Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon faces a steep climb to unseat Andrew Cuomo in the upcoming New York gubernatorial primary – but claims she’s already succeeding in pulling the Democratic establishment mainstay to the left as she picks off support from key liberal groups.
Cuomo, New York’s governor since 2011, is regularly eyed as a possible 2020 presidential candidate. But as he scrambles to respond to the left-wing “Sex and the City” star’s unconventional campaign, the race between the two has seemed to mimic the 2016 Democratic primary – in which the hard-left Bernie Sanders faced off against the establishment juggernaut campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Like Sanders, Nixon faces an uphill struggle, but there are signs she is making a dent in Cuomo’s New York fortress.
'Before this campaign is over, he’ll get arrested protesting his own administration.'
Known for her role as Miranda Hobbes in “Sex and the City,” Nixon picked up steam after announcing her campaign by focusing on New York City’s subway woes as a way of connecting with voters. Meanwhile, she’s picked up support from a range of left-wing groups, including the influential progressive Working Families Party.
The Daily Kos gave her their backing recently, scorching Cuomo as a “terrible Democrat.”
“Cuomo, though nominally a Democrat, has spent his entire tenure in office thwarting progressives, propping up Republicans, and coddling the one percent at the expense of the millions of New Yorkers just struggling to make it,” the outlet’s political director said in an article.
Nixon and her supporters claim to have identified areas where Cuomo is shifting to the left, on everything from pot legalization to restoring voting rights for felons.
“It’s called The Cynthia Effect,” Nixon said in a speech at a Legislative Correspondents Association dinner last Tuesday. “Since I got in the race, Cuomo has moved left not only on marijuana, but climate change, teacher evaluations, restoring voting rights and banning plastic bags.”
“Before this campaign is over, he’ll get arrested protesting his own administration,” she quipped.
Nixon claimed that Cuomo has moved quickly on marijuana in particular, noting it was only a year ago that he called it a “gateway drug.” The New York Times reports that Cuomo in January proposed a commission to look at legalization. And in April, he said, “The facts have changed.”
“You have states that have legalized it now…. It is no longer a question of legal or illegal. It’s legal in Massachusetts. It may be legal in New Jersey. Which means for all intents and purposes it’s going to be here anyway,” he said.
But Nixon took credit for Cuomo’s openness to legalization.
“But now at the rate Cuomo is changing, I expect he’ll be rolling a joint in his first campaign ad,” she said last Thursday.
It was also in April that Cuomo announced he would sign an executive order giving voting rights to felons on parole, meaning that as many as 35,000 felons could be given the vote.
Cuomo allies have dismissed Nixon’s claims of a left-ward shift by the governor, noting that Cuomo has often been ahead of the progressive curve on issues such as gay marriage, paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage and gun safety -- long before Nixon entered the race.
Cuomo has also been an opponent of the Trump administration since Day One, and was a vocal opponent of Trump’s travel ban.
“As a New Yorker, I am a Muslim,” the governor said in January 2017. “As a New Yorker, I am Jewish. As a New Yorker, I am black; I am gay; I am disabled. I am a woman seeking to control her health and choices because as a New Yorker, we are one community, the New York community comprised of all of the above.”
Cuomo’s campaign told Fox News that Cuomo’s “long record of progressive accomplishment is irrefutable.”
“Any claims otherwise should be seen for what they are: baseless election-year rhetoric,” Cuomo campaign press secretary Abbey Fashouer told Fox News.
But some experts agree that Cuomo has moved to the left to fend off Nixon.
“This started when he first faced a primary challenge in 2014,” Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist who was a special adviser to Cuomo in 2014, told Fox News. “That brought him to the left and this challenge has brought him further to the left, and he’s staking ground with his nemesis [Mayor] Bill de Blasio to be the main progressive in New York.”
One of the top issues that the two are regularly fighting over is illegal immigration, where they seem to be outdoing one another in anti-Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rhetoric. Cuomo recently drew the ire of outgoing acting ICE Director Thomas Homan for his criticism of an ICE raid. In an angry press conference, Cuomo said he was sending a cease-and-desist letter to ICE after a raid in New York he claimed was "violating the law and endangering public safety" and threatened to sue ICE if such raids continued.
"The reckless and unconstitutional practices ICE is deploying in our communities violate everything we believe in New York and are an assault on our democracy," Cuomo said. Homan accused Cuomo of “grandstanding.”
But Nixon was unimpressed.
“If Cuomo was really concerned about protecting New York's immigrant communities, then instead of saying he's doing ‘more than any other Governor,’ he would pass the Driver's License Bill and make New York a sanctuary state,” she tweeted.
It’s not clear how much of a threat Nixon poses to Cuomo. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that Cuomo held a 22-point lead over Nixon, but that lead was significantly smaller than previous polls from other organizations that had shown Cuomo with a lead of more than twice that before she announced her candidacy.
Nixon also hit a setback last week when she said that legalizing marijuana could be a form of “reparations” for black people -- which drew criticism from black groups and leaders, including Rev. Al Sharpton.
“I’m for legalizing marijuana and I like Cynthia Nixon but putting pot shops in our communities is not reparations,” he said.
Del Percio said Nixon had made an “impressive start” but questioned how much of a challenge she would be to the Democratic behemoth.
“Given her stumbles on the campaign trail, [Cuomo] should treat her as a serious challenge but I don’t think he has that much to be concerned about,” she said. “The million-dollar question is how much has she raised, and [we] won’t know that until July.”
But Nixon seems intent on keeping the pressure on Cuomo and maintaining her high-profile campaign ahead of the Sept. 13 state primary -- including challenging him to a one-on-one debate, “no distractions, and nowhere to hide.”
“Your move,” she said.