Andrew Cuomo can’t afford to ignore Cynthia Nixon’s challenge

Cynthia Nixon, the Sex and the City actress and activist, is challenging incumbent New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, shaking up an otherwise sleepy Democratic primary race. That’s less because of Nixon’s celebrity name and more because she’s mounting a campaign against the governor from the left, setting up a blue-state showdown that reflects some of the deeper tensions within the Democratic Party.

Cuomo, a two-term incumbent, is a skilled operator hailing from one of New York’s most famous political families. He has a deep war chest for his reelection campaign. He rarely avoids an opportunity to criticize Trump. He’s also championed liberal policies, particularly in his second term, such as paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage.

But Cuomo — who possibly has political ambitions beyond the governorship — is still perceived as being somewhat vulnerable from the left, as his brand of transactional politics sometimes feels out of place in an era of growing Democratic activism.

Nixon’s candidacy so far has targeted Cuomo’s weak spots both locally and statewide — from the city’s subway crisis to the corruption scandals that have continued to plague Albany, the state’s capital.

As surprising as her challenge is, it’s still a long shot. It will be no easy feat to unseat a very powerful governor.

Who is Cynthia Nixon — and what is she running on?

Nixon, a native New Yorker, is probably best known for role on HBO’s series Sex and the City, where she played lawyer Miranda Hobbes, one of the show’s four central characters. Her acting and artistic credentials (Vulture points out, she’s one “O” short of an EGOT) will inevitably brand her as a celebrity candidate.

But Nixon has also been an activist around progressive causes for years, particularly for LGBT rights (Nixon is bisexual) and public education. She fought for same-sex marriage in New York and other states. She’s raised awareness for breast cancer as a survivor. She is a staunch public school advocate, and served as the spokesperson for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed group.

Nixon was also a high-profile supporter of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Nixon’s wife worked for the mayor’s administration in the Department of Education before recently stepping down.

Nixon’s run for governor had been speculated about for months, but she made it official Monday with a political ad that focused on New York’s inequality and the widening gap between the rich and the poor — a message, some pointed out, that sounded like the statewide version of de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” from his first mayoral run.

Public education is — at least in the early stages — a big theme of Nixon’s campaign, one she brought up at her first public event as a candidate Tuesday in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “Too many of the majority black and brown schools in our very segregated system are under-funded and over-policed,” she said. “Our schools are pushing white children towards college and black children into the criminal justice system.”

Nixon, in her first days as a gubernatorial candidate, has gone on the attack against Cuomo. Her campaign website questions his Democratic credentials, and declares, “New York’s eight years under the Cuomo administration have been an exercise in living with disappointment, dysfunction, and dishonesty.” The site also has a section dubbed #CuomosMTA, the hashtag of choice for many frustrated subway riders.

At her campaign event, she also praised the wave of women inspired to run for office, and counted herself among them. If elected, she would be New York’s first woman governor.

Why Cuomo’s liberal credentials get questioned

Nixon is targeting Cuomo from the left— painting him as a centrist and Albany insider, whose policies have favored corporations and the rich at the expense of struggling New Yorkers. The governor is often perceived as being vulnerable from the left, dogged by a reputation that he’s a liberal masquerading as a moderate — or someone whose progressiveness is born from political calculus, not passion.

Cuomo got his start in politics as the hard-charging campaign staffer for his father, Mario Cuomo, who served three terms as governor.

Andrew Cuomo served as secretary for Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, then returned to New York, where he was elected attorney general in 2006 and won the governorship in 2010. He positioned himself as a centrist in a state that, despite its liberal tilt, still has plenty of GOP pockets, particularly rural areas upstate. Cuomo championed socially liberal policies — New York legalized gay marriage in 2011, for example — but embraced a more fiscally conservative agenda, opposing tax increases and cozying up to business interests. He also didn’t make nice with some public sector unions, particularly teachers.

Cuomo’s split personality had liberals restless ahead of the 2014 Democratic primaries. They were dissatisfied with his economic policies and his failure to advance progressive goals. The Working Families Party, a small but very influential third party, toyed with withholding their nomination from the governor, and instead considered supporting a little-known activist and professor named Zephyr Teachout.

Cuomo managed to win the Working Families Party back (with the crucial help of de Blasio), striking a deal with leaders to embrace their progressive priorities — decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, a statewide DREAM Act, and ethics reform, among other goals. Cuomo also promised to use his clout to flip the state Senate back to Democratic control.

Teachout, even without the WFP nod, ended up staging an unsuccessful but still surprising challenge against Cuomo in the Democratic primary. Teachout won close to a third of the vote, campaigning on anticorruption and against fracking. (Teachout has now signed on to Nixon’s campaign as treasurer.) Primary turnout was extremely low, but some saw her better-than-expected showing as Cuomo’s weakness exposed. Indeed, the fact that Cuomo had fought so hard to keep the Working Families Party in his camp also seemed to be a sign that he recognized the leftward shift within his state.

