As Cynthia Nixon tried to make the most of her own hour to go directly at Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the two-term governor—in his first gubernatorial primary debate—preferred to talk about President Donald Trump.
“You have to fight Donald Trump”—who flirted with his own run against Cuomo four years ago—”who is the main risk to the state of New York. He is trying to change the rights and values of New Yorkers. The first line of defense is New York and the governor leads that fight and you need to know how to do it.”
Democratic primary voters seemed energized and unattached to the establishment party figures, particularly after veteran Democratic lawmaker Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens lost his primary race to a progressive, first-time candidate. At Hofstra, Cuomo sought to reshape the landscape of the debate to more favorable terms. Instead of letting his own progressive first-time candidate pull him into a discussion about his party bona fides, Cuomo offered himself as a leader of the Resistance to Trump, whose inflammatory rhetoric and policies have energized Democratic voters.
Cuomo mentioned Trump’s name 11 times during the 55-minute debate, which took place at Hofstra University on Long Island and was hosted by CBS New York. Cuomo also used his opening remarks to describe the job he’s held since 2011 as one that requires action, rather than rhetoric.
“The governor of New York is not a job about politics, it’s not about advocacy; it’s about doing; it’s about management.This is real life,” Cuomo said. “Governor of New York, you’re running a $170 billion budget. You’re in charge of fighting terrorism; you’re there in cases of fires and floods and emergencies and train wrecks.”
Cuomo’s opponent, actress and education advocate Cynthia Nixon, shot back: “experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re not actually good at governing.”
Nixon questioned Cuomo’s progressive credentials, criticizing him for not pushing drivers licenses for undocumented residents of campaign finance reforms, for taking money from the Koch brothers, and for allowing Republican state senators to gerrymander the districts in that chamber back in 2011. Stylistically, Nixon repeatedly interjected and spoke over Cuomo, seemingly trying to get him to lose his cool — a strategy many have tried against him.
Nixon, in her first run for office, said she was prepared to be governor as a lifelong New Yorker and a public school parent. Asked again about her qualifications, she replied, “So, as I’ve said, I have been a longtime activist for the public schools, and that means organizing rallies, meeting with legislators, shepherding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity through” and her advocacy in support of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Nixon, too, invoked Trump: “We already have a corrupt corporate Republican in the White House, we don’t need a corrupt corporate Democrat in Albany.”
After Nixon said Cuomo has taken more money through the state’s notorious LLC loophole — which effectively allows people to circumvent the state’s campaign contribution limits — Cuomo said he can’t unilaterally change the state’s laws. “To change the campaign finance laws, you need something called the New York State legislature to pass it,” Cuomo said. Then, snapping his fingers, he said, “You don’t snap your fingers as governor, and it happens.”
He did not directly address why he currently accepts campaign contributions from LLCs (limited liability corporations). Cuomo has vastly out-raised Nixon, with most of his money coming in large chunks and much of it from LLCs. He used some of that money to run an ad immediately before and after the debate featuring footage of Nixon praising him in past years.
During the debate those ads bookended, Cuomo tried to reverse Nixon’s charge, calling her a “corporate donor” to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“How am I a corporate donor?” Nixon asked.
Cuomo said it was because “you file taxes as a corporation. You are a corporation. You donated to the mayor.”
As Nixon tried to rebut, Cuomo said, “You are a corporation” and asked, “Are you a corporation?”
“I am a person,” Nixon replied.
“And you’re a corporation,” Cuomo said.
Nixon said any donations she makes are personal, and not through her corporation (which as the Daily News described earlier, is “a pass-through corporation Nixon set up to handle her acting income and expenses).
Cuomo also accused Nixon of having “called the mayor’s office [seeking] special favors for her friend.”
Nixon said she asked for helicopters to stop flying over free performances of Shakespeare in the Park.
“Oh, that’s not a favor?” Cuomo responded.
Nixon said, “That’s not a favor — that’s a favor to the people of New York.”
The other major figure who loomed over the debate at Hofstra University was Mayor de Blasio. When asked, neither Cuomo nor Nixon said they wanted de Blasio’s endorsement.
“I love Mayor de Blasio,” said Cuomo, who has a very public, years-long feud with the mayor. “I’m sure he loves me, in a strange sorta way. After 30 years, we have a dysfunctional relationship,” he said.
When pressed for a yes-or-no answer, Cuomo, said, “No yes-or-no, he [de Blasio] makes his own decisions.”
Nixon said, “This is a race that I am running on my own. This does not have to do with any particular endorsement that I’ve gotten or haven’t gotten.” When pressed whether her answer was a “yes or a no,” Nixon replied, “It’s neither.”
In the spin room after the debate, surrogates for each side claimed victory.
Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa-Mark Viverito said “I think she got under his skin. He tried to scold her or wave and wag his finger at her a couple of times. She stood her ground.”
Akeem Browder, a justice reform advocate and brother of Kalief Browder, who endorsed Nixon earlier this week, and dismissed Cuomo’s lengthy resume. “I highly doubt the fact that she hasn’t been governor should be anything to weigh on. Who is governor before running for governor?
“That’s why you have an intelligent crew that runs with you,” Browder said. “We have people that are very educated that are helping out in her campaign.”
Jefrey Pollock, Cuomo’s campaign pollster, echoed the themes of Cuomo’s opening remarks, that Nixon is an actress who is unprepared for the real-life role of governing. “For a person who is a trained actress, I was actually surprised at how she failed to deliver the lines she was supposed to deliver,” Pollock said. “I think she came off as hot and I don’t think she showed a fundamental knowledge that voters are looking for.”
Cuomo’s campaign manager, Maggie Moran stuck to the Trump-experience script. “When you think about the Donald Trump attacks on New York . . . if you don’t have the ability to deliver real results for people and don’t have the experience to get it done in this climate.”