ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has a big lead in the polls, $30 million more in campaign funds than his opponents, and a record of legislative victories to run on. But he still can't shake Zephyr Teachout, who has petitioned her way into Tuesday's Democratic primary.
Cuomo says he saved New York from government dysfunction, corruption, soaring taxes and a sinking economy while securing long-sought liberal objectives. Teachout says Cuomo broke his promise to "clean up Albany" by providing Wall Street, corporations and his wealthy campaign donors with tax breaks at the expense of public schools.
"We are running to lay out a bold vision and provide a real choice for voters," said Teachout, who is trying to energize the liberal wing of the party. "New York can have an economy that works for all of us -- not one which works only for the wealthy and well-connected."
Teachout has made Cuomo's record on fighting corruption a cornerstone of her campaign. In 2010, Cuomo made "Cleaning Up Albany" a top promise, but he has come under fire over news reports that have accused his top aides of interfering with the Moreland Commission on public corruption. Cuomo has denied interfering, saying he merely provided the now-disbanded commission with necessary advice. Teachout is a Fordham law professor whose specialty is researching public corruption.
Cuomo emphasizes that he has turned New York around economically and made the state the nation's progressive capital. "New York state government was literally a joke at that time on late-night TV," Cuomo recalled during his 2014 State of the State speech. Now "the proof is in the pudding and all arrows are pointing up."
Although Cuomo has refused to debate Teachout, he has promoted his record at press events around the state.
He has a list of progressive victories including legalization of gay marriage and a tougher gun control law, which could play well in a Democratic primary. He whittled down a $10 billion deficit, capped state spending increases and local property tax growth to 2 percent a year, passed four budgets on time after decades of late budgets, led New York through hurricanes and revamped the Long Island Power Authority by contracting with a private utility.
'I'm proud of my record'
"I have a record," Cuomo said last week. "I'm proud of my record. I'm proud of what I accomplished, and that's what I'm communicating and that's what I'm going to run on."
Cuomo was riding high in August polls for favorability. The polls also showed that few voters knew about Teachout. Cuomo's strategy has been to refuse to even acknowledge Teachout or the primary, instead relying on a barrage of endorsements by elected Democrats, led by robocalls featuring former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Teachout, who lost the liberal Working Families Party endorsement to Cuomo in May, has gained the endorsement of the Public Employees Federation, the state's second-largest public employees union, and the state chapter of the National Organization for Women. In part, she also triggered decisions not to make any primary endorsement by the state's largest public union, the Civil Service Employees Association, along with the biggest teachers union, New York State United Teachers. She also beat the Cuomo campaign in court twice as it tried to knock her off the ballot by challenging her residency.
"You have a challenge to a sitting Democratic governor who looked invulnerable, who still looks virtually so, but not as much as before," said political scientist Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College in Manhattan. "The Teachout campaign has been successful in that it has acted as a catalyst for opposition to Cuomo."
Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, would end Cuomo's local property tax cap and increase school aid to compensate, as well as ban hydrofracking for natural gas upstate. They also would reduce tax breaks for banks and other corporations and change the tax code to ease the burden on the working poor and middle class.
'A spirited opponent'
As for Cuomo's LIPA measure, Teachout said it was unconstitutional because it puts much of the public utility's operation in private-sector hands, even though LIPA retains ownership of the system.
Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union, a good-government group, last week called Teachout a "spirited opponent whose campaign is attracting greater interest and attention."
Muzzio said the primary race to watch is the little-noticed run for lieutenant governor between Wu and Cuomo's new running mate, former Rep. Kathy Hochul of Buffalo. She comes from an important battleground for Cuomo -- western New York -- which Cuomo lost four years ago.
Wu, whose research includes Internet freedom issues such as "Net neutrality," a phrase for which he is credited, has sought to paint Hochul as conservative, based on her voting record in Congress while representing a conservative Buffalo-area district. He has said she is soft on gun control and environmental protection through regulations on business.
Hochul has denied being conservative and said Wu has distorted a small part of her voting record. She has been endorsed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Emily's List, an organization that funds Democratic women who support abortion rights.
"We are united in our commitment to fight for a progressive agenda in Albany and for New York State," Hochul said last week, including pushing for the Dream Act, which primarily would provide college financial aid to students brought to this country as children and now living in the United States illegally, and for the women's equality agenda.
Because of the small turnout in primaries and because liberal Democrats could be more energized to participate, Wu is trying to pull off a surprise win even if Cuomo wins. Wu promises to be an independent lieutenant governor to Cuomo, rather than in the traditional role of supporting the governor.
Comedian-activist Randy Credico of Manhattan is also running for governor in Tuesday's primary. His platform includes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, legalizing marijuana and providing free public college tuition.
The winners will face the Republican ticket of Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, for governor, and Chris Moss, the Chemung County sheriff, for lieutenant governor.