Cynthia Nixon (photo: @CynthiaNixon)
In 2016, leading up to the presidential election, Democrats criticized Republican candidate Donald Trump’s lack of political and governmental experience while heralding Hillary Clinton’s long career in politics. This year, New York Democrats face a somewhat similar situation within the party given the primary challenge from actor and activist Cynthia Nixon to incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Since Nixon announced her candidacy in March, questions of qualifications and experience have been raised repeatedly. Is an actor, even a highly-regarded and award-winning one, with a history of political activism qualified to run the third-most populous state in the country with an annual operating budget of nearly $170 billion?
Nixon has never held any elected office or worked in government, though she has been an outspoken advocate on several issues, most frequently public education funding, and an unpaid spokesperson for the Alliance for Quality Education. Meanwhile, Cuomo has been involved in politics most of his adult life and worked in government on and off since joining the Clinton administration in 1993. His father was, of course, governor of New York, from 1983 through 1994, and Andrew Cuomo got his start in politics working to help get Mario Cuomo elected.
Many have quickly asked if New Yorkers, especially Democrats who largely despise Trump, have any appetite for a celebrity candidate for governor. Nixon and her surrogates have said that character and values matter more than government experience, that Cuomo only got into government because of his famous father, and that all of Cuomo’s experience hasn’t resulted in good policy for New Yorkers. Albany needs an outsider, they argue, and virtually all high-level elected Democrats have too much to risk by going after the powerful incumbent governor.
Cuomo and his camp point to his long political resume and record of achievements.
Ultimately it will be up to voters to decide whether Nixon is qualified to be governor, and whether they think she could do a better job than Cuomo.
“The Democratic reaction – revulsion if you will – to Donald Trump, one of the elements, not the only element, is this notion that Trump was entirely unprepared to be president, with no governing experience and that’s showing,” said Democratic political consultant Bruce Gyory. “It’s a consistent jab at the eye of Republicans. ‘How could you put forward somebody with no experience?’ Now the question will be, how will Democratic voters react to Nixon on that scale?”
Nixon’s campaign is courting more liberal Democrats who are dissatisfied with Cuomo’s sometimes more centrist policies. She was recently endorsed by the Working Families Party, an influential group of left-wing activists that came close to backing Zephyr Teachout’s primary challenge against Cuomo in 2014 before New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped in and the group ultimately endorsed Cuomo. The WFP will now aim to help Nixon court the more progressive wing of the party, led by advocacy groups but not labor unions, which have largely sided with the incumbent.
Nixon backers, including those in the WFP, are among those being asked the qualifications question.
“Experience can be good,” tweeted WFP Director Bill Lipton. “But character and values: priceless."
As she has done a round of initial interviews, Nixon has been asked several variations of the question about her qualifications and whether, given Trump, anyone should be seeking another “political amateur” or “celebrity candidate.”
“I think first and foremost Donald Trump was real estate developer, and he inherited his money and his company from his father. That could not be more different from me,” Nixon said during a recent appearance on CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “I grew up here, in a single bedroom, five-floor walk-up, with a single mom. I went to public school. I started acting when I was twelve, in order to pay for my college, because my family couldn’t afford to.”
“I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with celebrity in politics,” Nixon continued. “It gives you a platform, but it’s what you choose to do with that platform. Do you choose do give yourself and other one-percenters a massive tax break that they don’t need, or do you choose to advocate for important things that need your voice, like LGBTQ equality, or women’s rights, including women’s right to choose, or better public schools, which I have been advocating for, and fighting for, for the better part of 20 years. I think that’s exactly the kind of progressive resume that a progressive leader of New York should have right now.”
Nixon has previously said that Cuomo was able to become governor because his father had been governor and he had a famous name, a charge the incumbent and his allies pushed back on, pointing to Andrew Cuomo’s experience in the administration of President Bill Clinton and tenure as New York attorney general.
Over the past 80 years, every governor of New York has had some political or government background. Most served in government on the federal level, in the state Legislature, or as state attorney general.
Not only is the governor responsible for outlining and negotiating a state budget every year, but, as the chief executive of the state signs or vetoes bills passed by the Legislature, runs the executive branch of the government that implements laws that pass and oversees local governments, makes appointments to a variety of courts, authorities, and boards, issues pardons, and calls special elections, among other powers.
The governor is also the face and voice of the state in many respects, both formal and informal. By state law, the governor must simply be at least 30 years old, a United States citizen, and a New York resident for at least five years. The governor is elected to a four-year term, and there are no term limits.
Teachout -- a law professor also running without government experience -- was seen by many as a protest candidate with no real chance of winning the 2014 Democratic primary against Cuomo, but ultimately forced him to support more liberal policies and won 34 percent of the vote with limited resources and name recognition. It appears Nixon will have neither of those problems, and she is already polling close to where Teachout finished.
“Obviously Andrew Cuomo starts in a very strong place. He’s been elected statewide three times, he’s got $30 million in the bank, and Democrats like him,” said Steve Greenberg, founder of Greenberg Public Relations. “Nixon has certain challenges. The real tough part for Nixon…is that she has to convince voters who are inclined to like Andrew Cuomo, who do like Andrew Cuomo – she’s got to give them a reason to not like and support Cuomo and come to her side.”
