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Zephyr Teachout's Responses to DFNYC's 2014 Candidate Questionnaire

Zephyr Teachout

Candidate for Governor of New York

2014 DFNYC State Candidate Questionnaire

1. Money in NY Politics / Fair Elections (McCutcheon v. FEC)

This year, Albany gave us a budget that failed to reform the role of big money in New York politics. The sky-high campaign contribution limits weren't lowered, disclosure of outside special interest spending wasn't strengthened, and public campaign financing was limited to the 2014 comptroller race. Responsibility for administering the public financing "pilot" falls to the state Board of Elections, which is regarded as dysfunctional, ineffective and underfunded.

Would you support a change to full public financing of campaigns, similar to the Clean Money Clean Elections programs in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine?


Yes. The way to fix the broken system is to provide public financing for all statewide and legislative elections. In New York City and Connecticut, public funding has increased the influence of voters and small donors, diversified who contributes, and enabled a greater variety of candidates to run for office. Already, public funding has empowered middle class families to shape

policy, achieving reforms like paid sick days, and empowered more women and minorities to stand as candidates. Public funding of elections will bring us closer to achieving real democracy.

What is your opinion of the Supreme Court’s decision of McCutcheon v. FEC and its potential impact on NY campaigns?

Contribution limits are crucial to fighting real and perceived corruption. The devastating impact of this case will be to further amplify our State’s problem with money in politics. Barring the passage of publicly financed elections and increased regulations for state party housekeeping accounts New Yorkers’ faith in our elected representatives.

What is your opinion of Governor Cuomo’s actions toward the Moreland Commission?

Governor Cuomo should never have disbanded the Moreland Commission. His decision to close down a public investigation into corruption is deeply disturbing. His justification for it – that negotiations with lawmakers in closed discussions had rendered the Commission obsolete – reveals how little respect the Governor holds for the public and for public accountability. His actions squandered a huge opportunity to bring meaningful change to Albany. Instead, Governor Cuomo has reinforced and replicated existing corruption.     

If Governor Cuomo directed or knew about Larry Schwartz’ actions, the Governor should resign. At the very least Schwartz should be fired. It’s hard to believe that Schwartz was not acting with the Governor’s knowledge.

2. Tenant Protection & Cost of Housing / Home Rule (Rent Issue) / Real Estate Development

Do you support rent stabilization and rent control laws? What will you do to crack down on landlords that break the law? Do you support a repeal vacancy decontrol and, more generally, a repeal of the Urstadt Law, so that New York City – and not Albany – can enact its own housing laws?

I’m a property law professor. I strongly favor the repeal of the Urstadt law and believe in some degree of local control. The City Council and Mayor should have the authority to set housing laws.  I also support rent stabilization and rent control laws.

3. Universal Pre-K & After-School

Generally, we at DFNYC are pleased that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio were able to come together and compromise on a bill for universal pre-kindergarten. While it calls for $300 million in funding for universal pre-K programs the final budget, many of us feel that the funding stream is not sustainable and the budget was unfair to many towns outside of New York City.   Would you support state legislation allowing Mayor de Blasio to change the funding stream by raising marginal income tax on the wealthiest residents of the City in order to ensure the long-term viability of the programs?

Yes. We live in an exceptional state in one of the greatest cities in the world. As such, everyone should pay their fair share to enjoy these privileges. I support state legislation allowing Mayor de Blasio to raise marginal income tax on the wealthiest residents of New York City to support this program.

4. Teacher Evaluation

New York elected officials--through laws, regulations, and negotiation of union contracts-- have sought to enact meaningful evaluation of public school teachers.  What is your opinion of using the following factors in evaluation of public school teachers?

a) Improvement in student test scores
b) Professional observations by other teachers
c) Student surveys
d) Whether the teacher has an advanced degree
e) Classroom observations of the teacher by principals or other education professionals
f) Principals’ unannounced observations of teachers.

