New York's Nixon-Cuomo primary is shaping up to be a blockbuster

"Only in New York, kids, only in New York."Tabloid gossip queen Cindy Adams' signature signoff is the best on-...

Posted: Mar 22, 2018 9:49 AM
Updated: Mar 22, 2018 9:49 AM

"Only in New York, kids, only in New York."

Tabloid gossip queen Cindy Adams' signature signoff is the best on-ramp to these frenzied early days of the New York Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The actress and activist Cynthia Nixon's decision to enter the race, challenging two-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has touched off the kind of pitched political battle that many in the state, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, seemed confident belonged exclusively to Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the perpetually warring liberal leaders.

But the stakes are different and perhaps higher in certain quarters with Cuomo's potential presidential ambitions, along with his current job, on the line. Unlike de Blasio, Nixon has nothing to lose by torching the governor with every breath, especially in the five boroughs, where the troubled subway system -- which is controlled by the state -- is in a rolling crisis.

All of which provided a neat setup for Nixon's campaign kickoff speech Tuesday in Brooklyn, an event to which she was nearly late. Why? Subway trouble, of course. Too on the nose? Not in New York these days, where solidarity, and steaming fulmination, are only a mystery delay away.

Upon arrival at the small event, she briefed the room on her travels.

"I got here just in the nick of time. I allowed an hour and a half for what should have been a 30-minute ride," Nixon said, pausing a beat as the audience chuckled, then deadpanning: "Cuomo's MTA."

Nixon's campaign website also gives the transit mess top billing. There are five links across the front of the homepage, appearing in this order: "Meet Cynthia," "#CuomosMTA," "Why I'm Running," "Volunteer" and "Donate." The MTA, or Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is the agency that runs the subway.

Just below, beneath her first ad, is a declaration sure to delight lefty activists, and not just in the local haunts.

"We need a New York that works for all of us," it reads, "a New York for the many, not just the few." Those last few words -- purposefully or not -- track closely with the rallying cry for Jeremy Corbyn's UK Labour Party, whose election slogan is, "For the many, not the few."

For those less attuned to (or interested in) such progressive deep tracks, or the latest skirmishes inside the New York Democratic political scene, there has been plenty of more baroque early stage drama.

Nixon, of course, is still best known for her role in another Big Apple talker, the long-running HBO series "Sex and the City." The early pushback on her candidacy has focused more on her celebrity, and lack of experience in government, than any broad policy points. When asked weeks ago about rumors Nixon might run (and who, if anyone, might be pushing her to do it), Cuomo offered a cheeky preview of the early criticism.

"It was either the mayor of New York or Vladimir Putin," he joked. "Normally name recognition is relevant when it has some connection to the endeavor. If it's just about name recognition, then I'm hoping Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Billy Joel don't get into the race."

But the laughter has died down a bit over the last couple of days. Despite early polling that shows Cuomo more than tripling Nixon's support and the reality that, even as voters become better acquainted with her pitch, she faces an uphill battle against a popular and accomplished incumbent, Cuomo allies have circled the wagons.

On Tuesday, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand endorsed Cuomo, the word first landing with the New York Daily News, a city tabloid.

"Kirsten is a friend of Governor Cuomo's and supports his campaign," her spokesman, Glen Caplin, told the News. "He's been a leader on issues she cares deeply about like marriage equality, paid family leave and campus sexual assault to name a few."

But the headlines on Tuesday night mostly belonged to former City Council speaker Christine Quinn, who finished third in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary won by de Blasio. In an interview with the New York Post, Quinn sought to deliver a striking blow -- and she did, though not with the intended results.

"Cynthia Nixon was opposed to having a qualified lesbian become mayor of New York City," she said, speaking of her own run. "Now she wants an unqualified lesbian to be the governor of New York." The second reference there, for the uninitiated, is to Nixon, who has identified as bisexual and is married to a woman.

Quinn has since apologized for her choice of words, but not the underlying message.

"Cynthia Nixon aggressively opposed my candidacy in New York despite my qualifications for the office and despite my strong progressive credentials," she said in a tweet, the third of four intended to defuse the controversy. "I was attempting to make a comparison between the two of us."

For her part, Nixon has embraced the storm, sending out a fundraising email on Wednesday afternoon with the subject line, "An unqualified lesbian." Quinn isn't named; the words are attributed instead to "one of Andrew Cuomo's top surrogates."

A few hours earlier, Nixon had touted a campaign launch party with a tweet inviting "all qualified and unqualified lesbians and everyone who wants funded schools, affordable housing & working subways."

Nixon's active social media presence has helped grab still more attention. (Not that New York, with its voracious media, was ever going to pass up such a juicy narrative.) On Tuesday evening, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams publicly offered the new candidate a guided "tour" of a New York City Housing Authority development and an opportunity to "hear directly from #tenants who've lived through years of government neglect, caught in the endless back-and-forth between Albany lawmakers."

Nixon accepted less than 30 minutes later.

The message was clear enough in context: Cuomo himself recently visited with such tenants up in the Bronx and East Harlem, at the invitation of activists, and with cameras in tow reviewed the crumbling apartment spaces before lashing out at the housing authority and the city and pledging emergency assistance. Now, at Adams' invitation, Nixon will have the opportunity to show up and, as much as any candidate can, match the sitting governor.

If Nixon's appeals to date seem focused on the city, that's because they are a new kind of "southern strategy," you might say. Her path to a primary upset requires that she outperform the progressive law professor Zephyr Teachout -- who challenged Cuomo in 2014 (losing out with about a third of the vote) and is now signed on as her campaign treasurer -- with city voters, especially in minority communities, where the governor has a strong foothold.

The focus on the subway makes sense, then -- it's the working class that struggles most when it fails -- and by centering the state's role in its failure, Nixon could elevate her standing there come September, after what promises to be a long, hot summer of delays.

But that's all a long way off. Next up is Thursday: Day 3.

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