrian rebels convincing some she is a neo-con hawk in the closet.

 

If there is a danger to Ms Clinton it will surely come from the increasingly disenchanted left. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who identifies himself as a democratic socialist, this week said he hadn’t ruled out making a run for president. “I’m not quite sure that the political process is one in which we anoint people,” he said of Ms Clinton.

Yet, even as she knows she will have to tack to the left to keep party unity, Ms Clinton insists on doing the opposite. Her Syria remarks, made to The Atlantic political website, suggest an interventionist streak that puts her out of step with Mr Obama, with nearly everyone in her party and with just about all the American public. She knows she blundered. It’s why she sent a message to Mr Obama on Tuesday saying she hadn’t meant to criticise him and why she and he were meeting last night.

Even Ms Teachout, 42, wondered at her own quest last Sunday addressing supporters in the county town of Hudson. “You should not have to have an unknown law professor run against somebody for a Democrat to become a Democrat,” she said. True enough. But who is going to make Ms Clinton a Democrat in 2016?

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