Nixon in New Paltz (photo: Cynthia for New York Facebook)
If elected governor, Cynthia Nixon is promising to “transform New York" into a state “for the many” but her campaign for governor is already rapidly transforming the landscape of New York politics. She is putting pressure on incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom she hopes to defeat in the Democratic primary, and broadening her supporter base by linking up with the Working Families Party and other liberal groups that have endorsed her.
Three-and-a-half months from the September 13 primary, Nixon and her allies are plotting and executing a developing plan to create a statewide network and the campaign infrastructure necessary to carry her to what would be one of the most shocking upsets in recent political history.
The effort has begun through Nixon’s early campaigning, including house parties and speaking appearances at rallies, marches, and meetings of clubs and other organizations, as well as organizing calls, e-blasts, and campaign website portals. Nixon has also done several interviews with national magazines and television programs. Much of the still-growing campaign’s activity is being coordinated with the Working Families Party (WFP), which comes with ready-built infrastructure around the state and an extensive email list of supporters.
A key first task for the coordinated campaign is collecting the signatures necessary to get Nixon onto the Democratic primary ballot, an essential effort that can complement and significantly boost other tasks leading toward the September vote. Several petitioning kickoff trainings are among about a dozen events across the state currently scheduled by the WFP-Nixon campaign, designed to equip volunteers with the tools to collect signatures and increase voter turnout.
Ballot Signatures and Voter Turnout Goals
According to Nixon and WFP leaders, the campaign is a grassroots, volunteer-driven effort, that’s accepting no contributions from big corporations or through the infamous loophole in state campaign finance law that allows limited liability companies (LLCs) to donate virtually unlimited funds without naming their owners. The campaign itself is designed to position Nixon in stark contrast to Cuomo, who has relied on large donors, benefited greatly from the loophole, and, critics say, retains shallow support among many of the New Yorkers who have backed him in the past.
"Cynthia's campaign is laser-focused on building a strong, statewide volunteer team,” Nixon campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt said in a Tuesday statement to Gotham Gazette. “We know we'll never get close to out-raising Governor Cuomo with his millions in donations from Wall Street and real estate developers, but we are confident we will out-organize him with a robust voter-to-voter contact operation.”
Nixon has captured the support of a growing list of progressive groups and liberal Democratic clubs, bolstering her attempt to lay the groundwork for the type of campaign need to give her any chance at victory. Her campaign, in conjunction with those groups, especially the WFP, is now accelerating its volunteer-recruitment efforts, organizing events around the state, and raising money.
“We have community activists on the ground,” Nixon told an open campaign call on Thursday, May 24, run by her own campaign but promoted via email by the WFP. A press release from Nixon’s campaign following the call said more than 600 participants had logged on to watch her speak about the campaign’s next steps and the ways she aims to create change if elected. “We have community groups who know the creative solutions…the community-based solutions” to New York’s problems, she told participants.
The conversation came a day after the Democratic state convention, at which Nixon failed to receive enough support from state Democratic Party committee members for an automatic spot on the primary election ballot. Nixon said the convention result was “unsurprising” and is determined to make the ballot through collecting petition signatures. She needs 15,000 valid signatures from registered Democrats across the state to qualify for a ballot line, including “at least 100 or 5% of enrolled voters from each of one-half of the congressional districts,” according to the State Board of Elections. She told the call she aims to collect 50,000 signatures “as a show of force and enthusiasm.”
In large part a call to action, Nixon also outlined for the first time the overarching structure of her campaign and its underlying goals, including the upcoming petition drive and to increase voter turnout for the September primaries. Just under 600,000 people voted in the 2014 primaries, the last gubernatorial election year, when Cuomo defeated little-known and under-funded Democratic primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout, by a 62-34 percent margin (Randy Credico received 4 percent) in a surprisingly strong showing by the challenger.
A campaign representative and the facilitator of Thursday’s call, referred to as "Caroline," said they’re expecting voter turnout for the Democratic primary to increase to “anywhere from around 700,000 voters up to a little over 900,000 voters” this year. She said that “a bigger turnout helps us, we know that…the more people who vote, the more likely we are to bring in folks who are drop-off voters, perhaps who are people who don’t typically vote in a midterm a election. They’re not the stalwart Democratic voters, so our strategy is to expand the electorate.”
Nixon said previously the campaign’s strategy to do this will rely heavily on volunteers, telling a WFP call on May 3, “We are going to win this with people, like the people on this call, going out and talking to people on the streets, and door-knocking, and phone banking, and talking to people in their offices and…in their families.”
Nixon’s Four Phases
The first objective for Nixon’s campaign was “about getting out there, and having people meet Cynthia as the ‘real Cynthia’ not as the ‘actor Cynthia’,” Caroline explained on Thursday’s call.
