Photo courtesy of Teachout-Wu

How a Tiny Tech-Powered Campaign Scared America's Most Powerful Governor

Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu are a long shot, but they've already changed the game.

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Sep 9 2014, 6:55pm

Photo courtesy of Teachout-Wu

At a rooftop fundraiser somewhere between the Empire State and the new World Trade Center, the legal scholar Tim Wu, known for popularizing the fairness doctrine of "network neutrality," overheard a young woman wondering aloud to friends about his chances of winning New York state's second highest office.

"It's not a joke," he assured her. "We need 250,000 votes, which is not a huge number in the state of New York. We've raised enough money to scare people, and I think we have a pretty good chance of winning."

This wasn't a position that Wu, admittedly, could have imagined just a year ago. But then his friend, the law professor Zephyr Teachout, called him up earlier this year and asked if he would join her campaign to earn the Democratic nomination for governor. They would be running head-first into one of the most powerful politicians in the country. But, she promised him, "you don't have to change any of your views. You don't have to bend anything, can just run clean. If you do it right, you win."

And now, at the end of a three month campaign, he's got one of the most interesting fighting chances in New York history, in a primary battle that ends at the polls tonight at 9 PM. Thanks to a quirk in the state's election law, which mandates a split ticket vote, even if Teachout loses to her better-known and even better-funded opponent, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Wu could still win. Cuomo's running-mate, the former Congresswoman Kathy Hochul, is possibly lesser-known than Wu, especially in New York (Twitter followers as of press time: @KathyHochul: 2,339, @superwuster: 10.4K). Were he to win, he'd be Cuomo's number two in the general election, and then, most likely, carry an enthusiastic, tech-savvy, reformist-minded platform into an ossified statehouse.

"All I have to do is get more votes," he said.

The campaign has sent tremors across the hills and valleys of New York's Democratic landscape. It has, just as Wu predicted, scared people. The Cuomo campaign has sued to have them removed from the ballot (unsuccessfully); at one point, mysterious protestors connected to a Cuomo donor pestered Teachout at a campaign stop. In recent days, the response went into overdrive, enlisting the support of a Robocalling Hillary Clinton and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, and reportedly threatening democrats who dare to support anybody but Cuomo. 

All along, Cuomo and his campaign has avoided mentioning his opponents' names. He dismissed the idea of a debate, because, he said, they could sometimes be "a disservice to democracy." In an awkward video that went viral over the weekend, the governor can be seen at a parade ignoring the candidates even though they are standing directly in front of him. 

But they are hard to ignore. Tall and winsome, if Teachout and Wu wore trenchcoats they might resemble a pair of improbably attractive detectives on a sharp TV crime comedy. Teachout is a warm 42-year-old law professor at Fordham who helped Howard Dean's campaign mobilize online, and has written a book about money in politics called Corruption. Wu is a gregarious 42-year-old law professor at Columbia who nursed the concept of "net neutrality" into the mainstream, and wrote a history of the telecom industry called The Master Switch. It is also largely about corruption, about what happens when a public service gets tarnished by private interests. 

That topic has formed the persistent drumbeat of their campaign against Cuomo—bolstered by the fact that they're as far from Albany's "old boys' network" as you can get in New York: Teachout would be the state's first female governor and Wu—the son of a Taiwanese father and a British mother—would be the first Asian American to hold statewide elected office.

It's a long shot, but not as long as it could be. The New York Times declined to endorse any candidate for governor, citing Gov. Cuomo's disbanding of a commission he formed to root out corruption, and citing Teachout's lack of experience (neither she nor Wu has served in elected office). But it gave a ringing endorsement to Wu, pointing out that the job he's gunning could use some disruption, and questioning the fickleness of Hochul, a former bank lobbyist with a conservative record on gun control, healthcare, and immigration. 

Cuomo recently joined the fray, comparing Wu's run for lieutenant governor to an "unqualified person wanting to be a heart surgeon." Wu replied, "If the Governor thinks the best qualification for Lt. Governor is being a bank lobbyist, well that says something about his core values."

But if Wu were to serve in a Cuomo administration, he said he would act just as he would under Teachout: a faithful advisor, up to a point. "Whoever the governor is, I shall support them when I think they're doing the right things," he said Monday, "and criticize them when they think they're doing the wrong things." 

