HEMPSTEAD, New York—On the day before the debate between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon, Nixon had requested that the debate hall be kept at a comfortable 76 degrees. It was a challenge to Cuomo’s well-documented and somewhat notorious penchant for cold rooms and to the patriarchy of freezing offices more generally. While the cavernous David S. Mack Sports Complex at Hofstra University felt cold on Wednesday afternoon, it was 74 degrees, according to my trusted camping thermometer. No clear winner or loser on that one.
Still, the fact that the debate was happening at all could be considered a win for Nixon, the actor and activist challenging a well-resourced, two-term incumbent from the left. Cuomo, who in the past has described some debates as “a disservice to democracy,” refused to debate his challenger Zephyr Teachout in 2014, and, in his first run for governor in 2010, took part in only one roundtable debate. Nixon, for her part, has relished needling Cuomo on his longstanding refusal to go one-on-one with his opponents, releasing a video in May where she taunted the governor: “So, what’s it going to be, Andrew? Just you and me, on a stage.”
While her campaign has inspired enthusiastic support from progressives and New Yorkers who simply enjoy watching Cuomo get trolled, she has an uphill battle in the race, trailing by wide margins in every single poll. (In a Siena poll of likely Democratic primary voters from the end of July, Cuomo had a more than 30 point advantage over Nixon.) Cuomo, never mind the corruption scandals surrounding his administration and his tendency to embrace progressive positions only when under severe duress, is remarkably popular in the state, having styled himself in recent months as a leader of the anti-Trump #Resistance. This new look comes despite his refusal to build support for and pass much-needed progressive legislation.
But in some ways, Nixon’s entrance into the primary has itself been a kind of progressive victory: her candidacy has already forced Cuomo to move to the left on several issues, what her supporters have dubbed the “Cynthia Effect.” Just one example—after she came out in support of legalizing marijuana, Cuomo, who called weed a “gateway drug” in 2017, quickly reversed his position, saying, “The situation has changed drastically with marijuana.” But Nixon isn’t running to make Cuomo a better governor, she says; she’s running to become the governor, pointing to the long-shot campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, more recently, Andrew Gillum in the Florida Democratic race for governor as proof that her insurgent campaign can succeed.
Outside “The Mack,” a group of Nixon supporters—Bertha Lewis, the former head of ACORN; Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education (an organization Nixon has supported for years); and Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, who after his brother’s death has become a criminal justice reform advocate—were passing time before the debate began. Lewis was smoking a cigarette and wearing a red, black, and green-colored sticker that said “Ride or Die Cynthia Nixon,” which she had printed and distributed to other Nixon supporters attending the debate.
“I’ve had a problem with this guy since years ago,” Lewis said of Cuomo. “All of us in the field, the grassroots, we’ve had to fight and push him every step of the way.”
Ansari echoed Lewis. “After eight years after not funding our schools, what’s your excuse?” she said of Cuomo. “Cuomo is not sitting on the floor listening to black women share their issues, he’s not visiting mosques, he’s not doing anything Cynthia’s been doing.”
They continued rattling off a litany of frustrations with the governor’s tenure. “I thought it was a bit rich when Andy ‘discovered’ NYCHA, when he was HUD Secretary,” she said.
“Andy?” I asked.
“He doesn’t like to be called Andy, that’s why. He’ll always be Andy to me.”
Browder endorsed Nixon earlier in August. “[Cuomo] promised me there would be criminal justice reform, that in Kalief’s name, he’d go forward with the reforms I’d been pushing,” he said. “April 1 came, and he did not come through with his promise.”
Cuomo had invited Browder to attend his 2018 State of State address, where he pledged to enact reforms like the end of cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent offenses and a commitment to speedier trials. “Akeem, I want you to know that your brother did not die in vain,” Cuomo said during that speech.
The reforms were left out of the final budget. “When it comes to something that affects the impoverished or black and brown communities, he doesn’t do anything,” Browder said.
If Nixon’s campaign has actively courted the grassroots, winning the endorsements of everyone from the Democratic Socialists of America to the Working Families Party to The Nation magazine and refusing to take PAC money, Cuomo has stayed the establishment route. That came through at the debate.
After speaking with Browder, I went hunting for Cuomo fans. In the line for audience members to pick up their badges, I approached a man in a suit and tie. It was Mario Cilento, the head of the New York State AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Cuomo. “He has been a true champion for the needs of working men and women,” Cilento said, rattling off some of Cuomo’s accomplishments—passing paid family leave, raising the minimum wage (policy wins that organizers point out that the governor only reluctantly supported after sustained pressure). “I can go on and on.”
What did Cilento expect from the debate tonight? “I think we’ll see the governor showing that he’s a true professional and that he’s a leader in every sense of the word,” he said, before entering the arena.
Lewis said she expected something else: “It’s like the Thunderdome, going up against Cuomo.”
If not quite a cage match to the death, the debate certainly had the feel of a slugfest. Sparring on everything from the funding of the subway system to Donald Trump to Medicare for All to labor unions to corruption, Nixon and Cuomo took turns trying to land their punches.
Nixon repeatedly went on the offensive, calling out Cuomo for his lackluster progressive credentials and his dubious role as a leader of the anti-Trump movement. “He tweets at me weekly,” Cuomo said of Trump. “I welcome it. Know me by my enemies. Someone has to stand up to him.”
“You stood up to him about as well as he stands up to Putin,” Nixon said of Cuomo’s anti-Trump stance, pointing out that under his tenure, legislation that would protect undocumented youth and abortion access has remained in limbo. “We don’t need a corrupt corporate Democrat in Albany as his opposition. We need to oppose Donald Trump with policy, not just rhetoric.”
The debate continued in this vein, the two staking out their contrasting positions—labor unions (Nixon supports public sector unions’ right to strike, Cuomo does not), Medicare for All (Nixon is a yes, Cuomo believes it’s not the time to pursue single-payer healthcare), sports gambling (a no for Nixon, a tentative yes for Cuomo). Nixon clearly got under Cuomo’s skin, repeatedly exasperating him.
“Excuse me, can you stop interrupting?” Cuomo said at one point.
“Can you stop lying?” Nixon countered.
“As soon as you do,” Cuomo replied.
In perhaps the most bizarre exchange of the evening, Cuomo called out Nixon’s use of an S corporation. “You are a corporation,” he said. “Are you a corporation?”
“I’m a person!” Nixon said.
The debate reached an odd point of consensus when asked if they would welcome the endorsement of New York City’s Citibike-riding mayor, Bill de Blasio. They both demurred.
After the debate, students hung around outside the theater, chatting. Two Hofstra students, Aoife Maher-Ryan and Sara Bornstein, told me they were both impressed by Nixon’s performance. “She definitely showed she could stand up to him,” Maher-Ryan said, noting that she liked Nixon’s more progressive politics.
“It’s kind of like what Bernie did to Hillary,” she added, referring to the “Cynthia Effect.” Her friend chimed in, “That’s a good comparison.” (Unfortunately for Nixon, neither are registered to vote in New York state.)
Another Hofstra student, Catherine MacCarthy, who had before the debate told me she was unsure who she would vote for but leaned towards Cuomo, afterwards told me she’s now more inclined to vote for his challenger. “She seems to have a lot of energy and she wants to get very specific things done,” the 19-year-old told me. Cuomo, in her mind, felt “tired” and “bogged down” by past failures. Emily Ewing, 18, who was leaning towards Nixon earlier, was now “definitely pro-Cynthia.”
Immediately after the debate, Nixon came out to chants of “Cynthia! Cynthia!” and took selfies with students and fans.
There were no chants for Cuomo, who was nowhere to be found.