Cynthia Nixon, the actress-turned-activist-turned-gubernatorial candidate has faced the ire of the political establishment since she announced her intention to run against incumbent New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination.
The New York State AFL-CIO excoriated her for comments she made that were critical of a film industry tax giveaway and union arrangements related to subway costs. Celebrity lawyer and Democratic Party donor Alan Dershowitz complained about her association with peace groups that he called “Israel haters.” Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn bizarrely slammed her as an “unqualified lesbian.” A number of labor unions are threatening to defund progressive groups if they back her race for governor.
But in a speech before a range of progressive candidates at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s candidate training in Washington, D.C., on Friday, she welcomed that hatred.
“We may have come here today from different states, from different backgrounds, and for different reasons, but everyone here today has something in common: The Democratic establishment didn’t want us to run,” she said. “Well that’s too bad, because here we are.”
She rattled off a list of issues that she argued Cuomo has failed New Yorkers on, from income inequality to school desegregation to the Democratic-dominated state’s failure to end the drug war.
Though she has not laid out a detailed platform yet, her campaign themes include raising taxes on the rich, legalizing marijuana, and enacting sweeping campaign finance and ethics reforms.
Cuomo had raised about $30 million by the end of January, according to campaign finance reports. Nixon, who entered the race last month, has not yet filed a campaign finance report, but she sought to turn her position of relative financial weakness into a strength.
“If Washington is a swamp, then Albany is a cesspool. He has built a $31 million war chest from donations from real estate executives, from Wall Street bankers, from hedge funds; 0.1 percent of his donations are small-donor donations,” she said, referring to her opponent. “It’s hard for some Democrats to do right when they’re getting millions and millions of dollars to do wrong. But I’m doing things differently on our campaign. I am not accepting a single dime of corporate money.”
The latest poll, conducted by Marist between April 3 and 9, shows that Nixon has an uphill climb. Among registered voters, Cuomo holds a 68 percent lead to Nixon’s 21 percent.
One of Nixon’s paths out of an overwhelming loss in the primary is to recruit the support of the Working Families Party. The WFP is a fusion party that operates its own ballot line in New York. For the most part, it endorses worker-friendly Democrats, but it occasionally runs candidates who identify solely as WFP, when it feels that this is a more advantageous electoral strategy.
Because of the WFP’s backing from unions, it is a powerful force in New York politics, which is why Cuomo worked very hard to get its endorsement in 2014, winning it over activist and law professor Zephyr Teachout, who had challenged Cuomo in the Democratic primary that year. Cuomo was able to win the endorsement by making a number of pledges, including to help Senate Democrats take over the upper chamber of the legislature. Four years later, they have yet to do so.
Though the WFP state convention is not until next month, its state committee members could deliver a surprise endorsement when they gather in Albany on Saturday. Some labor unions close to the incumbent governor have flexed their muscles, however, including by threatening to form their own ballot line if the WFP endorses Nixon. This new ballot line could then be used to draw votes to crowd out the WFP’s ballot line.
And should Nixon win the WFP ballot line but lose the Democratic nomination, she would have another choice to make. She could stay on the WFP line and use it to campaign against Cuomo all the way to November, building a coalition of independents and disaffected Republicans and Democrats to defeat him instead.
The Marist poll shows that her current popularity is almost twice as high in upstate New York than in New York City and that self-identified liberals are overwhelmingly sticking with Cuomo. That suggests the possibility that she could build a broader coalition of New Yorkers who are upset at Cuomo’s rule than just the self-identified political left.
There’s also the reality that the WFP needs to receive at least 50,000 votes in order to maintain its ballot line, and would count on at least some voters to ditch Cuomo in November if it endorsed Nixon instead.
Whether the Republican Party is able to field a strong candidate who would crowd out a potential Nixon general election challenge is likely key to whether that strategy is viable.
The New York Times asked Nixon about the possibility of staying on the WFP line through November if she loses the primary in an interview published this week.
“I appreciate you asking that question,” she said. “I’m not going to answer that question.”