"I would try to translate the position of the lieutenant governor into something more like the New York City advocate." He likes to talk about recycling good ideas from the past, and invokes the early 20th century Progressive Era in his post-partisan antitrust vision. "The way I prepared for this campaign was, I read all the Progressive Party platforms, Brandeis and Roosevelt. Shit, those guys were on to something. Mad Men says, 'let's look at the 1950s,' well, 'let's look at the 1910s!"

"It wasn't left-right—they were very pro-market pro business people who thought, 'we have to stop these companies from suffocating the economy.' Roosevelt was not some wild left-wing dude."

"I'm an entrepreneur, so I have to be a little delusional," said alexis ohanian. "when Tim pitched me on this, I tried to manage my expectations. But part of me was like, why the hell not? Why can't this work?"

I asked Teachout what she made of Wu as a candidate. 

"He's a total freethinker. In every single way, he's completely engaging. Reporters love talking to him because he's hilarious, he has a whole lot of heart, and a deep commitment to the public." She picked him, she said, "because I wanted somebody who had my own view of small business and tech policy."

From a few minutes of watching them speak, two things are clear about this campaign. One: Teachout-Wu ticket is obsessed with rooting out corruption in politics. And two: these are the nerdiest and most tech-savvy candidates you've ever seen.

"We're all tech people," Wu said on the rooftop, back in June. "It's gotten too important just to be the province of the geek squad. It's an everybody issue."

Reddit founder and entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, who came to a campaign event at Meetup.com on Monday, echoed that idea. "'Guns, Butter and Broadband'—that was a recent headline in a piece about the campaign." The event was called to unveil the candidates' tech policy, which Ohanian said was a "21st century plan that actually makes my heart grow a few sizes."

He spoke of the candidates excitedly, and in the distinctive tongue of the web.

"When Tim first brought it to my attention"—the potential for a Teachout-Wu ticket—"I was like, awesome sauce."

But did he think it would actually work?

"I'm an entrepreneur, so I have to be a little delusional," he explained. "You have to believe in your gut that it's going to work out, no matter how insane it might be. So when Tim pitched me on this, I tried to manage my expectations. But part of me was like, why the hell not? Why can't this work?"

"This wasn't supposed to be a competition, and it is, very much so," he said. "It smells like upset."

Teachout and Wu at the Meetup offices on Monday (Photo by the author)

Not wanting to jinx things though, Ohanian ruminated enthusiastically on the bigger picture. Teachout and Wu had established a template for a tech-centric campaign, with echoes of Howard Dean, Occupy, the SOPA-PIPA protests, and Congressman Jared Polis from Colorado, a cofounder of several early web startups. 

"A campaign that's well run here—and new people in office who actually get stuff done here—all it takes is one front page story on Reddit, one trending topic on Twitter, and ideas can spread. We don't need anyone's permission to spread ideas anymore. And there are a lot of really good ideas happening here."

Ohanian called the campaign a blueprint, one that others could iterate on, Internet-style. The way that open source software, the way so much in tech works, is this same model. It's, 'I found something cool, let me see how I can remix it and improve it a little better and see how I can learn from that." 

(Teachout-Wu is rich in ideas, if short on cash: Cuomo has raised 100 times more in campaign funds, with $30.6 million on hand, compared to Teachout's $323,944. At the start of the campaign, Wu expressed bemusement about the media's surprising focus on funds. "Reporters always want to know, 'how much money, how much money?' It's a little bit like in entertainment. They don't talk about whether it was a good movie, but how much did it gross. In sports, half of the reporting is 'what kind of contracts did they land?'")

Not surprisingly, much of the campaign's success has been found online—it raised tens of thousands of dollars through a crowd-funding campaign, and has enlisted the support of tech heavy-hitters like Ohanian, Reed Hastings of Netflix, Scott Heiferman of Meetup.com, and Susan Crawford, the net policy expert who served as an advisor to Obama on science and innovation. (The campaign has also earned thumbs-up from the New York State Public Employees Federation, the New York state chapter of the National Organization for Women, and the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club, along with New York City's first Public Advocate Mark Green, law professor and Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig, Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs and the political web pioneer Douglas Rushkoff.) 

The campaign's grassroots Internet power also informs one of its major goals: ensuring that every New Yorker has high speed Internet access. "The primary source of Internet access for families that make under $30,000 a year is the public library," Teachout said. "That's one of the reasons I care so much about public libraries. But if you're going to the public library, that's a big lift—to be able to get access to government services, to find a job, to sign up in the thirty minute slot. It's an enormous burden."

