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Defining 'Real Democrat,' Cynthia Nixon Offers Early Policy Platform

cynthia nixon gov rally event

Cynthia Nixon (photo: Cynthia for NY on Facebook)

Actor and activist Cynthia Nixon launched her challenge to two-term incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo by calling him a fake Democrat who has governed like a Republican and only takes progressive stances when they are politically expedient or he has no choice.

Nixon, who certainly has an uphill climb if she wants to beat Cuomo in the September 13 Democratic primary, has staked her campaign on claiming to be a true progressive, with a liberal agenda focused on racial and economic justice, led by what has been her marquee issue as an activist over the past two decades: education funding. As a spokesperson with the Alliance for Quality Education, Nixon has long-championed increased investment in the state’s public schools, especially those in disadvantaged communities.

Running to Cuomo’s left, Nixon has quickly outlined a variety of policy positions that are garnering her additional media attention, beyond the significant amount she captures as a celebrity running for elected office, while she also criticizes Cuomo on topics that are less easily placed on the ideological spectrum: management of the MTA and its subways, government corruption, and personality. Like Cuomo’s Republican opponents, Nixon calls him a bully who governs out of fear rather than collaboration.

“If we had a governor who acted like a Democrat," Nixon said at a recent house party meet-and-greet, "we could have fully funded our schools, we could have enacted campaign finance reform, we could have enacted the women’s equality agenda, we could have enacted the New York Dream Act, we could have fought for single-payer health care, we could have strengthened our rent regulations, and we could have fixed our subway.”

She also indicated she would "invest in public housing," end mass-incarceration and "the over-policing of communities of color" and "make our state into a real sanctuary state.”

“We cannot depend on career politicians to deliver the change that we have been begging for, for literally decades,” she said to the roughly 15 attendees, according to a video posted to Facebook.

The governor has responded to Nixon’s candidacy with a fit of effort, rallying allies, tacking leftward on several fronts, and making a couple of gaffes. Cuomo is running on a record that impresses many, including high-profile progressive achievements such as the passage of marriage equality in New York in 2011, an aggressive gun regulation program in 2013, a large increase in the minimum wage and a paid family leave program in 2015, and more.

“During my administration we have made this state the most progressive state in the United States of America,” Cuomo recently said, and dismisses the notion that Nixon has pushed him leftward.

Asked about his apparent move in that direction since Nixon announced her candidacy, Cuomo recently said:

“Yeah, I say: look at what I have done all my life, all I did with Mario Cuomo. When we took a position against the death penalty every year, at tremendous political cost. Look at what I did at HUD when I was with President Clinton, and we went all over the country building an agenda for poor people. I sued the Klu Klux Klan. Look at what I did when I was the first big state in the United States to pass marriage equality...when I passed $15 minimum wage, when I passed paid family leave, when I closed more prisons than any governor in the history of the state...Look at a lifetime of work, my friend. I have been doing the same thing since I entered public service. When I was in my twenties, I was doing homeless housing in Brooklyn, homeless housing for homeless families and people and victims of domestic violence, so I’m a very simple, consistent fellow. We got into this business because my father taught me that the Democratic Party at its best was a vehicle for social justice and social change; it’s what I’ve been doing since day one.”

Nixon and her supporters, like those in the liberal Working Families Party, which endorsed her after backing Cuomo in his previous two gubernatorial races, have said some of Cuomo’s big achievements are watered down and there’s a long list of progressive goals that could have been achieved if Cuomo didn’t govern from the center, empower Republicans and breakaway Democrats in the state Senate, appease his big-money donors, and focus on the wrong priorities. Indeed, much of Nixon’s platform includes policy priorities that Cuomo has said he backs but has not gotten passed through the Legislature, something his critics say has been by design.

A recent Siena College poll shows Nixon gaining ground, though she still appears a significant underdog to a governor with near-universal name recognition in New York, $30 million and counting in the bank, and other advantages of incumbency. Cuomo’s 66%-19% advantage among Democratic voters in a poll released just as Nixon launched her campaign in mid-March shrank to 58%-27% in a poll released mid-April, but the governor still appears to be in strong position as the campaign begins to heat up. With the primary vote set for September 13, Nixon clearly needs to show Democratic voters around the state that she understands their concerns, while continuing to answer questions about her qualifications.

