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Can the Left Win? A Q&A With Zephyr Teachout.

The activist and former congressional candidate talks about grassroots politics, the future of the Democratic Party, and Super PACs.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Since November, a popular joke among progressives has been to solemnly state, “Bernie would have won.” While Sanders, of course, lost the Democratic primary, the premise is that a more populist, progressive candidate could have defeated Donald Trump in the general. The lesson is that the party should put forward more such candidates in 2018 and beyond.

Zephyr Teachout was one of those candidates. A 45-year-old law professor running for Congress on an anti-corruption, anti–free trade agenda, her campaign was built on grassroots mobilization and small-dollar donations. Many on the left believed that she could pull out a win for liberal populists in New York’s 19th District, one of the country’s rare swing districts. Instead, she ended up losing to her Republican opponent, John Faso, by nine points.

Teachout’s loss complicates the notion that a more populist Democratic Party can win back power. On the one hand, her election result can be attributed to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: A Daily Kos analysis found that 95 percent of people in the district likely voted straight down the party line. On the other hand, Teachout outperformed Clinton in all but two counties; on some lawns, you could find both Teachout and Trump signs.

Another factor was money. The district was among the highest in the country in terms of outside spending—traditional party super PACs raised over $2 million for each candidate, but $6 million was spent to oppose Teachout. Just two people—Wall Street moguls Paul Singer and Robert Mercer—donated over $1 million to a super PAC backing Faso.

I sat down with Teachout at Jeanie Bean, a family deli in Clinton Corners, New York, where she lives, to talk about the lessons she learned from the campaign, how to fight big money in politics, and the future of the Democratic Party. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your campaign was often described as a bellwether for progressive politics for the country. Tell me about what happened.

Our district went from Obama winning by six points to Trump winning by over seven points, so it was basically a 13-point swing. We thought it was going to be close. I have reason to believe that my opponent thought it was going to be close. I think the biggest factor was Trump’s win or Clinton’s loss, whichever way you want to put it.

One thing that I hadn’t really thought through was just how unappealing a candidate Mitt Romney was in an area like this. Mitt Romney represents this Brahmin East Coast elite insider, and maybe for some people Romney and Clinton are in the same category—part of an elite political infrastructure that has very little to say to the farmers and small business owners in our district. Swimming against that tide—I met so few people who were not in Democratic committees who had any excitement for Hillary Clinton, and I met a lot of people who despised her.

Was there a lot of excitement for Trump?

There was some excitement for Trump, but I think it was more that there was an incredible hunger for change.

Did you find it ironic that as the “getting money out of politics” candidate there was so much spent in your district?

It’s the opposite of ironic. I felt like Cassandra walking into her own dark future. I mean this is a revolution in how campaigns work—more money was spent by super PACs than by either myself or John Faso. So what that means is that if you’re a voter in this district you are more likely to have heard from a super PAC than from me or my opponent. It’s incredibly troubling that the messaging and the shape of the race is defined by that.

Did you find that, with the Democratic super PACs supporting you, there was also the problem that the messaging is all coming from outside people?

Yeah, it’s a huge problem. I didn’t like a lot of their ads. It really affects the dynamics in the race. The candidates start to vanish.

Since the election, the big super PACs—Priorities USA, American Bridge—have refashioned themselves to be the war room against Trump and the leaders of the left. What do you think about this?

I’m an FDR Democrat, and I really believe that the most important thing is the institutions of political parties, and engaging in those institutions, and, where you disagree with them, speaking up and sharing your disagreement. Super PACs are not going to save the party, and even if they could, the party wouldn’t be itself anymore. It’s oligarchic to have these super PACs in charge. Where the energy is coming from right now is not American Bridge, it’s from the 200 people I was with in Amenia in a farm on Saturday who are figuring out how to do local organizing. Those in the Democratic Party who think big money is going to save us should look at the fact that we have a Democratic country with a Republican president and Congress. The Democratic strategy of selling out to big money and thinking it can message its way out just doesn’t work.

After the 2014 elections, a person in the party I really admired told me that someone had called her and said, “We’ve got to make people think that we’re fighting for them.” And she said, “Hell, no. We’ve got to be fighting for them!” There’s this weird fantasy that you just go straight to message instead of to the work. How you talk about it matters, but you got to start with the fight.

You know, I was going through the Podesta WikiLeaks emails and I saw that—

I’m a pain in the ass? [Laughs]

[Laughs] The email had Podesta, Neera Tanden, Robby Mook, and they’re all talking about how to get you to not endorse Bernie Sanders. Did you face that kind of pressure in the campaign from the party and was it a problem?

It’s so Keystone Cops that email exchange, although I was very proud that they called me a pain in the ass. But they had this big debate about how they could get me to not endorse Bernie Sanders, who I had already endorsed, openly, persistently.

They tried to rope in Kirsten Gillibrand to help, correct?

Gillibrand never pressured me, Gillibrand was absolutely supportive, she endorsed me knowing I was a big supporter of Bernie Sanders.

Do you have any specific advice for progressive candidates going forward who want to push the party left?

I just want to start with a different premise. I wanted to represent the 19th Congressional District. I wasn’t trying to push anybody anywhere. I wanted to be in Congress to fight for water, which is a huge issue here, to take on the big companies that are starving our small downtowns. Drive through Dutchess County you’ll find a handful of towns that are thriving, but then town after town where you can’t buy socks. I wanted to be pushing for veterans, we have a lot of veterans in this area. There are very, very concrete things that I wanted to do in this district.

