‘I Want to Be a 21st-Century Trustbuster’: Zephyr Teachout on Her Run for A.G.

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When Zephyr Teachout first ran for attorney general in 2018, she launched her campaign just outside of Trump Tower, vowing to use the power of the office to litigate what she saw as conflicts of interest with Donald Trump and his business ventures. Now she is running for the office again, this time focusing on halting corruption in New York and holding those in Albany accountable.

The bid for attorney general was not Teachout’s first time on the campaign trail. She previously launched a primary challenge against Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2014 with Columbia Law professor Tim Wu as a running mate, ultimately receiving a third of the final vote. Two years later, she ran to represent the 19th District in Congress before entering the race for Eric Scheniderman’s seat as attorney general following his scandalous resignation. While she received the New York Times editorial board’s coveted endorsement, she eventually lost to Letitia James, who is making her position available with a run for governor.

Teachout is currently a professor at Fordham Law School, where she specializes in constitutional and antitrust law. Intelligencer spoke to Teachout following her announcement last week about the state assembly’s long-anticipated report on Andrew Cuomo, how she intends to be a 21st-century trustbuster, and how the role of attorney general can impact the lives of everyday New Yorkers.

So I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you for your thoughts on the assembly’s newly released report on Cuomo. I’m curious what you made of their findings.

It’s a very powerful report. It details abuse after abuse after abuse, and I would say the main takeaway is that Andrew Cuomo used the governor’s office as a tool for himself to look good on TV, to get rich, to harass his staff and then retaliate. I mean, his focus was himself, not New Yorkers. And I mean, by the way, it also has significant violations of the Public Officers Law. It echoes the portrait of Andrew Cuomo that I was talking about in 2014, which is somebody who sees having the governor’s mansion as a license to use the governor’s mansion for himself and not the people of New York. And that’s sort of the core of all of this.

You previously ran for attorney general in 2018. What lessons did you take from that particular bid, and what do you think is different about the political climate of 2022 in comparison to that?

New York politics is in the middle of a really big, big shift. You were asking about the Cuomo judiciary report, but we’re in the middle of a seismic shift in New York. And I am proud that I was ahead of the curve in 2014 on Cuomo and on fracking.

What I see in New York is that there is a deep excitement and eagerness for people who have shown that they will stand up to power when it’s hard and identify problems even before they start. I am really proud to launch the campaign with support from across the state because people know they can trust me. I started my career as a defense attorney for the indigent and have cared deeply about criminal justice reform, and I’m also very proud to launch my campaign with the support of Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general who prosecuted Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s killer. I got to know Keith through the antitrust work that he was doing when he was a member of Congress. In fact, he founded what was then the antitrust caucus, and I really admire him as an attorney general.

Why should the average New Yorker care about who the attorney general is? 

If you see landlords repeatedly violating the law, it’s the attorney general who’s going to go after those landlords and make sure that people’s apartments are safe to live in. If you see big polluters repeatedly poisoning our children, it is the attorney general’s office that can investigate, sue, and not only stop the pollution but make sure that the settlements go back to the communities that are hurt. When you see Big Pharma companies lying about the addictive nature of their drugs and basically making a profit off of lying, it’s the attorney general’s office that can bring those suits. So there’s no office that has a more direct, concrete relationship to people’s lives, whether you’re talking about health or housing or wage theft, the rampant wage theft, or about discrimination on the basis of disability and employment, something that happens regularly.

One of the biggest parts of your platform as you’re running for attorney general is fighting corruption in New York, particularly in Albany. How would you assess how those in power before you have addressed corruption, and how you would be different from them?  

I mean, I wrote the book on corruption. [Laughs.] It’s so important, not just because we’re talking about legal violations and significant betrayals, but it’s important because having a government that people may not always agree with but can trust the integrity of is absolutely essential for having a self-governing democracy. And there are people right now who are trying to tear down our democracy at its root. And it makes it all the more important to insist on integrity and government and to allow for that kind of trust that leads to engagement. People aren’t going to come together and engage as community organizers if they feel government can’t be responsive to their needs and is only responsive to big donors and politicians. So I see fighting corruption as essential in the bigger fight we’re having right now for the future of democracy.

I have consistently called out corruption even when it’s hard, and that’s the challenge. After the fact, when all the details come out, anybody can pile on. But the times when it matters are if you raise questions and burrow into the corners of government contracts and stay vigilant to protect against it ever overtaking the state. I have called for a standing referral on issues of public corruption to the AG’s office because I think it’s quite clear that Albany can’t police itself. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics should be both investigated and torn down. In the meantime, we need a place to go, and the AG’s office is the most natural counterbalance. Now, there’s a reason that we have empowered the AG’s office to, for instance, investigate and prosecute police officers who kill civilians: They are distant from the network of power of the local police and local politicians that might dissuade others from investigating.

