Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon finally came eye to eye with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday after months of lobbying for the chance, in an animated debate colored by tense exchanges that seemed to get under the incumbent’s skin and mirror the often-tempestuous tenor of the campaign.
Cuomo and Nixon sparred over their visions for the state, from health care to how to fix New York City’s failing subways, while Cuomo pitched himself – and his experience – as a vital tool in beating back President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Trying from the outset to brush past Nixon and establish Trump as his true political enemy, Cuomo criticized the White House and highlighted his recent Twitter spats with the President.
“Know me by my enemies,” Cuomo said of Trump. “Somebody has to stand up to him.”
Nixon fired back, reminding viewers of Cuomo’s recent gaffe – when he said America “was never that great” – and accusing him of folding when Trump turned the screws.
“You backed down pretty quickly and stood up to him about as well as he stands up to Putin,” Nixon said, before pivoting to an outright attack on Cuomo’s record, saying that “we already have a corrupt, corporate Republican in the White House. We don’t need a corrupt, corporate Democrat in Albany as his main opposition.”
The actress and activist turned progressive gubernatorial challenger has consistently run a distant second to Cuomo in the polls, which have put his lead in the 30-point range. Wednesday’s debate presented a unique opportunity – perhaps her last – to change the trajectory of the race and put Cuomo on edge ahead of the Sept. 13 vote.
When a moderator hinted at his rumored presidential ambitions, asking if Cuomo would pledge to serve a third full four-year term if he was re-elected, the governor was unequivocal: “Yes, yes. Yes and yes. Double yes.”
“The only caveat,” Cuomo said, “is if God strikes me dead. Otherwise, I will serve four years as governor of New York.”
When attention returned to the task at hand, Nixon, as she has throughout the campaign, slammed Cuomo over his handling of the subways and, amid a rapid-fire exchange over how the city and state should divide the burden, Cuomo’s guard dropped.
“Excuse me, can you stop interrupting?” he asked.
“Can you stop lying?” Nixon shot back.
“As soon as you do,” Cuomo said.
They reprised that back-and-forth after Nixon took a shot at Cuomo over corruption in Albany, the state capital, telling him: “If you stop lying, I’ll stop interrupting.”
The interjections and asides persisted through the first half of the debate, as Nixon downplayed the two-term governor’s experience, saying it “doesn’t mean that much if you’re not good at governing.”
The debate, which lasted an hour, and was hosted by WCBS at Hofstra University on Long Island, was Cuomo’s first one-on-one face-off since 2006, when he met Republican Jeanine Pirro ahead of a state attorney general election. The biggest question heading in, given his considerable apparent lead, was whether he could sit tight – the two candidates were seated for the duration – and steer clear of any confrontation that might throw him off course.
Before the debate, Joe Dinkin, campaigns director for the Working Families Party, which endorsed Nixon and will have her on its ballot line in November, guessed that “Cuomo’s team is prepping him not to lash out and create a moment. His goal will be to make no news.”
On that front, Cuomo likely succeeded. Apart from a few flashes of frustration and feisty, made-for-TV exchanges, neither candidate managed a knockout blow.
Cuomo tried to pick off Nixon with repeated attacks on what he described as the slow and circumscribed rollout of her tax returns. When Nixon tried to hit him over “transparency,” he returned to the tax question.
“I think my opponent should be careful with that word,” Cuomo said of Nixon. “She released five years of corporate taxes – dumped them in three hours on a Friday with no notice. Only Donald Trump has done less transparency on his taxes than my opponent.”
The debaters did manage at least one memorable note of agreement: They both turned down an opportunity to say they wanted the endorsement of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime public foe of Cuomo but friend and ally of Nixon.
“I love Mayor de Blasio; I’m sure he loves me,” Cuomo said to laughter – at least in the press filing center – when asked. “In a strange sort of way. After 30 years we have a dysfunctional relationship. He makes his own political decisions, not me.”
For every jab he landed during the debate, Cuomo might have done more damage in the days before it. On Tuesday, the campaign rolled out a new ad featuring former Vice President Joe Biden, who says, “I’ve known Andrew for over 20 years. I know he’s got skills, guts and experience.”
Then, in a bit of pre-debate gamesmanship on Wednesday afternoon, Cuomo’s campaign unveiled another ad – which aired right before the debate – featuring old clips of Nixon praising the governor before she decided to run against him. The move also underlined the fundraising disparity between the two. Nixon has not run a single television ad, instead spending primarily on digital outreach and voter turnout efforts.
Nixon has criticized Cuomo in the past few months over the dire state of the New York City subway system, a pair of corruption convictions that got close to – but never implicated – him and, most recently, his refusal to return campaign donations Trump made before he became President.
Cuomo has argued that the $64,000 in question is better off being used to aid other Democrats running to oppose the Trump agenda. He has responded to broader accusations that his record over nearly eight years in office is insufficiently liberal – or, as Nixon spokeswoman Lauren Hitt described it, “Republican-lite” – with a list of achievements, from raising the minimum wage and tightening gun laws to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state four years before the Supreme Court made it a nationwide right.
Discussion over the heat, or potential lack thereof, in the hall briefly lit up media coverage ahead of the debate after The New York Times first reported on an email from a top Nixon aide to WCBS asking that the room be set to a snug 76 degrees. That number, the Nixon team explained, was as much a starting bid – Cuomo is known to prefer much cooler climates – as a note of protest against the process that led up to the debate being, as they said in a statement earlier this month, negotiated without their input and “presented to our campaign on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.”
Cuomo spokeswoman Lis Smith hit back at those complaints, saying in a statement Wednesday morning, “The Nixon campaign thrives on paranoia and melodrama.” She dismissed the accusations as “silly” and said the governor was focused solely on the meat and potatoes of the debate.
Despite the Nixon campaign’s protests over the process that led them there, the debate might have come at a fortuitous time, following the attention-grabbing victory of progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum in Florida’s gubernatorial primary on Tuesday. Gillum edged out the front-runner, moderate former Rep. Gwen Graham, the daughter of a former governor and senator, by running a grass-roots campaign to the left of the primary field.
In a tweet late Tuesday, Nixon cast Gillum’s come-from-behind win as a sign of things to come.
“Andrew Gillum just won his primary for governor of Florida! Experts said it was impossible. The polls had him at just 16%. We’re proving, that if progressives come together, we can win. Now, it is New York’s turn,” she wrote, including a link asking supporters to “donate to keep our momentum going.”
Nixon, though, has a more significant hill to climb, at least according to those polls.