Wednesday night, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo faced challenger Cynthia Nixon, former Sex and the City star, in their first and only primary debate. Recent polls have put Cuomo well ahead of Nixon, with a spread of about 30 points, but Nixon seems undaunted. At times the two sparred bitterly, even childishly, but really no candidate landed any bruisers.
Cuomo at one point asked Nixon, “Can you stop interrupting?” She replied, “Can you stop lying?” He said, “As soon as you do.”
In the end Nixon, as the novice and underdog who held her own onstage with a two-term governor, walked out with an edge.
If you’re not up to speed on the Cuomo-Nixon race, it comes down to a few major issues, all of which arose on Wednesday.
Most importantly, the race reflects one of the biggest dilemmas facing Democrats nationally: Do we put our trust in veteran pols and centrists such as Cuomo, or do we try to rally voters around more exciting outsider candidates such as Nixon? Both are double-edged, and it comes down to purity/naivete versus experience/corruption. The two candidates got to this work immediately, with Nixon charging Cuomo as a “corrupt corporate Democrat” who shelves policies that matter to progressives, especially young ones. Cuomo leaned on his experience, at one point telling Nixon, “you don’t snap your fingers” to get things done.
Nixon, who holds an Emmy for her supporting role in SATC, now has to win New Yorkers’ trust as a celebrity candidate—doubly difficult in the age of Trump. For a while Cuomo ignored her, acting as it she wasn’t serious enough to merit attention, but Nixon, with a throng of grassroots progressives behind her, has in recent months pushed Cuomo to the left. The fact that the two-term incumbent even attended his first primary debate in more than a decade certainly says something about her viability.
It was no surprise tonight that Cuomo tried to define himself at every turn as an experienced politician, at the top of the hour highlighting his executive experience: Managing a billion-dollar budget; counter-terrorism; navigating the Republican-led state senate; etc. Nixon, an activist and a first-time candidate, had no available rejoinder, save for saying, “experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re not actually good at governing.” But also note that New York has never had a female governor, and Cuomo was subtly defining the job in terms that traditionally advantage men.
Cuomo of course played up Nixon’s celebrity — a brand colored by the glitzy and superficial image of the show she starred in. At one point he shoehorned in a nonsensical dig about Sarah Jessica Parker and a complaint Nixon supposedly forwarded to the NYC mayor on her behalf about a tea house. But the way Cuomo framed it didn’t make much sense, even to Nixon. That line of attack bores me, but it also seems stupid because Cuomo’s puerile approach undermines the no-nonsense image he’s trying to cut.
Nixon, for her part, ragged on Cuomo’s corruption. “He used the MTA like his ATM,” she said at one point, referencing the governor’s financial control over New York City’s transit authority, which over the course of Cuomo’s tenure has fallen into a sad state of disrepair. (Cuomo’s solution is a joint budget between state and city: “I want to fund a $33 billion plan. That’s what we need to fix the subway. I don’t want to do it just one step at a time.”) Nixon spoke eloquently in support of core progressive issues such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and a more fair redistribution of education funding. Towards the end, when the moderator challenged her commitment to socialism, Nixon, whose wealth had been a target all evening, said she’d donate her salary back to the state. (Cuomo was also asked to make a commitment not to run for President in 2020 if re-elected, to which he enthusiastically consented.)
And indeed a progressive influence was evident throughout the debate. The two went back and forth about labor unions, with Nixon alleging that Cuomo’s support for a state-wide $15 minimum wage came only after labor unions pressured him into it. Cuomo, though, is endorsed by all of the state’s major labor unions, and at one point he asked the debate crowd, “How am I with labor?” He got cheers.
When Cuomo hedged about whether workers should strike even if it disrupts the city, Nixon went left to defend them: “Workers don’t want to strike. They only strike when they’re so aggrieved they have no other recourse. You can only successfully strike when the public is with you.” Cuomo then pivoted to Trump, as he did many times in the evening, calling out the administration’s sustained attack on organized labor nationwide.
It might not be easy to pin Cuomo as a centrist. He’s enacted some of the most progressive policies of any states. In 2011 the New York legislature sanctioned same-sex marriage, and in 2013 Cuomo effected some of the toughest gun laws in the country. And then there’s the $15 minimum wage and paid family leave.
But Nixon’s candidacy has recently pushed Cuomo even further left. In the last few months he’s dropped his opposition to legalizing pot and committed to restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of felons. He also floated the idea of a plastic bag ban, less than a year after he stopped New York City from taxing them.
And speaking of taxes, the issue of personal tax returns might have been the most hotly contended point of the night. Neither of these candidates have been totally transparent. Nixon just last week offered reporters a look at the last five years of her income taxes, and though Cuomo has since come clean, when he initially ran for governor he refused to release his forms.
Surprisingly, though, Nixon could have scored the biggest hit but passed. Wednesday afternoon a major story broke that Cuomo had accepted a $25,000 donation from Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer, David Boies, just days before the governor suspended a state investigation into the Manhattan DA’s conduct in the Weinstein case. That investigation itself began after it was revealed that Boies donated $10,000 to the district attorney just before he decided not to prosecute Weinstein. If Cuomo can’t uncouple his name from Weinstein before the Sept. 13 primary election, the balance of the race might tip. Unfortunately for Nixon, this was it for the debates. There’s no second chance.