Referring to this as “phase one”, Nixon said she travelled around the state meeting people and “hearing about the issues and the work that people are doing on the ground…and the solutions they see to their problems.” This has been key in re-establishing Nixon - who is known for her work starring in Sex and The City - as a candidate for the highest office in the state fighting for the rights of New Yorkers who’ve been let down by Cuomo.
The WFP also played a critical role during this phase in connecting Nixon with various communities. The party hosted an introductory call on May 3 for Nixon and Council City Member Jumaane Williams — who the WFP has endorsed in his bid for Lieutenant Governor. According to a WFP press release following the call, 20,000 activists from more than 100 organizing parties across the state signed in to listen to the candidates discuss how they plan to “transform New York” if elected.
Though they spoke consecutively on the call, and also at the WFP state convention in Harlem on May 19, Nixon and Williams have been careful to avoid any declaration that they are running as a ticket. It’s unclear when, or if, the pair of WFP-endorsed candidates seeking to topple sitting Democrats will link up. In party primaries, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, but the winners do run as a ticket in the general election.
“Phase two,” listeners on Thursday’s call were told, started directly after the May 23-24 Democratic state convention and will run until July 12 when petitions for a place on the ballot are due to be handed in to the State Board of Elections. It will see the Nixon campaign, the WFP, and other partners train and organize a massive volunteer network across the state, to collect signatures and form the backbone of the campaign thereafter.
“Governor Cuomo may have a $31 million campaign warchest on his side — but we have a grassroots movement,” read the e-blast sent out Tuesday by the WFP to recruit participants to help the “movement” pass “the first test of our campaign,” collecting the signatures.
There is a “petitioning kickoff” event on Wednesday, May 30, in West Village, New York City — run by the WFP for Nixon and Williams — where volunteers will be given initial training on how to door knock; send text messages; work the phones; and speak to groups of people to rally support for Nixon ahead of the primaries.
And an interactive map on both the ‘Cynthia for New York’ and the WFP’s ‘New York 4 the Many’ websites shows similar training events are being held across the state -- in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Owego, Lake George, Albany, Kingston, Nyack, Athens, Long Island, and several in New York City -- over the next week, all designed to train volunteers to collect signatures in support of Nixon and Williams.
“Petitioning is the first phase of testing and strengthening the infrastructure we've been building for the last 2.5 months,” Hitt told Gotham Gazette. “We currently have 2,800 volunteers. Of those, 150 are Super Volunteers, who are responsible for leading the petitioning and voter contact plan in their geographic hub. We have multiple Super Volunteers in every congressional district.”
Beyond the petition deadline, from July through August, “phase three” of the campaign will involve an intensive multi-contact voter plan. “We’re going to be going door knocking, we’ll be phone banking and we’ll be texting our universe of voters to identify them and persuade them to be our supporters,” Caroline said on Thursday’s call. The final phase of the campaign, starting in September, will focus on the final ‘get out the vote’ push.
A Growing Network of Groups
Though the WFP is assisting in the training of volunteers, and is perhaps the most powerful group to so far endorse Nixon, it is not alone in its support of her candidacy. The regularly growing list of organizations backing Nixon, and the participation of these groups in raising awareness, offering volunteers, and activating voters will be essential to her chances. There is no doubt that Nixon faces extremely uphill odds, especially considering Cuomo has the powers of incumbency, including overflowing coffers, near-universal name recognition, the perch of his office, an extensive party apparatus, including many local clubs, and support from a long list of labor unions.
Speaking on the Thursday call, Stephanie Woodward, director for advocacy at the Center for Disability Rights in Rochester, said the disabled community is “frustrated with having a governor who’s ignoring our issues.” Woodward touched on several, including her contention that under Cuomo the state budget sees disabled people pushed into nursing homes because the state will cover the costs of “permanent placement”; the inaccessibility of the subway system to disabled people; the low wages, through Medicaid, given to disability attendants; and the lack of accessible housing in New York. Her group is hosting a petition drive and aims to reach 10,000 signatures to help Nixon land a spot on the Democratic ballot.
Wanda Salaman, executive director at Mothers on the Move, also spoke on the call, telling listeners she is reaching out to a network of churches and community groups in the Bronx with a goal of delivering 20,000 signatures to Nixon’s bid for a place on the primary ballot, which as of now may only include Cuomo and Nixon, if she qualifies.
Jamaica Miles, the Lead Organizer at the capital district branch of Citizen Action of New York — an affiliate organization of the WFP — told listeners that the response to the Albany petition kickoff event has been so impressive, they’re looking at another location to hold more people. Citizen Action and Nixon, along with other partners, have a long history in advocating for education equity, especially in funding for poor schools. According to its website, Citizen Action has more than 30,000 members across the state, and Miles said she is hoping to secure 5,000 signatures in Albany alone.
