ALBANY – If Zephyr Teachout constructed the foundation, Bernie Sanders hopes to finish the rest of the house.
The presidential candidate from Vermont has been traveling around New York, hoping to tap into support from an increasingly left-leaning core of state Democrats.
Those he is looking to for help are the same ones who showed up as sort of political canaries in Teachout’s underfinanced and quixotic primary run against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2014.
The groups and supporters who backed Teachout two years ago have flocked, and then some, to Sanders in his New York primary run against Hillary Clinton, according to the Sanders camp.
Several members of Teachout’s campaign team, both paid and volunteer, have joined the Sanders campaign.
“All of them,” one Teachout confidante said when asked who from her campaign is working to help Sanders’ New York efforts.
Among those Teachout-to-Sanders workers are her former campaign manager and a Brooklyn consulting firm that worked to get her, and more recently Sanders, onto the New York ballot.
There are differences between Sanders’ New York presidential primary run and Teachout’s 2014 gubernatorial bid, not the least of which is the high turnout expected in the April 19 primary, the money and, of course, the stakes.
Teachout lost against Cuomo, but she captured 34 percent of the vote – a margin that surprised even the most loyal of the governor’s supporters. Teachout ran against Albany and its corruption problems, highlighted education funding problems and railed against the influence by corporations on policymaking at the Capitol.
It also should be noted that Western New York Democrats rejected Teachout in the 2014 primary and sided with Hillary Clinton in her 2000 and 2006 races for the U.S. Senate.
Still, her performance, despite little money and no name recognition against a strong incumbent who sat on a mountain of campaign cash and party organization, is giving a dose of confidence to some Sanders supporters that he can take on Clinton and the deep bench of party leaders she has helping her campaign.
“I think you’ll see him do well in a lot of the same areas as Zephyr but he’s already doing better in a lot of other places,” said Bill Lipton, New York director of the small but influential Working Families Party, which endorsed Cuomo in 2014 after a bitter internal fight but has its political operations in full swing backing Sanders in New York.
The New York stakes are well-known: a decisive win by Clinton would seriously squeeze Sanders’ delegate race, while a loss for Clinton, a Westchester County resident who won two U.S. Senate elections in the Empire State, would give Sanders a bright green light to continue his bid against her.
Teachout, a Vermont native turned New Yorker, declined to comment about Sanders, a Brooklyn native who moved to Vermont after graduating from college in 1964. But Teachout has endorsed Sanders.
The Sanders campaign months ago examined her New York gubernatorial primary campaign from 2014 as part of putting together a political dossier on the state’s Democratic DNA that takes different shapes in urban, rural and suburban areas.
“We do see some important takeaways from the Zephyr race,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a Sanders campaign spokesman.
In upstate, people associated with the Sanders campaign say the Vermont senator will seek to rally support that have been his themes in other states – and were also part of the 2014 gubernatorial primary – including his opposition to fracking and raising the federal minimum wage.
“There’s no question that her message about political corruption and concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent is echoing with the same people out there supporting Bernie,” said Lipton, director of the Working Families Party.
In his appearance Monday night at the University at Buffalo, Sanders is expected to highlight his opposition to trade deals that he believes cost manufacturing jobs in communities across upstate, according to campaign aides.
“The trade issue resonated deeply in Michigan,” one Sanders operative said of the Vermont senator’s upset of Clinton last month. “Western New York has a lot in common with parts of Michigan.”
The environment is another page that Sanders is taking from the Teachout campaign, including her solid performance in counties where fracking was a major issue.
Teachout scored especially well with environmentalists in the Hudson Valley and parts of the Southern Tier with her anti-fracking positions and criticism of Cuomo for not being clear at the time where he stood on the issue. The Cuomo administration banned the drilling practice a month after the general election that year.
“Obviously, that issue has been an important point of differences between Sen. Sanders and Secretary Clinton at the national level. We expect that to galvanize and motivate voters, especially upstate,” said Ganapathy, the spokesman for the Sanders campaign .
The unions factor
In the 2014 gubernatorial primary, New York State United Teachers, one of the state’s most politically potent unions, sat on the sidelines instead of helping the incumbent governor over Teachout.
Others, including the AFL-CIO and the Civil Service Employees Association, joined NYSUT on the sidelines, while the Public Employees Federation, the big white-collar state workers union, supported Teachout.
In the New York presidential primary, the teachers union is all in for Clinton, even dispatching volunteers in February to the New Hampshire primary.
“The public employee unions for Teachout are with Hillary,” said one Democratic Party operative who has been working with the Clinton campaign. “Those unions in 2014 were just pure anti-Cuomo people. There were people who wanted to embarrass the governor who don’t want to embarrass Hillary.”
Sanders has won union backing in New York, including the Communications Workers of America and the New York State Nurses Association, though not at the level of labor support on Clinton’s side.
The Working Families Party’s Lipton, a former tenant organizer who helped build the party’s ability to help or hurt candidates, said he has not been a part of a campaign as he’s seeing with Sanders.
“This feels like a movement. People are driving this campaign in New York State. They’re showing up and asking to do stuff in a way that is a rarity for political campaigns,” he said of thousands of supporters who will turn out for a Sanders rally on little notice and through email and social media contacts and then take the party’s literature to run door-to-door canvassing operations.
“It’s a dream come true from a campaign perspective to have motivated volunteers,” he added.