In her early campaign, she has begun to hold events around New York, while attending rallies where she is not a featured speaker, and sitting for several magazine profiles and appearing on television with Wendy Williams and Stephen Colbert. Twitter has become one of her key campaign tools, which she uses to reach her roughly 173,000 followers and many others through retweets and press coverage. Through these appearances and tweets, as well as press releases and campaign videos, Nixon has made a variety of policy positions clear, some of which are affirmative plans, others that are only critiques of how Cuomo has done things, with her own specific proposals still unannounced.

A little more than a month after declaring her candidacy, Nixon does not have a page on her website dedicated to policy, and has released one detailed issue plan, on energy and the environment. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment about her policy agenda and what New Yorkers might expect in the future in terms of policy rollout.

But, Nixon has expressed support for a number of long-standing but unpassed policy proposals like the New York Dream Act, and begun to put forth other elements of her platform, which, given her lack of experience in government, she will be relying on heavily to woo voters. She has also listed off a number of ways in which she would govern differently from Cuomo, typically to the left.

Nixon has called for legalizing recreational use of marijuana in New York.

She has framed it as an issue of racial equity and criminal justice. “We have to stop putting people of color in jail for something white people do with impunity,” she said in a video posted to Twitter. At the same time, she frames the issue as an opportunity for economic growth and a potential new source of state tax revenue, “Legalizing marijuana can generate millions of dollars in tax revenue to improve the lives of all New Yorkers,” Nixon said in a tweet. She has also pointed out the potential agricultural opportunities in further tweets on the subject.

Another reform that Nixon has expressed support for relates to forgiveness for those who have been arrested and convicted on charges relating to cannabis. “Ending the injustice of putting New Yorkers in prison for marijuana is a start but we also have to correct past injustices, by expunging prior convictions — particularly for nonviolent offenders whose only convictions are for marijuana use,” Nixon tweeted.

Nixon has been a vocal activist on education issues in the city and state for the better part of 20 years. Working with the Alliance for Quality Education, she has decried what they call the underfunding and unequal funding of schools, while also opposing the over-emphasis on standardized testing and the expansion of charter schools.

Talking to reporters in Syracuse recently, Nixon said of more education funding, “We need it to improve buildings that have mold, that have lead, that have asbestos, but we also need it to stop the school-to-prison pipeline. We need to have more social workers and psychologists, and we need to have people who are really trained in conflict resolution.”

At a press conference in March, during her first week as a declared gubernatorial candidate, Nixon appeared with the Alliance for Quality Education in Albany. She said of local education funding, “We need to not have it based on property values,” while suggesting that schools should rely primarily on state funding, not local. She also criticized the 2% cap on annual property tax growth everywhere in New York except New York City, which Cuomo implemented and points to as a major accomplishment. “He makes it very difficult if a locality wants to raise taxes on itself for education," Nixon said.

She also expressed support for the Assembly Democrats’ plan to increase public school funding in the state at the AQE press conference, which occurred during state budget negotiations before a deal was reached in late March. The Assembly plan would have directed an additional $1.5 billion in funding to public school districts, slightly more than double the funding that Cuomo had proposed, at an increase of $769 million over the prior year. The new state budget for the fiscal year that started April 1 increased state education spending by $1 billion, to a total of $26.7 billion.  Cuomo regularly notes that New York spends more per pupil than any other state, and has long asked if the state and its localities are getting enough from that high level of spending, leading him to some of his calls for education reforms.

Nixon also frames education funding as a social and racial justice issue. “There is a $7 million budget for school resource officers, and a quarter of a million budget for mental health, we need to flip that,” she said. “We are treating our black and brown children, we’re viewing them as criminals, we’re viewing them as a threat from the very earliest ages.”

“Allowing more police into our schools will only fuel the school-to-prison pipeline which has ruined the lives of so many young black and brown students. More smartboards, less metal detectors,” she tweeted.

Nixon has also shown her opposition to charter schools, which are publicly-funded and privately run. Cuomo has been a major supporter of charter schools, helping them expand, especially in New York City. “We have to stop diverting education funding into privately run charter schools, and put the focus back where it should be: on strengthening our public schools and keeping them public,” Nixon wrote on Twitter.  

She has also criticized Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program that attempts to make city and state colleges tuition-free for students from many middle-class families. Cuomo considers it a crowning achievement, but critics like Nixon have put it in the bucket of progressive policies that don’t go as far as they should.