The over reliance on high stakes testing is problematic. Instead, we should be taking steps that keep good teachers in the classroom. There is no evidence to support the idea that basing teacher evaluations on test scores is educationally valid and I have a great deal of concern that this practice will encourage educators to simply teach-to-the-test. The primary objective of teacher evaluations should be to improve the quality of teaching. There is clear evidence that the most effective way to do this is to create a collaborative climate within schools, not a competitive climate between teachers. To facilitate this teacher mentoring programs are key which is why professional observations by other teachers are essential to effective evaluations. Principal observations are important. One positive feedback available from teachers regarding the new evaluation system is that the in depth interaction between principals and teachers is a valuable professional experience.  Thorough interactions of this type, both between principals and teachers and between teacher mentors and teachers who are new or struggling are important to improving the quality of teaching and to retaining teachers.  Student surveys can also make a valuable contribution to the teacher evaluation process--particularly if the focus is on aiding teachers to improve their craft. The entire issue of teacher evaluations has to be seen in a larger context where blaming teachers for the challenges our schools face is part of a larger political agenda on education reform.

5. Mayoral Control of NYC Schools

Albany granted former Mayor Bloomberg's request for mayoral control of the schools in 2002. In 2009, Governor David Paterson and the state legislature voted to renew mayoral control until June 30th of 2015 (less than a year from now).  The 2009 changes included requiring the DOE to keep parents better informed of what is happening in the schools, as well as more transparency in approval of large contracts. Mayor Bill de Blasio is the first NYC mayor to have mayoral control after Bloomberg and has indicated he will have a Department of Education that is different in many ways than Mayor Bloomberg.  

When mayoral control of the schools is up for renewal next June, it seems likely that it will be renewed, but with significant changes.
Do you favor:

• Letting mayoral control expire and going back to a pre-2002 system,

• Renewing mayoral control as is,
• Changing to a hybrid system, where power would be shared by the mayor and a school board,
• Renewing it, but with significant changes to the current system.

One of the current parts of mayoral control that has caused the most controversy is the public hearing process. When the DOE proposes a change to a school or school building (co-location of a charter school, approval of a new school, phase out or "closing" of a school deemed to be failing), there is a joint public hearing (a "JFH") at the school building, where parents, teachers, students and other community members

can voice their concerns. But the ultimate vote is later, with the city-wide Panel for Education Policy (the "PEP"), a Board of appointees from the Mayor's Office and the Borough Presidents' Office. Critics say far from being a democratic process, the structure of the PEP and its hearings make it essentially a rubber stamp for whatever the DOE has already decided. Even some supporters of mayoral control have conceded this point and found PEP hearings to be mostly a waste of time for all parties involved.  On the one hand, government officials need to plan and make decisions about schools and buildings in a timely, efficient matter.  On the other hand, important decisions about schools should have a public hearing process and be made with community input.   What are your ideas for balancing these interests, specifically in terms of changing the mayoral control legislation?

Under Mayor Bloomberg the PEP was in fact a rubber stamp, it voted with Bloomberg 100% of the time. The process of the PEP votes was essentially a meaningless charade. The only time the PEP was prepared to vote against the Mayor he fired several at will PEP members before the vote in order to secure the outcome he desired. New York City has the most extreme form of Mayoral Control in the country. There are reasons for optimism under Mayor de Blasio in that he has appointed educators and parents to the PEP who have real connections to local communities and he has pledged to let them make independent decisions. However, the PEP should have fixed terms to ensure that no matter who appoints them they can make independent decisions. It is important to remember that while Mayor Bloomberg named this panel as the PEP under state law it is actually the school board for the City of New York and it should have all the powers of a school board. School closings and co-locations should be significantly curtailed compared to what happened under Mayor Bloomberg. School closings should be a course of last resort rather than an educational strategy and co-locations that are hostile to existing schools should not be allowed. The Community Education Councils are the bodies you refer to which are responsible for the Joint Public Hearings along with the DOE. The CECs are currently powerless bodies that are supposed to give parents voice, but do not have any structural power. The CECs should have the power to reject closing and co-locations in schools in their districts.  This is the only way to ensure that local parents have an actual voice in decision making. In 2014 there were policy changes that are directly relevant to mayoral control. Specifically the state mandated that in New York City if charter schools request a co-location then the City either must provide that co-location or must pay rent for that charter school in other space. This provision, which does not apply to any other locality in the state, should be repealed as part of the renewal of school governance laws in 2015.  School governance is important, however, there have been multiple forms of governance in NYC over time. In fact there was a different form of mayoral control over 100 years ago, there has been a central school board that was not controlled by the mayor and there has been 32 locally elected school boards. Each system had flaws in terms of the education of the students. While I have not fully developed all of my positions on this, I do believe that the 2015 school governance legislation should address key educational strategies which may prove more important than governance itself. I would be interested in requirements that make the NYC DOE address overcrowding and require adequate resource investment and supports in struggling schools for instance. The focus on governance process sometimes overwhelms the need to focus on educational strategies--both are important.

