HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — After months of shadowboxing from afar, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon clashed up close in a heated debate on Wednesday that featured sharp attacks, flashes of frustration and two competing visions for the Democratic Party and New York.
They fought over standing up to President Donald Trump, the subways, releasing their tax returns, health care policy and corruption convictions in the Cuomo administration. For much of the hour, they jabbed and counterpunched, talking over each other repeatedly and accusing each other of distortions, as Cuomo said Nixon lives in “the world of fiction.”
“Can you stop interrupting?” Cuomo said to her at one point.
“Can you stop lying?” Nixon snapped back.
Cuomo paused. “As soon as you do,” he answered.
The attacks and contours of the debate echoed some of the same tensions that are gripping the Democratic Party nationally in the age of Trump: namely, whether the path back to power and success must be led by seasoned political veterans or to-the-barricades outside agitators.
For Nixon, the actress and activist undertaking a long-shot challenge against a two-term incumbent, the debate offered her biggest stage yet in the race, and she used the spotlight to rip Cuomo as a “corrupt corporate Democrat” while promising an array of progressive policies she said he had bottled up in the last seven years.
“I’m not an Albany insider like Governor Cuomo, but experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re not actually good at governing,” she accused.
Cuomo sought to raise doubts about Nixon’s qualifications — she has never held elected office — to serve and succeed as governor, while simultaneously burnishing his own credentials.
“That’s the art of government. I can get it done,” he said at one point. At another, he told Nixon that “you don’t snap your fingers” and simply make things happen.
If Nixon wanted to talk about Cuomo on Wednesday, the governor seemed determined to talk about Trump — even as he categorically ruled out running for president in 2020.
“The only caveat is if God strikes me dead,” Cuomo said of not serving a full third term as governor.
Nonetheless, the governor portrayed himself as a bulwark against the president, repeatedly highlighting steps he has taken to push back against White House initiatives.
“Know me by my enemies,” Cuomo said, pointing to the president’s Twitter posts about him. The president has mocked Cuomo’s remark that America “was never that great,” which Cuomo later revised.
“No one has stood up to Donald Trump the way I have,” Cuomo said.
Nixon dismissed that idea entirely, quipping, “You stood up to him about as well as he stood up to Putin.”
Neither candidate fell into the traps the other side tried to lay in advance: She seemed versant on the issues; he didn’t lose his cool or condescend uncomfortably.
But the candidates disagreed on whether public workers should have the right to strike (she is in favor, he is not); single-payer health care (she is in favor, he said it should be left to the federal government); and campaign finance reform (both said they were in favor, although Nixon said Cuomo had not made any reforms as governor, and would not in a third term).
Both candidates said they were in favor of postponing a subway fare increase, though they sparred repeatedly over the state of the system, as Cuomo tried to blame New York City and its mayor, Bill de Blasio, while Nixon noted the governor, not the mayor, controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. She called his argument otherwise “disingenuous.”
“He used the MTA like his ATM,” she said.
Behind in the polls, Nixon had widely been expected to serve as the aggressor, and she was for much of the night at Hofstra University on Long Island. It was Nixon’s first-ever political debate and she delivered cutting lines with comfort and ease.
In the early minutes, she hit all the key elements of her campaign: the “incredible corruption” in the Cuomo administration; the deteriorating state of the subways; the need for more equitable education funding; and what she said was Cuomo’s past support to enable Republican control of the state Senate.
Of Cuomo’s lack of knowledge that one of his former most trusted advisers, Joseph Percoco, was getting paid secretly by those doing business with the state she said it was “either incompetence or corruption.” Percoco was convicted earlier this year of corruption-related charges.
But Cuomo came determined to attack Nixon for her own finances. He hammered her for how many years of personal taxes she has released (five), and for routing her income through an S corporation, which he decried as a “loophole.” He returned to the topic over and over.
“You are a corporation,” Cuomo accused. “I am a person,” she replied.
The tax tactic seemed designed to blunt her broadsides on his corporate donors — he has $24.4 million in campaign cash as of the most recent report — as Nixon described her tax strategy as standard practice for small businesses.
“Working men and women don’t have corporations,” Cuomo countered.
There are just two weeks remaining in the race before an unusual Thursday election, on Sept. 13, that has both camps racing to determine who will turn out. New York is the only state in the nation this year to hold two primaries — one for federal races, and one for state and local contests — adding to the turnout X-factor.
Polls have shown Nixon trailing badly, but her team believes they do not reflect the real political climate among Democratic voters, pointing to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York City in June and, more recently, the nomination of Andrew Gillum, who ran as an unabashed progressive, for governor of Florida on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Nixon said Cuomo had to be dragged to progressive positions, particularly by labor unions, specifically on the $15 minimum wage, which she said he had initially opposed.
“I have no idea what she’s talking about,” Cuomo retorted. “How am I with labor?” he added, gesturing to the crowd, where some of his supporters cheered.
The debate, sponsored by WCBS-TV, was the first and only time that both candidates will appear together. WCBS-TV journalists, Maurice DuBois and Marcia Kramer, served as moderators.
Throughout her campaign, Nixon has made legalizing marijuana a focus, saying minority users are unfairly targeted for arrest. Cuomo has slowly moved toward her position in recent months, and revealed on Wednesday that he had “experimented with marijuana in college.”
There was one rare area of agreement: Neither candidate would say they wanted the endorsement of de Blasio, who has long feuded with Cuomo.
“This is a race I am running on my own,” said Nixon, a friend of the mayor’s.
“I love Mayor de Blasio,” Cuomo said with a grin, adding he “wouldn’t tell him what to do.”