Cynthia Nixon speaking at OZY Fest in Manhattan last month (Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock)
Tonight, Governor Andrew Cuomo and his primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, will sit in a Hofstra University auditorium of precisely calibrated temperature for an hourlong debate. The painstakingly negotiated meeting—airing via tape delay on WCBS at 7 p.m.—will be their first and only time in a room together ahead of the September 13th primary. For many New Yorkers, it will be their first introduction to the former “Sex and the City” star turned candidate as well; Cuomo has maintained a comfortable lead in the polls, and over a quarter of surveyed voters say they don’t know enough about Nixon’s politics to form an opinion on her.
As the underdog candidate seeks to court still-undecided voters—and to coax the governor’s foot into his mouth—moderators Marcia Kramer and Maurice DuBois will also be looking for details on Nixon’s policy goals for New York. Five months of careful campaigning from Nixon may have pushed Cuomo left, but political observers and advocates say that certain planks of her platform—on subjects ranging from housing to education to transit—could stand to be fleshed out. Flawed or not, Cuomo has been governor for nearly eight years, and New Yorkers know how his, um, civic sausage is made. Below are a few questions Nixon may be called to answer as we draw closer to the September 13th primary. We’ve reached out to her campaign, and will update if they respond.
Ever since Cynthia Nixon announced she was running for governor—at an event in Brownsville, which she arrived at via a heavily-delayed 3 train—the candidate has rarely missed a chance to point to the failing subways as evidence of her opponent’s incompetence. In sleek ad buys and rush hour press conferences, Nixon has elevated “#CuomosMTA” to a sort of campaign rallying cry (for a time, it was the sole policy-related tab on her website), while repeatedly slamming the governor for showing “no urgency” in the face of a crisis.
Yet in substance, at least, Nixon’s own plan for fixing the subway closely resembles the blueprint put forth by her rival: Both are backing Andy Byford’s sweeping subway and bus overhaul proposal, and both have endorsed congestion pricing to pay for the plan’s enormous price tag. Nixon’s platform also calls for additional revenue streams for the MTA through Mayor de Blasio’s millionaire’s tax (“not feasible,” per Cuomo) along with a short-on-details polluter fee.
The biggest difference in their platforms, however, may be Nixon’s willingness to force the issue on congestion pricing. “Cuomo certainly hasn’t seemed to wrap his arms around it, and when he had the opportunity to really knock heads in the legislature, he failed to do that,” said StreetsPAC Executive Director Eric McClure, who added that he was largely impressed by the candidate’s transit promises. “It’s clear that this is a priority for Nixon, so the question would be: how as governor would you make this happen on an expedited time frame, given the reticence in both houses of the legislature to get on board with congestion pricing?”
Alain Kaloyeros, who was in charge of Governor Cuomo’s marquee economic development project, the “Buffalo Billion,” was convicted last month of steering millions of dollars to firms that donated to Governor Cuomo. Joseph Percoco, Cuomo’s old enforcer and Mario Cuomo’s “third son,” was convicted of taking bribes from companies with state business. A $15 million tax payer-funded movie studio outside of Syracuse is a dud. Oswego, New York, population 18,000, just got a $10 million economic development injection from the governor, but no one seems to know what that money is for.
“If Cynthia Nixon were governor and she followed the Cuomo mold, she would basically have complete control over about $3 billion in economic development money,” says Susan Lerner, the executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York. “It’s not 20 percent of the budget, but it’s still a lot of money.”
Nixon supports banning “pay-to-play” donations from companies with business before the state, lowering campaign contributions limits, closing the LLC loophole, and wants to reinstate the Moreland Commission that Cuomo shut down all too soon. Her 16-page plan to fight corruption and waste calls for more oversight of state contracts and the passage of pending legislation that would create a public database for all of the business subsidies the state has doled out. What’s missing from Nixon’s plan is what she would do with all that discretionary cash.
