It’s nearly a hundred degrees on the Lower East Side, a week or two before the election for New York State attorney general, and everyone is just barely keeping it together. Trash stench, siren wail, climate change. It’s not exactly soup weather, but Zephyr Teachout, who very well may be the next chief enforcement officer for the state, wants matzo ball soup and Zephyr Teachout is not a person to be trifled with. Soup it is.
Thankfully, if there is matzo ball soup to be had, the Lower East Side is the place to have it. Russ & Daughters Café, an offshoot of the century-old "appetizing" on Houston, is a few blocks away and, though eight months pregnant, Teachout gamely schleps to Orchard Street.
Zephyr Rain Teachout, 46, is running on the far left-hand side in the four-way race to become New York’s next attorney general. As one might expect from her name, she is refreshing. But unlike a zephyr, she is not even a little bit gentle. For the past 20 years, Teachout has been leading an anti-corruption crusade against New York politicians, a modern-day Savonarola of the Empire State. She ran a remarkably close campaign against Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2014 and a closer-than-it-should-have-been congressional race in 2016. A professor at Fordham University, she has been preaching against the status quo with the zest of a thousand lemons and the zeal of a thousand suns. “Politicians don’t like me,” she says with a wide if a little lupine smile, “but it’s not my job to be popular with them. My boss is the People of New York.”
Teachout has a flair for the succinct soundbite and an aptitude for sniffing out an opportunity to showcase corruption. Lucky for her, there’s been no shortage of crookedness. Earlier that morning, she had held a press conference in front of 172 Rivington, one of the buildings formerly owned by Michael Cohen. It was a carefully planned photo opp, with eight members of New York Communities for Change holding signs and chanting her name. Like everything surrounding that black hole teddy bear, the building had been ensnared by scandal. Before he flipped the building in 2014,, Cohen and his partner had falsely claimed there were no rent-stabilized tenants in the 21-unit building—there were—and frequently Operation Nifty Package-d them with constant construction and shoddy repairs. It’s a page from the same playbook used by Kushner Companies but, according to Teachout, it’s endemic.”This is something that happens every day in the city,” said Teachout. “Big developers harassing tenants, pushing them out illegally. There is a poison in New York state politics which is New York Real Estate money.” Chants of Zephyr rise over the sighs of a trash truck.
After her supporters had dispersed, Teachout made her way past old tenements and new condos on her way to Russ and Daughters. Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe are but a week away and already the juggernaut of lox-and-schmaltz is operating at full-blast. One of the lesser blessings of the gradual extinction of appetizings—that is, a delicatessen dedicated to fish and dairy instead of meat, in order not to run afoul of kashrut dietary laws—is that those that remain like Russ & Daughters flourish. Today the Lower East Side hangs holds onto its past with one hand. There’s exactly one old school delicatessen (Katz’s); one appetizing (Russ & Daughters); one knishery (Yonah Schimmel’s) and one bialy provisioner (Kossar’s Bakery). E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. Like every other human being with a heart that beats, this bums Zephyr Teachout out. “There's a view, which I do not accept, which is that this is just the way of the future,” she says. “There's not going to be any more small businesses. There's not going to be any more mom and pop. That's just not true. These are the result of policy changes.” She stabs a lattke with brio.
Teachout lives in the Hudson Valley now, with her husband Nick Juliusburger, and a step-daughter. But when she was younger, she used to live in Manhattan, in a tiny apartment above the (now defunct) Mars Bar on Second Avenue with a bathtub in the kitchen.. “God, I loved it,” she says, “That street had the best borscht!” She remembers waiting in Union Square at midnight for new copies of the (now silenced) The Village Voice to arrive, its body intumescent with classified ads. But people like her—not just Yale- educated lawyers from Vermont but all sorts of people —can’t afford the city anymore and this she lays squarely at the feet of developers and their Albany lackeys. “Everybody is priced out,” says Teachout.
“It’s a toxic blend of bad policies driven by big donors and illegal activity,” she says. As Attorney General, Teachout can act alone, without the imprimatur of her once-and-future nemesis Andrew Cuomo or the go-ahead from other paid-for politicians. “This is why you need progressives in law enforcement,” she says.
As the only candidate for attorney General not accepting corporate donations, Teachout claims she’ll be free from the insidious influence of Big Real Estate, which often cloaks its contributions behind opaque LLC’s but just as often loudly and proudly gives. (One of Teachout’s opponent, Sean Patrick Maloney, for instance, has taken $150,000 from eight LLC’s tied to the Durst Organization and an additional $158,000 from organizations and individuals connected to the industry.) It’s always been this way, says Teachout. “We've had Attorney Generals who take in flurries of real estate money and money buys silence. Money buys non-enforcement.” And it’s true. When the forensic analysis is completed on the death of democracy, real estate money will be a thick plaque in the veins of the body politic. That the industry so intertwined with the current administration, and the shadowy apparatus of jamokes around it proves the scummy cruddiness of both. In New York state, the real estate industry is like the Forrest Gump of malfeasance, appearing at the trials of disgraced—and soon-to-be disgraced—men from Dean Skelos to Shelly Silver to Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump.
“As AG,” says Teachout, “your job is to do everything to ensure that you have no dependencies. That you have real moral clarity. And that you go after and investigate based on who's breaking the law. And your top priority should be the most powerful, because they're the least likely to be held accountable.” If she’s elected, Teachout says she’ll avail herself of obscure laws like the Martin Act and the Donnelly Act to root out fraud and trusts, respectively. She says she’ll send teams of investigators into the city, to advise tenants of their rights and even go after Andrew Cuomo for disbanding his own corruption commission, the Moreland Commission. “Andrew Cuomo didn't actually ever formally take away the AG’s powers in the Moreland Commission,” she says, as the matzo ball soup arrives, “And I'm ready to use them the day I take office.”
There’s something fitting about the matzo ball soup as it glisters in front of Teachout. The broth is crystalline and gold. The ball, a large fuzzy sun of matzo meal folded in with seltzer to make it light, sits in the center. There is clarity here, between what is right and what is wrong. Nothing is cloudy; nothing is confusing. It’s a hundred degrees in New York City and still this soup is refreshing as a breeze.