A Siena College poll released April 17 showed Cuomo is favored by 62 percent of Democrats, while 33 percent supported Nixon. Though Nixon may not be a household name like actors-turned-political-candidates Trump or Arnold Schwarzenegger, her celebrity status gives her name recognition, fundraising potential, and widespread media buzz Teachout lacked. But can she translate intrigue into confidence and convince enough voters to believe she is the right person to be the next governor?
“Donald Trump struck a chord with certain voters because of the issues he talked about, whether it was building a wall and getting Mexico to pay for it or ‘Lock her up’ or getting us out of TPP, at least for a year. Donald Trump may have been a celebrity, but he talked about issues that appealed to voters,” Greenberg said. “(Nixon’s) been talking about a variety of issues and the question is, are the issues she’s talking about going to break through and motivate people to vote for her and how many people vote for her.”
Former U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, who retired in 2017, was for a time a possible Republican gubernatorial candidate for this year, and now chairs the campaign of Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, the likely GOP nominee. While Gibson had decades of military experience, before running for Congress he had no background in electoral politics before he was elected in 2011.
“I was a soldier for 29 years, so when I was elected to the Congress, I had no political experience,” Gibson said. “So, I think as long as one is committed to listening and learning and committed to service, I think with aptitude you can really make tremendous strides, so I don’t think it’s the case that if you’ve had no experience, you can’t be effective.”
Gibson stressed that a potential candidate with no government experience does face more challenges than those that have some, but with a humble temperament and being a good listener, a candidate can overcome those challenges.
“I think for any leader the most important attribute is being a good listener. If you’re going to be an executive, it’s vitally important to understand the people you’re going to lead and where they’re coming from,” he said. “I think you have to have a real temperament of humility to understand how much you need to learn. I think that’s an important feature here.”
Gibson said he did not know much about Nixon personally, but sees her participation in the gubernatorial election as a positive thing.
“The hallmark of democracy is vibrant debate and I think her being in the race will be a plus for the state, because she’s really going start this debate on what kind of leadership we want going forward and towards that end, I think it will hold Cuomo accountable,” he said.
Nixon has argued that she would govern very differently from Cuomo, whom she and other critics of the governor see as someone more focused on his own power than on being collaborative -- a charge also being made by Republicans like Molinaro. Both Nixon and Molinaro have already sought to portray themselves as in better touch with average New Yorkers than Cuomo.
Some Republicans have pointed to Molinaro’s resume as including a strong blend of legislative and executive experience, with limited time spent in Albany, where he was a member of the state Assembly for a handful of years, that gives him credibility as an outsider who will shake things up in the capital. Nixon has advocacy and organizing experience, but has made her career as an actor, with no formal executive experience, something that other political outsiders running for office, like Trump and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, could offer from their business empires.
Along with her advocacy work, Nixon talks up her experiences as a public school parent, regular subway rider, and nearly life-long union member, given the early age at which she began her professional acting career. On her campaign website, Nixon also boasts of her efforts to travel the state and the country pushing elected officials on a variety of issues, and raising money for her favored causes: education equity, LGBTQ rights, and women’s reprodutive freedoms.
She has appeared to acknowledge early in the campaign that she has a lot to learn about issues facing New Yorkers and communities across the vast state, and stressed the importance of listening to people. It is unclear how familiar she is with the details of state government and the nuances of the job she is seeking.
Above all, it seems, Nixon and her supporters are offering her as a candidate with the right values, character, and approach to decision-making.
Generally, Republicans, including those in the Molinaro campaign, have celebrated Nixon’s entrance into the race, believing that it will help their candidate prevail in the general election, either over a battered Cuomo or over Nixon after a shocking primary victory.
“Governor Cuomo’s record of progressive accomplishment is unmatched – from delivering a $15 minimum wage, marriage equality, the strongest gun safety laws in the nation, free college tuition, paid family leave, a record $27 billion in funding for education and sweeping measures to protect new York’s environment,” said campaign spokesperson Abbey Fashouer, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’ll put that record up against anyone, anytime.”
Along with some of those policy accomplishments, Cuomo is running on his work as an executive, including what he and supporters have described as getting New York state government functioning again, perhaps best exemplified by Cuomo’s record of overseeing passage of eight straight on-time or nearly on-time budgets -- a break from Albany tradition when the spending plans were at times passed months late.
On the other hand, Cuomo promised to clean up state government and has not been successful in doing so, with a continued parade of ethical and legal violations from those in and around state government, including Cuomo’s former top aide, Joseph Percoco, who was recently convicted of multiple federal corruption charges.
Nixon is not only running on criticism of Cuomo for not instituting sweeping government ethics and campaign finance reforms, but a variety of liberal positions, including the legalization of recreational marijuana and a promise to strengthen rent regulations, increase education funding to poorer school districts, and more.
All political observers Gotham Gazette spoke with stressed that at the end of the day, voters determine their own criteria and Democratic primary voters will decide whether Nixon is qualified to be governor.
“It really is not up to the pundits. It really is not up to the media. It is up to the voters to determine whether a candidate is qualified for the office he or she is running for,” said Greenberg. “Talking heads can say all they want…but voters get to decide.”
Ben Max contributed to this article.