Gotham Gazette

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What You Can Learn From Gubernatorial Candidates' Campaign Websites

cuomo campaign site

(image: Cuomo campaign website home page)

The digital presence of elected government officials and candidates seeking elected office – whether it’s a fledgling Instagram account with a humble following or a tweet gone viral with tens of thousands of retweets – cannot be underestimated in today’s world. Social media provides direct access between candidates and voters, and can remove traditional barriers between constituents and their elected officials.

Many, for instance, have partly ascribed the triumph of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – the 28-year-old democratic socialist who upended 10-term Democratic Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York’s primary -- to her strong social media presence and digital outreach efforts. Ocasio-Cortez’s first campaign ad went viral -- it has now reached over 3.7 million views on Twitter -- as it revelled in the basics of New York life, following the first-time candidate as she rode the subway and greeted a cashier at her local bodega.

Undoubtedly, electoral success depends on a broad range of tried-and-tested campaign tactics, but internet virality, it seems, can pay off, leading many candidates to dedicate robust efforts at Facebook, Twitter, and other social media streams. Some, like Ocasio-Cortez, as well as New York gubernatorial candidates Marc Molinaro, Stephanie Miner, and Howie Hawkins, appear to largely run their own Twitter accounts, directly responding to voters, journalists, even competitors.

Interested parties can often learn a lot about a candidate from social media, however curated and stiff, or full of personality and policy the campaign presence might be.

But what about campaign websites, often the place that candidates first direct voters or that show up in Internet searches? What portrait can hopeful elected officials shape for themselves within the virtually unlimited scope of the Internet? And, perhaps more importantly, what can voters learn about candidates from those sites?

Many candidates attempt to entrance the electorate with professional videos, sharp social media posts, and flashy websites – in part to communicate their policy platforms with access that comes as easy as a click of a mouse or a tap on a smartphone.

In this election year for many federal and state offices, one key question for New Yorkers is what they can learn about this year’s candidates for governor, especially in terms of policy proposals, by looking at those candidates’ campaign websites.

Two-term Governor Andrew Cuomo faces a Democratic primary challenge this year from Cynthia Nixon, the actor and education activist. On the Republican side, there’s no primary and the party chose Molinaro, the Dutchess county executive as its nominee. Then there are the ‘third-party’ candidates such as Howie Hawkins from the Green Party and Larry Sharpe from the Libertarian Party. Stephanie Miner, a Democrat and the former mayor of Syracuse, is running as an independent with the new Serve America Movement.

In each candidate’s case, their campaign website articulates his or her policy positions to varying degrees, with some choosing to unveil lengthy detailed policy packages while others cover little or minutely describe a presented legacy of prior accomplishments with few forward-looking proposals.

Andrew Cuomo
Cuomo’s campaign website is an example of the latter. It lists many issues and few proposals, providing more of a resume that touts accomplishments, mostly in brief. The issues page -- titled with his campaign slogan “Proven Leadership” -- presents 10 subjects, accompanied by just 10 paragraphs (the longest paragraph, reciting his work for “Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Reform,” is just six sentences long) explaining his commitment to the issues and the ways he has already tackled them during his two-term tenure.

Even issues that the governor has been actively campaigning on over the last few months with specific policy goals, such as protecting women’s reproductive rights and additional gun control measures, are not listed on Cuomo’s campaign website.

Under “Fighting for Women’s Equality,” for example, it states that he “passed the most comprehensive paid family leave program in the nation, launched the most aggressive public university sexual assault policy in the country, fought for a comprehensive policy to combat sexual harassment, achieved the smallest wage gap in the country, and ensured that contraceptive coverage is not interrupted regardless of what happens in Washington.”

The section, however, lacks any mention of the Reproductive Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraception Act, two key pieces of legislation that would, respectively, codify Roe v. Wade into New York law and mandate that insurers cover birth control fees. These bills have been integral to many state candidates’ platforms regarding women’s rights in this election cycle, and many of those candidates have criticized the governor for failing to push the two bills through the Legislature.

