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For Teachout, the Thrill of Defeat


Ginia Bellafante

Zephyr Teachout, who challenged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in the Democratic primary, had surprising results.
Credit Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Early in the summer, after Zephyr Teachout announced what appeared to be a quixotic bid to challenge Andrew M. Cuomo in the Democratic primary for governor, I met her for breakfast with a childhood friend of hers and a wealthy ideological soul mate she had known for some time through leftist circles in Brooklyn. The candidate was looking for someone to hold a fund-raiser for her, and not having much luck.

Her goal of obtaining 30 percent of the primary vote seemed beyond ambitious, and perhaps loopy. But Ms. Teachout was clearly prescient about the political dissatisfactions many New Yorkers held; on Tuesday she exceeded her target, gaining close to 35 percent.

More telling than that figure, though, is the geographic configuration of her success. With the support of a large public employees union and those who seemed to share her dim view of hydrofracking, Ms. Teachout, a progressive who doesn’t like big money or big tests, won nearly every county in the state’s eastern half north of Westchester, despite the perceptions of the region’s relative conservatism.

And while she lost New York City in the aggregate, she won over areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn that tend to be upper-middle class, defeating the governor in brownstone neighborhoods and the Upper West Side and beating him more than two-to-one in the 66th assembly district, which extends its reach over TriBeCa and Greenwich Village, west to the Hudson River.

In the city, Ms. Teachout seemed to do much better among the affluent than with the poor generally, an outcome giving greater credence to the idea that progressive politics finds most of its excitement outside the world of the disenfranchised communities it seeks so actively to help. Ms. Teachout also did twice as well on Staten Island as she did in the Bronx, where she gained less than 15 percent of the vote.

Ms. Teachout, a legal scholar who campaigned in prim suits and pearls, belying her ferocious energy, proved inspiring enough to cause Governor Cuomo embarrassment. In the days since the primary much has been said about Ms. Teachout’s impact on his political future. But what does her appearance on the scene mean for Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose progressive authenticity her candidacy implicitly seemed to call into question?

She did well precisely in those areas of the city that propelled Mr. de Blasio to national celebrity, and where, if you listen closely, you now hear murmurs of frustration — with his stance on law enforcement, or what is seen as his capitulation to real-estate developers. Ms. Teachout’s campaigning against Wall Street invidiousness and “broken windows” policing seemed to cast in high relief the distance between candidate de Blasio, the impassioned enemy of stop-and-frisk policing and gross inequality, and Mayor de Blasio, the pragmatist and conciliator.

The mayor supported neither Ms. Teachout nor her running mate, the Columbia law school professor Tim Wu, but decided not to remain neutral. Practically speaking, he really couldn’t have.

“If there were a primary between Cuomo and Eric Schneiderman,” Mark Green, the city’s liberal former public advocate, said, referring to the state’s attorney general, “a sitting mayor would say, ‘I want to work with whomever wins,’ because it would be a competitive race. But when the candidate is 99 to 1, and the incumbent, and your former boss at H.U.D., there is no option,” said Mr. Green, who endorsed Ms. Teachout and Mr. Wu in the primary.

That said, the mayor might have considered the repercussions of calling Kathy Hochul, who ultimately won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, a “true progressive,” given her anti-immigration positions and her welcoming attitudes toward guns. The politically conversant voter understands the game; the idealists, who flocked to Mr. de Blasio to begin with, might see only betrayal.

In an automated call the mayor made on behalf of the governor and his running mate, Mr. de Blasio said that Ms. Hochul would “fight for a higher minimum wage, universal prekindergarten and common-sense background checks for guns.”

If black voters and union members continue to be happy with Mr. de Blasio, it may make little difference to his political future whether the prosciutto demographic in the finer quarters of Brooklyn and Manhattan clings to him or not.

According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted at the end of last month, the mayor’s approval rating among blacks is 65 percent, 15 points higher than his approval rating over all. At the same time, the poll indicated that his approval among whites has slipped, dropping to 36 percent from 41 percent since June. Some of these voters may decide they would like to shop for mayoral candidates outside of city hall and beyond old-school politics altogether.

Law school libraries, they might conclude, could be a good place to start.