ALBANY — Cynthia Nixon kicked off a left-flank challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday, setting off a scramble for institutional support in New York’s Democrat-dominated political circles and making Cuomo’s quest for a third term a two-front war.
The “Sex and the City” actress registered a campaign committee and released a video that showed her with her wife and children, riding an Amtrak train and walking through streetscapes gilded and grubby.
“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today," she says in the video. "Our leaders are letting us down; we are now the most unequal state in the entire country. We are sick of politicians who care more about headlines and power than they do about us.”
The announcement video was produced by WIN Media, a political consulting firm run by Matt McLaughlin and Bill Hyers, a prominent Democratic political consultant who ran Bill de Blasio’s successful 2013 mayoral campaign. The campaign will be managed by Nicole Aro, the former digital director of the AFL-CIO, according to a source close to the effort.
Nixon has publicly speculated about running for office for months. Recent events, particularly the corruption trial of one of Cuomo’s closest confidantes, Joe Percoco, helped push her into the race, a source close to the campaign told POLITICO. Last week, the New York Post reported that Nixon’s wife, Christine Marinoni, a special adviser for community partnerships in the New York City Department of Education, had quit her job. It was perceived to be a precursor to Nixon’s run for office.
“I think it was a slow burn,” the source said of Nixon’s desire to jump into the race. “As the governor became more and more steeped in his quest for power and headlines and not actually getting things done for the state, and the more you saw in the Percoco trial how state government is actually run, when you see all that — it just built up.”
A bruising primary could hurt Cuomo’s presidential ambitions, such as they are.
But challenging Cuomo will be no easy task. He is a political scion with universal name recognition and a political war chest of $30 million and growing. That's why would-be challengers, from former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner to de Blasio himself, have offered critiques but never declared.
The battle lines — education funding, delays on New York City’s subways, corruption and Percoco’s recent conviction — have been in the ether. But Nixon’s formal announcement will ignite a private scramble for support between Nixon and Cuomo that has been underway for several weeks.
“I’m thrilled,” said Heather Stewart, an organizer of Empire State Indivisible, a progressive group that has been organizing against a faction of Democratic state senators allied with Republicans. “I hope more step forward, too, and that it becomes an exciting race. I’m very interested in seeing how this pans out.”
Progressives around the state have long been leery of Cuomo. Many were galvanized in 2014 by Zephyr Teachout, a little-known law professor at the time who ran against Cuomo for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. She assailed Cuomo on issues such as campaign finance reform, tax cuts for corporations and the possibility of natural gas hydrofracking, which Cuomo later banned. Teachout went on to win about a third of the primary vote four years ago. A Siena Research Institute poll released Monday showed Cuomo leading Nixon 66-19 among registered Democrats.
Teachout is now serving as Nixon's campaign treasurer.
In the two weeks since news broke that Nixon was talking with Hyers and Rebecca Katz, two political consultants with deep ties to de Blasio, Cuomo has been in a tizzy to tout his progressive bona fides and endorsements.
He released a television ad, paid for by the New York State Democratic Committee, touting his 2013 gun control law. He emailed his campaign supporters about a voting rights rally that “our friends” at Empire State Indivisible participated in this weekend. (Cuomo did not attend.)
He released the endorsement of Elton John, held a conference call with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), rallied with Al Gore about offshore drilling and met with several prominent African-American clergy about school funding transparency.
The governor already has formal endorsements in hand from several longtime backers, including 1199SEIU, which represents health care workers and supported Cuomo’s push to increase the minimum wage; the National Organization for Women; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; and the Human Rights Campaign, which worked with Cuomo in pushing to legalize same-sex marriage.
Both Cuomo and Nixon spoke at the HRC gala in February, shortly after the group endorsed Cuomo and as it feted Nixon with its "Visibility Award." Cuomo spoke about protecting transgender New Yorkers from changes in federal policy and promised to “fight, as governor, every action they take to limit individual rights or roll back our progress.”
Nixon that night said officials should do more.
“We have to be more than the anti-Trump party,” she said. “In 2018, we don't just need to elect more Democrats, we also need better Democrats.”
Lots of people will be doing these calculations: Cuomo has gotten tangible results while Nixon, however prosaic her promises, has no governmental record. And Cuomo controls many levers of power as governor, starts the race as the favorite, and is known to have a long memory for those who cross him.
“Cuomo has produced probably the most pro-worker agenda in the country as a governor,” said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, who said Nixon’s candidacy would distract from Democratic efforts in legislative campaigns. “Just like it was a mistake to nominate Trump because of his celebrity status as his main credential … the governor of the state needs to have demonstrated ability running government, and celebrity status does not substitute for that.”
Expect many Democrats who have been critical of the governor to try to duck the issue for as long as possible. When asked for comment about Nixon's announcement, state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) said, “Nah, not right now,” and briskly walked away.
Cuomo tried to belittle Nixon’s celebrity two weeks ago when news broke that she was close to a run. Spokesmen for the governor’s political team did not immediately comment.
But with media outlets from as far away as Germany covering news of Nixon’s launch, it will be almost impossible for the governor to ignore her as he did with Teachout.
Teachout told POLITICO that she briefed Nixon about about her own campaign in 2014.
"I did tell her [about] some of the things that really surprised me about running against Cuomo — one was just how uncomfortable he is with being challenged, and with basic human back-and-forth,” Teachout said. “He didn't shake my hand, he didn't say my name, he said debates were a disservice to democracy. But it struck me as coming from a fear.”
“She’s very straightforward,” Teachout said of Nixon. “She’s not afraid.”
Annie Karni contributed to this report.