Cuomo emerged victorious in 2014, but some critics say he’d fallen far short on his promise to help Democrats retake the Senate. His campaign efforts were less than impressive, and the Republicans ended up taking control of the state Senate outright in 2014.

The balance of power in the state Senate remains a sticking point between Cuomo and progressives. A group of Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference caucus with the Republicans, effectively keeping the state Senate in GOP hands. (Democrats had a majority in name in 2012, and in 2016.)

The group now has eight members, though its ranks have fluctuated since it formed after the 2010 election. The IDC says it has supported mainline Democratic priorities, such as getting Cuomo’s minimum wage increase. But its deal with the Republicans has helped to block legislation on reproductive rights and immigration.

Cuomo’s critics argue he hasn’t done enough to force the rogue Democrats back into the fold, or put real effort behind trying to unseat them. Cuomo says he supports “Democratic unity.” But some take a more cynical view, saying the group has Cuomo’s implicit support because it allows him to govern from the center — and because both Republicans and Democrats need the governor to be the ultimate powerbroker: “We all believe that it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Cuomo’s encouraging it to exist,” Arthur Z. Schwartz, the treasurer for the New York Progressive Action Network, told the Times in 2017.

The IDC could make a deal to rejoin the rest of the Democrats before 2018, solving the issue for Cuomo. But even as the IDC has stalled some liberal legislation in New York, Cuomo still has heaped up some solid progressive accomplishments. He’s championed a $15 minimum wage and enacted 12-week paid family leave policy; got strict gun control into law; introduced a free (though imperfect) college tuition program for certain students; banned fracking; allocated $10 million for a defense fund for undocumented immigrants; and raised the age for juvenile offenders to 18. Not all of these policies are exactly what progressives advocated for, but it’s not a bad record.

“When you look at the polling data in light of the issue choices that Cuomo has made, I question the veracity of whether Cuomo has a problem with the liberal base voters anymore,” Bruce Gyory, a senior adviser at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, told City & State.

Yet liberals often don’t give Cuomo credit. He has a reputation as a political animal rather than a real populist — an ambitious, skilled operator. Michael Shnayerson, who wrote a 2015 Cuomo biography, told the New York Times in 2017 that though Cuomo has one of the best résumés of any recent Democratic figure, his political style can come off as “a dark, Nixonian character, harsh and vindictive.”

Which is why critics see his increasingly progressive policies as “liberal box-checking,” as David Freedlander wrote in Politico in 2017.

His defenders would say New York is diverse, with many competing interests, and Cuomo has managed to bring them together and govern effectively. He won Democratic victories because of his pragmatic style of politics, not in spite of them. That would be, in any other climate, a victory.

New York City: land of mayoral feuds and subway meltdowns

Nixon isn’t just challenging Cuomo from the left. She’s focusing on a key issue that residents of New York City are fuming over, and she’s doing it as an ally of New York’s other most prominent Democrat, Bill de Blasio. Nixon was an early, and outspoken, de Blasio supporter, and worked on his transition team after his first victory. Two of de Blasio’s former aides are working on Nixon’s campaign.

Tensions between Albany and New York City are nothing new, but Cuomo and de Blasio have a personal animosity that spills over into politics. As the New York Daily News writes, Cuomo thinks de Blasio is a bad manager, de Blasio thinks Cuomo is transactional, and “both of them are more than a little bit right, which makes the fight even nastier.”

Their bickering sometimes borders on the ridiculous — see: the saga of the Harlem deer — but it underscores a broader problem: The mayor and the governor need to work together on policies from affordable housing to homelessness to education, and their attempts to undercut each other create a frustrating gridlock.

This has been especially acute when it comes to the subway system. The system is on the brink of major dysfunction; overcrowded, underfunded, slapped together with outdated technology and aged infrastructure. The governor and the mayor each blame each other for the crisis.

Cuomo is technically in charge. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the subways, buses, commuter rails, is a state-run agency. But as the subway hit a crisis point last summer, the governor deflected. He eventually declared a state of emergency and the MTA came up with an $800-million turnaround plan, but Cuomo and his MTA chair keep asking the city to contribute to the cost. De Blasio has resisted, and the squabble over funding has continued. Meanwhile, the subways continue to spiral into disarray.

The other problem: Cuomo was happy to take credit for the MTA when it came to overseeing the opening of the Second Avenue subway. His critics blame him for prioritizing projects that lead to ribbon cuttings (he’s overseeing major, and necessary, infrastructure overhauls to Penn Station and LaGuardia Airport, for example) over the day-to-day maintenance and less glamorous work of keeping the subways afloat.

