The fight between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon began, as so many New York arguments begin, with a dispute about the subway.
Cuomo, who is seeking a third term this year, had begun his first and only debate with Nixon by promising not to run for president. Nixon, who had never before run for any office — and who trails Cuomo in every public poll — began on the attack, saying that the governor was a “corporate, corrupt Democrat,” a line she had used on the trail.
Over the next hour, the governor surprised Nixon by going negative, ripping into his challenger as a phony who concealed her tax records (she has not) and would run the state into debt-driven chaos. Nixon, who is unlikely to have another chance to debate Cuomo before the Sept. 13 primary, responded with scorn and bafflement.
The brawl truly began with the subway question, after Nixon, who has attacked the city’s struggling transportation system as “Cuomo’s MTA,” said that the governor had left it underfunded.
“He used the MTA like an ATM, and we see the result,” she said.
Cuomo responded by promising “a couple of facts, not that they’re all that relevant,” and Nixon accused him of dissembling about the state’s ownership of the city’s transportation system, a perennial cause of argument.
“Can you stop interrupting?” asked Cuomo.
“Can you stop lying?” asked Nixon.
“Yeah, as soon as you do,” said the governor.
From that point in the debate, Cuomo spent less time defending his record in a time of economic growth than he spent lambasting Nixon as a phony. He accused her of peddling “fiction, not facts” — an unsubtle reference to her work as an actress — and unloaded from the opposition research file.
At one point he cited a quote Nixon had given to the New York Times, saying that she might not have run against someone like former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
“I said I would not run against him, because he is not corrupt like you are,” said Nixon.
“Well then, he would be governor,” harrumphed Cuomo.
It was something of a triumph for Nixon that the debate had happened at all. In 2010, when he won his first term, Cuomo faced off against Republican nominee Carl Paladino at a circus-like debate that included the fringe candidates also on the ballot that year. (The debate is remembered for making a star of Jimmy McMillan, the table-pounding candidate of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.)
In 2014, Cuomo never debated Zephyr Teachout, the law professor who ran an anti-corruption campaign against him, starting an electoral career that has continued into this year’s race for attorney general.
Cuomo did give Nixon a full hour to debate him at Hofstra University, a frequent host of presidential debates, which do not typically feature as much crowd work.
“How am I with labor?” Cuomo asked at one point Wednesday night, prompting cheers from union workers in the crowd.
Nixon, the candidate of activists who want to dismantle the conservative wing of the state’s Democratic Party, was largely able to deliver that message. Pressed on her plan to bring universal health care to New York, she spent 90 seconds walking through its potential fiscal impact. Asked about making it easier for workers to strike, Nixon said that she intended to empower people who simply wanted fair wages and saw no other resort.
“Workers don’t want to strike,” said Nixon. “Workers only strike when they have no other recourse.”
Cuomo, who has been even more dismissive of Nixon than he was of Teachout, portrayed his opponent as a head-in-the-clouds socialist. She couldn’t just “snap her fingers” and enact policies like ethics reform, he said.
“If you allow the public sector unions to strike, teachers could go on strike,” said Cuomo. “There would be no school, children wouldn’t be educated. It would clearly be mayhem.”
After assuring viewers that Nixon’s agenda was unworkable, Cuomo set about portraying her as a phony. While Nixon had released five years of tax returns, Cuomo crowed that “only Donald Trump” had done less. Nixon seemed ready to counterpunch — Cuomo had not released his own tax returns until cruising to victory in 2010 — and seemed to be taken aback as Cuomo insisted that her clean reputation had been a lie.
“You are a corporation,” said Cuomo.
“I am a person,” said Nixon, to applause.
“And you’re a corporation,” said Cuomo.
The governor’s point, made frequently through the debate, was that Nixon had formed an LLC for tax purposes, as an actress with lumpy sources of income. “Working men and women don’t have corporations,” Cuomo said. He returned to the attack several times, while Nixon explained that she would be a more reliable progressive, and would try to turn New York into a model for that kind of governance instead of one where moderate Democrats cut deals with Republicans.
“I do work to protect workers and to give rights to workers, and paid family leave is one of the things that does it,” said Cuomo.
“It’s one of many issues where Andrew Cuomo has been forced into it but claims credit,” said Nixon.
“My opponent is upset with the Koch brothers because they’re the only ones who take more corporate money than she does,” said Cuomo, a zinger that made little sense when aimed at Nixon. (The governor has amassed one of the largest reelection funds in state history in part with the support of business PACs that favor his policies.)
Between the zingers — and apart from a lengthy discussion of whether one of the state’s bridges should be renamed for the governor’s father — both candidates had some chances to describe different visions of government. Cuomo described himself as a progressive who had won real victories against the Trump administration. Nixon sketched out a future where, while paying higher taxes, New Yorkers could get universal health care, higher wages and criminal justice reform, starting with legalized marijuana.
“Marijuana has been legal for white people for a long time,” said Nixon. “It’s time to make it legal for everyone else.”
Cuomo, who has advertised several leftward policy shifts since Nixon began threatening to run, responded sometimes by saying he was already achieving what she proposed, and sometimes saying she would leave voters ruined. Statewide universal health care, he said, “reminds me of the story of the doctor who says, if you survive the operation, you’re going to have a long, healthy life.”