The symbolism could not have been more stark: On the opening morning of the New York State Democratic Party Convention at Hofstra University in May, the progressive caucus had been relegated to a curtained-off area that fit fewer than half the folks who showed up. There were no microphones, and speakers had to yell to be heard. Nearby, hired acts practiced their routines; for a while, a gospel choir soared. Across the way, the party’s powerful executive committee began its meeting in a much roomier space. They had multiple microphones, and their voices boomed over those addressing the progressive faithful. Against this backdrop, upstart gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon strained to make the case that she deserved to have her name put on the primary ballot to challenge two-term incumbent Andrew Cuomo. The governor, she said, has “slashed taxes on the rich, slashed services for everything else, and has run the New York subway into the ground.” Nixon promised to fight for single-payer health care and “real criminal-justice reform,” end the school-to-prison pipeline, legalize marijuana, and “make sure we are enacting all possible protections [for] immigrants.”
She finished to polite but less than rousing applause. Quickly, a delegate pressed her. “I never hear details behind the wish list,” he complained. Talking a bit louder, Nixon repeated some of what she’d said, adding a few more issues like fully funding New York’s public schools and strengthening tenant protections. “We have the wealth, if we would only use it,” she argued. But her answers lacked the policy details that this insider crowd craved. At any rate, her inquisitor appeared unimpressed.
Later that day, Nixon would win less than 5 percent of the delegate vote, far below the 25 percent threshold needed to get on the ballot. But the popular actor counted her visit to “the lion’s den” of the party establishment as a success nonetheless, telling reporters the next day that she always expected she’d have to collect the 15,000 signatures necessary to put her name on the ballot. She’ll far exceed that, promises Joe Dinkin, communications director of the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Nixon: “There’s no doubt she has the volunteer energy, because people know her as a bold and fearless activist, not an actress. She’s been in the trenches [on education, labor, LGBTQ, and civil-rights issues] for decades.”
In 2002, another upstart Democratic gubernatorial candidate likewise used a petition to get on the ballot. The young Andrew Cuomo eventually dropped his campaign against State Comptroller Carl McCall days before the primary, blaming his low standing in the polls on race. “The negative here,” he explained to The New York Times’ Bob Herbert, “is that I was running against the first African-American. It was his turn…. How could I go against Carl McCall? How could you do that? Don’t you like black people?”
Ah, there’s that trademark Cuomo charm! While the governor is widely feared by Democratic insiders, he is warmly backed by few. He has undoubtedly notched some progressive accomplishments, from marriage equality to paid family leave. But his brash contempt for democratic norms, alongside a notable failure to lead on a range of progressive issues, from cleaning up Albany corruption to education funding and tax equity, has left him vulnerable to challenges from the left—first by law professor and activist Zephyr Teachout in 2014, and now by Nixon. “I don’t think people are excited about voting for Andrew Cuomo. I just don’t,” Nixon tells me later in the bright, homey kitchen of her Noho apartment. “We want to get people excited again about the Democratic Party.”