Under a separate website page that calls for New Yorkers to sign a petition to protect reproductive rights, it reads, “Republicans in the NY Senate have repeatedly refused to guarantee reproductive health care by codifying Roe v. Wade into our State Constitution. Now, we need to vote them out.” While Cuomo’s campaign has on social media promoted his push to codify Roe v. Wade into state law, the website offers scant insight.

The same goes for the governor’s goals on gun control.

Under “Gun Safety,” the Cuomo’s campaign cites his passage of the SAFE Act and “enacting legislation that removes guns from domestic abusers,” but mentions nothing of the Red Flag Gun Protection Bill, a piece of legislation that would prevent those deemed a threat by the court from obtaining firearms, despite another petition asking for support of the bill appearing as a banner (“NY is beating the NRA. Join the Fight.”) on his website’s homepage.

Other issues his website speaks of are aimed towards the LGBTQ community (he pledges a promise to end the AIDS epidemic by 2020, without stating how), education, health care, the environment, income inequality, the state economy and the economic mobility of the middle class. But the site almost exclusively presents the Cuomo campaign’s account of the governor’s two-term record, with little clarity about where he wants to take the state if voters give him a third term this fall. In other venues, such as government press conferences, Cuomo has been much more clear about what legislation he wants to see passed in the future, which he has said he needs a Democratic state Senate in order to pass (the Assembly is overwhelmingly Democratic), though Nixon and others have accused Cuomo of supporting a split Legislature, which, they say, makes his pencient for centrism more excusable to Democratic voters.

Cynthia Nixon
Meanwhile, Nixon devotes entire pages and packed PDF files to her platform’s 12 chosen issues, which cover education, rent control, fixing the subways, the economy, criminal justice reform, government corruption, voter reform, reproductive rights, the environment, health care, immigrant rights and the legalization of marijuana.

Some pages are more exhaustive than others. “Legalize Marijuana,” for example, features a video Nixon posted on Twitter and a paragraph that calls for the legalization of recreational marijuana use. A page advocating for criminal justice reform includes a 21-page-long PDF file detailing Nixon’s plan to revamp “a justice system designed to target and criminalize communities of color and the poor.” The plan, which is divvied up into nine separate sections ranging from “Police Accountability” to “Abolish Solitary Confinement,” allows voters to discover her views on cash bail (to abolish it in all cases) or her perspective on the shutdown of Rikers Island jails (that they must be closed in less than the proposed 10 years (a view Cuomo shares)), in varying degrees of detail.

Her policy packages also at times include estimated costs. For example, her plan for revamping the educational system – which includes things like investing in universal pre-kindergarten, establishing a Deputy Commissioner for Racial and Economic Equity within the State Education Department and providing free college tuition for qualified students – estimates that it would cost about $7.367 billion, a hefty sum that she plans to allocate through the implementation of a “millionaires tax,” which would effectively increase the taxes of those with an annual income between $300,000 and $10 million at varying rates.

While their websites differ significantly, Cuomo’s and Nixon’s campaign sites do share a focus on Cuomo’s record, though they paint very different pictures of it. While Cuomo highlights legislation he spearheaded or progress he achieved, Nixon finds shortcomings and negligence. In “#SchoolsNotJails,” a bolded paragraph reads, “The Governor’s refusal to address inequity has devastating consequences,” and in “Climate Justice,” Nixon characterizes Cuomo’s announcement of an energy efficiency plan as “Too little, too late.”

The websites aren’t nearly the entirety of a campaign, of course. Cuomo has been announcing endorsements and airing TV ads amounting to $7.5 million in the last month alone, vastly outspending Nixon’s $606,000 total expenditure in that period, and the governor has appeared at a number of government events that often sound like campaign rallies. He has not done more than a couple of interviews about his candidacy with print, TV or radio journalists.

