The debate was nasty even before it started. Actress-turned-politician Cynthia Nixon wanted the temperature in the debate hall at Hofstra University to be 76 degrees, apparently because Governor Andrew Cuomo “likes a cold room.” She also asked for a debate format that involved the two candidates standing.
Instead, both candidates were seated, would not shake hands and were backdropped by drapery — Cuomo’s preferred press conference setting.
“I was really looking forward to going toe-to-toe with Andrew Cuomo” Nixon said. “I guess we’ll be going tush-to-tush.”
The debate gained extra intrigue before it started when it was revealed that Cuomo had received $25,000 from Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer. This was prior to Cuomo’s decision to end a probe into Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s handling of the case (Vance had accepted $100,000 from the same source).
The Weinstein issue didn’t come up in the debate. Neither did the temperature. Nor tushes. But it was a nasty affair.
The tone was set when Nixon took the first question from Maurice DuBois of WCBS, and turned it back at her opponent. Asked what experience qualified her to govern a state of “20 million people, and a budget of almost $170 billion,” Nixon replied:
“I’m not an Albany insider like Governor Cuomo, but I think that experience doesn’t mean that much, if you’re not actually good at governing.”
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She added that “Governor Cuomo is a very astute politician, he’s a crackerjack fundraiser,” before adding a slew of buts: he’d “broken the New York City subway” (an odd criticism with which to lead off), he had enabled Republicans in the State Senate, he was corrupt, etc.
But Nixon fumbled the dismount, saying, “I think you see that actually an Albany insider is [sic] the kind of a person that has a chance to clean up the corruption in Albany, and a person who is not accepting, as I am not, any corporate contributions.”
This slip gave Cuomo just barely enough room to wriggle off the hook on the central question of the race: money.
The Nixon-Cuomo race has been heavily covered because both candidates are celebrities. Nixon was a star of the HBO hit Sex and the City, and Cuomo is one of America’s leading hereditary/legacy politicians, who seemingly has been destined to reach the presidential ambitions his father Mario never fulfilled.
But the race is about something else: a near-perfect demonstration of the financial imbalance of political power in America, in which candidates committed to purely ideas-based campaigns are easily overwhelmed by corporate cash.
At first glance, you wouldn’t notice the discrepancy. The most recent fundraising numbers on Cuomo and Nixon show a remarkably close race, in terms of grassroots support.
Between July 13th and August 9th, Cuomo received $393,367.98 in contributions, while Nixon took in $391,236.68 — a virtual dead heat. If one goes by individual donations, the race looks tilted sharply to Nixon: Cuomo received $192,083.01 in 180 individual donations during that period, while Nixon took in nearly $100,000 more, earning $291,099.19 across 1,193 donations.
Nixon, in fact, has received over 42,000 individual donations, more than Cuomo has over the course of four election cycles.
But the race has turned on corporate money: Nixon has refused it, and Cuomo has not.
Cuomo, who had over $30 million at the start of the year, still has over $24 million in his campaign war chest, much of it from large donors in real estate, the pharmaceutical industry, hedge funds and accounting firms like KPMG and Ernst & Young. He’s had at least 18 donors giving more than $100,000, many of them from the real estate or financial sectors.
Nixon had just over $441,000 left at last count. She has had 50 times less money than Cuomo at various times throughout the year, and has not been able to counter the $6 million the governor has spent to date.
This should have been the central issue of the debate. But Cuomo used a series of cunning and brazen tactics to confuse the issue.
In response to a question about former Cuomo aide Joseph Percocco, who was convicted in March of accepting $300,000 in bribes, Cuomo stared right at the moderator (and famed New York muckraker Marcia Kramer) and said, “Public trust comes job one.”
Then the man who has hoarded tens of millions from big-dollar donors — including, years ago, from Donald Trump — said his ethics plan included “campaign finance reform, because we have to take the money out of politics, it’s that simple.”
