Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon

AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, Pool

Cuomo, Nixon Exchange Snipes In Only Debate Before Primary

August 29, 2018 - 10:43 am

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (WCBS 880/AP) -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon faced off -- and talked over each other more than once -- in their first and only scheduled debate Wednesday evening before New York holds its Democratic primary next month.
The two-term incumbent and the former "Sex and the City'' star faced off Wednesday at Hofstra University.

When asked by CBS2’s Maurice DuBois why she was running, Nixon touted her record as a political activist, and an activist in favor of public education, marriage equality, and other issues. She said Cuomo had “broken” the subway, and accused him of handing over control of the state Senate to the Republicans and surrounding themselves with corruption.

In rebuttal, Cuomo said the governor’s office is not an activist position.

“The governor of New York is not a job about politics. It’s not about advocacy. It’s about doing. It’s about management. This is real life,” Cuomo said. "Governor of New York, you're running a $170 billion budget. You're in charge of fighting terrorism. You're there in case of fires and floods and emergencies and train wrecks. You have to deal with a Legislature that's very, very difficult, and today you've got to deal with Donald Trump, who is the main risk to the state of New York. He is trying to change the rights and values of New Yorkers, and the first line of defense is New York, and the governor leads that fight, and you need to know how to do it."

Cuomo said if he wins reelection, he will serve as governor and will not for president.

“Yes, yes, yes and yes, double yes,” he said.

But he reiterated that he believes President Trump is “attacking everything” that New Yorkers value, from a woman’s right to choose to immigration and from the environment to marriage equality.

“He tweets at me weekly. I welcome it. Know me by my enemies,” he said.

Reiterating his commitment to remain in office as governor, Cuomo said: “The only caveat is if God strikes me dead. Otherwise, I will serve for four years as governor of New York.”

When asked by CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Cuomo got into the broader issue of crumbling infrastructure in New York state and the efforts the state has already made – from the rebuilding of LaGuardia Airport and Penn Station to work on upstate airports.

Cuomo said the subways are far out of date and have been in decline for decades, but he reiterated a point on which he often clashes with Mayor Bill de Blasio – the city owns the New York City transit system, and the subways are a joint city-state responsibility.

As to whether he would cancel plans for a fare hike, he said it would require a plan for funding repairs, and the city must do its part.

 “I would support canceling the fare hike, because the service is not what people deserve. It has to be a joint funding responsibility between the city and the state,” he said.

Nixon fired back that the MTA and the subway system is, in fact, a state responsibility.

“I think it’s unconscionable that Governor Cuomo is thinking about raising fares on a system that is working so poorly,” Nixon said, adding that delays have tripled and trains are slower than they were in 1950.

Of Cuomo, she said, “He used the MTA like an ATM and we have seen the result.”

Cuomo in turn fired back that Nixon does not understand know how the state budget works.

“My opponent lives in the world of fiction. I live in the world of fact,” he said.

Nixon began making a point when Cuomo was speaking at one point during the exchange, prompting Cuomo to say: “Excuse me, can you stop interrupting?”

“Can you stop lying?” Nixon said.

“Yeah, as soon as you do,” he said.

Kramer asked Cuomo about the people around him who were convicted of corruption, including longtime aide Joseph Percoco and SUNY Polytechnic Institute president Alain Kaloyeros, who oversaw the Buffalo Billion development plan.

Cuomo said the convictions were disappointing, and Percoco did stupid things and will pay the consequences. He called for an ethics program involving a ban on outside income, full financial disclosure, and campaign finance reform.

Nixon also called for a single-payer health care plan for New York state, saying it would be funded with a payroll tax. Cuomo said single-payer health care is the right idea and should be accomplished on the federal level, but the budget numbers Nixon has in mind are not realistic.

Kramer then asked Cuomo about the people around him who were convicted of corruption, including longtime aide Joseph Percoco and SUNY Polytechnic Institute president Alain Kaloyeros, who oversaw the Buffalo Billion development plan.

Cuomo said the convictions were disappointing, and Percoco did stupid things and will pay the consequences. He called for an ethics program involving a ban on outside income, full financial disclosure, and campaign finance reform.

Nixon said Cuomo cannot distance himself from the issue of corruption, accusing him of disbanding a Moreland Commission to investigate corruption when it got too close to him. But Cuomo accused Nixon of calling the Mayor’s office for special favors and representing herself as a “corporation” rather than a person in doing so.

Nixon said she had never asked for favors, and she only “asked for helicopters to stop flying over Shakespeare in the Park.”

“Oh, that’s not a favor?” Nixon said.

As to any calls for change in campaign finance reform laws, Cuomo said to Nixon: “To change the campaign finance laws, you need something called the New York State legislators to pass it. You don’t just snap your fingers as governor and then it happens.”

Nixon also outlined her proposal for legalizing marijuana. She emphasized that marijuana arrests overwhelmingly target New Yorkers of color, and said marijuana has been effectively legal for white people for years.

Cuomo said following a report on legal marijuana in January, he believes the benefits outweigh the risk. He agreed that racial injustice is a major problem, saying it starts with a lack of housing and opportunities and is seen in the criminal justice system.

Nixon fired back that just last year, Cuomo called marijuana a “gateway drug,” and said he reversed himself only when Nixon began advocating for legal marijuana.

“Fiction, facts,” Cuomo said. “I did this in January. It was before Ms. Nixon was in the race.”