As well as Citizen Action, Nixon has been endorsed by other WFP affiliates with considerable member networks, such as New York Communities for Change (NYCC), which focuses on affordable housing, and Make the Road Action, which focuses on immigrant communities. Citizen Action is also affiliated with the state’s Public Policy and Education Fund and the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), a group Nixon has worked with for many years and that hosted her at a press conference in Albany several days after she launched her campaign in March. A leader of AQE, Zakiyah Ansari, nominated Nixon at the state Democratic convention, where she received about 5 percent of the state committee vote.
A variety of other groups have also publicly declared their support for Nixon, such as the national organization launched by Senator Bernie Sanders in mid-2016, Our Revolution, which has more than 30 local groups in New York. In endorsing Nixon on May 15, its president, Nina Turner, said Nixon is “a bold progressive who is running in the spirit of Bernie Sanders.” The New York Progressive Action Network, which also grew out of the Sanders movement, endorsed Nixon in mid-April, and has 35 chapters and affiliates across the state, including Black Lives Matter of Greater New York and the LGBTQ-focused Jim Owles Democratic Club.
In April, the leader of The Black Institute, Bertha Lewis, endorsed Nixon, telling The New York Post that Cuomo “talks a good game” but is not a real progressive. On Tuesday, environmentalist author Bill McKibben and his grassroots environmental group 350 Action announced their support of Nixon for governor.
Members and supporters of these and other groups are now seeing Nixon, a first-time candidate for elected office, as a valid choice, receiving information about her by email and in their social media feeds, highlighted by alignment on issues they care about. The Nixon campaign is counting on these endorsements and subsequent networking as key components in its bid to unseat a two-term incumbent with a long political resume, deep knowledge of issues and regions of the state, experience in running a government, and an extensive rolodex of potentially helpful surrogates and validators.
As well as more formal organizations, there are communities that, through the campaign’s website, have created their own “hubs” of volunteers. Dozens of teachers have listed their names under #Educators4Cynthia. Also listed on the website are hubs for organizing under #Tenants4Cynthia, #Students4Cynthia, and an LGBTQ Pride Hub.
“We have an innovative hub model where people can organize by constituency or issue,” Hitt told Gotham Gazette, adding there are currently 10 hubs involved in the campaign.
A member of #Students4Cynthia, Carlos Jesus Calzadilla, told the Thursday call he is planning to recruit student leaders across the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY) and run meetups on different college campuses. He also aims to organize a presence at high-traffic public events, such as parades and concerts.
Calzadilla said “students have been at the forefront of social change throughout history” and slammed Cuomo for underfunding public schools. He called the Excelsior Scholarship — a Cuomo initiative affording many middle-class students tuition-free enrollment at public universities — a “fake free college experience that [Cuomo] talks about because the reality is barely anyone qualifies for it.”
Even with volunteerism, networking, and grassroots advocacy, the campaign effort requires significant funds. Nixon is hoping that her decision not to take corporate donations will help boost her efforts to attract small donors, though she also appears to be holding fundraisers where wealthy individuals, like those in the entertainment world, may be willing to provide large contributions. New York has high donation limits, whereby an individual can give up to $21,100 to a gubernatorial candidate during the primary (the limits are higher for family members of candidates).
Nixon boasted early on of her small-donor fundraising, and using it to position herself as an outsider unmarred by the corruption of institutionalized politicians and in contract to Cuomo, who has received very few low-dollar contributions.
In late April, the Nixon campaign announced it had received “10,000 individual donations” in six weeks of campaigning. “Of those donations, 98 percent are low-dollar donations below $200,” a press release said. “By comparison, Andrew Cuomo collected a total of just 1,369 small dollar donations since the start of 2011. Over 800 individuals have also committed to making recurring donations to Cynthia’s people-powered campaign in the months leading up to the primary on September 13.”
On the May 3 call, Nixon said of Cuomo’s $31 million campaign fund, “just .1 percent comes from small donors,” before referencing her ‘Rent Justice For All’ policy platform that aims to restabilize rent in apartments that dropped out of the stabilizing system under Cuomo due to vacancy decontrol: “It is very hard to stand up against the real estate lobby when you’re getting millions of dollars from them,” Nixon said of Cuomo. “It’s very hard to do the right thing when you are getting millions of dollars to do wrong.”
Hitt told Gotham Gazette that Nixon’s initial campaign finances will be released at the filing date in mid-July, as mandated by the state’s Board of Elections, and not before. Nixon will have to disclose the receipts of, contributions to, expenditures by, and liabilities of her campaign, including any use of her own money.
