When asked if she can come from behind and beat her opponent in New York’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, the incumbent Andrew Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon still believes. Despite polls consistently showing her lagging far behind the governor (the latest has Cuomo up by 41 points), Nixon tells Jezebel: “I intend to win.”
Nixon, a self-described democratic socialist and longtime activist, has embraced a wide variety of progressive issues in her campaign, from calling for Medicare for All to robust tenant protections and the end of cash bail, winning endorsements along the way from Akeem Browder (the brother of Kalief Browder, the teenager who died by suicide after being imprisoned for three years at Rikers Island) to the Working Families Party.
Whether or not she overcomes the odds—and state voting laws that strongly favor incumbents—her campaign has already been remarkably successful in pushing Cuomo, a conservative Democrat despite his recent self-styling as a leader of the anti-Trump #Resistance, to embrace positions that he has resisted in the past, from marijuana legalization to the dismantling of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democratic state senators who allied themselves with Republicans.
Meanwhile, Cuomo has in recent days come under scrutiny for a host of eyebrow-raising incidents, from allegations that his administration pushed for the opening of a new bridge—named after Cuomo’s father, the former governor Mario Cuomo, no less—before it was safe to do so to his campaign’s role in the mailing of a much-criticized flier paid for by the state’s Democratic Party that heavily implied Nixon is anti-Semitic.
These are some of the differences in both style and substance that, Nixon says, set her apart from her opponent and illustrate the stakes of an election that has become a referendum on the centrist status quo across New York state. She spoke with Jezebel about what she’s already accomplished during her campaign, what she believes is driving support for progressive candidates across the country, and (sorry, but I had to) her notorious bagel order. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Andrew Cuomo loves the optics of being progressive, but in reality is reluctant to pass progressive legislation, often hires Republican staffers, and collaborated with the IDC, a group of state Democrats that caucuses with Republicans. You have rooted your campaign in listening to and working with grassroots movements. Why do you think that Cuomo’s brand of style over substance has been so successful in New York state, up to this point?
CYNTHIA NIXON: I don’t think it has been successful. I think he’s a very astute politician in that he’s very good at saying one thing and doing another. He’s very good at pleasing his donors, his Republican donors, people looking for tax breaks, for lucrative state contracts. He’s very good at doing a fraction of the whole thing and claiming the whole, like with raising the minimum wage, and then claiming leadership on it. I think what he’s been really good at is ceding power to the Republicans, and anything he didn’t get done in New York, saying he couldn’t do it because the Republicans wouldn’t let him. What he has been really good at doing is, behind closed doors, playing both sides of the fence.
But I think what’s happening now is that we’re in a really progressive moment. People want Democrats to bring home progressive change, who aren’t just anti-Trump, who want not just incremental change but transformational change—ending mass incarceration, making New York a sanctuary state, offering drivers licenses [to undocumented immigrants]. People want the Democratic Party to really stand for something. We have to be real blue Democrats, and I think he’s trapped back in 2010. I think he’s trying to shift with the political winds, and he’s caught on too late.
He’s woven this narrative that he’s more progressive than he is. What we’ve seen in this cycle is that people are getting pretty fed up with that.
You’ve already managed to push Andrew Cuomo’s positions to the left—what some people have dubbed the “Cynthia effect.” Is he scared of you?
I think he’s scared of me, but I think equally he’s scared of being revealed. I think that one of the things that he’s done is that he’s ensured, he makes it very hard for people to run against him because of the considerable war chest that he’s got. If you look at the New York State Democratic Committee’s really scandalous, sleazy flier accusing me of baseless, terrible things, if you look at how he, chasing after a photo op, opened the new Mario Cuomo bridge months ahead of schedule in a way that engineers have been fighting him not to do, putting New Yorkers lives in danger, we see just how he thinks—that all of these tactics are not only justifiable but that people are not going to attack him on it because he’s very good at covering his tracks.
When it comes to the corruption in his administration, the only difference between [Joe] Percoco [a former top Cuomo aide who was recently convicted of soliciting and accepting bribes from companies that do business with the state] and Michael Cohen is that Cohen flipped.
Skeptics of your campaign have questioned your lack of experience as a major sticking point. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is president at the moment! Still, it’s been a sticking point. What’s your response to that?
My response to that is we have Andrew Cuomo as our governor. If his stock in trade is his ability and his confidence, I only need to point you to the bridge, to the MTA subways, to the mismanagement of hundreds of millions of dollars in upstate development that have led to no jobs and with so many of the key players on their way to prison. For a governor whose stock in trade is his ability to get things done, what has he done?
This is somebody who is really looking for ribbon cutting ceremonies. Franky when it comes to Andrew Cuomo, he’s really obsessed with the appearance of things, rather than doing things like fixing boilers or fixing mold [in public housing]. He’s there for the [opening of the] extension of the Second Avenue Subway, but all the delays that have tripled under him in the New York City subway, he’s nowhere to be found.
You’ve been consistently far behind in the polls, and Andrew Cuomo is a surprisingly popular governor, given the ethics scandals, his refusal to fix the MTA, and his bullying tactics with people and organizations who disagree with him. What do you think is happening here?
I think we’ll see on Thursday. I think it’s important for people to come out to the polls. I think there are people who will vote for him, who think the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t. I have to say that the people who plan to vote for him on Thursday, other than people who are directly benefiting from him with state contracts, don’t feel a lot of enthusiasm for Andrew Cuomo.
There has been a wave of left, insurgent candidates coming from behind in the polls and winning, from Andrew Gillum in Florida to Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez here in New York. What do you think is driving the energy behind these candidates right now, and do you think you can do the same and win on Thursday?
The reason we’re seeing these upsets, these victories at the polls, is we’re seeing voters inspired by Bernie Sanders and horrified by Donald Trump, who have gotten off the sidelines, who want candidates who are going to address inequality. The tremendous inequality we’re seeing—racial inequality, economic inequality, gender inequality—these are the things that are swallowing our democracy whole. And the unbridled power of corporations to determine policies. People have had enough.
And yes, I think people are really—everybody that I interact with, so many people are so excited about our campaign. Everywhere we go, person after person after person, says thank you for running, I’m voting for you, thank you for your campaign. I think people are sick of Cuomo, are sick of empowering the IDC, but also they’re really hungry for change.
We have an ability to address inequality here, but not with the guy that we’ve got in the governor’s mansion.
You’ve talked during your campaign about decriminalizing marijuana, expanding voting rights for people convicted of felonies, of the need for universal health care. If you win, there is going to be a pretty long list of things that need to get done, and quickly, to make life a little fairer for people in New York. How do you prioritize?
Some of the policies I’ve proposed are executive orders, like making drivers licenses available to all eligible New Yorkers to cut off ICE’s deportation pipeline. Others will have to be done with the legislature. And a lot of these bills already have support in the legislature. Universal health care has already passed the Assembly four times. Cuomo has just opposed it.
If you lose, where does the momentum behind your campaign go? I know you have a background as an activist, but what role do you see yourself playing in post-electoral politics on the same issues: housing affordability, education funding, the subway system, and criminal justice reform?
I intend to win!
Would you place your controversial bagel order again? We tried it at Jezebel, and the reviews were decidedly mixed.
This is my go to bagel! I’ve had it for years.