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Vote For Teachout-Wu

BY Micah L. Sifry and Andrew Rasiej | Tuesday, September 2 2014

Tim Wu and Zephyr Teachout, selfie-style

If corruption is when public figures serve themselves, instead of their constituents, the opposite of corruption is love of the public."
--Zephyr Teachout on Facebook

From the day we launched Personal Democracy Forum back in May 2004, we have strived to build a non-partisan or trans-partisan community bringing together everyone who was excited about the potential of technologies like the Internet, mobile communications, and open data to change politics, government and civic life for the better. And we've worked hard to create a place where all of those people could get together to share ideas and talk shop without letting other polarizing and partisan issues divide us.

We also believe that the core ideas animating our community aren't inherently partisan: the freedom to connect, the freedom to share, the freedom to innovate, participatory democracy, open government, transparency for the powerful, privacy for the weak are principles that don't come with party labels but rather are values we should strive to hold all parties to. Especially now when political cooperation and honest dialogue is in short supply, we think it is wise to keep building cross-partisan alliances to help spread and uphold these goals.

But we also understand the need to push these ideas through the political arena. Back in 2005, one of us (Andrew) ran for New York City Public Advocate, calling for public investment in universal public WiFi, and other steps to make New York a 21st century connected city--ideas that have since been widely embraced including by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. In the 2008 presidential campaign, we asked which of the candidates might be America's first "tech President" and laid out some 21st century benchmarks against which to measure all of the contenders. And we've been glad to add our Personal Democracy Media’s name to campaigns aiming to defend the open Internet and to rein in dragnet government surveillance programs.

Today we are throwing our wholehearted support behind Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu, who are challenging sitting governor Andrew Cuomo and his running mate Rep. Kathy Hochul in the Democratic primary next Tuesday September 9th. Here's why:

It starts with friendship but is grounded in our shared values. We've known both Teachout and Wu for years, and worked closely with Teachout--Andrew, at the Dean for America campaign in 2003--and the two of us back in the founding days of the Sunlight Foundation in 2006 and 2007, when she was its national director and led its grassroots organizing efforts. Even before then, she was an early contributor to our blog and wrote with prescience and fervor about everything from the Internet's (still) untapped potential to transform politics to how well Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was using the web. More recently, she has distinguished herself as a law professor at Fordham University with a major book about to come out on the history of corruption in America.

Wu is best-known for his path-breaking work crystallizing and popularizing the term "net neutrality" to explain the core value of the Internet as a network-of-networks open to all. He is also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and the author of The Master Switch, an essential and very readable history of the development of media in the United States that charts how disruptive innovations have been captured and converted into closed information empires.

We’ve been hoping for years that new leaders would emerge who understand how technology can improve democracy and what it can do to empower ordinary citizens. Not only do Teachout and Wu "get it," their message has never been more important particularly for the people of the State of New York.

The defining battle of the 21st century is between open and closed systems and New York State is one of the ultimate closed systems. Politics here in our home state is systematically corrupt, in the sense that self-dealing and lack of accountability are the norm in Albany. Three men--the Governor, Andrew Cuomo, the Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver and the Senate Majority leader, Dean Skelos--make all the decisions about the state budget with no transparency or participation by other legislators, let alone the public. State "ethics" rules allow sitting legislators to hold jobs in the private sector and keep their incomes and clients secret, with the result that the public has no way of knowing who is greasing whose palm. Gubernatorial campaign contributions are "capped" at the ludicrously high level of $60,000, but widespread loopholes allow big donors and industries to effectively shovel millions to their favored candidates and party committees. And a long-standing gentlemen's agreement between the two major parties to not attack each other's stronghold in the legislature (Democrats control the Assembly, Republicans the Senate) has fostered a culture of impunity in Albany that has only been jostled, but not cleansed, by the frequent indictment of sitting lawmakers.

Four years ago, when he was first elected governor, Andrew Cuomo promised to bring greater transparency and accountability to state government, but sadly he has done little to live up to that goal. His most cynical and telling move last year was to charter a special state commission to investigate corruption in Albany, vesting it with independent subpoena powers, and then blocking attempts by that very commission to look into donors and activities that led back to his own administration. (This blockbuster investigation by The New York Times has all the details.)

There's a reason why the politicians currently running New York State get away with this kind of behavior: they rarely face strong competition. The political operating system is nowhere near as open as the Internet. Through gerrymandering, incumbents pick their voters before the voters pick them. Ballot access rules favor the two major parties. (Cuomo, who has a well-earned reputation as a backroom political bully, showed little compunction in trying to use those rules to knock Teachout off the ballot--despite her collecting 45,000 petitions, three times the number of signatures required to quality.) Unlike New York City, where a robust public financing system gives a wider range of candidates a real opportunity to run for office, money and media flow to power in Albany and stagnation is the result.

Teachout and Wu are running to disrupt this status quo and they need our votes, If you have ever complained about Albany, you forfeit your right to whine about state politics if you sit this one out. There's now a week until the primary and a number of things readers can do to help Teachout and Wu make the strongest showing possible. First, today (Sept 2) is the last day New Yorkers can apply for an absentee ballot: if you know anyone who might need one (think college students), go to Turbovote and get moving on that application. Second, help spread the word to New York Democrats to remind them to vote next Tuesday. And third, if you have the time or the money, sign up to do some phone-banking or door-knocking for Teachout-Wu or throw them some coin.

Vote for Teachout and Wu and send a message of hope for all who are fighting for more open democracy here or anywhere.