Past attorneys general have used the role to take swings at big defendants like the NRA and Exxon Mobil. You’ve been very open about your position about monopolies and the enforcement of antitrust law. What would be your first steps in this area, and who do you think are the biggest offenders in New York? 

We have a disease of concentration of power right now, and it is taking over so many different areas of people’s lives, both as workers and as consumers. You see radical concentrations of power in tech, and I don’t mean just Facebook but also Google and Apple. In agriculture, you see pretty extreme concentrations, and in Big Pharma. By the way though, we are in a sea-change moment in anti-monopoly thinking. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, basically, we tore down our antitrust protections and have lived without them effectively for 40 years, and we are in the process of building them back up, and I want to be a 21st-century trustbuster.

I want to give, you know, Tish James’s office a lot of credit on this. Its antitrust division has been fantastic. But there’s still so much more we can do to build on that. People know James’s office for the work on the nursing-home reports, and they may be aware of the big fight against Amazon, protecting warehouse workers. I think her antitrust team is top-notch. For me, obviously, it’s a big area of focus. My most recent book is called Break ’Em Up, and that involves pushing for new legislation including the 21st Century Antitrust Act, which I have been involved with for over a year now.

You have such a concentration of power in labor markets that we have just a handful of employers. They can wink and nod and suppress wages. Very persuasive evidence that this disease of concentration of power has significantly suppressed wages over the years. So I think a huge area to push on is what we would call labor monopsony cases. Another big area is that in all aspects of health care, you see concentrations of power, whether it’s medical devices or Big Pharma. You see an ongoing merger wave that’s both horizontal and vertical and must be stopped. I would make trustbusting central to my tenure, and that involves a huge range of industries — protecting New Yorkers from the abuse of their employers as well as their rights as consumers.

For many people, reproductive rights weren’t necessarily at the forefront of their minds at this moment because of the belief that Roe v. Wade was settled law. But now that we’ve seen what happened in Texas, it appears the mood has shifted a little bit, and there’s more concern over the potential of a slippery slope involving other rights that would also seem to be settled law. How do you intend to use the office of the attorney general to address these concerns?

My first rally ever was a reproductive-rights rally in 1989, in Washington, D.C. My older sister invited me; she was at college. I took a Greyhound bus. It was ten hours, and I remember getting out of the bus and seeing this extraordinary sea of women, and I think of those women and the shoulders that we stand on all the time in this really terrifying fight for women’s equality and women’s rights over their own bodies.

I think we have, and I have said so for seven years or more publicly, that we have a significant problem with the Supreme Court. Since 2008, we have a Supreme Court that, in Heller, quote-unquote discovered ahistorical rights that struck down critical local gun-safety laws. In 2010, the Supreme Court overturned 100 years of precedent and struck down laws against corporate money in politics. A few years later, the same Supreme Court then struck down the Voting Rights Act, and now we have a Supreme Court that has shown deep suspicion of women’s equality and women’s rights and looks to be possibly striking down New York’s concealed-carry laws.

There is nothing sacred about nine on the court, and we should talk about expanding the court so that we can protect our democracy and protect our rights. Both the filibuster and the size of the court, neither of them is in the constitution. So I think it’s really important to talk about big structural changes to allow for basics: equality under the law and the freedom of states to pass anti-corruption laws and gun-safety laws.

In a lot of ways, it feels like the role of the attorney general has received new prominence following the Trump administration. You saw state AGs filing suits against Trump’s companies or over subpoenas related to the 2020-election process. Do you think we’re entering an era where people are reconsidering the attorney-general position and what it’s able to do? 

Yes, exclamation point! [Laughs.] I mean, the attorney general in New York State is one of the largest public-interest law firms in the country, with extraordinary power to stand up for the poor and working-class, immigrants, and disabled New Yorkers, to step up when the federal government fails. And during the Trump years, there was a clear need for AGs to be on the front lines because of the lawlessness of the administration.

But I gotta tell you, it’s not the first time. The New York AG’s office actually expanded and became a leader in environmental protection when Reagan took over — because of Reagan’s deregulatory commitments, the New York AG stepped in. I do think there’s a sort of a new awareness of the power and flexibility of the AG’s office. You see the federal government not able to address the scope of the climate crisis, but the attorney general’s office can actually lead the country in bringing big creative lawsuits that address both climate change itself and also the local climate disasters that are affecting children’s health. So I see attorneys general, and the New York attorney general in particular, as playing a central, vital — and I use the word vital seriously, like vital in the sense of alive and creative and energetic — role in identifying injustices and stepping in to stop them in their tracks. To make it too costly for big corporate lawbreakers to keep abusing people, the AG needs to be agile and respond to the needs of the moment on behalf of the public. There’s a reason we call it “the people’s lawyer.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

‘A 21st-Century Trustbuster’: Zephyr Teachout on A.G. Run