Manhattan Institute

For Cuomo, Nixon’s the One

The actress and progressive activist’s primary challenge will push the governor leftward—and he’s already been moving in that direction.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s cruise to reelection hit a speedbump of sorts this week when the accomplished actress Cynthia Nixon—playing the part of an openly gay, starry-eyed activist and progressive public school mom—entered the race. How well she does could be determined by how convincingly she acts the role and how Cuomo responds to her presence.

In conventional terms, Nixon appears to present little more than a nuisance candidacy. The incumbent has $30 million in the bank, his alliance with New York’s most powerful special interest—organized labor—seems secure, and he has dutifully punched every progressive button over the past seven years. So why worry?

Because these are not conventional times. New York’s far-left-leaning Democrats deeply distrust their governor. A progressive gadfly, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, embarrassed Cuomo in a primary four years ago, and current polls demonstrate that rank-and-file Democrats aren’t thrilled with him, either. New York mayor Bill de Blasio, always at dagger points with his nemesis, has lent significant logistical support to Nixon—a longtime supporter—which, in turn, could attract national progressive money to her candidacy. Whether all this adds up to a serious threat Cuomo seems doubtful, but it could do critical damage to whatever post-gubernatorial ambitions he harbors, given the strong leftward drift of the national Democratic Party.

Taken in that context, then, Nixon’s challenge could wind up doing damage to sound policy in New York State—depending on how Cuomo responds to it. Look for him to seize every opportunity to project a progressive image. A hint of what might be coming could be seen in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park last week, when the governor lay down—literally—next to American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as part of an anti-gun “die-in” protest. Lurking nearby was Michael Mulgrew, president of the AFT’s New York City affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers. He had negotiated a $9 billion sweetheart of a long-term contract with City Hall, which de Blasio might reasonably have thought earned him a measure of loyalty—but the mayor wasn’t remotely welcome at the Zuccotti Park kabuki dance.

As with great nations, Big Labor has permanent interests, not permanent allies. From the UFT’s perspective, de Blasio is yesterday’s news—its next contract will be negotiated with a different mayor—while Cuomo is up for reelection. Opportunities for union advantage-taking reside in Albany this year, not at City Hall—a stark fact of considerable significance to Nixon and her mayoral allies.

So back to Zuccotti Park. As symbolic gestures go, the Cuomo-Weingarten-Mulgrew affirmation spoke more to transactionalism than to solidarity, the governor and the union having been at loggerheads for much of his tenure. When it came to the conflict between the union’s economic and job-security concerns and children’s education, Cuomo in his first term stood firmly with the kids. He had famously appointed himself “the students’ lobbyist,” pledging support for stringent teacher-evaluation standards and tough classroom-performance benchmarks. And he provided strong, often critical, support for alternatives to union-dominated public education, especially for charter schools. But even as Cuomo’s relationship with the UFT grew frigid, open warfare broke out with the union’s upstate affiliate, New York State United Teachers. (Nixon, interestingly, just resigned as a paid representative of the Alliance for Quality Education, an NYSUT front.)

But after Cuomo was jolted by Zephyr Teachout’s surprisingly strong 2014 primary challenge, the governor’s ardor for quality public education began to cool. He backed off from a meaningful teacher-evaluation regimen a year ago, and talk of tougher student-performance standards had disappeared into the ether before that. Even his bedrock support for charter schools may be waning. Not surprisingly, then, Cuomo’s relationship with Mulgrew began to warm, and while it’s not likely that the governor has fully rehabilitated himself in union eyes, he doubtless will have further opportunities to please the bosses as the Albany legislative session progresses.

Nixon’s emergence seems to have eliminated any possibility of backsliding. She’s a Teachout analogue who could, like her predecessor, take a substantial bite out of Cuomo’s already-lukewarm progressive support in September. This, the governor could survive, but the loss of union support would be a catastrophe.  

So while the presence of Weingarten and Mulgrew in Zuccotti Park last week probably didn’t represent an endorsement, it clearly signaled a rapprochement—driven, no doubt, by Cuomo’s own newly transactional approach to public education. Look for more of this as Cuomo’s reelection year proceeds.

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