Speaking to reporters last summer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made it clear that he had no interest in repairing an unusual rift in the state Senate between Democrats and eight breakaway members who caucused with Republicans, giving the GOP a narrow majority in the upper chamber. “If they don’t want to marry, I have no power or role in forcing the marriage,” Cuomo shrugged. “There is no political shotgun marriage equivalent of the old days.”
But on Tuesday Cuomo did just that, brokering a reconciliation between Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the Senate Democrats, and Jeff Klein, the leader of the breakaway faction, known as the Independent Democratic Caucus. At an event in New York City on Wednesday, the two sides formalized the deal, which would give Stewart-Cousins control of a united Democratic caucus in the state Senate.* “It’s not easy to put your own interests aside for the greater good,” Cuomo said. It was a statement rich with irony given Cuomo’s own suspected role in creating the IDC-GOP alliance to further his interests, including a possible run for president.
What changed? Since the election of Donald Trump, groups across the state have sprouted up to demand the eradication of the IDC; all eight of its members are facing primary challengers. But the biggest difference between this spring and last summer is that Cuomo is facing a primary challenge from his left in the insurgent candidacy of Cynthia Nixon.
Nixon, best known for her role as the character Miranda from Sex and the City, has made the IDC a centerpiece of her campaign, saying it shows Cuomo’s fairweather commitment to progressive values, his ruthless personal ambition, and his failures to protect the state from the Trump administration’s abuses. In a statement released on Wednesday morning, she rolled her eyes at the unification deal: “If you’ve set your own house on fire and watched it burn for eight years, finally turning on a hose doesn’t make you a hero.”
Cuomo and his allies have responded to Nixon’s candidacy in two ways: smirking at her lack of political experience and her dim electoral prospects, and attacking her for the same. Cuomo dismissed her candidacy as “political silly season”; his ally Christine Quinn, the former speaker of the New York City Council, called Nixon an “unqualified lesbian.” But the reunification deal shows the extent to which Nixon’s embryonic candidacy has already shaken up politics in the state. For the last eight years, Cuomo has used the IDC to carefully calibrate the pace of reform in New York, a mechanism that allows him to build a resume that is ostensibly appealing to voters in both his home state and more conservative areas of the country. But it has also meant that the state’s progressive priorities have often been watered down or ignored.
Now, with six months to go until September’s gubernatorial primary, Cuomo is racing to move leftward—and taking the state’s politics with him.
Only a few months ago, Cuomo was moving to ensure a landslide third-term victory in 2018, which would cement his status as a 2020 frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. He had amassed a sizable war chest to scare off potential challengers. He had also strengthened his ties with private-sector unions and the business community, valuable connections meant to further deter an unwanted challenge on his home turf.
But at the same time, for the first time in his governorship, Cuomo seemed truly vulnerable. Anger swirled about the decrepit state of New York City’s subway system; despite the governor’s efforts to pin the blame on Mayor Bill de Blasio, it ultimately has settled on Cuomo, where it largely belongs. His former aide and friend Joe Percoco, meanwhile, went on trial for corruption and was ultimately convicted last month; the same judge that oversaw the Percoco case will preside over another, larger corruption trial relating to the governor’s “Buffalo Billion” project this summer.
The biggest change, however, happened at the national level. Cuomo had reason to believe that the election of Donald Trump would serve him well. As one of the few Democratic governors in the country, with experience in federal government to boot, he was well-placed to propose himself as an alternative to the president’s destructive policies. Trump’s low popularity in the state should have also aided a governor from the rival party. And yet the opposite has happened.
Trump’s victory catalyzed a progressive resistance across the country. In New York state, this has taken many forms, including a series of marches to protest Trump, gender inequality, and gun violence. But it also has led to growing frustration with Cuomo himself, and particularly with the bizarre deal with Republicans that allowed them to narrowly control the state Senate despite a technical Democratic majority.
Cuomo vehemently denies any role in the creation of the IDC arrangement. A Democratic insider with ties to the governor told me that the dissolution of the IDC became an urgent issue because of upcoming special elections, which are crucial for Democrats to win if they want control of the state Senate. The reconciliation was necessary, the source said, to get Democrats on the same page to ensure victory. (A ninth Democrat, Simcha Felder, caucuses with Republicans but is not an IDC member—even if the Democrats gain two seats in this month’s special elections, a number of Albany Democratic sources expressed doubt that Felder would come back into the fold until the Democrats strengthened their majority.)
But the timing of the deal with the IDC is nevertheless remarkable, given that attempts to reunite the squabbling Democrats had fallen apart in both 2014 and the end of 2017. In some earlier negotiations, deals were offered that involved Klein assuming co-leadership of the Senate Democrats and the continued existence of the IDC. But the deal that was struck earlier this week entailed Stewart-Cousins taking leadership and the eradication of the IDC, both of which had Cuomo’s support for the first time.
However, it may be too little, too late for Cuomo. If the state Democrats had reunited earlier, it’s likely that there would be fewer primary challengers for the eight IDC members—and possible that Nixon herself would not have entered the race. But the challengers have all remained defiant in the wake of the deal, and grassroots groups have also made it clear they will continue to organize against the IDC.
Lisa DellAquila, a member of the post-Trump resistance group True Blue NY, has been giving PowerPoint presentations to progressive groups about the IDC for the past 18 months. “People were definitely activated after the election,” DellAquila told me. “I said, ‘You might think you’re safe in New York because it’s a blue state, but you’re not.’ People were really shocked to learn about it. They continue to be upset. We continue to harness that energy.”