That the audience did not gasp in horror at this statement — nor did WCBS provide a rim-shot soundtrack — told us that Cuomo likely has this race won already. Until voters learn to understand the dynamics of money in politics better, the better-funded candidate will always be able to skate by, just paying lip service to campaign finance reforms they know will never come.
Having slipped in this line, Cuomo went on the attack. He turned the tables and blasted Nixon — who, like many artists and freelancers, pays her taxes through what’s known as an S corporation — as a corporate elitist.
“The point is the undue influence of corporate donors,” he said. “My opponent, as a corporate donor, called the mayor, and asked for special favors for her friends.”
He was referencing the fact that Nixon had called the mayor’s office to ask that helicopters not be flown above “Shakespeare in the Park.”
Nixon haltingly tried to explain this, seeming not to realize she’d been caught in a Trumpian trap.
Just as the billionaire Trump solved his own accessibility problem with low-income voters by turning attention on so-called cultural elites like the media, so did Cuomo — one of the all-time hooverers of corporate cash — coyly paint Nixon as a rich, out-of-touch actress who uses her influence to stop helicopters from stepping on Shakespeare lines.
Shakespeare fans, of course, are probably somewhere below NPR listeners, spotted owls and whales on the list of the common man’s most hated liberal constituencies. Cuomo knew what he was doing.
Cuomo is frightening to look at, with the face of a Dungeons & Dragons character — an Orc or a Bugbear, with leather skin six-inches thick and facial lines you’d need a crowbar to pry loose. The face fits his political brawling style. He’ll gladly take one to the head to land two to the body.
In the debate with Nixon, he continually parried accusations of corruption and insiderism by hammering the theme of Nixon as a “corporation.”
“Are you a corporation?” he demanded, about halfway through.
Nixon paused maybe a half-second too long. “I am a person!” she replied.
“And you’re a corporation!”
The debate ended in similar fashion. After Nixon stepped into another trap, agreeing in seemingly spontaneous fashion to work for free if elected — a noble and charitable gesture that might not fly with the average voter, who obviously can’t afford to work for free — Cuomo returned to the corporate theme.
“I have a suggestion,” he said. “If my opponent is a socialist, and she’s for higher taxes, why doesn’t she have her corporation… make up its mind, dissolve, and stop the corporate loopholes and pay her fair share of taxes?”
Nixon now finally replied that having a corporation is something that “actors have all the time, it’s like … being a small business owner, or a freelance worker.”
“Working men and women don’t have corporations,” Cuomo snapped.
This, of course is untrue, as there are fewer and fewer W-2 jobs out there, with more people filing as individual businesses. But the damage was done.
On the whole, Nixon did well. She was composed throughout, and, for a political newcomer, remarkably quick and eloquent. She handled a question about legalizing marijuana beautifully, noting that it was primarily a racial justice issue, since drug use is equal across demographics but 80 percent of marijuana arrests involve black or Hispanic residents.
Her one mistake was that she appeared to be embarrassed by her wealth and celebrity, and fumbled when Cuomo pressed her about her famous friendships. (Cuomo delighted in bringing up the words “Sarah Jessica Parker” and “teahouse” in the same sentence).
Robert Frost once said that a liberal is “too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” If there’s been any lesson in the Trump years, it’s that voters embrace candidates who are proud of their riches and celebrity pals, and don’t try to act like ordinary people.
Had Nixon played up her connections, and said something like, “The kind of people I hang out with wouldn’t use your face for an ashtray,” she might have done better. Cuomo instead had her running from her lifestyle, while obscuring his own political relationship to money.
The debate was an angry affair, with unusually pointed barbs (Nixon continually told Cuomo to “stop lying”). This mirrors the real frustrations below the surface of a Democratic party that is dealing for the first time in ages with a serious challenge from the left. Those frustrations are largely about the seemingly intractable influence of corporate funding. It’s too bad that theme was obscured last night.