6. Implementation of Common Core Standards.

The NYS Board of Regents recently gave New York public schools five more years to fully implement tougher academic standards known as the Common Core. Supporters have argued that the new high standards – which are internationally benchmarked – will ensure that students in the South Bronx will have the same expectations as students on the Upper East Side, and that all students in New York and across the country are college and career ready at age 18. Critics, however – which include a growing movement of principals, teachers and parents that are on the front lines of education every day - point to problems such as a huge amount of disorganization in the implementation in NY (lack of materials and training), concerns about teaching to the test, and the arbitrariness of using Common Core-based test scores to measure student, school and teacher performance.

a. Do you favor continued support of Common Core standards in New York?  NO
b. Do you support the Common Core curriculum that has been developed in New York? NO
c. What will you do – or have you done – to assist parents, teachers, and others in the education community that have raised concerns about Common Core?

Common Core was a top-down approach to a deeply complex problem; there are no silver bullets in education reform. As a lawyer and activist, I participate in press events and rallies to highlight concerns around Common Core. As Governor, I would take what I have learned from families and concerned citizens at these events to reform Common Core for the betterment of New  York State’s children.  To do this properly it is essential that classroom educators, school administrators, parents and possibly even students are engaged in the development of standards and curriculum. NYS has placed more focus on raising the difficulty of the tests than on raising the quality of curriculum and instruction. If we are going to provide a higher standard of education, we cannot do that by simply making tests harder and expecting more of educators and students. We need to invest in our schools. New York has one of the greatest gaps in the inequity of school funding in the entire nation. The state is obligated to fulfill the Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding in order to begin closing this gap. Governor Cuomo has made no effort to do so. I would make fair and adequate school funding a top priority so we can get past the rhetoric of higher standards and actually provide a higher quality education particularly in poor communities which have suffered from decades of underfunded schools.

7. Taxes:  City Wage Tax, FTT and general principles.

New York City’s budget depends in large part on the city wage tax, which is only paid by residents, not everyone who works in NYC.

Would you vote to allow NYC to collect the tax from people from the suburbs who work in NYC and benefit from our services (police, fire, etc.)?

I’m not sure. It’s a complicated issue. I would do a comprehensive review of taxation and then carefully think about how to allocate the cost.

Would you support efforts to collect the tax from people who actually live in New York City but use a second home (a loophole not available to middle class New Yorkers with just one home) to avoid the city wage tax? YES

Do you support progressive taxation? YES

Would you support a federal financial transaction tax to either raise revenue, reduce the practice of high frequency trading, or both? YES. I support this both because it will make our markets more fair - by discouraging predatory high frequency trading - and could generate significant revenue in

8. Minimum Wage / Living Wage

New York State's recent minimum wage increased to $8 an hour, 75 cents above the federal minimum and the old state rate. It's the first of three incremental boosts that were approved by the Legislature and Gov. Cuomo .  The minimum for most workers will increase at the end of 2014 to $8.75 an hour and to $9 an hour a year after that.  The minimums for workers in the restaurant industry who get tips may remain $5 an hour, with employers able to raise the maximum tip credits to $3 an hour the first year, $3.75 the second and $4 after that.  Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and legislative leaders quickly shot down a proposal by Mayor Bill de Blasio to let New York City set its own minimum wage.  Advocates for New York’s working poor were disappointed, saying the minimum wage should be $15 an hour and include workers who get tips.  We at DFNYC feel no one should ever endure the kind of economic humiliation that comes with working a full-time job and making a less-than-living wage.  Do you support State Senator Daniel L. Squadron’s bill to raise the minimum wage for many low-paid workers, calling for a $15-an-hour “fair wage” for employees of McDonald’s and Walmart and other businesses with yearly sales of $50 million or more?