"It's the platform upon which the entire economy works right now," she said of the Internet. "If you're in the basement and under that platform, it only exaggerates inequality."

Framing the ancient problem of inequality in terms of digital technology has been a central motif throughout the campaign, and a kind of call to arms among its tech-savvy following.

"The best, most successful politicians haven't been ones who reiterate what's going on, but realize where the times are going and find what needs to be said, and build momentum behind it," Wu said. "Like Roosevelt a hundred years ago, when he got people fired up about trustbusting: it wasn't like there was a constituency that cared about the antitrust laws. There was just too much private power in this country and the sense was 'we have to do something.'"

Wu wants to bring a "trustbusting" to blocking Comcast's proposed $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable—a merger he says is "affecting the middle class and poor people." 

"You can talk about [inequality] in really complicated ways or you can translate it into a political movement," he said. "Politicians who are good are translators of deep-felt ideas." 

The Master Switch

Teachout acknowledges that Cuomo has made some good moves in seeking to turn New York into an open center for the tech economy, by for instance, supporting a state-wide investment in broadband. But overall, she said, the governor had been too piecemeal in his approach. 

"You have to look at it as an overall ecosystem, not a spot investment," she said. "He's not wrong, but he just shows a lack of real understanding of what high tech means."

Teachout has touted other tech policies to attract technology jobs to New York, improve STEM education, along with ideas for bolstering net neutrality, tightening privacy protections, and opening government. Wu insists New York should be a global laboratory for the yet-to-be explored radio spectrum, and Teachout has imagined turning New York into an epicenter for 21st century transportation technologies.

But the campaign has emphasized that no policy can be effective without an end to corruption in Albany. Despite Gov. Cuomo's reformist pledge when he ran for office four years ago—"Job 1 is going to be to clean up Albany," he declared—critics say the state capital has remained a haven for patronage, favor-swapping, back-room deals, and outright corruption. Cuomo—whose father, Mario Cuomo, also served as governor—has been criticized for failing to push aggressively for much-needed campaign finance reform or for ending the partisan gerrymandering that virtually guarantees that incumbents are reelected. A report by Capital New York on Tuesday cites numerous sources who claim Cuomo was secretly responsible for arranging for the Republicans to remain in leadership in the state legislature even after the election of a Democratic majority. 

The governor's inaction on corruption was driven home by his decision earlier this year to suddenly disband the independent anti-corruption group that he himself had started once it began to investigate his own campaign. Cuomo asserted that he had every right to direct and influence a commission that he created. That so alarmed Preet Bharara, the hard-charging US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, that Bharara's office seized the commission's files and is now investigating what role Cuomo and his aides played in undermining its work. (Unlike the commission, Bharara will only be able to investigate criminal, not ethical violations.)

This helps explain why some 47% of New Yorkers think that corruption in state government in Albany is a "very serious" problem, according to a recent poll conducted by the Sienna College Research Institute. (An additional 39% think that corruption is a "somewhat serious" problem, the poll found.)

What happened to the people who are idealistic, who are in college, in high school, and want to be in politics, and then they do totally different things? I think the best and brightest in New York should run for governor.

The emphasis on reform by the tiny Teachout-Wu ticket may have already left a mark on the Governor, hurting his chances for national office, Politico suggested, "exposing Cuomo as out of touch with the political passions of many liberal New Yorkers, and with a larger sense of progressivism that's now defined much more by economic than social issues."

On the rooftop at the start of the campaign, I remembered Wu listening to one his supporters—the one who had worried about his chances—recount how she had grown disillusioned about politics since more fervent college days.

"What happened to the people who are idealistic, who are in college, in high school, and want to be in politics, and then they do totally different things?" Wu wondered aloud. "I think the best and brightest in New York should run for governor."

On Monday, I asked Teachout what she had learned from her trip around the state, and what had changed in the three months of the campaign. 

"The biggest thing is that politics is so much more enjoyable than people give it credit for. It's hard. But writing my book was hard. It's not harder than that and it is so much more enjoyable than that. I feel like that's a really important thing for people know. It's worth it."

And what had changed? "Now people stop me on the street, and they go like this," and she curled her arm and gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.

With additional reporting by Sam Gustin.