When it was first rumored that actress and activist Cynthia Nixon might challenge Andrew Cuomo, the governor laughed it off. On a conference call with reporters earlier this month, Cuomo said that “if it’s just about name recognition, I’m hoping that Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Billy Joel don’t get into the race.” (Cuomo helpfully failed to note that, as the son of former governor Mario Cuomo, his political career literally exists solely because of name recognition.) On Monday, Nixon finally made her run against Cuomo official.
On the face of it, it’s easy to write off her bid. Cuomo has spent the last eight years in tight control, has amassed a $30 million war chest for his re-election campaign, and has a big lead in the polls. Nixon, who is rooted in New York City, will have difficult inroads to make in conservative upstate districts.
But Cuomo underestimates Nixon at his own peril. Over his last two terms, he has worked again and again to stymie progressives in New York, leaving them extremely, and justifiably, frustrated, and his sneering attitude toward Nixon will do him no favors.
While Cuomo likes to tout achievements like passing a $15 minimum wage, gay marriage, and gun control, he has also worked to prop up the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight breakaway state Senate Democrats who caucus with Republicans, effectively giving them the majority. The Republican-led state Senate, with the help of the IDC, has worked to block progressive priorities on reproductive rights, immigration, and electoral reform.
The arrangement is complicated and obscure by nature. But while activists have harbored anger over the IDC for years, they are paying attention to the group than ever before, with protesters rallying at IDC members’ town hall meetings.
Then there is the crumbling subway infrastructure—fixing it is one of Nixon’s main policy platforms—and Cuomo’s frequent missteps, like the fact that he can’t seem to open his mouth without mansplaining sexual harassment to female reporters. Oh, and Joseph Percoco, one of his closest aides, was recently found guilty of corruption. Cuomo tried to pretend like he didn’t come up in the corruption trial—an obvious falsehood.
Four years ago, Cuomo was challenged on the left by Zephyr Teachout. Teachout, who was a relatively unknown university professor at the time, ran with little organizational backing and money, but still won 35% of the primary vote. Now she is serving as Nixon’s campaign treasurer.
Nixon faces an uphill battle and the fact that there isn’t a deeper bench engendering even more qualified challengers is a sign of how successful Cuomo has been in subduing the Democratic left. But there is no doubt that Nixon’s campaign—buoyed by a wave of progressive dissatisfaction with the governor—is a sign of Cuomo’s chickens coming to roost. The question is whether he’ll continue to laugh it off or will actually get the message.