Cynthia Nixon vs. Andrew Cuomo: She Thinks She Can Win, He’s Worried She’s Right

The most impressive thing about Cynthia Nixon’s performance in her debate against New York governor Andrew Cuomo last night was that it didn’t seem like a performance at all. The event, which took place at Hofstra University and aired on a two-hour time delay, found Cuomo clumsily trying to paint Nixon as nothing more than a deranged actor only to be met, repeatedly, with the passionate rejoinders of a lifelong activist and New Yorker who graduated from the public school system, sent her own kids through the public school system, and rides the crumbling New York City subway every day. Nixon didn’t even seem to care that she was pushing — and pushing back against — Cuomo in a way that was inevitably going to have the New York Times writing that she “snapped” at him.

Their major points of contention were labor (Nixon wants to make it easier for public-sector unions to strike, while Cuomo thinks that would cause “mayhem”); tax returns (Nixon has released the last five years, while Cuomo has released the last 20); who’s softer on Donald Trump (Nixon said Cuomo “folded like a cheap suit” when Donald Trump attacked him on Twitter, while Cuomo insisted that under his leadership New York has become a brace against the Trump agenda); campaign finance (Nixon called Cuomo a “corporate, corrupt Democrat,” while he tried, weirdly, to tie her to the Koch brothers); the legalization of marijuana (which she has pushed him further left on during her campaign); universal health care (which she has also pushed him further left on); and, of course, NYC’s rapidly decaying infrastructure.

It’s that last thing that caused the exchange of the night. While Cuomo tried to counter her claim that he “uses the MTA like an ATM,” she leaned in again to point out that he keeps trying to sidestep the fact that the state of New York owns the city’s public transportation system.

“Can you stop interrupting?” he asked.

“Can you stop lying?” she replied.

Nixon and Cuomo’s first and only public discussion was always going to be heated. New York political debates are historically aggressive, and Nixon came out swinging at him the day she announced her candidacy. What made their testy exchanges really interesting wasn’t just the theater of it all, but the fact that Nixon — though trailing by as many as 30 points in most polls — clearly freaked out Cuomo enough to force him to debate her in the first place. Though he tried repeatedly to paint her as a head-in-the-clouds political neophyte, his presence with her on the stage and the tone of his responses to her showed that he views her as a threat.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Cuomo wins this primary in a landslide and coasts to a third term as governor, but this is the season of Stacey Abrams, of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of Andrew Gillum, of countless women and queer people and people of color with little or no political experience running for offices high and low across the country and stunning pundits and polls with their victories.

Yesterday the New York Times published a profile with the headline Cynthia Nixon Thinks You’re Underestimating Her. Last night’s debate proved that, while that may be true of the general public, it’s not true of Andrew Cuomo. She thinks she can win this thing; he’s worried she might be right.

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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for the reporting! I know that there a lot of bias against Cynthia Nixon as an “celebrity turned politician”, but whenever I’ve heard her speak over the last few months, I have been incredibly impressed.

  2. As someone who is going to have to begrudgingly vote for another male democrat for Governor of California, I am really excited for all of the New Yorkers who get to vote for Cynthia Nixon!

  3. We voted for a celeb in California(twice) and neither were as eloquent or as impressive as her(well Arnold was, but more has to with how much steroids he did and gay magazines he posed for). I saw part of the debate where she was talking about marijuana legalization and giving opportunities first to those who were disproportionately affected the most(like they are doing now in Oakland) and was left impressed. If she follows through with her words she can make some solid changes for the state.

  4. I have to admit, when Nixon first got into the race, I thought it’d be some vanity exercise but as the cycle’s gone on, I’ve been so impressed with her campaign. She’s surrounded herself with all the right people — folks who have seriously devoted themselves to the issues and policy work — and has shown an unparalleled commitment to listening and learning from her constituents. I’d be proud to vote for her if I was a NY resident.

    Cuomo’s comments last night about unions were galling and I hope that all unions, particularly the SEIU 1199 East (the largest union in the state), are reconsidering aligning with him. Unions are perpetually under attack by the right (see Scott Walker in Wisconsin) and they don’t need the Democratic governor of the state with the highest union membership (23.8 percent) attacking them too.

  5. My take: she was more prepared and thorough than he thought she would be. But she went on attack in about five minutes, calling him “corrupt” which may or may not be true. That’s not what, New Yorkers, want to hear right away. She had lots of ideas regarding the MTA and schools, which is all well and good for those who actually HAVE children. He, in the meantime, came across as arrogant, sexist and a big bully. He barely made eye contact with her and when he did deign to talk to her, he treated her like some gnat that he needs only to swat away. He wanted to talk about Trump, as if Trump were running for governor against him. Neither candidate performed spectacularly, but at least she cared. Personal note: I will always be grateful that Cuomo made it his mission to pass marriage equality in the state of New York.

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