“In terms of free college for all, it only affects a very narrow group of New Yorkers who are middle class New Yorkers who earn too much money to be affected by the federal grant, the pell grant, and people who can afford to go to college full-time, don’t have to work, can graduate in four years, can guarantee they won’t move out of state for four years, and, importantly, don't need any help with books, with room, with board, with transportation -- that’s a very narrow targeted group of people,” Nixon said in an interview with Karen DeWitt of upstate public radio, WXXI News.

Nixon has come out in favor of repealing one of Cuomo’s major education reform initiatives, though something the governor has already largely abandoned. She is calling for removing any ties between state standardized test scores and teacher evaluations, otherwise known as the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) system. The initial passage of the system as well as the implementation of the Common Core learning standards helped fuel an opt-out movement whereby many parents have kept their children from taking the grades 3-8 tests in English language arts and math. The movement has also been bolstered by teachers unions decrying the focus on the tests, which themselves have seen both much criticism and some adjustments in terms of duration of testing and more.

Elections, Voting, and Campaign Finance
Nixon has thus far been light on details regarding campaign finance reform, though she has indicated support for an overhaul of New York’s system, which is known for its sky-high individual contribution limits and for the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations from those who set up multiple limited liability corporations and has been a major boon to Cuomo’s coffers.

Nixon has been particularly critical of how Cuomo has built up his $30-plus million campaign warchest, pointing out that a tiny percentage has come from small donors, as exposed by The New York Times, while the rest is predominantly from wealthy individuals, corporations, and real estate developers.

Nixon has repeatedly stressed she is not accepting any corporate donations, opting to highlight the role that small donations have played in her campaign, but the nature of “corporate donations” has been loosely translated and Nixon is still accepting donations from LLCs, which at the federal level are considered corporations, but are are considered people at the state level.

In tweeting about her endorsement from Citizen Action of New York, Nixon appeared to support the public financing of elections, one of the advocacy group’s top priorities. Nixon’s endorsement from the Working Families Party mentions Nixon’s commitment to campaign finance reform, however it does not reference specifics.

On voting reform, Nixon has said New York is lagging behind on things like early voting. One of Cuomo’s recent moves, which added to claims that Nixon has moved him to take progressive action, was to move toward granting parolees the right to vote. Nixon tweeted that “Voter suppression in New York should have ended eight years ago, from the rights of parolees to access to early voting and automatic registration.”

Campaign finance reform and early voting are on the list of policies that Cuomo has said he backs and proposed year after year, only to see them die in the Republican-led Senate, while Nixon and others say that Cuomo either could have done more to get them passed even given current political dynamics or that his support for Republican control of the Senate has led to these policy failures.

Energy & Environment
Energy and environmental issues, like education, were major topics in the 2014 gubernatorial primary in which Cuomo defeated law professor Zephyr Teachout, who is now campaign treasurer for Nixon. Teachout did win a surprising 34% of the primary vote, likely related to her calls to ban fracking and reverse much of Cuomo’s education agenda.

While Cuomo did institute a fracking ban and has retreated on many education reforms, both larger topics are again at play this year.

Nixon has come out hard against fracking and non-renewable energy, backing environmental activists’ calls for a ban on all fracking-related infrastructure and more ambitious renewable energy goals. “I pledge that if I am elected Governor I will not approve any new use of fracked gas in New York State. Andrew Cuomo should take the same pledge. New York should not build fossil fuel power plants or pipelines that threaten our environment and contribute to climate change,” tweeted Nixon.

She has said she supports the Climate and Community Protection Act, stating that passing it would be at the top of her priority list should she become governor. She has stated her intentions to set New York on a road to achieve 100% reliance on renewable energy by 2050.

As part of her plan to achieve this, Nixon has proposed that she would reject all new investment proposals in fossil fuel infrastructure, such as pipelines and plants. She stated that she wants to hold what she calls “corporate polluters” accountable, suggesting this as a way to raise revenue in the state. While this may lead to calls by Nixon for a carbon tax, she has not given specifics for how she wants to punish those polluters.

Nixon has also been highly critical of nuclear energy as a potential alternative to fossil fuel, going so far as to state that nuclear power will not at all be part of her clean energy plan. On her campaign website, Nixon says she is against the state’s 2016 agreement to bail out aging nuclear power plants for $7.6 billion.

Nixon also recently came out against the Crestwood Liquefied Petroleum Gas Storage Project, a plan to import 1.5 million barrels of liquid propane from Texas and store it under Seneca Lake in unused salt mines in the town of Reading. “The Finger Lakes is a world-class wine and tourist destination that supports thousands of jobs and brings billions of dollars into New York’s economy every year. Clean air and clean water are vital for these businesses to thrive. I am firmly opposed to the Crestwood Gas Storage Project and the Romulus garbage incinerator,” Nixon tweeted.