Cuomo also accused Nixon of being evasive with the release of her taxes – releasing five years’ worth of tax returns in three hours. Nixon fired back that Cuomo did not release his 2010 taxes until after the election in which he first became governor, but Cuomo said he had released his tax returns all throughout the past 20 years and “not in three hours.”

Cuomo also outlined his plan for paid family leave – noting that it is eight weeks now and the plan is to increase it to 12 weeks.

Nixon in turn accused Cuomo of taking credit for policies such as family leave, and a $15 minimum wage, until being “forced into (the policies) by labor.”

“I was never at war with the labor unions,” he said.

Also addressed was Nixon's proposal for allowing public sector workers to strike. Nixon said public sector workers are left to “cozy up” to a would-be benefactor like Cuomo because they cannot go on strike.

But Cuomo said a strike by teachers or subway workers, as examples, would paralyze the city – and said even Mayor de Blasio, whom he said Nixon gave money to – does not agree that they should be allowed to strike.

Cuomo also redirected the discussion onto President Trump.

“Trump is the problem. He’s going after labor unions. He’s going after unions with the Janus decision,” Cuomo said. “We have to stand up to Trump.”

The candidates also answered questions the new Tappan Zee Bridge being renamed the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge – as well as the tolls on the bridge – and the plan to redirect state troopers from upstate New York to New York City. They also discussed the issue of the homelessness crisis and a lack of affordable housing.

Neither Cuomo nor Nixon said they were courting the endorsement of Mayor de Blasio. Cuomo admitted that he and Mayor de Blasio have a poor relationship.

“I love Mayor de Blasio. I’m sure he loves me in a strange sort of way. After 30 years, we have a dysfunctional relationship,” Cuomo said. “He makes his own political decisions not me. He makes his own political decisions. Not yes or no. He makes his own decisions.”

Nixon said: “This is a race that I am running on my own. This does not have to do with any particular endorsement that I’ve gotten or haven’t gotten, but this has to do with the vision that I am enumerating for New York state.”

Ahead of the debate, even the venue temperature was an issue.

“Andrew Cuomo is notorious for liking rooms icy cold. There’s a joke among the press corps that as the temperature dips, you know the governor’s getting close. And much of the terms of this debate were set by the governor – who’s agreed to just this one debate – and CBS. And so Cynthia Nixon and her team are a little worried that the room’s going to be overly cold, and so they sent a message to CBS saying, ‘Hey, we want a 76-degree room,’ and noted that rooms are typically, quote, ‘Notoriously sexist’ when it comes to the room temperature,” Shane Goldmacher of the New York Times told WCBS 880. “It’s not clear what temperature the debate will be, but certainly, the pre-debate is pretty heated.”

As WCBS 880’s Mack Rosenberg reported, this was the first debate since 2006 for Cuomo, and the first ever debate for Nixon – an actress who is new to the political game. Her goal in the debate is to be on the offensive and try to shake things up, because she trails Cuomo in a recent Siena College poll by 30 points.

The debate was seen as Nixon’s chance to give people a reason to vote for her. The same poll says 25 percent of Democratic voters don’t know enough about Nixon to have an opinion about her.

Meanwhile, Cuomo’s advisers told the New York Times that his goal is to minimize headlines coming out of the debate, and that a win is a tie.

The onus was on Nixon to prove herself in the debate, Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott.

“Look, Cynthia Nixon has to establish herself as the progressive candidate who can do well against Andrew Cuomo. Right now, Cuomo’s sort of having his way, and I think his advertising is very, very convincing in terms of putting him as the anti-Trump candidate. So if you want to send, as a Democrat, a message about Donald Trump, Andrew Cuomo has positioned himself to be that candidate,” Miringoff said. “So I think Nixon has an uphill fight tonight anyway, given the margins in separating the two of them, but she’s really got to score some big points tonight.”

As to whether Cuomo might be damaging himself by agreeing to a debate at all, Miringoff noted that Cuomo hopes for it not to be a big deal.

“He wants hopefully tomorrow, people are talking about the weather and not about what happens tonight at the debate. That would be a win for him. So this thing comes and it goes, and it leaves the race pretty much unaltered,” he said. “For Nixon, it’s a very different equation. She has to get people to pay attention, look at her candidacy, and think that she is the voice of progressive tradition in New York, and that is a position she still has to solidify.”

Cuomo also leads in fundraising, though experts noted that it is not clear who will actually turn out for the primary.

“This is an unusual election. It’s on a Thursday in September. There are never elections on a Thursday. And the concern amongst some supporters of the governor is like, who’s going to be out there, and whether the polls are going to reflect the people who turn out,” Goldmacher said. “That said, he has a huge lead in the polls. No poll has shown him under a 30-point margin ahead of her, and you have to say that this debate – the one debate – is her best chance to change that and to convince people that it’s time after two terms for a different person as governor.”

Miringoff also noted that in Florida on Tuesday, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum – an underdog – won the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

“We’re seeing interesting outcomes in primaries around the country, not the least of which was in Florida last night, so people have to look at some of the polls and say, ‘Well, you know, may be a little tricky because of the turnout and who shows up; the chemistry of the turnout may be a little bit different this time around,” he said.

The winner of the Sept. 13 primary faces Republican Marc Molinaro, independent candidate Stephanie Miner and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins in the November election.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)