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Will Zephyr Teachout Finally Have Her Moment?

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In the three years since she last ran for office, Zephyr Teachout has taught, written a book (“Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money”), stumped for progressive female candidates, advised Congress and prosecutors across the country on antitrust issues, given birth for the first time at the age of 47, and watched her adversary Andrew Cuomo expelled from the kingdom.

If not for the last occurrence, her political career might have belonged to a vanished idealistic vision. But on Monday she plans to formally announce her candidacy for New York State attorney general, a turn she could not have foreseen a year ago when the former governor, with his Must See TV Covid briefings, was still holding on to a 65 percent approval rating, and the state’s top prosecutor, Letitia James, now making a bid for his old job, seemed happy to be exactly where she was.

“The A.G.’s office is the best legal job in the country for people’s lawyering, and there’s no other job I would run for,” she told me recently. “I just didn’t expect it to open up for a long time.” Ms. Teachout made a play once before, when the job was last available in 2018, but it went to Ms. James, who had Mr. Cuomo’s support and who, in Shakespearean fashion, would later become central to his fall.

At the moment, Ms. Teachout, seems to be one of the most obvious beneficiaries of that erasure, given that any political aspirations she had were unlikely to thrive while Mr. Cuomo remained in power, drinking thirstily from the spigot of retribution.

Seven years ago, she emerged from relative obscurity as a legal academic with an expertise in corruption to help successfully shift state politics leftward when she challenged Mr. Cuomo’s re-election, receiving an astonishing third of the primary vote. Threatened by her showing and what it said about the magnitude of progressive sentiment, the governor eventually began supporting measures like a $15 an hour minimum wage and paid family leave. After years of pressure, he broke up a faction of independent Democrats in the State Senate who caucused with Republicans and stymied liberal lawmakers.

Ms. Teachout is re-entering politics now in a much different position, with a national profile. At the same time the pendulum isn’t necessarily in the same place that it was in 2014 or even 2018. The latest election cycle, in which Democrats in New York found themselves stunned by losses to Republicans both upstate and down, suggests a challenging moment for progressives. Beyond that, Ms. Teachout has lost all three of the elections in which she participated.

As the country has fallen deeper into the throes of polarization, both Democrats and Republicans have directed more hope and faith at state prosecutors to address grievances the federal government now seems impotent to resolve, creating increasingly ambitious agendas. On a recent morning, after her son was dropped off at day care and before her property law class was set to begin at Fordham, where she has taught for 12 years, Ms. Teachout conveyed her plans. She explained, for example, how she would expand the attorney general’s focus on worker safety, wage theft and issues of climate and environmental justice, making fossil-fuel companies liable for the damage they cause.

“I think it can be helpful to think of the A.G. as the largest public interest law firm in the country,” she wrote me later. “We all know that big pharma, polluters and fossil fuel companies cause enormous harm, and big landlords don’t provide healthy housing — people spend 90 percent of their time indoors; mold is a climate issue — but I don’t think people realize the awesome power of the office to make it too costly for these big companies to keep harming us.”

Around the country, state prosecutors have been experimenting with ways in which oil and gas companies might be held accountable for climate change. The litigation relies, in part, on a successful model deployed by states in the 1990s which argued that the chronic and deadly illnesses caused by cigarettes significantly drove up public health costs. These types of suits are still uncharted territory when it comes to the fossil-fuel industry. New York State lost a related case two years ago when a judge determined that Ms. James’s office had failed to prove that Exxon had committed shareholder fraud in its statements around its accounting for the cost of climate-change regulation.

Still, Ms. Teachout maintains it was the right case for the attorney general’s office to bring. “The evidence was strong — the industry had the science cases 30 years ago, and, like opioids, its clear that part of the business model of fossil fuel companies is lying for profit,” she said.

Not long after he took office, Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, who later prosecuted Officer Derek Chauvin, brought suit against Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute over what he identified as “a campaign of deception” around the effects on climate. Although coming from academia is hardly considered an advantage in American politics, Mr. Ellison, who has known Ms. Teachout for years, pointed out that it is a particular kind of intellectual depth that is needed to pursue these new and increasingly complex frontiers in civil litigation. “It’s not always clear how to redress a tremendous wrong,” he said. From lead paint to guns, to oil and gas, there are cases that prosecutors don’t always have the most useful legal frameworks for, he said.

Ms. Teachout, the daughter of a law professor and a judge, is likely to face off against several Democratic challengers that could include Brooklyn’s district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, as well as Daniel S. Goldman, a former federal prosecutor hired by House democrats to join the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump. The New York state senator Shelley Mayer announced that she was running earlier this month.

Never having held elected office, never having earned millions of dollars at a white-shoe firm, Ms. Teachout might proceed with a candidacy that serves as a test of just how much independence voters are — or aren’t — actually seeking. Driven by indignation more than ideology, in a kind of race where divisive culture-war issues are not especially relevant, she might speak to populists of all kinds — the world of people united in their hatred for Mark Zuckerberg.

“I first really started paying attention to Zephyr when she took on Cuomo in that primary,’’ the environmentalist Bill McKibben told me. “Everybody had been working really hard on fracking in New York State. There was a wonderful citizens’ movement upstate, but because it was upstate no one really paid attention to it. Even I had not realized how big and deep it had gotten until Zephyr ran for governor. And she was really hitting it hard.”

Though she fell short in her long-shot run for the nomination for governor, she swept certain upstate counties. “I was looking at the election returns that night and I said, ‘OK we’re going to have a ban on fracking in a few weeks.’” Gov. Cuomo, not long after, enacted one.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with politicians, and there aren’t that many who are really that willing to take on, in serious ways, entrenched concentrations of power,” Mr. McKibben said. “It’s very hard to see a path where Congress and the judiciary stand up to Exxon or Facebook or forces like them,’’ he said, which makes the jobs of attorney general in New York and California some of the most influential in the country. “There are things that desperately need to change and she strikes me as a very useful crowbar.”

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