Showing up for those tired of the “status Cuomo”
By Robin Happel
“I’m Cynthia Nixon, and I’m running for governor because I love you.”
It’s an overcast day on a normally nondescript corner of the Bronx, and Fordham Road is fired up. Surrounded by a throng of canvassers and curious onlookers, Nixon is telling a lively story of her lifelong love for New York. All smiles in a slate gray suit, she begins by greeting the crowd, and then with the story of her mother, “my first hero and my forever hero.” In her words, “I am standing in front of you today because of the way she believed in me, and the way she taught me to fight.” Born to a father she calls “troubled,” Nixon’s early life was far from the sheltered starlet some portray her as. A proud public school graduate, Cynthia speaks from experience as she talks about reforming education, drawing loud cheers from the crowd. It’s a different kind of expertise than Cuomo’s own prep school past, granted – but to those assembled she is no less prepared to serve. Nixon’s healthcare policies aren’t based solely on pundits’ predictions, but on her mother’s history of being forced to postpone treatment for breast cancer. Her housing policies are rooted in her research on redlining, but also in her childhood growing up in a fifth-floor walk up, and being scammed by a shady landlord. (This last line drew several sympathetic murmurs from the crowd.)
Her speech spans a constellation of causes, ranging from racial justice and prison reform, to decriminalizing marijuana, rising rents, and single-payer healthcare. She speaks passionately about ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and of how her campaign isn’t taking any corporate donations. She is poised without being pompous, and her deep knowledge of New York City shines through. From the start, she is passionately anti-establishment – no pretense, no talking down, and no backroom deals.
Despite Cuomo’s public opposition to Trump, many of Cynthia’s supporters see him as part of a similar political machine. In his grandstanding, Cuomo often fails to mention the $64,000 he took from Trump in campaign contributions, as well as his alleged pledge not to run against him. Cuomo’s prior reluctance to call out Trump has further called into question the sincerity of his more recent criticism, and his possible pay for play scandal involving Harvey Weinstein is emblematic for many of the deep hypocrisy coursing through his campaign. Some of Cuomo’s closest advisors are fossil fuels lobbyists, even as he publicly professes to fight climate change. During his tenure as governor, predominantly white regions received twenty three times more funding per person than did more diverse neighborhoods like the South Bronx. More than once, funds pledged for public services have been diverted to his pet projects. Famously, he has also failed to fix the MTA, done little to rein in rising rents, and allowed the NYC school system to become one of the most segregated and unequal in the nation, all trends which Nixon pledges to reverse.
As Cynthia speaks, curious onlookers circle past, and their eyes light up as they spot the local news crew and then Nixon herself. “Woah – the lady is here!” To many of our neighbors outside Fordham’s gates, Nixon is that girl – already a familiar name and, after today, a familiar face. There’s an energy here that maybe polls can’t measure, the same electric spark that has propelled so many other women to upset victories, most famously Ocasio-Cortez just a little ways north from Fordham. After finishing her speech, Cynthia spends another fifteen minutes or so schmoozing with supporters, talking about local issues one-on-one, and hugging the organizers. After doing the Wakandan salute for a fan photo, Nixon is finally pulled away by campaign staff, anxious to make it to her next stump speech. Reluctantly, she is herded into a waiting car to a chorus of “bye bye Cynthia!” and “we have to take New York back, y’all!”
The #MelaninMagic canvass that continues through the weekend is organized by Brittany Williams, Samantha Johnson, Shanequa Charles, and several other activists whom Cynthia calls her “people power.” Ms. Williams is inspired by Nixon’s pledges to reform the justice system, and she is especially concerned by the disproportionate dangers faced by black and trans women, as well as by undocumented immigrants. (Nixon has a well-known track record of calling on Cuomo to do more to protect undocumented New Yorkers.) Even after spending all afternoon in the rain, her passion is palpable as she talks about how Melanin Magic volunteers have talked to hundreds of people in Brooklyn and the Bronx, going through an entire box of flyers in just two days. Other organizers similarly support Cynthia’s plan to end cash bail, and their disappointment in Cuomo’s past shortcomings is shared by Kalief Browder’s brother and other prominent activists. Nixon’s popular running mate Jumaane D. Williams similarly has a well-known activist record, and their struggle to hold Cuomo’s feet to the fire has been endorsed by Make the Road New York, the mayor of San Juan, the Working Families Party, The Nation, and other well-known progressive leaders.
From hosting a debate watch party on Fordham Road to spending their weekends knocking doors, local organizers hope that their efforts can help cancel out Cuomo’s war chest. (Currently, Cuomo is spending an astonishing $400,000 on ads per day, and Nixon has rightly called him out as “running scared.”) Cuomo’s campaign has also come under fire for falsely alleging that Nixon is anti-Semitic – a smear that Bill de Blasio has since called Cuomo out on (Nixon, notably, is raising her children Jewish, and attends synagogue with her wife).
Even as the race reaches its final stretch, the enthusiasm of Cynthia’s supporters is unwavering. Her campaign is currently seeking to rise above Cuomo’s smear tactics by focusing on the issues and pounding the pavement until Thursday. Should she manage an upset, she will join the ranks of Andrew Gillum, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others this year who have shown how important simply showing up can be, and how a good ground game alone can turn the tide. Her volunteers are driven by genuine concern for their communities, as shown by the story of Lisa, a woman Ms. Williams met and spoke with for an hour while canvassing. “Her compassion was really powerful – we spent so much time just chatting about wanting her community to thrive.” After their conversation, each of the canvassers promised to call Lisa on her birthday.
More than just one campaign, Nixon is building a movement, a grassroots coalition ready to put Cuomo’s promises to the test, and bring communities like Fordham Road closer together. Win or lose, the passion of her volunteers is a victory itself – they show that none of us should be shut out of the political process, whether we are Bronx residents beset with rising rents, college students struggling with the cost of school, or simply an “unqualified lesbian” from the Upper West Side. In shifting Cuomo to the left, Cynthia will likely have a lasting impact on New York politics, even if she loses. And, perhaps most importantly, her supporters have shown that the primary can be a real competition, not the coronation that Cuomo seems to want. Whether or not she wins this Thursday, Nixon knows that she has a corner of the Bronx that loves her back, and she won’t stop fighting for them.
“It’s really amazing to be in these streets,” said Ms. Williams. “Out here in the cold, in the rain – it’s beautiful.”
Editor’s note: the primary election is this Thursday, September 13th, and polls will be open until 9 p.m. This article has also been updated to reflect additional background on subway funding, past ties between Cuomo and Trump, and a report released on the 11th showing that 80% of Black and Latino students in NY attend schools that are underfunded at the state level under Cuomo’s administration.