On the other hand, while Nixon’s website adopts an extensive policy platform and she has organized many events around her plans, she has on occasion struggled to discuss her proposals in detail when questioned by reporter, though she takes questions far more often than Cuomo. She has done a number profile interviews with national publications and made appearances on mostly friendly TV shows while thus far declining invitations to appear with TV and radio hosts who may ask her tougher, more detailed questions -- opportunities Cuomo has also declined.

The two are set to debate on WCBS TV on August 29, under conditions that Nixon’s campaign said Cuomo only agreed to because they were favorable to him. She has agreed to other broadcast debates that Cuomo has declined, while she has also made many appearances in front of clubs and groups to pitch her candidacy, fitting a long-shot challenger to an entrenched incumbent.

Marc Molinaro
Molinaro, the Republican nominee, also delves into a heavy critique of Governor Cuomo on his campaign website. “When this governor came into office, I had the greatest amount of hope that he’d bring with him a new day,” Molinaro said on his campaign website’s “Reforming Albany” page, “but instead we have a new normal.” A culture of corruption and pay-to-play politics has permeated state government, Molinaro argues.

Molinaro’s website doesn’t explicitly have an “Issues” page, and overall it is very light on detailed policy proposals or views. The Republican nominee, who appears to be waiting until after the Democratic primary to outline the majority of his policy plans, largely seeks to present himself in general get-to-know-me fashion as a person and career-long elected official to voters who might visit the site.

What seems to replace an issues page, at least for now, is one titled “Moments With Marc” with six subpages, where a user can scroll through a grid of videos, typically no longer than three minutes and usually with Molinaro either seated in front of a camera or speaking at a rally, rather than presented as a read-through text format. The subpages include reforming Albany, education, transportation, the opioid and heroin crisis and improving the quality of life. There is additionally a subpage that allows users to learn “More About Marc.”

Some subpages display videos with more extensive policy proposals than others. In “Reforming Albany,” for example, Molinaro said he would rid state government of corruption by asking the state Legislature to adopt a universal code of ethics, creating an independent ethics commission, expanding the Freedom of Information Act to all state government entities, restoring the state comptroller’s power to independent oversight and pushing for a two-term limit for New York governors. It is the one policy area where Molinaro has released detailed plans, fitting a top theme of his campaign, that Cuomo has not cleaned up Albany and it is time for a governor who will.

Molinaro is far less specific about resolving what he calls the “Opioid and Heroin Crisis,” where he says there is a need to provide “the right help at the right time.” In this video, which is the sole video for this particular section and is less than two minutes long, Molinaro presents his case for wanting to ensure that “the criminal justice system treats people humanely” and that those affected by drug addiction have access to rehabilitative resources, but fails to provide a more detailed proposal on how he would follow through with that notion.

On the campaign trail, Molinaro has talked about fixing the MTA and blamed Cuomo for mismanaging the state-run authority, but he has not outlined his plans for accomplishing such a turnaround, instead promising more detail in the coming weeks and months. Similarly, Molinaro has promised to propose major overhauls of the state tax system and how the state does economic development, but neither plan has been presented yet.

Howie Hawkins
Hawkins, running on the Green Party line, includes over 20 issue platforms on his campaign website. The socialist candidate presents broad policy proposals to address issues from “Guaranteed Health Care” (enact the New York Health Act, defend public hospitals from closures and privatizations) to “End the War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration” (establish a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, as well as decriminalize hard drugs and enable access to drug abuse treatment on demand).

While some of his proposed issues are aligned with those espoused by the aforementioned candidates, like his claim to expand affordable housing or to rebuild the MTA infrastructure, others are much more radical, such as the complete decriminalization of hard drugs. His overall policy platform is an ever further left version of that put forth by Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo from the progressive end of the political spectrum. For instance, while Nixon advocates for a 100 percent transition to clean energy by 2050, Hawkins proposes that the transition should be made by the year 2030.

