ALBANY If you didn't know better, you might think Gov. Andrew Cuomo is one of the many New Yorkers who doesn't know he faces an opponent named Zephyr Teachout in next month's Democratic primary.
Cuomo has no plans to debate Teachout. He hasn't even publicly mentioned the liberal law professor from Fordham University by name. But to a governor who had hoped to win a second term by huge margins, Teachout's quixotic run in the Sept. 9 primary is a nuisance.
Teachout has long accused Cuomo of being too wedded to big-business interests and not doing enough to push liberal causes, and now she's seizing on questions he meddled with an anti-corruption commission. A strong showing by Teachout could be seen as a rebuke of the governor.
"He doesn't want you to have a choice, but it's not up to him," Teachout said. "He has millions of dollars from corporate donors. But I have grassroots power. We're using it to put the politics back in politics."
Cuomo has most of the usual incumbent advantages and then some. He's got $35 million in his campaign coffers, compared to $128,000 at last count for Teachout. He's lived in New York for most of his life and has a long political resume and a beloved father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo. Teachout moved to New York in 2009 and has never held elected office. A recent poll indicates that most New Yorkers don't know who she is.
Cuomo's campaign has focused on Republican candidate Rob Astorino. The governor is dismissive of his primary challenger — when he refers to her at all.
"You have people on the extreme left, and you have people on the extreme right," Cuomo said when asked about Teachout on public radio's The Capitol Pressroom in June. "That's what you call a political contest."
Teachout, 42, led online organizing for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential run and once headed the Sunlight Foundation, a good-government group. Her scholarship has focused on corruption and the influence of money in politics.
That background has helped Teachout seize on allegations that a top Cuomo aide pressured an anti-corruption commission not to investigate groups linked to the governor. The accusations are now part of an investigation by Manhattan's federal prosecutor. Teachout has called on Cuomo to resign and says the episode has increased public awareness of her candidacy.
A recent Marist College poll, however, shows that many voters aren't too concerned about the allegations. Seventy-one percent of respondents said the episode will play either a minor factor or no factor in their voting decision. The poll, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and NBC 4 New York, gives Cuomo a 54-23 percent lead over Astorino.
The allegations dogging Cuomo are "good news for her, but it's the summer. No one is paying attention," said Ester Fuchs, a political science professor at Columbia University. "She'll probably get a few more votes (because of the commission allegations). But is she going to win this Democratic primary? I don't really think so."
Fuchs declined to venture a guess on the percentage Teachout would have to get to send a message about Cuomo's vulnerability, saying "every number can be spun."
Teachout campaign manager Mike Boland also refused to talk about moral victories, saying their goal has always been 51 percent.
The primary battle began after Teachout narrowly lost the endorsement of the Working Families Party, a third-party coalition of organized labor and progressive activists. Cuomo won the group's nod at a raucous convention this spring after promising to push liberal priorities including broad public financing, the decriminalization of marijuana and a minimum wage increase.
Teachout argues Cuomo can't be trusted to hold up his end of the bargain, and she faults him for supporting business friendly tax cuts and charter schools. She hopes to harness liberals disenchanted with Cuomo's big-money politics. Teachout said since she entered the race, her campaign has received more individual donations — albeit smaller ones — than Cuomo's.
"Andrew Cuomo, one of the most well-known names in national politics, got fewer humans to contribute to his campaign in the first six months of the year than we got in a month," she said.
Cuomo has defended his progressive credentials while noting his success in working with both parties in the Legislature, where he pushed through gay marriage and one of the nation's strictest gun control laws.
Supporters of the governor have quietly tried to kick Teachout off the ballot, arguing in court that she doesn't meet the state constitution's five-year residency requirement because she has lived in Vermont for long stretches.
Teachout, who resides in Brooklyn, said she spends summers in Vermont because her family lives there, but the residency challenge is unfounded. A decision is expected in a few days.