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“Cynthia Moved the Debate”

Cynthia Nixon did not defeat Andrew Cuomo. But her policy director argues in an interview that her campaign opened up new spaces for progressives and the Left in New York politics.

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Cynthia Nixon during a rally for universal rent control on August 16, 2018 in New York City., credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty Images // Jacobin

If you had said a year ago that Cynthia Nixon, the former Sex and the City actress, would be taking on Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary for New York governor, running on a strong progressive platform, and identifying publicly as a “democratic socialist,” few people would have believed you. Yet she did all that in the past few months — and more, according to Waleed Shahid, Nixon’s policy director.

Jacobin assistant editor Ella Mahony spoke with Shahid on the labor movement’s support of Cuomo, the decline of the group of Democrats in the State Senate that caucused with Republicans called the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), how the campaign opened up space for left challenges in New York politics, and more.

Ella Mahony:  Let’s start with a general reflection on the Nixon campaign. What do you think the main takeaway for the Left should be?

Waleed Shahid:  The main takeaway is that the progressive movement has a real venue to put forward its ideas for the big policy changes we want to see in this country. That venue, the one that reaches the most amount of people in service of those policy goals, is Democratic primary elections — or elections in general.

With the Cynthia Nixon campaign, we were able to bring to the literal debate stage of the Democratic Party, issues like should health care be a commodity, and a for-profit industry? Or should it be a right that’s guaranteed by the government in the same way we have a right to public education? We elevated the right of public-sector workers to strike to the debate stage.

Issues like abolishing cash bail and tackling climate change through a massive public investment program also reached hundreds of thousands of voters, if not millions of people across the state and country.

We learned that these primary elections, whether they’re at the highest level of government or the lowest ones, are great spaces for that kind of contestation. Because it just reaches so many more people, and it gives people a clear choice in participating in that conflict.

Plus, voting is straightforward, whereas other kinds of organizing spaces are more complicated or harder to engage at the scale we’re talking about than voting. So that’s one of the big lessons learned, that the hypothesis of elections as a useful space for debate and contestation is correct. It’s not the only space for that, by any means, but it’s one major space.
 

EM:  Nixon did reach people on a large scale. Despite her loss, ultimately, she won more votes than Cuomo did in the last election. She came in at a little over five hundred thousand votes, whereas in 2014, Cuomo got a bit more than 360,000. What do you think accounts for such a high turnout? And such a high turnout for Cynthia, specifically?

WS:  It’s just like we’re seeing around the country — people are very upset with the way things are going in Washington. There’s way more civic participation in general, for progressives to get out and organize, knock doors, and to vote. You saw that in New York. Just as progressives are upset with what’s happening in Washington, they’re upset with how things are going in Albany.

Turnout was up across the board. It was up in the suburbs, it was up upstate, it was up among young people and communities of color in New York City. There’s no one single explanation for it. But people everywhere are more engaged.

And when you have someone like Cynthia come out and provide a vision of a different way of doing politics, that only turns out more people. People who wouldn’t have turned out for a status-quo candidate.
 

EM:  What’s next for the policies Nixon advocated for? Cuomo will still be governor, but the balance of power around him has changed. What does that mean for fixing the subway, passing the New York Health Act, ending cash bail, all of that, over the next four years?

WS:  Originally I thought that Cuomo might be such a cynical politician that in order to gear up for his 2020 presidential ambitions, which I still believe he has, he would be like, “Okay, I’ll do single-payer health care. Okay, I’ll do a massive public investment program to deal with climate change. Okay, I’ll do any of these things in order to beef myself up as the progressive governor.”

Then in his press conference right after the election, he punched on progressives and the Left numerous times. He said, “There’s no progressive wave happening,” that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s victory in New York’s District 14 was a fluke. Then he said, “I’m not a socialist, because I’m not twenty-five years old.”

He took his victory lap in the most centrist, corporate-friendly way possible. He did that to say that regardless of Cynthia getting a third of the vote, with Jumaane almost getting half the vote, with the IDC destroyed — “None of that matters, because none of it is as important as me being elected to my third term and everyone knows I’m a centrist. Everyone knows I’m friendly to business, and that’s how I intend to govern.”

But the thing that’s never happened to Cuomo is progressive bills actually passing through the state assembly and senate and being sent to his desk for a signature. So that’s what is going be important. It will be a test of his insider game. And it’ll be a test of how strong Democratic electeds in Albany are. Will they call Cuomo out for his corporate agenda and thirst to consolidate more power for himself and his donors? How much will they instead let him lead?

This is where non-electoral politics becomes so much more important: protests, movement building, community organizing, the union movement. This will help determine the agenda, and whether these rank-and-file Democrats in Albany feel like they have public opinion at their back. Whether they feel bold enough to take risks.