Yes, I support Senator Squadron’s bill to raise the minimum wage as well as legislation that would give localities control to set the minimum wage above the state level, not below. New York is an extraordinary state, and we should have an economy that matches our capacity. Yet Governor Cuomo’s economy works primarily for a few big businesses, one that enriches the rich and strangles opportunities for the rest of us. Extreme consolidation has enabled a few giants to hike prices, squeeze supply, and unfairly trample competitors. The game is rigged, and the evidence is all around us. We face staggering inequality of wealth and opportunity, at levels unseen since the Gilded Age. Unemployment continues to soar even as corporate profits are booming. I am completely committed to local wage authorization. I strongly support paid sick days and paid family leave insurance, so that no parent has to choose between paying the bills and nursing a sick child. I support making it easier for workers to unionize. If a banker can join his ten friends to form a corporation, why should it be any harder for a factory worker to join his ten buddies to form a union?

9. Real Estate Development / Reform of Scaffold Law.

a. We live in a city where livability is a major issue for the vast majority of its residents.  There has been a major upswing in development of late, particularly in areas such as Brooklyn and now the Bronx.  Residents are constantly getting displaced despite pledges to protect them from such treatment.  For example, Bruce Ratner did not live up to his promise to provide affordable housing and aid to residents and small businesses displaced by the Barclay’s Center.  What would you propose to ensure that big businesses and developers are able to achieve success at the hands of the rest of New Yorkers?

This is a huge issue. I would push to eliminate subsidies that incentivize costly high rise buildings at the expense or to the exclusion of affordable housing. One of the best ways to increase affordable housing is to hold on to the affordable housing we have in New York. This means strong laws at the state level that are focused on middle and working class tenants and homeowners, not landlords, real estate developers and banks. I will also work with local officials to bring more resources and a better use of resources to NYCHA so that the problems facing residents can be fixed efficiently and safely.

b. Much has been made of Mayor de Blasio’s pledge to build or restore 200,000 additional units of affordable housing in New York City.  However, another issue that has not received nearly enough attention has been the lack of sustainability in New York City.  
What would you propose to ensure more green buildings are built and greater energy efficiency is met in existing structures?

I am in support of a public works program that would retrofit existing buildings to make them more energy efficient. We can accomplish this through a combination of mandates, public investments, and incentives should be implemented to ensure our buildings are more energy efficient.

c. Another issue in New York City is a lack of sunlight caused by the amount of tall buildings.  Would you support changes to zoning laws for thinner, smaller, greener structures being built

In theory, yes. But I would have to learn more about the issue and existing policy proposals to understand if there might be other costs to these changes in zoning law.

d. What is your opinion of NY Labor Law 240, otherwise known as the Scaffold Law?  Contractors, property owners and insurers argue that the law is antiquated and prejudicial against contractors and property owners, and essentially absolves employees of responsibility for their own accidents, leading to huge settlements. The payouts, they contend, have in turn led to skyrocketing insurance premiums that are hampering construction and the state’s economic growth.  But a counter-lobby of unions, workers’ advocates and trial lawyers argue that the law is essential to ensuring the safety of workers in some of the world’s most dangerous jobs, particularly those employed by shoddy contracting firms that cut corners to save money. The law, they say, holds developers and contractors accountable for keeping job sites safe.

I support the Scaffold law. It protects some of our most vulnerable workers. Everyone deserves the right to a safe and healthy work environment. While we cannot protect construction workers against all accidents we must offer workers the legal protection they deserve by holding those responsible accountable.

10. Albany Corruption

Albany has been the center of corruption scandals in recent years, during which more than a dozen New York assemblymen and senators have been charged with corruption or convicted.   What measures, in your opinion, are necessary to ensure that Albany’s culture of corruption does not continue?