Nixon is capitalizing on the subway’s disrepair and the depths of rider despair. In her campaign ad, she notes that “unlike Gov. Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon rides the subway every day.” Nixon said on her website she’d prioritize emergency rescue, though hasn’t outlined the specifics — particularly when it comes to revenue raising. But her campaign has been trying to capitalize on the optics. On Tuesday, her staffer tweeted a photo of her on the subway — her train out of service:

Nixon tries to paint Cuomo as part of the swamp

Nixon is also targeting a vulnerability of Cuomo’s beyond the subway’s limits: the corruption in Albany. “If Washington is a swamp, Albany is a cesspool,” Nixon said at her campaign event. The implication, of course, is that Cuomo is mired in the muck.

Albany corruption and dysfunction seems a perpetual talking point, and dozens of lawmakers have been swept up in scandals in recent years. This year, two of Albany’s power brokers — former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos — will both face retrials for federal corruption. (Their convictions were overturned based on a Supreme Court decision.)

Cuomo ran in 2010 on a promise to clean up Albany, and he passed modest ethics reform in 2011, and he’s proposed other ethics reforms — banning state lawmakers from taking outside income, for example — but these proposals tend to die once they hit the state legislature. Critics bemoan the lack of pushback.

And a corruption scandal unfolded uncomfortably close to Cuomo. Just last week, Cuomo’s top aide, Joseph Percoco, was convicted on federal corruption charges for taking more than $300,000 from people who had business with the state.

Cuomo wasn’t indicated in any wrongdoing, but it’s a stunning blow nonetheless. Percoco wasn’t some lackey; he was known as Cuomo’s enforcer, and the governor has called him “my father’s [former Gov. Mario Cuomo] third son.”

The governor described the verdict as “personally painful”, and suggested putting additional ethics safeguards in.

But even before Percoco’s fall from grace, Cuomo faced his own ethics questions. Critics point to the brief life of the Moreland Commission to probe public corruption. It was started in 2013; less than a year later, Cuomo shut it down, saying lawmakers had agreed to ethics reform that made the commission’s work unnecessary. The abrupt shutdown prompted an investigation by then-US Attorney Preet Bharara, though federal prosecutors concluded there was insufficient evidence of any crime.

Cuomo might have 2020 on his mind

Cuomo initially joked about Nixon’s run before she officially declared, seeming to write her off as another celebrity candidate. “If it was just about name recognition, then I’m hoping that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Billy Joel don’t get into the race because if it was just about name recognition, that would really be a problem,” he said.

On Monday, Cuomo’s campaign released a more measured statement — one that put front and center his liberal accomplishments, which read like a progressive wish list:

“It’s great that we live in a democracy where anyone can run for office,” the campaign statement read.“Governor Cuomo has delivered more real progressive wins than any other Democrat in the country, including passing marriage equality, the strongest gun safety law in the nation, a $15 minimum wage, free college tuition, paid family leave, record setting funding for public education, expanding and protecting healthcare for our most vulnerable, and banning fracking.”

Nixon has an uphill battle in the gubernatorial race. A Sienna College poll taken before Nixon’s official announcement had her trailing Cuomo 66 to 19 percent among Democrats. How her candidacy will play in upstate or the suburbs, where issues like the subway matter, but perhaps don’t feature as heavily, is also an open question. Cuomo has built in advantages: allies, name recognition, reserves to the tune of $30 million.

New York’s Democratic politicians are lining up behind him. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand officially endorsed Cuomo on Tuesday. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) referred to Nixon’s bid as “a wasteful, negative, time-consuming exercise.”

But Nixon’s candidacy has resonated. Her anger over the subways has found a receptive audience. And according to her campaign, she’s raised more small-dollar donations — of less than $200 — in half a week than Cuomo has raised since 2011.

Which means Nixon could do some damage to Cuomo if he wants to join the long list of 2020 Democratic hopefuls. Cuomo has steadily been building up his résumé and bolstering his anti-Trump credentials. He’s even sounded a bit more like a presidential candidate of late.

But even if he survives, a tough primary could leave him weakened on the national stage — especially if it becomes a test of his liberal bonafides. Of course, some think his centrist credentials remains a plus — proof that he can work across party lines, and most importantly, get things done.

“Look at his career, look at his work in New York,” said Jonathan Cowan, a former Cuomo adviser and the president and founder of Third Way, a centrist think tank, Politico reported in 2017. “He is laying out a model for what it means to be a 21st-century Democrat. Our party is in a deep hole. You have to look around and say, ‘Who is succeeding? Who is doing it differently?’”

Cuomo has been noncommittal about any 2020 plans. But even if he’s just looking to 2018, the governor can’t afford to ignore Nixon.

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