The Anti-Cuomo

Hollywood (socialist): Cynthia Nixon.

Former Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon has announced her challenge against two-term centrist Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo, scion of one of the state’s best known political dynasties.

Nixon is running to the left of a governor who has battled state employee unions and dealt with a breakaway group of Senate Democrats who by caucusing the body’s Republicans block any chance of bills that would establish universal health care or help undocumented immigrants from becoming law.

Cuomo, who has signalled presidential aspirations, has cosied up to the state’s powerful real estate sector and gained nods from the pro-Israel right for taking executive action against the boycott, divestment and sanction movement.

Such a challenge to one of the party’s biggest boosters of its conservative wing is a big opportunity for the left, regardless of how Nixon identifies herself politically.

The laughable attempts of the New York Times, a reliable barometer of mainstream Democratic opinion, expose a political establishment shaken by the newcomer. Frank Bruni ridiculed the idea of non-politicians running for office, despite the fact that he also wrote, in all seriousness, that pasta was the key to exposing the Trump presidency. Gina Bellafante, seemingly unaware that Sex and the City was fiction, called Nixon’s economic progressivism into question because of the show’s materialism.

And former New York City City Council Speaker and current state Democratic Party vice chair Christine Quinn has already been forced to apologise for calling Nixon an “unqualified lesbian,” a rebuke Nixon’s failure to support Quinn, an open lesbian, when she ran for mayor in 2013. The charge was widely read as an attempt to curry Cuomo’s favour by advertising Nixon’s bisexuality to conservative Democrats.

Echoing the language of Senator Bernie Sanders, Nixon puts economic inequality, caused by the rapaciousness of the 1 percent, at the centre of her campaign. She is likely to attract voters who are upset with Cuomo administration’s hostility toward New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (who she supported) and its negligence of the city’s transit system, which falls under the purview of the state.

Clearly, there is something about Nixon that scares the Democratic establishment, and while it might belittle her experience by labelling her a “celebrity,” that’s precisely the reason the status quo is vulnerable. Because Nixon is not a career politician, she isn’t susceptible to the Albany wheeling-and-dealing that forces otherwise progressive Democrats to make deals with Cuomo and other centrist party leaders in order to ensure the party won’t squash their political futures. She has no political capital for her opponents to threaten, and that’s what throws Quinn and the Times off.

(A note about her celebrity status: Perhaps it’s time to look at her not as a television star, but as a SAG-AFTRA member. After all, the mainstream media don’t dismiss well-known businesspeople when they run for office for the first time. Union workers shouldn’t be held to a different standard should they decide to run for public office.)

Of course, there’s a lot about Nixon the left doesn’t know yet. Would she be open to reforming the state’s sweeping labour code, which outlaws strikes by public sector unions after the Supreme Court invalidates the agency-shop fee requirement? What plan of action does she have for more progressive taxation in the legislature?

These are relevant questions, but they often carry the insinuation that a candidate who is insufficiently socialistic isn’t worth supporting even if the alternatives are worse. Socialists don’t vote for a revolution’s leader–socialists need to vote to create the environment under which they can organise. Do socialists want to organise under a regime where a pro-austerity governor has an unchallenged mandate, or when his authority is threatened and undercut from the left?

This is essential because while Cuomo’s defenders point to his signing of a marriage equality bill, raising the minimum wage and banning fracking, these accomplishments were because of the successful pressure civil rights groups, unions and environmentalists were able to have on the state government, and the weaker a governor’s mandate, the easier it is for left movements to exert pressure on the government.

So here’s a golden opportunity, not just for the growing left to assert its political relevance in an important state, but to undercut one of best-known faces of Democratic Party centrism. And yet, a few purists still feel the need to squander this chance.

For example, some fear that Nixon, or any other progressive challenger in the Democratic primary, will hurt socialist Teamster and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins in the general election, should he run. Let’s leave aside the fact that Hawkins himself embraced Nixon’s candidacy on grounds that the more challenges to Cuomo, the better.

When Zephyr Teachout ran against Cuomo in the primary from the left in 2014, Hawkins’s general election total nearly tripled what it was in 2010. Whether Teachout’s run helped Hawkins isn’t clear, but what is clear is that she didn’t hurt him. And if he runs after she loses, but while giving Cuomo a run for his money, this only can build power against Cuomo.

And other sectarians might argue that socialists should never become Democrats by registering with the party to vote in its primary. Registering to be a Democrat in the state of New York is literally just checking a box. You pay no fee, make no statement of allegiance and most of all, you are not enjoined by the party to participate in other political activity.

This line is usually invoked to appeal to one’s sense of personal purity rather than a need for political strategy. It is a harmless act that takes no sacrifice, and for socialists to rob themselves of this political avenue (and many elections in the state are decided at the primary level) just further isolates socialist politics to the margins.

Electoral action isn’t merely related to direct action. The former leads to the conditions under which the former will take place. Socialists can help shape their destiny, that is if they don’t let purity tests get in the way.

Photograph courtesy of Jon Gilbert Leavitt. Published under a Creative Commons license.