An Interview With Cynthia Nixon

Cynthia Nixon

Cynthia Nixon explains why she's running for Governor of New York, why the Koch Brothers love Andrew Cuomo, and her place in the rise of progressive politics within the Democratic Party.

New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon stands with activists as they rally against financial institutions' support of private prisons and immigrant detention centers, as part of a May Day protest near Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, May 1, 2018 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory should make New York governor Andrew Cuomo very afraid. He faces a challenge from Cynthia Nixon, who has spent the years since her time on Sex and the City organizing for public education — and, just after the interview below was conducted, came out as a democratic socialist.

Nixon’s campaign against Cuomo once appeared to be a long-shot attack on the king of New York politics, but it increasingly appears to actually have a chance. At the very least, it’s led to some mind-boggling shifts in politics, like a recent article in Politico covering the deliberations of the New York Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) over whether to endorse her. Who would’ve thought they would live to see a socialist group’s internal discussions become fodder for beltway outlets’ horse race coverage?

Nixon spoke this week to Daniel Denvir for Jacobin Radio’s The Dig. You can listen and subscribe to Jacobin Radio here.


DD

Governor Cuomo seemed spooked by your campaign from the get-go, but after Ocasio-Cortez’s win, his people were frantically calling reporters to spin it to mean anything but what it clearly meant: that the Left is on the upswing in New York, and that the Democratic establishment is in trouble. How do you see Ocasio-Cortez’s win, and what do you make of Cuomo’s response?

CN

Andrew Cuomo is running scared. Alexandria’s win was an enormous red-letter day for us all, not just in New York State but across this country. People care about progressive politics. And it reinforced what we’ve been saying since I entered the campaign, that New York is a proudly progressive place.

It’s a two-to-one Democratic state. We have so many elected leaders, starting with Andrew Cuomo, who don’t reflect those progressive values. When you give people an alternative, someone who’s outside the establishment, who’s not accepting corporate donations and who wants to enact real change, New Yorkers will seize that opportunity.

DD

In terms of the broader debate within the Democratic Party and American politics, things seem to be changing fast. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was recently asked, after Ocasio-Cortez’s win, if she thought socialism was ascendent within the Democratic Party, and she of course said no. What did you make of her response and this whirlwind of left momentum we’re suddenly living with?

CN

Nancy Pelosi is dead wrong — that is exactly what’s happening. Wealthy people and big corporations have always had an outsized influence on American and world politics, but at this moment, when you look at the agendas of corporations, and then you look at governmental policies, there is almost no daylight between them.

We’re at a time when progressives and Democrats have to speak about things that are the main headline for our people. But our elected leaders keep sidestepping. We have to talk about economic, racial, and gender inequality. We have to put forth plans to combat this inequality. It’s destroying our country and swallowing our democracy whole.

DD

Why do so many people dislike Cuomo so much? And what sort of leadership do you propose as an alternative?

CN

If you look at the lack of progressive change that’s happened here in the last seven and a half years, you can lay that directly at the doorstep of Andrew Cuomo.

There’s a reason that the Koch brothers gave him $87,000 when he ran in 2010: despite calling himself a Democrat, he has governed like a Republican and has handed over massive amounts of power to the Republican Party. He’s allowed the Republicans in the state senate to gerrymander their own districts. As soon as he entered office, he incentivized a group of Democratic state senators to vote in caucus with the Republicans, shoring up their majority.

We’ve had a Democratic majority in the state senate for more than five years, but the Republicans control that body because Andrew Cuomo has enabled and encouraged them to. It’s the reason that we have so little progressive change. It’s the reason we haven’t become a leader in renewable energy or in campaign finance reform. It’s the reason we haven’t passed the Reproductive Health Act, GENDA [Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act], the New York Dream Act, or the Liberty Act, which would protect our undocumented people from ICE.

It’s not just that he’s given them political power — his policies are purely Republican. Upon entering office, he eliminated the bank tax. He slashed taxes on corporations. He slashed taxes on everybody earning more than $300,000 a year. In seven budgets, he’s cumulatively cut $25 billion out of state revenue.