According to a report by the Associated Press on Nixon’s tax returns, which she made available to the media in early May, Nixon and her wife, Christine Marinoni, had an income of $1.5 million last year and donated around $53,000 to charity. The AP report said Nixon’s campaign claimed her true income was $1 million in 2017, as there were expenses not reflected in the return. She has thus far declined to release returns for prior years. Nixon has not given any indication that she plans to spend her own funds on her campaign.
It’s also unclear at this point how many paid staff are working on the Nixon campaign. Hitt and Sarah Ford are both running communications and acting as spokespeople. According to The Daily News, a new campaign manager, Hayley Prim, was hired in early May, quickly replacing the original person in that role, Nicole Aro. State of Politics reported in April that Monica Barnes is the campaign’s finance director. And consultants including Rebecca Katz of Hilltop Public Solutions and L. Joy Williams have also been actively involved with the campaign. Nixon did lose her original campaign treasurer, Teachout, who decided to step away from the role to run for attorney general after Eric Schneiderman resigned in disgrace amid allegations of physically abusing four women.
In addition to the Nixon campaign itself, the WFP will be spending on behalf of its endorsed candidates, including Nixon. A WFP spokesperson told Gotham Gazette in April that the party raised $82,000 from 1,500 donors over the course of a week just after it became evident that the WFP was on the verge of endorsing Nixon, and that the party had around $1 million in the bank at the time.
"We're going to be spending a couple hundred thousand to put organizers on the ground and build a massive statewide field operation,” the WFP spokesperson said. “We're not going to be putting money into television, that's not how we win. We build volunteer operations, we hire organizers, we get out the vote."
The WFP Vote
While both Nixon and Williams have the WFP nomination and ballot line for the general election, it is not clear that either or both would run in the general election if they lose the Democratic primary. WFP leaders have maintained that the party does not intend to play a spoiler and risk helping the election of any Republicans.
Heading toward the September primary, the WFP is also backing challengers to the former members of the state Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC. Nixon has repeatedly connected Cuomo to the formerly rogue Democrats who had formed a coalition government with Senate Republicans, allegedly with Cuomo’s consent, until the governor brokered a Democratic reunification just after Nixon launched her candidacy.
It’s not clear how many New Yorkers the WFP can reach or see the WFP endorsement of Nixon as a decisive or especially influential seal of approval. There is no WFP ballot line for her in the primary, but the party appears all-in to see her win it and carry its line in the general.
As of April 1, 2018, there were 46,453 people across New York State registered to vote with the WFP, including 15,572 in New York City. This compares to 6,201,033 Democratic voters across the state, of which 3,401,637 are in New York City. According to the WFP spokesperson, these “numbers have been growing statewide, and are expected to be even higher this year.”
In 2014, Cuomo, who was endorsed by the WFP, received 126,244 votes on the WFP line in the general gubernatorial election, after beating Teachout, a Fordham law professor, in the Democratic primary. In that primary, Teachout received 34 percent of the Democratic vote, 192,210 votes compared to Cuomo’s 361,380.
In 2010, Cuomo received more than 150,000 votes on the WFP line in the general gubernatorial election.
Though the WFP endorsed senator Bernie Sanders ahead of the 2016 primaries for the presidential election, the endorsement didn’t come with a ballot line. The party’s backing of the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, saw Clinton receive 140,043 votes across New York on the WFP ballot line.
Emails and Social Media
As the WFP and Nixon’s campaign continues bolstering numbers of volunteers and voters across the state, Nixon is running an assertive digital strategy that includes email campaigns swinging between outlining her policy positions and aggressively criticizing Cuomo. Her campaign also sends e-blasts to members of the media fact-checking the governor, as it did repeatedly during the state convention, at which he was roundly applauded and endorsed by Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and others.
“Some of Andrew Cuomo’s well-off friends like to tell me that I should stick to acting. Personally, I think Andrew Cuomo should stop acting,” the opening line to one of Nixon’s recent emails reads. The email calls out Cuomo for failing to “clean up” Albany, and discussed the Moreland Commission into public corruption that he launched in July 2013, only to shut down eight months later amid controversy, as it had begun looking at some of Cuomo’s allies and donors and he agreed to close it in a compromise with state legislators. Nixon ended the email comparing Cuomo’s unfulfilled promise to that of President Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
Nixon’s campaign is active on social media, using her Twitter and Facebook accounts to criticize Cuomo, respond to supporters, share relevant news that fits her campaign narrative, point followers to her website, and highlight her policy positions and endorsements.
“Andrew Cuomo is running paid Facebook ads on a sexual harassment policy,” Nixon tweeted on Wednesday. “We need a governor who will actually break down gender barriers — not reinforce them — and when I am her, I will never break your trust.”