On the same day that Nixon released her “A Just Transition for New York” environmental platform, Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation rejected a water quality certification for a proposed gas pipeline. The department cited an incomplete application and environmental concerns as a reason, though some are arguing that Nixon’s environmental platform is influencing Cuomo’s actions.

Health Care
Nixon’s thoughts on health care are relatively scarce thus far, but she has expressed support for a single-payer system in New York. However, in a comment on Twitter relating to her recent endorsement from the Working Families Party, Nixon laid out several top policy priorities. “We will fight for equitable schools, good jobs, single-payer health care, subways that actually work, environmental justice, and an end to mass incarceration. It’s time for a New York that belongs to all of us—for the many, not the few,” said Nixon.

She made similar but more vague statement in a tweet thanking advocacy group Citizen Action for its endorsement. “I look forward to working with them on public financing of elections, racial justice, and guaranteeing quality healthcare and education to every New Yorker.” But in her recent interview with New York Magazine, Nixon also brought up the fight for a state level single-payer health care system as something she supports.

The New York City subway system appears to be one of the key issues of the gubernatorial race. As the system has been plagued by delays and breakdowns, Cuomo’s management of the MTA has become a focus for elected officials, advocates, and riders. It has also become a focal point for those seeking to unseat him, including both Nixon and Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive and presumptive GOP nominee for governor.

Nixon has placed the blame for MTA troubles squarely at Cuomo’s feet. “He slashed taxes on the wealthiest, and he’s slashed services on everybody else. He’s lost $25 billion from state revenue,” Nixon said in her interview with New York Magazine, adding that “fixing the subways” is one thing that money could have been spent on.  

Nixon has been highly critical of Cuomo on the MTA but hasn’t fleshed out her own vision, though she has made a few general comments about how she would change priorities. Her campaign website has a section for “#CuomosMTA” and on the site, she says cosmetic changes, like wifi in subway stations, misguided priorities that put resources toward things that don’t actually improve the system. “The subway is the lifeblood of NYC. If the subway dies, so does the City of New York. When I’m governor, I’m going to make fixing the subway a top priority,” Nixon said on Twitter.

While Cuomo has overseen implementation of the MTA’s Subway Action Plan, even forcing New York City to pay for half of the $836 million tab, which seeks to make fast repairs to tracks and signals to return the subways to a more functional state, he has been criticized for acting too late and not prioritizing the subways over other projects like lights on bridges and expansion of the Long Island Railroad.

Nixon has come out in support of a comprehensive congestion pricing plan to reduce traffic congestion in Manhattan and create a new dedicated revenue source for the MTA. Cuomo has also expressed general support for congestion pricing and created a panel that crafted a specific proposal, but the governor never came out in full support of that plan. He saw one initial piece of it, a surcharge on taxis and for-hire vehicles, passed in the new state budget, and called it a first step toward congestion pricing.

“I think we need comprehensive congestion pricing not just on Uber and Lyft and black cars and stuff like that,” said Nixon. “We need money. We need a dedicated revenue stream. We have to be creative. I think congestion pricing is a great place to start.”

Economic Development
Nixon has been critical of Cuomo’s economic development programs. “The thing I keep hearing from people is top-down economic development isn't helping people. There were millions of dollars being doled out to people who then contribute to Cuomo's campaign coffers,” Nixon said recently as she toured upstate areas. She said the governor should listen to the needs of communities and then work to help them with those needs. Both lines of argument are similar to the ways Molinaro has characterized things in his criticisms of Cuomo.

Nixon has further suggested that as part of economic development strategies and contracts, private employers that work with the state government should face requirements to hire and train local workers from the communities that they are working in. “We need to make sure that economic development benefits everybody, not just those who are financially and powerfully connected,” said Nixon. She has not presented a real plan for how she would approach economic development.

Nixon has placed a fair amount of focus on the affordable housing crisis in New York City and across the state. She has talked about the need to strengthen rent regulations, criticizing Cuomo for not doing more to protect rent-regulated apartments, and she visited NYCHA housing soon after she launched her campaign in March, calling the conditions of the units in the housing authority “devastating”. She appeared to blame both Mayor de Blasio, who is a close ally and she campaigned for heavily in 2013, and Cuomo, though she has criticized Cuomo more heavily for not doing more.

