Gov. Andrew Cuomo has dominated the state’s politics for the last decade. He’s strong-armed the Legislature into getting what he wants done, be it on-time budgets, a package of gun control bills or the legalization of same-sex marriage.
But over the last two terms, liberal dissatisfaction with Cuomo has been building. They want a Democratic state Senate to accomplish goals that include reforms to the state’s election and campaign finance laws. They want to see the creation of a single-payer health care system.
And they are increasingly skeptical of a governor whose campaign coffers have been filled by donors who compromise New York’s wealthy elite.
So, liberals this year have turned to Cynthia Nixon, an actress best known for her role in the Sex and the City franchise to give Cuomo a challenge unlike he’s ever faced in the past. The campaign is pitting the establishment’s way of doing business in Albany and state government against an increasingly restless base of Democratic voters who are inflamed not just be the election of President Donald Trump, but by Democrats they deem to be not doing enough to advance liberal legislation in this heavily Democratic state.
Cuomo has previously faced a primary challenge from his left flank in 2014, when he turned aside a challenge from the little known Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout. The challenger received about 34 percent of the vote in what was a low-turnout primary that hinged in part on Cuomo’s reticence to ban hydrofracking.
After securing a second term, Cuomo increasingly tracked left: He banned high-volume fracking in the state, pushed for and won an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $15 in the New York City area, enacted through regulations protections for transgender people and negotiated an agreement with the Legislature for juvenile justice reform.
But for Cuomo’s liberal detractors, the victories have either not been enough, or come at the expense of other long-sought goals. Nixon is an actress, but she’s also known in state politics circles for her work as an advocate for public education. She’s pushed the state, along with a constellation of advocacy organizations, for the state to enact the terms of a legal settlement to fully fund low-income schools. Cuomo has bristled at the assertion the state hasn’t paid up, noting that under his watch state budgets have boosted education aid to record levels.
Nevertheless, Nixon has sought to hammer Cuomo on failing to aid Democrats in taking over the state Senate, arguing that he’s preferred a Republican counterbalance in the chamber in order to avoid increasing taxes on the rich. Cuomo has, however, increased taxes on upper income earners in order to help close budget deficits.
But a Republican Senate and the agreements that have come with it have provided a useful foil for Nixon’s campaign. No state-level protections for undocumented immigrants like distributing driver’s licenses? Well, Republicans oppose that.
Cuomo has countered this with an increasingly vocal and outspoken campaign that has ignored Nixon and focused solely on Trump, whose popularity with Democrats in New York stands at low levels. Cuomo has announced support for lawsuits blocking Trump administration policies, gotten into a Twitter feud with the president and has made him the focus of his TV and web ads.
Nixon and Cuomo so far have had only one debate, and it is likely to stay that way.
It is possible the next debate could be a crowded affair. Cuomo will have least four general election opponents: Republican Marc Molinaro, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, Libertarian candidate Larry Sharpe and former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who is running on an independent ballot line.
Molinaro has a tall order in front of him given the Democratic enrollment advantage in the state, while Hawkins and Sharpe could clear the 50,000-vote threshold to retain ballot status for their parties in the next election.
Miner is a former state Democratic Committee chairwoman who became a staunch critic of the governor.
And there is still the possibility Nixon remains on the ballot even if she loses the Democratic primary on Sept. 13. She is the endorsed candidate of the Working Families Party, an independent, liberal ballot line that has spurned Cuomo’s re-election this year.
The WFP has signaled it does not want to play spoiler in the general election by supporting Nixon and potentially helping elect Molinaro. But the question remains if Cuomo would even want to take the line or let the party wither without him.