State attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout delivers her concession speech at the Working Families Party primary night party. (Jason DeCrow/AP/Shutterstock)
“I’m ready for a trifecta tonight,” Mindy Rosier, a public school teacher and member of the New York Progressive Action Network told Gothamist as she waited in line for the doors to open at Cafe Omar in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It was a cool Thursday night and by 8:45 a line of energized supporters had formed outside Cynthia Nixon, Zephyr Teachout, and Jumaane Williams’s election night party, which was hosted by the progressive Working Families Party. The packed crowd in the bar was diverse and skewed young, and once inside everyone immediately agreed it was too hot in there.
In the end, all three candidates lost on Thursday. But many supporters at the beginning of the night were especially optimistic about attorney general candidate Teachout, who had been endorsed by The New York Times and the New York Daily News, making her the focus of debate-night attacks from the three other candidates.
“The early indicator was the fear in the debate,” Rosier observed. “She held her own and I believe she will do that tonight.”
Teachout, who ran on a campaign of rooting out corruption and who was the only candidate in the attorney general race to refuse to take corporate or LLC money, ended up coming in second in the Democratic primary. NYC Public Advocate Letitia James, who became the first black woman to win a major party statewide nomination, won handily with a strong 40 percent of the vote over Teachout’s 31 percent. Sean Patrick Maloney came in third with 25 percent and Leecia Eve trailed with 3 percent.
At an ecstatic victory party at Milk River Restaurant in Brooklyn, James dedicated her victory to “every little girl who has been told they can’t change the world… tonight you stand up and face the television and say ‘That’s me!’”
10/ @TishJames victory speech says this is about standing up against Trump. Pledges to be independent, and says she wants to earn the respect of those who didn’t support her.
— Mara Silvers (@mara_silvers) September 14, 2018
Yet in the last month of the race it was Teachout, not James, who was often treated like the frontrunner by her opponents. “You call yourself an outsider, but are you really an outsider or an insider who has never won a race?” Eve asked pointedly of Teachout during a recent debate between the attorney general candidates.
Teachout first launched her political career in 2014 when she challenged Andrew Cuomo in the gubernatorial primary, garnering an impressive 34 percent of the vote—a clear signal that New York’s progressive base was restless with Cuomo’s politics. (Nixon, with more money and name-recognition, did not fare any better, ending the race at the same 34 percent.) In 2016, Teachout ran for a House seat in the Hudson Valley and ended up losing to Republican John Faso.
Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, candidate for Lt. Governor Jumaane Williams and state attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout greet the crowd together at the Working Families Party primary night party. (Jason DeCrow/AP/Shutterstock)
But what was clear at the election party Thursday night was that Teachout’s political attraction has never been just about winning races—it’s been about the greater insurgent movement that many believe she helped move forward when she first stepped up to challenge Cuomo four years earlier. In her concession speech, Nixon herself noted that “the progressive wave in New York didn’t start in 2018—it started in 2014 with Zephyr’s fearless campaign for governor.”
“It’s never about one candidate, it’s about a movement,” Nomiki Konst, New York advisor to Our Revolution, a progressive political action organization that emerged out of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, told Gothamist. “Zephyr set the stage for everybody. Cuomo controls the chessboard but Zephyr set the stage for the progressive movement in New York.”
After Thursday, it’s clear that Cuomo is still very much in control. But many of the supporters I spoke to pointed to Teachout’s crusade against money in politics as especially important for this moment in time.
“It seems ridiculous in this day and age to be taking corporate PAC money,” Seamus Kirst, 28, who grew up in Syracuse and now lives in Brooklyn, told Gothamist. “Her anti-corruption work is really important to me.”
Others, like Diane, a case worker from Crown Heights and Williams’s cousin, were there primarily for Williams but also ended up voting for Teachout. “She’s cool, I’ve got no problems with her.” Her thoughts about Cuomo? “Oh, I’ve got a LOT to say,” Diane laughs.
By the time it was clear that James had clinched the nomination, the bar had run out of Red Stripe. Many were still clinging on to hope that Williams, who was neck-and-neck with Hochul, would still pull through. Yet the night was not all bad news for those gathered there—each time the polls for one of the many challengers to the former Independent Democratic Conference [IDC] incumbents would flash on the television screens, the crowd would cheer. That local state senate seats were treated with the same emotional intensity as the bigger statewide races was a nod to the very movement that Teachout helped to incite, and a sign of the energized state of Trump-era progressives in general. Voter turnout in yesterday’s primary more than doubled the turnout four years ago.
Cynthia Nixon delivers her concession speech at the Working Families Party primary night party. (Jason DeCrow/AP/Shutterstock)
Nixon gave the first concession speech to a packed crowd. When she finished, people dispersed, but when Teachout was introduced some ten minutes later, almost as many gathered again to listen. When she stepped onto the stage she had to wait as the crowd broke into a chant of “Zephyr! Zephyr!”
“I won’t lie to you, I wish I’d won,” Teachout laughed as she stood behind the podium, eight months pregnant. When she mentioned having just gotten off the phone to congratulate James, there were still some cheers in the crowd at the mention of James’s name. As Teachout continued on, she hit upon all the issues—corruption, money in politics, inequality, mass incarceration, environmental reform—that were highlighted in her campaign. Teachout also called out the wins for challengers to IDC members, stating, “Those weren’t just victories around messaging, those were victories against New York City real estate trying to buy New York politics.”
“Four years and three months ago I announced that I was running for governor,” Teachout said. “So we’re just four years in. The revolution in New York state is just beginning.”
James will face Republican candidate Keith Wofford, an attorney originally from Buffalo, in the general election November 6th.
Letitia James delivers a victory speech after winning the primary election for attorney general, in New York. (Kevin Hagen/AP/Shutterstock)
Clio Chang is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.