“It’s easy to say this is wrong, and we should have some accountability. Well, lay out the right way to do it, from your point of view,” Lerner says. “How are you going to parcel that money out? Are you going to give it back to the legislature? Will you abolish the Empire State Development Corporation? What will you replace it with? How are you going to do it?”
The One Kind Of School That Shan’t Be Named
When the governor inevitably casts his opponent as a political neophyte on Wednesday night, you can bet that Cynthia Nixon will bring up her nearly two decades of experience as a public schools advocate. She’s repeatedly cited that activism as her inspiration for running, and centered much of her platform on a hugely ambitious education proposal that would increase the state’s yearly investment in K-12 by $4.2 billion, expand child care subsidies by $700 million, and establish a “real ‘Free College for All’ program.”
But despite staking her candidacy on educational equity, Nixon has so far managed to steer clear of one of the city’s thorniest education issues: yeshivas, and what role the state should play in ensuring that students at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools receive a proper secular education. Her 24-page education plan, released amid a long-stalled investigation into the quality of instruction at the religious institutions, did not once mention yeshivas. Asked about the call for more oversight during a June press conference, Nixon replied that she was “not going to weigh in on that today.” To date, it appears she has not spoken publicly about the subject.
For Naftuli Moster, executive director of the yeshiva reform group Young Adults For A Fair Education, the candidate’s silence is “disappointing.” He speculated that Nixon’s hesitancy to speak out against evidence of educational neglect at the religious schools might be a political calculation—potentially related to her friendship with Mayor de Blasio, who’s been widely criticized for dragging out the investigation into the city’s yeshivas. “That’s problematic because children’s right to an equal education should not be subject to political consideration,” said Moster.
Universal Rent Control (In Her Own Words)
Universal rent control is an umbrella term encompassing a fluid set of demands within a rising nationwide housing rights movement. In New York, it typically refers to a multi-pronged platform that would extend rent stabilization protections to those who do not currently live in New York City or three neighboring counties—through expanding the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, closing rent stabilization loopholes extended by the governor, and preventing unjust evictions. As Curbed recently noted, a new coalition of tenant and homeless advocacy groups, the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance, has mounted a statewide mobilizing effort in support of such protections, with an eye toward upcoming elections.
The group has already found a committed ally in Cynthia Nixon, whose Rent Justice for All proposal covers all of the alliance’s demands—and even takes them a step further, calling for rent stabilization laws to be applied not just to buildings with six or more units built before 1974, but to all new construction as well. But when asked about the proposal during a campaign event earlier this month, Nixon reportedly “stumbled on the details,” declining to elaborate on specifics such as what percentage increase in rent she’d like to see.
While the real estate industry and Cuomo’s team pounced on the gaffe, tenants rights advocates have stuck with Nixon. “It’s a very new idea, and it’s been hard to get candidates to even talk about strengthening rent rules, so we’re excited to work with any elected official who’s willing to work with us,” said Andrea Shapiro, an organizer with the Metropolitan Council on Housing, which is a member of the Upstate/Downstate Alliance. The next step, said Shapiro, is figuring out the “nitty-gritty” of what universal rent control means for New York.
Cynthia Nixon’s voting rights reform platform includes automatic voter registration, early voting, and party registration dates that expand, not narrow, the pool of potential voters. But it doesn’t mention New York’s addiction to special elections. A 2017 report from Citizens Union found that 29 percent (61 total) of all New York legislators seated that year got there after a special election. Those candidates are chosen by party leadership, not the actual voters who make up the party.
“The winners of almost all special election contests are determined prior to the special election because the legislative districts are drawn to favor one major political party over another,” says Rachel Bloom, the director of public policy and programs for Citizens Union. “This means that in almost all special elections, the candidate chosen by the leaders of the dominant party wins, rendering useless the ballots of the voters since they are simply approving the predetermined candidate choices.”
Bloom says she would ask Nixon, “As Governor, what specific reforms would you put forward to reform this process and give the choice back to the voters, not the parties?”
Here’s how (and where) you can watch tonight’s debate.