In comments on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, she said, Cuomo “has declared a state of emergency, and yet he's doing nothing about it.” Nixon pointed out how additional funds to deal with the crisis have not yet been spent even though a state of emergency has been declared.

Nixon has said she wants to renew and strengthen state rent laws and protect affordable housing, highlighting issues with how landlords are allowed to raise rents on rent-regulated tenants.

Nixon received the endorsement from activist group NY Communities for Change, which focuses on affordable housing. At an event with the organization, she sharply criticized Cuomo on housing and homelessness. “In the last ten years across this country, we’ve seen a reduction by 14% in homelessness, but not in Andrew Cuomo’s New York State,” she said. “Over the last eight years in New York State, we’ve seen a 36% increase in homelessness.” She promised to work with activists to reduce homelessness in the state, though she did not get into specifics other than one or two of the nuances of rent regulations, leaving undiscussed, for now at least, questions around rental subsidies, a topic of much debate in New York over the past decade and beyond.

Nixon, like Molinaro and many other Cuomo critics, has been critical of the budgeting process in New York state government. In a press release, she said, “Instead of an open and transparent process with a public debate on the issues, Cuomo’s budget cobbles together a series of backroom deals.”

There has been a great deal of criticism for many years of Albany’s “three men in a room” decision-making process, and Nixon has not only criticized the secretive nature of the way big budget deals are made, but also that Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the only woman leading a legislative conference, was kept out of negotiations of new sexual harassment policies, as well as all others.

“Governor Cuomo is allowing essential reforms like tax hikes on multimillionaires, bail reform, and early voting to drop off the table altogether,” she also said, questioning Cuomo’s approach to budget priorities.

In addition to her opposition to the state’s 2% cap on annual property tax growth, applicable everywhere outside New York City, Nixon has also come out as opposed to the 2% cap on annual state spending growth, both signature Cuomo achievements. At a press conference in Albany, Nixon said, “I think that that 2 percent cap on state spending is disastrous and what it means is we shrink the budget year after year.” While this is not really true, given that the budget does continue to grow, because of Medicaid and other costs, state government has in some ways shrunk under Cuomo, who has largely kept spending at his executive agencies flat over the course of several years.

Nixon appears ready to increase taxes on high earners and state spending on services including education. She expressed support for a progressive tax plan proposed by the Democrat-dominated Assembly, led by Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, which would see taxes raised on those earning more than $5 million.

Nixon supports the New York DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students in the state access to in-state tuition and financial aid. Speaking with El Diario, a Spanish-language newspaper, Nixon said, “We have to pass legislation to make sure we do not collaborate with ICE, that they are not welcomed here and we have to pass the New York DREAM Act.” Not long after those comments, Cuomo issued an executive order to keep ICE from many state properties, one of several recent moves that have led to widespread comments that Cuomo is overtly responding to Nixon’s candidacy.

Nixon has come out in support of providing undocumented immigrants in New York with access to state driver’s licenses, saying, “I think that people who are old enough to do this and know how to drive should receive a license.”

“The hard-working members of our community should be able to drive their children to school and go to work without fear that a broken tail-light will lead to deportation. Let’s make driver's licenses available to all qualified New Yorkers and make NY a REAL sanctuary state,” Nixon recently tweeted. In a campaign video that included City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, the first elected official to endorse Nixon for governor, Nixon outlined her call for the restoration of full access to driver’s licenses.

In accepting an endorsement from activist group Make The Road Action, Nixon also announced support for the bill, tweeting, “Our governor has failed to provide hundreds of thousands of otherwise qualified New Yorkers with a path to obtain a license because of their immigration status. I will work with @MaketheRoadAct and working families across the state to pass the Driver's License Bill.”

While Cuomo has expressed some openness to possibly supporting the driver’s license bill, he most recently said it is something that could be done by a change to state law or that could be a county by county decision

Nixon also supports the Liberty Act, which she argues would put New York State on par with California in terms of immigration protections. The act would potentially prohibit state and local official’s interaction with ICE agents and provide a right to counsel for immigrants facing deportation who can’t afford a lawyer. “Our immigrant communities are fighting to keep their families together. They need a governor who will fight with them, from driver’s licenses to making New York a true sanctuary state, and Andrew Cuomo hasn’t. In 2018, you can’t call yourself a Democrat if you’re not doing everything you can to fight for immigrants” remarked Nixon in a press release.

by Matthew Sweeney and Ben Max

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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by Matthew Sweeney, Gotham Gazette

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