Gubernatorial Candidate Teachout Says Cuomo Governs "Like A Republican" And Silent On Police Brutality

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Zephyr Teachout

Interview with New York Gubernatorial Candidate Zephyr Teachout

BSN: Hello Ms. Teachout. Thanks for giving this interview to the Blackstar news, we know you must be extremely busy. As you may know, the Blackstar news is a venue that caters largely to the concerns of the Black community in New York City.

I'd like this interview to be an opportunity for you to introduce yourself to the Blackstar's readers and to explain what you stand for and why it's important for them to get out and vote on September 9th.

ZT: Well, I'm very happy to talk to you.

BSN: Great, let's start with Education. Several recent polls have indicated that the majority of Black voters in New York State is in favor of continuing the Common Core curriculum. You strongly oppose this program.

Can you please explain why you feel that the Common Core program is not in the interest of the Black Community, and why you think the community may hold a mistaken impression of the programs benefits?

ZT: When you first hear about Common Core, it sounds like a great project. As advertised, its a project to raise standards across the board, make sure that we have high expectations across the board. And in many ways it was created as a response to a real crisis in our schools. But I see it as a diversion from the real crisis.

The fundamental issue that I see - and my supporters such as Dianne Ravitch, Carol Burris and many others see as well- is that we need to fund our schools, we need to trust our teachers. The goal in New York State should be the best public school education in the country with high standards, and the way to get there is through small class sizes, through arts music and sports for every child, through counseling. I've been a special ed teachers aid and I will tell you that …

Imagine a teacher in a class of 33 kids, with a work sheet. The fact that yo have a worksheet doesn't change the fact that there are 33 kids in the classroom, many of them bringing to the classroom whatever's happening at home. The teacher cannot pay attention to each of those children. The essence of education is each child being seen for who they are. I don’t think any 4th grader should be in a classroom with more than 20 kids. So in many ways Common Core is a distraction from that. The focus in education has to be actually fully funding it. Right now we are six billion dollars short of funding it, and Common Core is distracting ion some ways.

Most of the kids in public schools are in overcrowded classrooms, and you don't want to send a kid to school without art music and sports, unless it's not your kid. Unfortunately under the direction of Andrew Cuomo, we are moving in the direction of larger classes, underfunded schools and more teaching to the test.

There are other key problems with Common Core itself.  One is that it tests teachers on how the kids perform on certain tests, which brings an enormous amount of stress into the classroom. The teachers are no longer oriented toward helping the kids learn, the kids now represent the potential for them getting a pay raise or a pay cut or even losing their job. Even for the best teachers that introduces an element of stress into the classroom.

Teachers and parents will tell you that Kids don't learn well under stress. 

I am very sympathetic to the parents who feel that their kids aren't being treated with the respect they deserve, and being held to the standards they are capable of achieving.  But the standards in Common Core come in large part from Bill Gates. One of the things I am very concerned about is the concentration of private power, and private power taking over these public institutions.

Fundamentally Bill Gates has spent $200 million to push through an idea, which may or may not have merit but that does not come from the communities themselves or from the experience of parents and teachers.

If we are going to have a Common Core type of curriculum, with high standards, those standards have to come from the community itself.  In practice what we've seen in Common Core, is that it has lead to White/Black and White/ Latino achievement gaps widening.

What that represents to me is that Common Core is not doing what it was advertised to do, but is rather brining stress and forcing uniformity into classrooms - worksheet teaching instead of creative, logical teaching. In fact, the uniformity of Common Core often undermines its own stated goals of encouraging rigorous thinking, because it can make kids feel stupid, or bored, and neither of those are conditions under which students thrive.

As Governor I would make sure we reduce class sizes, fund our schools and trust our teachers; to me that's basic. Instead we have an anti-union Governor who has led the fight against public education in many different ways, including by defunding schools.

As Governor, I would lead a delegation to Washington on the Common Core question itself, representing a broad spectrum of parents and teachers from across New York to say “we don't want to lose our funding on the federal level, but how can we develop standards that are going to actually work for our children?”

BSN: Regarding police oversight and police community relations; there has been a lot of discussion recently of police abuses around the country. While these are generally considered municipal issues, the events in Ferguson Missouri elicited a state and even a federal response.

You recently joined the march to protest the killing of Eric Garner by NYPD officers. Is there a role that you as Governor could play in ameliorating the problem of police abuses in NY State?

ZT: Andrew Cuomo's silence in the face of police abuses is a failure of leadership. While technically, the oversight happens at the municipal level, there's no way to look at what's happening around the country with unarmed Black men being killed, without saying that this is a cultural, national and statewide problem as well that we need to address directly.

There are many things that a Governor can do. The first thing is simply using the platform of being the elected Governor of a state to directly address what's actually happening, to describe the situation in a way that resonates with people's own experience.

You can't shut your eyes to the kind of tragedies in both Ferguson and Staten Island which have become far too common; part of leadership is simply seeing and saying the truth. It is a simple gesture of leadership to go to Staten Island, and talk to Garner; family, talk to community members, and expresss some compassion. 

The second is to make it very clear  that New York State cannot become militarized in the way that Missouri has been.

