Cynthia Nixon successfully opened her campaign denouncing Governor Andrew Cuomo as a man who cares more “about headlines and power” than about people.
“New York is my home. I have never lived anywhere else,” she says in her first ad. While identifying healthcare, mass incarceration, and the subways as key issues, she highlighted upstate poverty and economic stagnation, arguing that New York’s fundamental problem is income inequality: “Our leaders are letting us down, we are the most unequal state in the entire country.”
Her announcement drew a positive response, and it seems clear she will be taken seriously. The governor responded through surrogates who said the actor couldn’t do the job and, besides, it didn’t matter — she has neither the money nor the name recognition to overcome Cuomo’s incumbency advantages.
PERSPECTIVE: The Long View
But Harry Enten, a CNN commentator and contributor at Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com, said Nixon could win. He pointed to Ned Lamont’s Democratic primary victory over US Senator Joe Liberman in 2006 — just six years after Lieberman, who began the race with at 65-to-19 percent edge over Lamont, was their party’s vice presidential nominee. (Cuomo, of course, is not saddled with George W. Bush’s Iraq War, as Lieberman was.)
The political class is quietly giving Nixon room to make her case. Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, and Letitia James, the public advocate, have so far stayed neutral even as the governor worked to drum up endorsements. Media outlets across the state gave ample coverage to Nixon’s charge that Cuomo is a “bully,” often accompanying it with comments about his “hair-trigger temper.”
Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller, released a report slamming the MTA for cutting back on off-hour service during the Great Recession but not restoring it in the years since 2010, inconveniencing hospital workers, building maintenance crews, nightlife employees, and other low-income workers who often work the night shift or have early starts. “The MTA runs 60 percent fewer trains citywide from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. than it does from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., and 38 percent fewer from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m.,” the comptroller’s report pointed out. Whatever Stringer’s intentions, the report undercuts the governor’s claim, eight years after taking office, that he inherited a deteriorating system. Nixon is expected to argue the governor used the MTA as a piggy bank for other projects — think of those three upstate ski resorts — shortchanging necessary maintenance and renovations.
Only forty percent of New Yorkers told pollsters they had heard of Nixon, but the other potential Democratic challengers mentioned — State Senator Michael Gianaris from Astoria and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner — came nowhere near her in terms of name recognition. Cuomo well knows that the strongest candidate is challenging him.
The New Republic poo-pooed the claim Nixon is inexperienced — calling it “an elitist obsession with qualifications” — pointing out that being a citizen satisfied voters who elected New Jersey’s Bill Bradley, California’s Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Minnesota’s Al Franken.
Nixon’s first Albany appearance on Monday displayed her qualifications, speaking at a news conference called by the Alliance for Quality Education, an activist group she has worked with for years dedicated to ending the gap between the school budgets of poor communities without large property tax revenues and those of model schools in well-to-do communities. She slammed legislative leaders and the governor for being a “boys’ club.” Cuomo’s budgets “bully our children and our families by shortchanging them, boxing them in by denying them the opportunities they are owed. It reminds me of the behavior we see from Donald Trump every day.”
Nixon’s wife, education activist Christine Marinoni, is registered as a member of the Working Families Party, which has close ties to organized labor. Marinoni’s registration, however, will bar her from voting in the September Democratic primary — a restriction that doomed Bernie Sanders’ campaign here — and in other states — in 2016. Working Families itself will no doubt have a heated debate about whether to back Nixon, the candidate who shares its values, or Cuomo, the incumbent who could punish affiliated unions the next time contracts are negotiated. Nixon on the November ballot, even not as the Democrat, could spell trouble for Cuomo.
Nixon will certainly promote herself as a proud user of city services: she takes the subway, she graduated from public schools, and lived in a fifth-floor walk-up with a single mom. Now she walks the talk and sends her teenage boys to public school. Cuomo loves his Corvette and is more likely to be photographed in the state helicopter than underground during rush hour.
The opening act in this drama promises a furious, hard-fought campaign where Democrats on the left will give vent to their hostility toward neo-liberal centrists. In a New York Times column, Ginia Bellafante wrote that Nixon will slam Cuomo for “too little investment in public schools, too little effort made at eradicating inequality, too much capitulation to big-moneyed interests and venal and corrupt state legislators.”