Teachout gets high-powered partisan pressure in residency case

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout speaks to supporters

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout speaks to supporters outside Brooklyn Borough Hall on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Credit: AP / Peter Morgan)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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For this first-time election candidate, it was high-powered partisan pressure, New York-style.

A lawsuit aimed at crushing law professor Zephyr Rain Teachout's bid to wage even the most long shot of Democratic primary challenges against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave way to a guided tour of her adult life as Teachout testified for several hours Thursday in a Brooklyn courtroom.

She faced questioning from lawyers in the suit, who are trying to disqualify her from the ballot with the claim that she did not reside in the state, as required, for five years leading up to the November election. They elicited a sworn vetting of where she lived, her motor-vehicle history and tax filings.

Testimony even focused on reviews of a summer performance of hers at the Unadilla community theater in Vermont. On the stand, she also revealed a passion for hang gliding. Later, the 42-year-old Fordham Law School faculty member had to take a break as she wept remembering the death from cancer of a close friend with whom she'd lived in Manhattan, and whose emails came into play during testimony.

Whether her detractors will convince State Supreme Court Justice Edgar Walker that Teachout failed to meet the residency standard remains to be seen. Proceedings continue Friday with her mother, a Vermont judge, among those to be called. But Thursday, Teachout clearly was the newcomer to a scene dominated by in-state practitioners well-known in their trade.

Driving the case against her is Brooklyn attorney Martin Connor, the former State Senate Democratic minority leader and a veteran of many election wars, assisted by Albany-based lawyer Joshua Ehrlich, whose clients have long included the state Independence Party. Formally, they represent two voters from the city's northern suburbs who are petitioners in the case.

Defending Teachout is Lawrence Mandelker, whose previous election clients included former New York City mayors Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

Connor cited her tax forms from Fordham, where she began teaching in 2009, that showed her parents' rural Norwich, Vermont address. Teachout gave that address in reporting a contribution to President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, though Mandelker later cited other such reports listing a New York address.

She registered a car in Vermont, Connor noted, had a driver's license from there, and kept a cellphone with a Vermont area code. Only recently, while facing a candidacy, did she amend what she's called mistakes in her filings.

Mandelker produced proof of rent payments and had his client explain how she'd maintained a city residence while doing a part-time teaching gig at Harvard's Kennedy School, working on political projects in Washington or staying with family for part of the Vermont summer.

Teachout said she believed Cuomo is using subpoenas in the residency case as a "fishing expedition" against her. She said, "I'm here to tell the truth" and that, "in Andrew Cuomo's New York, there's not supposed to be a primary."

Cuomo's campaign declined to comment.

The governor's crew began trying to tag her a "carpetbagger" in May as she vied for the Working Families Party nomination at a volatile state convention. Since then, she's faced pro-Cuomo protesters carrying signs to that effect.

The legal question is whether she qualifies. The political question may be whether Camp Cuomo comes off as an agent of overkill.