Now, I do think Democrats should do everything they can to not be pushed around by big money. That’s the nub of it. Every district is going to be different, but if you wanted me to give advice to those candidates: Run your own campaign, the DCCC does not run your campaign. Figure out ways to raise money from small-dollar donors, and put some real energy into that because that will give you freedom to say no to big donors.

There are some mistakes I made in the campaign. I wish I had been more of a populist. You know, Donald Trump is unfit to be president. I said that at the time and I’ll say it now. But I got a lot of national pressure to focus on my opponent and Trump, and I don’t think that actually makes sense. In early October, after Trump said really disgusting things in the Access Hollywood tape, I got a lot of pressure. I think it would have been more respectful to voters to just keep talking about what I wanted to do. I remember I was sitting by the fire with my husband being like, “This doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t feel right.” Again, I made the decision, the buck stops here. But I would say that, you know your district, so just treat the national folks as people who can give you their own thoughts, but you’re the one going door-to-door talking to people.

Just looking at Trump’s cabinet, it looks like anti-corruption is becoming one of the biggest issues. I was wondering if you could discuss how anti-corruption speaks not only to economic inequality, but to race and gender as well?

The two main sources of corruption within our party and within our politics are the way that we fund campaigns and outside money. And both of those privilege wealthy men. The money that funds campaigns is overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white. And that’s even more true for super PACs. What it does to our candidates is they become beggars to this handful of really non-representative Americans.

It affects who runs for office. The New York City public financing system has only been fully funded since about 2010, but the effect has been far more women and people of color running for office, and far more incumbents getting challenged. The way we fund campaigns is a feminist issue and a race issue. If you want more representation, you can’t say it’s going to be really expensive to run for office and you need a rolodex of billionaires. That’s just going to re-create the same system and exaggerate it.

I don’t think it’s any big secret that DCCC tried to get me out of the race initially. Then some of them said, “We were so wrong about you, you’re great because you can raise money.” That should not be the metric that we as a party should be supporting.

What do you think about the race to lead the Democratic National Committee?

I am a big supporter of Keith Ellison. He himself has run races and increased turnout every single time, so he knows what it is to run in a serious way, in a way that [former Labor Secretary] Thomas Perez does not. When I was running, when I went to D.C., Keith was one of the few people who just started with questions instead of answers. “What are the dynamics, what are the issues, what do people care about?” The first question from far too many others was, “How much is it going to cost you and what’s the polling?”

One of the things that I found running a rural district is that people didn’t necessarily know what Democrats stood for at all. In a down-ballot race you’re breathing through a straw to communicate with people—you can communicate two or three things at most. But I assume that because of that D next to my name, people know that I also stand for public education, Social Security, investing in infrastructure. What I found was that the D was kind of confused because leaders in our party support privatizing schools, leaders in our party have supported offshoring jobs. I think that people really start with a question mark for the Democratic Party and that really hurts all of our candidates. Nobody has a question about what Keith stands for.

Where do you think the Democratic Party is headed?

I met with a bunch of students this weekend, one of them had been thinking of running for office, and she was really shaken by Trump. She was asking, “Is it worth it?” The greatest neoliberal victory would be if young people who are politically active decide that it’s a little too corrupt to get involved in politics. The Koch brothers are silently cheering every time a 25-year-old activist says, “I’ll stay in activism even though there’s a county legislative seat opening up.” I really want to see waves of 25-year-olds running for offices, county legislature, because we can’t just say politics is too gross for us. It’s actually essential.

So what’s the best thing the party can do to encourage young people to run?

Be real. Everybody has recognized that economic populism is important. But you’re not going to get a Bernie-supporting activist engaged in the party if you just say the words “economic populism.” You’ve got to be in the hearing and calling out JP Morgan, which is why people trust Elizabeth Warren. You’ve got to be in the Senate and calling out Big Pharma, which is why people trust Bernie Sanders. It’s not that they say the words, they actually do it. Otherwise you’ll leave a lot of young people at home.

It seems the Democrats have started to understand this.

I think so too. And I’m very excited by it. But lets see a full filibuster for [Supreme Court nominee Neil] Gorsuch. Democrats seem to think the phrase “you’ve got to pick your battles” means you shouldn’t vote against every single one of these corrupt billionaire cabinet nominees. That’s not what that means. That’s a vote. You should be delaying and voting against every one of these cabinet nominees. These are people who want to dismantle government. What “pick your battles” means is there’s one or two areas where you want to put an enormous amount of energy. That’s very different.

The explanation you hear is that they’re conserving some sort of political capital.

I challenge you: Walk down this street, knock on doors, and ask people, “Did your Senate vote depend on how they voted on cabinet appointees several years prior?” It is nonsensical that it is an electoral preservation of capital. Do people in this town want to know that I am willing to sit down with a Republican farmer and talk about milk pricing? Yes, they want to know if you’re willing to work with Republicans. That’s important. But I don’t get this voting for people who want to dismantle our government.

What’s your future? Are you running again?

I’m not planning to run for office in the short term. I joke that I have the same job I was applying for except without the staff or the authority. I’ve been meeting with a lot of local groups on how to hold John Faso accountable. I’m one of the lawyers representing CREW in the emoluments violation lawsuit. I’m working with Riverkeeper here in the Hudson Valley on protecting against oil barges. And I’m doing anything I can to stop this Betsy DeVos vote. That’s going to be a big battle protecting our public education.