A key focus for Hawkins and other Green Party candidates is the “Green New Deal,” which is composed of three main tenets: revitalizing the public sector by fully funding public services and investing in clean energy infrastructure; eliminate policies of supply-side, trickle-down economics; and enact a plan of demand-side, bottom-up economics, which “will increase effective demand and stimulate business expansion and jobs to meet the demand,” according to his website.

“The historic role of third parties has been to force issues neglected by the major parties into public debate,” Hawkins states at the top of his issues webpage. “The Green Party has increasingly been playing this role.”

Larry Sharpe
For Sharpe, the Libertarian Party nominee, under his “Sharpe Policy” page, lists seven issues: “Business Matters;” “Family Law;” “Education;” “Second Amendment Rights;” “Drugs, Cannabis, and Hemp;” and “Tax Reform;” and “Digital Government.” There is a lot of language under each issue, though much of it is broad, with some specific policy plans. Fitting his status as a Libertarian, much of Sharpe’s platform is focused on reducing the scope of government and increasing individual liberties.

His platform espouses the support of certain unconventional policies, such as suggesting that traditional high school education should conclude after the tenth grade in order to “give students and parents the opportunity to choose the best path for the next two years and beyond,” and, under “Second Amendment Rights,” establishing a new firearms permit waiting period of 90 days rather than the current six months. Rolling back gun regulations appears to be a major focus of the Sharpe campaign.

Sharpe also focuses on digitalizing the state government, either through increasing the functionality of state government websites or using onlines tools to increase civic participation in regards to public projects or local legislation. According to this section, Sharpe “will bring the entrepreneurial energy, digital savvy and startup mentality necessary to make the state of New York a leader in open and effective government in the digital age.”

While Sharpe’s website occasionally presents “White Papers,” which redirect users to research documents, only two sections currently have these white papers attached, these being “Education” and “Drug, Cannabis and Hemp.” Two other sections, “Family Law” and “Second Amendment Rights,” allocate a section for a white paper but have no link that redirects the user to the document, and the remaining sections say that the white paper will be revealed soon.

Stephanie Miner
Miner, who became the first female mayor of Syracuse when she was first elected in 2010 and served two terms in the position, presents four major issues on her campaign website: “Crush Corruption,” “Upend Politics as Usual,” “Investing in New York’s Future” and “Accountable Spending.”.

Miner has vehemently critiqued Cuomo and his administration, including on its approach to economic development and infrastructure, and the various corruption scandals that have sprung up within Cuomo’s orbit of aides and donors, and she makes corruption in state government a focal point for her platform.

Under the webpage “Crush Corruption,” she advocates for the disbanding of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a state agency that investigates corruption and ethics in Albany that is composed of members appointed by Cuomo. She also argues for the provision of the state comptroller’s full oversight over economic development proposals, an authority which has been reduced over the years under Cuomo’s tenure. The argument made by the governor and Legislature for reducing State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s power is that it expedites the state’s economic development work, especially awarding contracts; critics, on the other hand, including DiNapoli, argue that reduced oversight has lent a hand to easy exploitation of the system.

In “Investing in New York’s Future,” Miner also lays out her plan on developing the state’s infrastructure, which involves resolving the MTA crisis through establishing a multi-year agreement on revenue and expenses, among other proposals, cutting property taxes and delivering universal high-speed broadband access to all New Yorkers. The remaining two issues on her website advocate for reforming the voting process, where she advocates for policies such as a non-partisan redistricting of the state and consolidation of the state and federal primaries, and the state’s budget spending, where she calls for transparency during budget negotiations and restoring the state comptroller’s oversight during a competitive bidding process.

The Cuomo-Nixon primary is September 13, a Thursday. The general election is on Tuesday, November 6.

by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Joel Giambra is not running for governor as the Reform Party nominee, the party has backed Molinaro.

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