If he was a Republican, we would have voted him out of office a long time ago. But because he is a Democrat, the son of Mario Cuomo, and a genius at getting headlines rather than enacting change, New Yorkers have a false sense of security about how progressive our state really is because Andrew Cuomo keeps telling us so. Our campaign is saying, “Look at all these things that New Yorkers want that we could have had, but Andrew Cuomo hasn’t fought for them — and has actually empowered the other side to make sure we don’t get them.”

DD

Since you announced your campaign, he’s tried to present himself as a very different politician to New York voters. According to a tally in the Nation, he’s moved left on marijuana, criminal justice, immigration, transit, and public housing.

CN

And the environment. And on reconciling the IDC [Independent Democratic Conference], this group of Democratic state senators that he encouraged to join the Republicans. He’s been saying for seven and a half years that he had nothing to do with it and no control over it. I entered the race and two weeks later, he had a press conference with the head of the Senate Democrats and the IDC Democrats saying they were reconciled.

DD

You’re not the first person to mount a left-wing challenge to Cuomo. How do you think that the political conditions have changed in New York since Zephyr Teachout challenged him four years ago?

CN

What Zephyr Teachout did four years ago was enormously inspiring. It’s one of the things that encouraged me to run. She ran a terrific campaign and showed there was appetite for a progressive challenger. But it was very difficult for her to get on television, because people didn’t take her candidacy seriously.

They didn’t understand what a big part of the electorate she was going to capture. Certainly the election of Donald Trump is the game changer that’s happened since. It was a tremendous wake-up call. I’m fifty-two. Never in my lifetime have I seen such a hunger for progressive change, both for our people here on the ground and as a way of combating the Trump agenda nationally.

The good news is we have the ability to do it here in New York State because we’re such a progressive, Democratic bastion. But we haven’t. We’re going to miss this moment if we don’t have a governor who’s a progressive leader who will seize this moment and galvanize this appetite for change.

DD

Cuomo is one of the most brazenly and cynically Machiavellian politicians who’s ever lived. There’s him shutting down the Moreland Commission, which was investigating corruption. There are the independent Democrats, which he used to prop up Republican control of the Senate. Then there are these fights that he constantly picks with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio simply because he thinks he can win them and enjoys winning them. Tell me about Cuomo’s personality and character, and how you think New Yorkers assess those things.

CN

Andrew Cuomo doesn’t seem to like Democrats very much, despite calling himself one. It’s not just de Blasio. He undermines, to his best ability, every Democrat that he comes into contact with.

He seems much more comfortable with Republicans. He doesn’t campaign for Republicans, but he allows them to use his image and words in their campaign literature. He never steps in to help a Democrat secure a seat, even in a hotly contested election. He never uses any of the money available, of which he has boatloads. He’s raised $31 million. He controls the New York State Democratic campaign coffers; 0.1 percent of that, I will say, comes from small donors. We received more small-donor donations in a single day than he’s received in seven years.

He’s a Democrat because he is the son of Mario Cuomo and because he is running in New York State. But he is a Republican politician who has always been about consolidating his own power, rather than his adherence to any particular political ideology. Which is why as soon as we entered the race, as you were saying previously, he’s tried to desperately make himself over as a progressive. It doesn’t seem like there’s really anything there in terms of his identity. He’s trying to capture the moment.

And frankly, he’s such a centrist because of the time when he was elected. He was elected in 2010. It was the moment of centrism, when we all thought perhaps Mitt Romney would be president. It was the moment of the Tea Party, where both sides were trying to find these centrist candidates that would appeal to people across the board. Well, he’s stuck in 2010 and is barely beginning to wake up to the fact that we’re at a moment when Democrats want their candidates to stand for something big and bold.

DD

Perhaps one of the worst things he’s done, in terms of political thuggery, is the way he has tried to destroy the Working Families Party and its supporters since the moment it became clear that they would endorse you. Explain what that retaliation has looked like and what it reveals about how Cuomo operates.

CN

The Working Families Party did not endorse Zephyr Teachout four years ago as it was widely hoped they would. When it became clear to Cuomo that they were going to endorse me, he went ballistic. He had the unions who provide a lot of the funding for the Working Families Party pull out.

Moreover, there were a group of important grassroots organizations, like New York Communities for Change, Citizen Action, and Make the Road who endorsed my candidacy. Andrew Cuomo had the unions, at his behest, threaten them with the funding they provide.Those grassroots organizations are on the front lines of protecting people from the Trump agenda, fighting to protect immigrants and working-class people when it comes to housing, education, and immigration.

