A vocabulary fight turned constitutional crisis
July 30, 2016 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Law professor Zephyr Teachout first rose to prominence as the director of internet organizing for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. She's published the acclaimed political history book Corruption in America. In 2014 she primaried Andrew Cuomo from the left, winning half of NY's counties despite Cuomo refusing to even mention her name. And now? She's running for Congress.

The New York TImes covered the Dean campaign and Teachout's role within it in twice in December 2003 (link one, link two):
The effect that Teachout says she hopes the software will create sounds like the experience of being in a tight-knit community: seeing people you know, responding to them, being acknowledged. Teachout speaks about these ideas as if she is reinventing the concept. She says that Meetup.com, is emerging as the ''ritual'' element of the new Dean community. ''It's like church, the central place where people go to get inspired.''
She continued to operate in the intersection of politics and technology as the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization whose "vision is to use technology to enable more complete, equitable and effective democratic participation. Our overarching goal is to achieve changes in the law to require real-time, online transparency for all government information, with a special focus on the political money flow and who tries to influence government and how government responds." (Sunlight Foundation previously.)

Her book on the political and judicial history of corruption, Corruption in America, received strong reviews. She conveys her central thesis in a Washington Post article:
In a recent case Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Any campaign finance regulation must instead target what we have called ‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money.”

While quid pro quo is, in fact, a Latin phrase, that’s the extent of the rightness of his argument. The phrase comes from contract law, and traditionally was used to describe a relatively equal exchange between parties to a contract. It is not historically a phrase from corruption law. “Quid pro quo” appeared less than 100 times in all state and federal bribery and extortion cases before 1976. That year, Buckley v. Valeo struck down limits on campaign spending while upholding limits on campaign contributions. There, the Court used the phrase quid pro quo in passing. But the Roberts Court has clung to it, using it to narrow the definition of corruption and thus broaden the limits of what our representatives can do. This new standard is inappropriately limited and reveals an unrealistic view of the corruption in our politics.


We know the Founders weren’t just talking about direct exchanges of money for official action, because as Professor Larry Lessig has shown, only five of the 325 mentions of “corruption” in the debates around the ratification of our Constitution referred to what would now be considered criminal bribery. The rest referred to instances where those in public power used that power for private, selfish ends. The fact that the narrow quid pro quo definition has replaced the traditional idea of corruption is not just bad history; it’s a dangerous misunderstanding.

The stakes are high. The quid pro quo understanding is vastly naïve, and Robert’s distortion of a critical term in our history has made a vocabulary fight into a constitutional crisis. It overturns laws that were designed to address truly dangerous big money forces.
In a Daily Show interview, Teachout explains her approach to politics:
"One of the arguments of the book, and something I believe very strongly, is that people have these competing tendencies within themselves: a tendency towards protection and a tendency to, you know, a kind of love and care for a broader public. And it's our job to build systems to encourage that other kind of care."
Teachout is currently the democratic nominee in the hotly contested race for NY's 19th congressional district, previously held by retiring republican Chris Gibson.
posted by galaxy rise (9 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Hey New Yorkers worried thier vote won't matter much in the presidential election in a state that has gone blue since 1948? Here's your chance.
posted by The Whelk at 8:07 AM on July 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yea, Teachout is great. Much to be learned here
posted by Strange_Robinson at 8:16 AM on July 30, 2016

Democrats in this district were really stupid to nominate yet another out-of-towner for this seat. All of Chris Hughes' Facebook money couldn't get Sean Eldridge within a mile of winning last time, and in upstate New York, Brooklyn isn't much more popular than Washington DC as the real hometown for its officeholders.

Teachout's 2014 primary result had basically zero to do with her. Cuomo managed to piss off both moderate and left-wing Democrats and any credible candidate was going to get a hefty protest vote.
posted by MattD at 8:23 AM on July 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was very proud to vote for Teachout in the 2014 primary. I think she's fantastic.
posted by Automocar at 10:19 AM on July 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Democrats in this district were really stupid to nominate yet another out-of-towner

Eldridge was a weak candidate up against an extremely popular incumbent (Chris Gibson, who will likely run for Senate or Governor next cycle) This time around the seat is open and the R is John Faso, who also didn't grow up in the district. Obama won the district by 8 points in 2008 and 6 in 2012.
posted by gwint at 10:59 AM on July 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I followed that primary pretty closely because my parents live in the district. I'm a big fan of Teachout, but I wish she had run in literally any other district in the state. Will Yandik was a much, much better choice for this race; the Rs are gonna paint Teachout as a carpetbagger in the extreme (and honestly, they won't be wrong). It's gonna be ugly.
posted by Itaxpica at 12:01 PM on July 30, 2016

I like teachout and as a moderate Democrat I think she's exactly the kind of thoughtful progressive that needs a place in Congress. Even if I disagree with her on some things.

That said she lost the gubernatorial primary 63-33 to a candidate who is basically a DINO who is a notorious asshole and clown.

Same thing with the "won half the counties". Democrats win in NYS by winning the very small number of counties that make up the majority of the states population. Cuomo won the general election comfortably winning the City and it's Burbs, Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse. But he lost like 80% of the total counties. She won a lot of those counties because Democrats just don't bother to campaign there as they just don't matter.

So let's not overstate the case here.

The district she's running will not be easy.
posted by JPD at 4:25 PM on July 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Zephyr stayed at my house once! It was during Dean's run when spouse & I were volunteer hosts for out of state campaigners. She was super nice & didn't seem to mind that the house was a mess since it was basically under construction at the time. So glad that she is active in politics.
posted by lurkElongtime at 11:56 AM on August 1, 2016

Zephyr Teachout Challenges Billionaire Right-Wing Donors to Debate
"The voters deserve to hear directly from the billionaires backing John Faso about what they expect to get from him in Congress," Teachout said. "When someone writes a $500,000 check they don't do it out of the goodness of their heart. These are people probably trying to buy power, and voters should know who they are and what they stand for."

"I'm challenging Paul Singer and Robert Mercer to put your mouth where your money is and debate me directly, not through your mouthpiece," Teachout said.
OK, I'm sold. Zephyr Teachout is awesome.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:07 AM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

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