Could actress and activist Cynthia Nixon really beat incumbent Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary race to be governor of New York? It's a steep road ahead, for sure. But she is a legitimate candidate and fairly well-positioned to take advantage of Cuomo's poor governance.
She could win.
Cuomo has three large weaknesses. The first is how his self-image of Mr. Competence has been severely tarnished by his grotesque mismanagement of the New York subway. He has always strutted around as a politico who gets things done without too much ideological fussing around — an efficient technocratic manager and a wise shepherd of taxpayer dollars.
But it turns out that when it comes to the subway — whose Metropolitan Transit Authority is controlled by the governor, and without which New York City could not possibly function — Andrew Cuomo is an inept dolt. The ongoing crisis of delays and abysmal service could be seen coming a mile off, but Cuomo has spent half his governorship ignoring the onrushing disaster and the other half raiding MTA funds for his own stupid pet projects — like a $5 million ski resort bailout.
Indeed, as this Village Voice investigation demonstrates, many of the delays are likely the simple result of rule changes mandating ludicrously conservative train speeds. The fact that Cuomo hasn't yet grasped that he could sharply ameliorate the subway crisis without spending much money suggests he does not have a clue how the system works at all — and worse, doesn't have anyone who can inform him either. As usual for self-professed "pragmatic experts," Cuomo is not only intensely ideological (on transit issues, favoring automobiles above all else), he is also incompetent.
The second is his history of treachery. Cuomo is one of those instinctively vicious politicians who thinks that betraying people, especially weaker and left-leaning ones, is the right thing to do almost by definition. For instance, when running for re-election in 2014, he secured the endorsement of the Working Families Party and ran on their ballot line by promising to help take back the New York legislature for Democrats. But he instantly betrayed his promise, conniving behind the scenes to help a cabal of corrupt fake Democrats in the state Senate break away from the party and caucus with Republicans, giving them a slim majority — and allowing Cuomo to play power broker.
He vetoed a bill to fund legal defense for the poor — in the middle of the night and after waiting for the legislative session to expire. He quietly buried an anti-child sex abuse bill on the orders of the Boy Scouts and the reactionary New York Catholic leadership. Just in January, he failed to call a special election to fill an empty state Senate seat, keeping Republicans in charge of the chamber and conveniently allowing him to mouth support for liberal policy that won't pass, thus preserving his centrist reputation in advance of a 2020 presidential run. (Oh, and one of his closest aides just went down on corruption charges.)
The third is his legendary thin-skinned pettiness. Right after Nixon announced her campaign, Cuomo surrogate Christine Quinn called her an "unqualified lesbian," while Cuomo sneered that "If it's just about name recognition, then I hope Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Billy Joel don't get in the race." A bit much from a guy who cruised to office on his father's name. Cuomo is a guy who gets flustered and defensive very easily.
Nixon is well-suited to press the attack on all three points.
Of course, she has little direct experience, as an actress who has never held elected office. But that's not much of a disadvantage against an opponent who has gobs of experience but remains a fumble-fingered incompetent. To be better than Cuomo on the subway, for example, all she has to do is not demonstrate boiling hatred of public transit, and admit frankly that the governor is responsible for the MTA, which she has done. Indeed, she is a regular subway rider — which while it sounds silly, is actually very rare for elite politicos, most of whom are chauffeured around. For a governor, attention and commitment matter more than granular understanding of details, as she will of course have to hire staff to actually run the MTA.
Nevertheless, to take full advantage of the subway crisis, Nixon would be wise to put out a detailed proposal outlining a clear understanding of what's wrong and how it could be fixed.
Second, she is patently not a conscienceless political assassin. She's been a political activist for many years now, advancing causes like gay rights, reducing inequality, and universal pre-K. For lack of opportunity, if nothing else, she has never betrayed a union party, nor connived to keep Republicans in power. In speeches, she sounds like she is reading from the Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren hymnal, railing against the corruption of money in politics and the failed leadership of the Democratic Party.
Her greatest strength is probably in the barb-trading department. As an actress, she has a wit and polish that Cuomo and his attack dogs simply lack. In her first campaign press conference, Nixon dryly noted that "I don't have my certificate from the Department of Lesbian Affairs. But, in my defense, there is a lot, a lot of paperwork involved." She then tore into Cuomo for, among other things, only raising 0.1 percent of his money from small donors: "If you're a normal person in New York, the chance that Andrew Cuomo is going to care about your concerns is exactly that: 0.1 percent."
This will be a primary to watch.