Eric Christiensen, a member of the group No IDC NY, said, “When we took up this position [of removing the IDC from power] a year ago, we were a little bit of a voice in the wilderness.” Voters and liberal groups, he said, basically took Cuomo at his word that he was powerless to alter the arrangement. Groups like No IDC and True Blue NY have contacted thousands of voters about the necessity of voting out the group’s eight members, as well as Felder.
Bill Lipton, who leads the Working Families Party, told me that the WFP has gotten 10,000 registered voters in IDC districts to pledge not to vote for the incumbents. “Once you explain that they’re ‘Trump Democrats’ and jam their brain a little bit they understand what’s really going on,” Lipton said.
In just over two weeks of campaigning, Nixon has shown herself to be a feisty challenger. She is gunning for the progressive base, focusing much of her efforts so far on New York City. She is hitting Cuomo on housing, the subway, race, ethics, and gender politics. She is handling the attacks against her with aplomb, going so far as to sell “unqualified lesbian” swag. And most of all, she is harnessing the anger that has built around the IDC. In response, Cuomo has shown his pique, unleashed attack dogs like Quinn, and has generally been all over the map.
“He’s unraveling,” Fordham University political scientist Christina Greer told me. “What’s so surprising to me is that there’s no one knows Albany better than Andrew Cuomo. I defy you to find someone who knows Albany better than him—he’s been there since he was 17. Cynthia Nixon has only been on the scene as a candidate for two weeks and the amount of mistakes that Andrew Cuomo has made is just appalling to me.”
Cuomo is also rushing to bolster his left flank. He has visited New York City public housing repeatedly over the last month, and even declared a state of emergency last week, promising $250 million in additional funding in the state budget ($550 million has been allocated to the New York City Housing Authority since 2015). This week, Cuomo signed an executive order to create an independent emergency monitor to oversee the money, and criticized NYCHA, which lies outside the state’s control, for mismanaging funds. Cuomo’s NYCHA moves are part of what The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin described as an attempt to “create a Mr. Fix-It” image that will bolster his reelection bid.
His surge in interest in public housing was noticed, not least by Nixon. At an appearance at a public housing project in Brooklyn last week, Nixon slammed Cuomo and de Blasio for engaging in a years-long “pissing contest” that allowed dire public housing conditions to deteriorate further. “Every branch of government has been failing,” she said. “This shouldn’t be happening in 2018.”
Good government is Nixon’s message on a host of other issues, notably the subway, which has been in crisis for months. Cuomo has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the MTA in the 2018 budget, but Nixon is intent on turning its rusting carriages and rotting switchboards into a dystopian symbol of his administration. Cuomo’s administration is an “exercise in living with disappointment, dysfunction, and dishonesty,” she told reporters after announcing her candidacy. The subway has returned the favor: On March 20, she was late to an event in which she was scheduled to discuss fixing public transportation because, naturally, of subway delays.
New York’s budget, which was finalized last week, also showed Cuomo’s rush to push progressive policies at the end of his term. The budget makes changes to the state’s sexual harassment policies, which were among the most conservative in the country; allots additional funding for public education; and closes a loophole that allowed people convicted of domestic violence to own firearms. It also strives to relieve some of the burdens placed on the state by the Trump administration, notably with a workaround for the reduction of state and local tax deductions contained in Trump’s tax bill.
But the sexual harassment provision also came under heavy criticism for being negotiated by four men: Cuomo, Klein, and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly. And a number of sought-after items, including cash bail, early voting, changes to statutes regarding child molestation, New York’s DREAM Act, and ethics reform fell out of the final bill, unable to pass a divided legislature.
Democratic unity likely will not pay dividends until after November’s elections, when Democrats are expected to pick up a number of Republican-held seats. Democrats may now be on the verge of controlling the state Senate, but in fact Albany has all but finished legislating for the year.
Still, these moves by Cuomo show the significance of Nixon’s young campaign. “This is why primary challenges are helpful to our democracy,” Greer said. “Without Cynthia Nixon in the race, Cuomo would continue to behave like a centrist, if not right-leaning, Democrat. Now, Nixon has been in the race for 15 days, and we have seen the governor go to NYCHA, declare a state of emergency, and go to Albany and tell the IDC to disband so this black woman, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, can be in charge like she was supposed to be in charge.”
If Cuomo is hoping to neuter Nixon’s talking points, Nixon sees an opportunity in his sudden shifts to make the argument that an actress with no political experience is already an agent of change. She responded to the reunification of the state Senate Democrats with an email to supporters with the subject line: “You made Andrew Cuomo cave today.”
Whether Nixon can win is another story. Early polling has shown that she is down by over 40 points. She has six months—including another summer that will likely bring heavy subway delays across New York City—to gain name recognition and clout. “I think that she’s kind of New York state’s answer to Don Quixote,” longtime Albany operative Norman Adler told me. “This may be a quest with honor but it’s not a quest that has success at its end.”
Greer isn’t so sure. “Many people were saying that Cynthia Nixon’s run for governor was a kamikaze mission,” she said. “I don’t know if they will be saying the same thing in a few months. The past 15 days have shown that she wasn’t there just to push the governor to the left. People are realizing that, in his quest for a third term, there are some really fundamental problems with his style of his leadership, the direction of his leadership.”
Six months is an eternity in politics. Six months ago, Cuomo was coasting, seemingly plotting a presidential run that would begin less than a year into his third term. Today, he’s scrambling to fend off a challenger and keep his presidential—and perhaps political—future alive.
*This article originally stated that the deal between Senate Democrats and the IDC was formalized in Albany. In fact, it was New York City. We regret the error.