Once again New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing a primary challenger on his left, “Sex & the City” co-star Cynthia Nixon. I would be astonished if Nixon succeeded in grabbing the nomination from Cuomo, but he shows no signs of complacency. Cuomo ads appear regularly on local TV, and Cuomo has condescended to debate his opponent, which he didn’t do in 2014.
The debate, on Wednesday night, was informative though often cringeworthy, with plenty of nasty exchanges. I was personally put off by Nixon’s rudeness—she repeatedly interrupted Cuomo during his time—but I think she came out the winner, at least narrowly. Everyone expected Cuomo to know his stuff, which he does, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nixon. Well, she knows her stuff, and knows how to dish it out. She is clearly very smart, and, for a private citizen, has an impressive, wide-ranging knowledge of the policy issues. (She’s also practiced at the standard politician’s ploy of evading a tough question by “answering” a question that wasn’t asked.)
There’s a lot in Cuomo’s record to criticize, and Nixon landed a number of good hits—on Cuomo’s complicity with the so-called “independent Democrats” who vote with the Republicans in the State Senate, on corruption under his watch, and on his stewardship of the MTA. Of course, Cuomo always had defenses, and to someone who isn’t steeped in NY state policy issues (I plead guilty) it was often hard to assess the merits of the charges and defenses. Cuomo lobbed a number of counterattacks that mostly made him look petty and silly. He tried, unconvincingly, to make Nixon look like a tax evader and influence peddler. Unless I’m forgetting something, the only really important policy issues on which the two candidates differed significantly were health care (she wants single payer at the state level; he thinks it’s best left to the feds) and the right of public employees to strike (she’s for, he’s against).
I’m voting for Nixon. My objections to Cuomo are what they’ve always been. He is a more than slightly sleazy, opportunistic centrist. Yes, he has a decent record on social issues like guns, abortion and gay rights, but on economics he’s about as conservative as any Northeastern Democratic governor could be expected to be. We can and should look for better in a progressive state with a wealth of political talent.
The standard objection to supporting someone like Nixon is that she has no experience governing. That doesn’t move me. First, she’s not going to win anyway, but a strong showing by Nixon will send the powerful message that Democrats expect their party to stand for something more than politics as usual. It’s not a bad thing to put a bit of fear of the left into establishment Democrats. Second, in the highly unlikely event that she does win, the possibility of really shaking things up in Albany would, to my mind, count for more than the problem of inexperience. The neophyte Ronald Reagan, after all, wasn’t a bad governor of California if you accept his political philosophy. Cynthia Nixon is a lot smarter than Ronald Reagan.