Ever since Cynthia Nixon announced her long-shot campaign to become New York’s next governor, the current incumbent has been a changed man. Not only has Andrew Cuomo publicly reconsidered his longtime opposition to legalizing marijuana and issued an executive order restoring voting rights to felons who have been released on parole, he also spoke out against the wave of federal immigration raids across the state. After first refusing to endorse a $19 billion plan to overhaul New York City’s crumbling subways, the governor now supports it. Somewhere under a sofa in Albany, he also found a spare $250 million to begin to address New York City’s ongoing public-housing emergency. Thanks to the “Cynthia effect,” Cuomo has even managed to find the political muscle to broker an end to the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction of state senators who caucused with the Republicans, stymieing progressive legislation.
Just as he did in response to Zephyr Teachout’s challenge four years ago, when he changed his mind on fracking and enacted a $15 state minimum wage, New York’s mercurial governor is once again running to his left. Cynthia Nixon deserves credit for that, and for finally making the shame of New York’s public schools—and the scandalous failure to address the savage inequality in resources between some of the most lavishly funded districts in the country and many of the most deprived—into an urgent issue. She deserves credit for putting forward bold, progressive, commonsense positions on universal health care, public housing, education, renewable energy, rent protection, and mass transportation—not just in New York City but across the state, from Buffalo to Long Island. She also deserves credit for her courage in taking on one of the most powerful men in the country and a notorious holder of grudges.
But if you’re a voter in New York State, does she deserve your support? The rap on Nixon, spread in part by the governor’s sound machine, is that she’s an unqualified lightweight, a politically correct, liberal TV star gaining attention simply because of her celebrity. It’s true that Nixon is not a career politician. She doesn’t have a record of government service, and there’s no question that her celebrity is central to her ability to challenge Cuomo. But we live in a world where money talks, and Cuomo’s $30 million war chest—hardly any of it from small donors—has frightened off most challengers. The celebrity that Nixon earned from her career as an actor is the capital that makes her run not only possible, but viable. That she has long chosen to use her fame to lift up the movements for public education, LGBTQ rights, renewable energy, and housing justice speaks to her character. She may not have as much executive experience as her opponent, but as someone who grew up in a one-bedroom, five-story walk-up as the daughter of a single mother, was educated in New York City’s public schools, has worked continuously since the age of 12, and has paid dues to four different unions, Nixon has the life experience to be a governor of and for the people. If elected, she won’t be beholden to the entrenched interests and political machines that dominate state government. We can surely count on her to shake up business as usual.
By contrast, Andrew Cuomo has consistently disappointed, often standing in the way of vital reforms. He’s been a cheerleader for charter schools, a foe of campaign-finance reform, and the author of a series of austerity measures that balanced the state’s budget on the backs of public servants and the poor rather than raising taxes on New York’s burgeoning millionaire class. Far from confronting the culture of corruption that has long infected Albany, Cuomo has embraced it, most notably by deciding to abolish the Moreland Commission before it could finish its investigation. He let Republicans in the State Senate draw their own district lines and readily accepted contributions from the Koch brothers and other GOP mega-donors.