Ithaca, N.Y. —“Let me be very clear,” former gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout said to a packed room at Buffalo Street Books on Sunday, “I think the house is on fire in terms of our democracy. I think we’re in terrible shape.”

Zephyr Teachout at Buffalo Street Books on Sunday. [Nathan Tailleur/Ithaca Voice]

Teachout, who is an Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University, recently lost to incumbent Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary for Governor. She was in Ithaca this past weekend to publicize her new book, Corruption in America. About 30 people attended the talk. (Update 10/20, 4:55 PM: Buffalo St. Books estimates that approximately 65-70 people were in attendance.)

Before beginning her talk Teachout expressed her gratitude towards the people of Ithaca, whom she called central to her campaign. Teachout, who won in half of the counties in New York, took about 70 percent of the vote in Tompkins County.

See related: Gov. Cuomo wins NY primary; challenger Teachout takes Tompkins County

“Ithaca, from the very beginning, was a backbone of not only my campaign, but of an all-volunteer campaign,” Teachout said.

During her talk and the Q&A session which followed, Teachout explained what she sees as the greatest threat to our democracy – corruption in politics. She went on to recommend specific courses of action for addressing this threat.

Teachout’s new book, published by Harvard University Press. [photo from]
Teachout’s new book, published by Harvard University Press. [photo from]

The problem: Supreme Court Says Gifts Don’t Corrupt

Teachout argued that in its 2010 “Citizens United” ruling, the Supreme Court adopted a radically narrow view of corruption according to which only a quid pro quo exchange of goods for services by public officials is deemed “corrupt” and legally impermissible.

In the view of the Court, a public official who accepts a gift (in the form of, for example, a campaign contribution) is not at risk of being corrupted by that gift if they have not entered into a formal agreement with the gift-giver. The Court argued that in the absence of any clear “corruption,” to limit campaign contributions would be to limit a corporation’s free speech, and thus their first amendment rights.

Teachout argued two points:

1. This view of corruption is psychologically incorrect – gifts can corrupt.
2. This view of corruption is narrower than the view taken by the founding fathers.

Teachout argues that this wider definition explains why Benjamin Franklin and other American diplomats had to go before Congress before they could accept gifts such as diamond-encrusted snuff-boxes from the kings of other countries.

The laws Teachout believes we need

Teachout said that what we should ultimately hope for are competitive elections. Unlimited corporate campaign contributions pose a problem for competitive elections because they stack the cards in favor of candidates with corporate backing.

She also said that this phenomenon also leads to less media coverage of poorly-funded candidates and their viewpoints. According to Teachout, media tends judge the “seriousness” of the candidate by the amount of money they have raised, and that this tends to doom candidates who may have have grassroots, but not corporate, support.

Following Citizens United (2010), Teachout said our best hope for restoring competition to the electoral process is by passing a public financing system for elections. She said that a public financing system is one important option which the Supreme Court has not shut the door on.

For Teachout, this is not just an issue of principle. Had there been a public financing system prior to her election, she believes she would have been far more competitive in her primary against Gov. Cuomo.

“Given the amount of money we raised – about $800,000 with 9000 donors – [with a public financing system] that would have been worth about 4 million dollars. I did no TV. With 4 million dollars we could have done TV. We could have done mailings. We could have reached the hardest markets.”

What Teachout wants the state to do

Teachout says that in order for public financing legislation to be passed, New York State needs to have a Democratic State Senate. Whether or not the State Senate will be Democratic depends on the outcome of 7-9 very close races to be decided in the general election next month.

“If you doubt how important these races are,” Teachout said, “consider that Dan Loeb, the Hedge Fund Manager from NYC, is spending 1 million to have republicans win these races.”

“This is a fight for the soul of New York,” Teachout said.