A few days ago when the subject of the Democratic primary for governor surfaced in newsroom chatter, a colleague expressed surprise that the all-powerful Andrew Cuomo faced opposition at all this year, let alone from within his own party.
“Who’s running against Cuomo in the primary?” the colleague asked.
“Zephyr Teachout,” came the reply.
“Who’s he?” the colleague then asked.
And therein lies the problem for Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor who is actually a “she.” And “she,” along with running mate Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, have been working overtime in recent days to prevent Democrats from asking any more such questions.
Primaries are strange and often unpredictable affairs. Just ask Rick Lazio, the Republican who faced Buffalo’s Carl Paladino in the last gubernatorial primary. Despite party backing, Lazio got creamed in the 2010 GOP primary (we’ll mention one more time that Paladino won Erie County 94 to 6 percent because the tally remains so amazing).
And just as Paladino won the Republican primary by attracting the party’s most conservative voters, Teachout and Wu are hoping to draw the Democrats’ most liberal members.
They have a few things going for them. Teachout emphasizes Cuomo’s controversial handling of his Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption at every opportunity, since she has made public integrity the linchpin of her campaign.
“My deepest concerns about Andrew Cuomo’s administration relate to systemic corruption,” she said a few days ago in Buffalo, pointing to what she called his acceptance of gerrymandering, his role in the aborted Moreland Commission, and his failure to obtain a comprehensive system of public financing for elections.
“The Moreland scandal is a big deal,” she said. “It’s really shocking that Andrew Cuomo has not come forward and explained his role. It’s a question of public morality – serving the public vs. private interests.”
With strong backing from teachers and public employee unions, anti-frackers and other Democrats leaning to the left, Teachout doesn’t discount victory Sept. 9 should enough “high-information Democrats” go to the polls – ambitious in the face of Cuomo’s powerful machine.
Wu is rocking the boat too, calling for an independent role and new bully pulpit for the lieutenant governor. He does not criticize party nominee Kathy Hochul of Buffalo, but offers a decidedly more liberal outlook tailor-made for the vast New York City crowd that will vote in the primary.
“I believe power has become too concentrated in the governor’s office and that Albany does not work well,” he said. “I want to act as a check and independent voice in Albany politics.”
As the Politics Column pointed out several weeks ago, Wu is especially emerging as a concern in Cuomo Land. A left-leaning Democratic electorate is more apt to vote Sept. 9 than more conservative upstate. And his endorsement last week by the New York Times reflects the “New Yorker cartoon” view of the world that dismisses anything upstate – as past players like Paladino and former Attorney General Dennis Vacco experienced on the statewide stage.
That’s the reality of New York State politics. The Big Town calls the shots – as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Unlike Hochul, Cuomo himself has no name recognition problem in New York City, nor upstate either. But his once-invincible suit of armor is nicked by Moreland Commission criticism, and the glorious re-coronation slated for Jan. 1 is now surrounded by question marks.
The governor will rightly point to a slew of accomplishments while on the campaign trail, especially in Western New York and his beloved construction cranes. But the uncertainties of New York politics will be measured on Primary Night, where his ultimate strength and the course of his anticipated second term will be determined.
Healthy numbers for Teachout could dent that armor even more. And most certainly, he would have a hard time explaining to the world his new best friend – Lt. Gov. Wu.