First and foremost, New York state should pass a publicly financed elections system modeled after New York City’s. Below is a starting list of policies as Governor I would focus on enacting

  • Empower the Attorney General to prosecute public corruption cases, especially those involving election law

  • Webcast all legislative proceedings for both houses

  • Increase disclosure and itemization of discretionary funds, such as lump sum funds and member items, and require reporting on the funds’ usage

  • Clarify the definition of coordination between candidates and political committees to ensure proper reporting

  • Require two periodic campaign finance reports be filed during the session

  • Close soft money loopholes - transfers from party committees to candidates should be limited to twice the limit that is set for individual contributors

  • Restrict campaign contributions from those who do business with the state and registered lobbyists

11. Legalization of Marijuana.

Do you support passing legislation allowing the use of marijuana in New York State for medicinal purposes?  Recreational?  Both?

I support the legalization of marijuana. At a minimum, New York State must immediately decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession, on the path to eventual legalization. This would drastically reduce the number of marijuana arrests, an overwhelming percent of which are just for possession. Worse, these arrests disproportionately target young African-Americans and Latinos.

These arrests cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually and needlessly introduce young people to the criminal justice system while saddling them with permanent criminal records. Being stigmatized this way has huge long-term consequences, making it far harder to find a job or get into school. We should be expanding opportunities for young blacks and Latinos rather than foreclosing them. Ending arrests for 15 grams or less of marijuana would help ensure our criminal justice system doesn’t lock up thousands of our young men for petty crimes. We should support legislation that decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana, and should propose a system to regulate and tax marijuana in ways similar to how state law treats alcohol. This new approach would end decades of costly and counterproductive policies that reinforce racially discriminatory outcomes and foreclose promising futures.

12. Police Militarization

Eric Garner, a 40-year old African American man from Staten Island died suspiciously while in N.Y.P.D. custody. Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Entire mosques in New York and New Jersey were labelled as "terrorist" organizations by an N.Y.P.D. special surveillance unit, as reported by the AP in the fall of 2013. (Mayor de Blasio shut down that unit in April.)  

 a. What strategies have you taken, or would you take, to deal with the problems of racism and increased militarization of local police?

I have called for a review by the Superintendent of Police and chairs of the Judiciary committees into what form militarization has taken in NY.

 b. Would you be in favor of using the budget process to ensure that police are peace keepers, as opposed to a quasi-military force (i.e. by limiting local, state and federal budget appropriations for additional weapons)? Yes.

13. Vision Zero

Are you in agreement with the Mayor that the state legislature should allow the city more control in the administration of traffic safety measures such as speed reduction?  
Are you in agreement with the three elements at the center of the Mayor de Blasio’s plan - reducing the citywide speed limit and increasing the number of cameras to catch drivers who speed or ignore red lights?  

Cities should have much more autonomy, and power should be devolved from Albany.

The City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission has been exploring initiatives to help further the Mayor’s goal of zero pedestrian deaths, such as installing black box recording devices to record driver behavior in TLC-licensed vehicles, forming an enforcement squad with speed guns to enforce speed limits, installing new technology in cabs that could limit vehicle speeds, warn of an impending crash, sound an alarm if the driver speeds and even reduce the fare or shut the meter if the driver is traveling too fast.  However, as studies have shown, the crash rate as a result of taxis and livery cabs is actually lower than those of other vehicles. What do you think is most necessary to ensure vehicle safety on the roads and highways?

We have not yet done a policy paper on this yet. I would need to learn more about the issue before prescribing a policy.

14. Lightening Round:

Please provide a yes or no answer to the following questions. If you can’t provide a simple yes or no, please provide a brief explanation. (25 words total – all 4 questions.)

Abortion - Do you support a women’s right to choose?


Marriage Equality:  Do you support same-sex marriage? Do you believe all 50 states should allow marriage equality?


Hobby Lobby: Do you support the "Boss Bill," which would update New York's labor laws to ban an employer from citing religious freedom as a reason to deny women reproductive health care — including access to birth control and infertility treatments?


Do you believe corporations should have the legal status of personhood?


Do you support Net Neutrality, and are you willing to publicly state this position? (For example, in a petition or comment letter to the FCC.)



These are the responses of Zephyr Teachout to our 2014 DFNYC questionnaire. To read the responses of her opponent in the Democratic primary, incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo, click here.

Contact Information

Email: info -at- dfnyc.org


A local coalition group of Democracy for America since 2004

Democracy for NYC (DFNYC) is committed to the ideals espoused by Democracy for America, the organization founded by Howard Dean, and the national network of local coalition groups dedicated to the same.