The September 9th gubernatorial primary in New York State was, in essence, a referendum on the record of Governor Andrew Cuomo, a conservative Democrat. Although the result was never in doubt, the margin of victory has been taken as a measure of satisfaction with his policies and his prospects for higher office. His opponent was a little known and underfunded progressive Democrat in the mold of Elizabeth Warren: Professor Zephyr Teachout, a law professor from Fordham University. Prof. Teachout, while losing the election, scored an important victory by taking 34.3% of the vote to Mr. Cuomo’s 62.2% (Randy Credico took 3.6% of the vote).
This was the strongest challenge to an incumbent governor since primaries were instituted in New York State (1970). Although Cuomo scored victories in the most populated counties, Teachout won half of New York’s 62 counties. The Teachout vote seemed to be motivated by at least two important issues: the perceived corruption of the Cuomo administration and the issue of permitting hydraulic fracturing in New York. Teachout is the author of the recently released Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard University Press, 2014) and is considered a strong opponent of corruption in government. She also is an outspoken opponent of unconventional oil and gas extraction, and favors banning the practice in New York State.
As we describe in our recent book, The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, no decision has been yet been made by the Cuomo administration on lifting the de facto moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction. Mr. Cuomo is greeted daily by protestors arguing in favor of a ban, and has done his best not to reveal his position, deferring to an ongoing review by the NYS Department of Health.
Although it is difficult to interpret this primary using a single issue, it may be instructive to compare the success of the Teachout campaign in areas of New York that are most likely to be directly affected if the moratorium on fracking is lifted. These are the counties within what is called the “Marcellus fairway,” that is the part of the state that, based on geological evidence, would be the most likely to have natural gas that can be profitably extracted with unconventional drilling. These counties are Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Delaware, Sullivan and Tioga. Of these six counties, Mr. Cuomo won a majority of votes only in Chemung County. In Broome County, Mr. Cuomo took the largest number of votes, but fewer than Teachout and Credico combined. In the other four counties, Prof. Teachout easily won (three of which were by large margins). It seems that her message was heard and resonated well in the counties with the most to gain or lose.
The primary is now over and Mr. Cuomo will face a strong advocate for unconventional drilling in the general election (Rob Astorino, Republican from Westchester County) and a strong opponent of unconventional drilling (Howie Hawkins, Green Party candidate). Mr. Cuomo has a large lead in the polls and the outcome does not seem to be in doubt. However, the next election to watch that may reflect on the future of gas drilling in New York is the US House of Representatives seat for the NY Congressional District 23. Tom Reed, a very conservative Republican that is funded extensively by the oil and gas industry, currently holds this seat. Martha Robertson, the progressive Democratic challenger, is running a strong campaign and has made environmental concerns, and particularly concerns about unconventional oil and gas extraction, an important part of her platform. The result of this election in this relatively conservative district will be an interesting referendum on two opposing views for the future of New York State.
Michelle Bamberger & Robert Oswald are the authors of The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food. Bamberger is a veterinarian and the author of two books on first aid for cats and dogs. Oswald is a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University and the recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships. They serve on the advisory board of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy. Bamberger and Oswald live in Ithaca, New York.