The idea that an elected leader who calls himself a Democrat, who calls himself a progressive, would be so vicious and so small-minded, attacking these organizations that are on the front lines, just shows that he doesn’t care about the vast majority of working people in this state. He really cares about his own political fortunes.

DD

Talk about a few of your core policy issues. Public education is the fight that you have the longest history with. Explain the current separate, unequal, and underfunded state of New York public education, and what you propose to change it.

CN

There is an enormous amount to say about this. I’ve fought for better and more equitable school funding for New York State’s public schools for the last seventeen years. New York State has the second-most unequally funded school system in the entire country. The top hundred school districts spend $10,000 more per pupil than the bottom hundred school districts. That gap has only widened under Andrew Cuomo, and it’s wider now than it’s ever been.

The good news is that since 1993, people have been fighting this fight and have brought a lawsuit called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Not only does it add a great increase in funding, three-quarters of that funding goes to low-income, high-needs, largely black and brown districts.

That lawsuit wended its way through the courts for years, but in 2006 it was finally settled. Eliot Spitzer was our Democratic governor at that time, and he said, “We have to enact this. We have to fund this.” We were halfway there, and then the recession hit. Governor [David] Paterson and Governor Cuomo came in and cut all of that progress out — and then cut even deeper. The solution is called Foundation Aid. By him not funding Foundation Aid, we’re owed $4.2 billion across the state. He is ignoring the ruling of New York’s highest court.

By funding education here, we’re gonna starve the criminal justice system. They’re two sides of the same coin, and right now we’re investing far too much in incarceration and policing, and far too little in schools.

DD

Then there’s transit. New York subways are collapsing. Why has the system gotten to this point, and how do you propose to fix it?

CN

The New York City subway is in terrible shape because of a few decades of underfunding. But in the last eight years, Andrew Cuomo has given tax breaks to people who don’t need it, and then he has decimated our infrastructure.

Nowhere is this more apparent than his defunding of the New York City subway. We have the worst on-time transit record of any system in the world. Delays have tripled under him. Train speeds are now slower than they were in 1950.

The good news is we know how to fix it. We know the technology we need, but we have to have a governor who makes it a priority. And as somebody who’s on the trains every day, whose wife, whose kids are on the trains every day, and who lives in New York City, we understand how vitally important this is.

If we let the subway system die, New York City will die along with it. Right now, it’s on life support.

DD

What do you think can be accomplished by building a progressive alternative on the state level in New York? As something that can one, concretely improve people’s lives; two, act as a bulwark against the Trump administration; and three, create a laboratory for the sort of policies and politics that we need to replace Trump with? Because obviously Democratic business as usual has failed at this.

CN

You put it exactly right: to combat the Trump agenda, to protect our own people, and to provide a laboratory, because New York State is the rightful capital of the resistance. New York is being left in the dust by so many other states enacting progressive change, states far less progressive than we are.

New York should be the leader in renewable energy. We have the Climate and Communities Protection Act, the most progressive piece of renewable legislation anywhere in the country, but we need leadership from the governor to partner with the legislature to enact it. We can enact a real Medicare for All, single-payer system here. We can make housing affordable for everyone. We can create an education system in which every child has what he or she needs to succeed. We can do real criminal justice reform.

We can make New York a sanctuary state — not just rhetorically, but with actual policy, offering protections and things like driver’s licenses to undocumented people, which is the number one way ICE is tearing families apart and turning New York into a police state. We can enact campaign finance reform. Until we enact campaign finance reform across the board, we’re not gonna see any real change. It’s the reform that gives birth to all the other reforms.

Certainly New York’s system is one of the most unjust and the most broken. It’s gonna be a heavy lift, but again, there is such a progressive base here. We can do it.

New York State has been the home, for hundreds of years, to so many progressive movements that then spread throughout the country, that we now take for granted, not as progressive innovations but as plain old common sense.

DD

Like women voting?

CN

Exactly. Like ending slavery. Like LGBT people being fully human and deserving of rights. This is the place where so many of those movements started. We’re at a moment where we have the chance to lead again in New York. To lead the country in a bold direction that can reclaim not just our state, but eventually our entire country for the vast majority of the people. Not just for the wealthiest and not just for corporations playing the tune that our politicians are dancing to.