It was my experience as a criminal defense lawyer that inspired my getting involved in politics, because I saw how law was applied in such unequal ways. In New Haven police were using SWAT gear to investigate underage drinking. In Florida police were using military style raids to uncover “barbering without a license”.

I think that most cops are true public servants and want to do well by the community, and want to be part of the community but they have to be supported as community police officers and not militarized police officers. I have asked for a review and disclosure of the existing military equipment in police hands in New York.

Most cops go into it to serve the community, but if police departments are provided with military grade gear, it sends a message that they are supposed to control a community instead of serve and protect it. It also sends a message to the community that the police are not there as their friends and supporters. What you want is a community kind of policing where you can tell your son or daughter that the cop is someone you can go to as an ally when something is wrong. Insofar as they become militarized or react with disproportional force, you're not going to tell your kid that.

The Governor must realize that we cannot go further down the road to militarization or the use of disproportionate force. I really want to stress that the vast majority of police want to serve the community. I think its important to place the final accountability with Albany, in terms of the culture we create. It is the government that creates the cultural context in which these tragedies can happen.

I am also opposed to the “broken windows” form of policing, but I want to be clear about this. Like Common Core, the basic idea is attractive; that you want to make sure the flower pots aren't kicked over, but I'd rather have the cop set the flower pot back than arrest the kid for a far more serious crime than he engaged in.

The reality of broken windows policing is that it disproportionally affects young people of color. Second, its based on the idea that you should have a disproportionate response to a broken window or graffiti on a stop sign, and that undermines trust. If I'm a 20 year old man and I spray paint or kick over a flower pot, and I get punished, that's ok, but if I get put in Riker's island, that's another thing. 

We have to reexamine “broken windows” in the way we've reexamined “stop and frisk”; to say “let's get away from the theory and see whether or not this is really serving our community”.

And that serves both cops and community members in the long run.

BSN: Public versus private Election Financing is a fundamental issue for our democracy at every level. Can you explain for our readers why this is important to them and spell out your differences with Governor Cuomo on this issue?

ZT: I strongly believe that we must publically fund elections, with matching funds system where for every $10 you get $70 from the state. The essence of it is that if you can show you have grassroots support, a candidate will be confident that they will have enough money to get their message to be heard. Andrew Cuomo said he supported this four years ago, but just as with corruption reform and other things, he failed in all those promises. 

Now this is important for African Americans, and all minorities because what we know that when you enact these public financing systems, it leads to far greater diversity in who runs for office, and who has power in the political system. Under the present system, a wealthy few donors – donors who can give $60,000 ....$120,000 they call the shots.

Politicians know this, so they don't spend their time talking to people. If you wonder why you never see or hear Andrew Cuomo out in the communities, it's because he doesn't have to listen to members of the community except for the wealthy few. A stunning figure is that only one percent of the contributions to Andrew Cuomo's campaign fund are under $250.

But it also encourages diversity in who runs for office, and we really need that. Because right now, if you don't have rich friends, you can't run for state office. So it cuts out a lot of women. Eighty four percent of people running for state senate are male. I want to see a lot more women, a lot more minorities, a lot more minority women running for office and funding campaigns, and the way to do it is to take it it of this old boy's network.

Ultimately, this changes who the politicians are working for.

I study corruption. Far too often corruption laws are used to handcuff people wh engage in illegal bribery, while ignoring the much more significant crimes, which are the huge amounts of money donated by corporations with the assurance of future influence and favors. For example the Extell real estate development company. Extell spent $100,000 on Andrew Cuomo's campaign and two years later got millions of dollars in government subsidies.

This is the same company that has the “poor door” building in New York City.

 And it creates “poor door” politics – there's one door for the few rich people and there's a “poor door” for the rest of us.

BSN: You mentioned that anti corruption laws have targeted the politicians who take small illegal bribes, yet don't touch those that get huge contributions that are essentially legal bribes. I'm sure you are aware of the arrest of New York  legislators over the last couple of years, including John Sampson Malcolm Smith, Shirley Huntley; all Black and Latino people, and they were the only ones asked to wear a wire, so their Black and Latino colleagues were also more likely to be implicated. 

ZT: The law must be enforced, and I think blatant acts of bribery must be punished, but you are definitely asking the right question. There's a long history in this country of using anti corruption laws to target African American leaders without addressing the real corruption in our system, which is how campaigns are funded. Private interests, corporations, are buying laws and special treatment - that's the real scandal.

There will always be bad apples, but we need to focus on the underlying corruption that is both common and legal.

BSN: Thank you Ms. Teachout. Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers?

ZT:  I just want to present a positive vision here, because I do have a very positive vision for New York State. New York can have the greatest public schools in the nation. The problems with New York schools are not an accident, they are a result of policy. The result of Andrew Cuomo preferring tax breaks for big banks and corporations to ways to support our children.

We have an opportunity to build good jobs by making New York state the hub of 21st century transportation and energy. New York's future is in dreaming big again, not just having this politics of austerity with no money for schools, no money for public services.

Andrew Cuomo has really governed like a Republican; his economic policy is like Reagan's. We have this enormous potential, but we need real Democratic leadership to realize it. 



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