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.