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Cynthia Nixon: Democrats need to be more than a “gentler, more diverse version” of the GOP

Forget the bagel controversy; Cynthia Nixon wants to talk about Medicare-for-all.

Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, who is running against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York’s Democratic primary.
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It’s two days before the New York state primary election and the internet still can’t get over Cynthia Nixon’s bagel order.

Nixon — the actress and activist who is challenging a powerful incumbent, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo — doesn’t mind. Her team was trying to do some last-minute fundraising off the faux-Twitter outrage over her order of lox, tomato, onions, and capers on a cinnamon-raisin bagel at the famed Manhattan deli Zabars on Monday.

“Don’t yuck my yum!” Nixon told a crowd of reporters. “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”

Meanwhile, Cuomo is on the defense on two issues with the potential to be more damaging to his campaign than a bagel controversy. The first is a story by the New York Times’s Shane Goldmacher reporting the governor’s administration offered “enticements” to make the opening target for a recent, much-celebrated ribbon-cutting on the new Mario M. Cuomo Bridge (named for Cuomo’s father, a former governor). Another recent story by Goldmacher pointed to Cuomo’s excessive use of state planes and helicopters.

That’s on top of another controversy, as the New York State Democratic Committee recently sent out mailers to Jewish voters calling Nixon “silent on the rise of anti-Semitism,” despite the fact she attends a synagogue and is raising two of her children as Jewish. Cuomo, who heads the committee, has condemned the mailer and said he didn’t know about it, but no one on the committee has yet publicly taken responsibility for it.

The confluence of events is exactly the contrast Nixon — a progressive outsider — is trying to make with Cuomo, a centrist, longtime New York politician who is widely thought to be exploring a 2020 presidential campaign (though he has said he’ll serve out a full term as governor). Nixon has been painting Cuomo as a moneyed, corrupt insider who has drained New York schools and infrastructure systems of their money in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy. She is still polling far behind Cuomo, but she might do well enough to ruin his dreams of a presidential bid — or even defeat him in the process.

Nixon calls herself a democratic socialist and wants to prove that the grassroots activism that helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez topple House Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in New York can propel her to the governor’s mansion in Albany. She has embraced adopting Medicare-for-all, funding education, and exposing corruption in New York’s political system.

“We can’t just be a kinder, gentler, more diverse version of the Republican Party — that’s not compelling enough,” Nixon told Vox in a Monday interview. “We’re relying on people’s horror with Trump that they’re going to turn out and vote. We need to give them something to actually come out and vote for, and we need to be a party that is not only addressing but actively fighting inequality.”

Nixon’s campaign, which goes to the polls on the last primary day of the year, is the final chance for progressives to prove they have the power to win against the Democratic establishment. If Nixon does prevail against Cuomo on Thursday, it would be by far the biggest defeat of an incumbent.

“There’s people coming out in large numbers. There is an appetite for an insurgent political activity in New York state,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director for the Working Families Party. “It will shock the political class; I don’t think people are ready for that.”

I talked to Nixon about democratic socialism, New York’s urban/rural divide, and her day one agenda. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

What do you see as the difference between the Democratic Party and democratic socialism?

Cynthia Nixon

Democratic socialism, I think, is a movement that is really making the difference in the Democratic Party and holding the Democratic Party to its ideals and its foundation. The Democratic Party right now — I think one of the reasons people are not turning out for our candidates is they don’t understand what the Democratic Party stands for. And I think that is confusing because of the influence, particularly, of big money in our politics.

We keep saying, “We’re the good guys, you should vote for us. We fight for working people, we fight for people of color, we fight against inequality.” But I think people are not really believing that at the moment because of the influence of big money. We can’t just be a kinder, gentler, more diverse version of the Republican Party; that’s not compelling enough.

We’re relying on people’s horror with Trump that they’re going to turn out and vote. We need to give them something to actually come out and vote for, and we need to be a party that is not only addressing but actively fighting inequality. Fighting inequality in our criminal justice system, fighting inequality in our health care and our housing and our education. We have to affirm that these things I just mentioned ... are human rights, and that we can’t just have a society that is completely profit-driven without regard to the human cost that’s being paid right now.

Ella Nilsen

Following up on that, what do you think is the most obvious policy win for Democrats that they leave on the table? Is there anything, either New York-specific or nationally, that you see?

Cynthia Nixon

I mean, I think what Bernie Sanders has been able to do in a very few short years is he’s been able to take the issue of a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system and put it squarely in the midst of the political debate. This is something, obviously, that we have been talking about and trying to enact for decades now. But what we’re seeing is more progressive candidates, diverse candidates — diverse in every way, not just ethnically, racially, and in terms of gender, but also in terms of class — coming out and saying, “We as Democrats have to fight for this and have to make it happen.”

I think that’s the No. 1 issue. It’s a touchstone for a lot of inequalities, but I think when you look at how we’re the wealthiest country on the planet, we’re the only industrialized country that doesn’t have universal health care, we frankly have not only the worst health care of any major industrialized country but the most expensive health care. We get it coming and going.

Ella Nilsen

As you have been traveling around the state campaigning, I’m particularly interested to ask about the state’s rural/urban divide and what you have seen in upstate New York. Are there similarities between what you’ve seen in New York City [in terms of inequality] and the plight of some of these poorer, rural communities?

Cynthia Nixon

What we have right now is a governor whose first allegiance is to corporations and the super wealthy, and to giving those powerful people who contribute to his campaign a major tax break, and that’s what he’s done. What it’s meant is a tremendous disinvestment in our state, a tremendous disinvestment in our infrastructure and our human service jobs in education and transportation. You name it, he’s cut it.

Certainly one of reasons I’m running is I’m fighting for better and more equal education funding for the past 17 years since my oldest kid entered kindergarten. Our New York schoolchildren are owed $4.2 billion that Andrew Cuomo refuses to invest.

Also a lack of affordable housing. Because of the influence of the real estate industry, we have a government now that constantly sides with corporate developers and landlords rather than with tenants, and New York is becoming more and more unaffordable.

But I also think when you’re talking about economic development and job creation, one of the major failings of this administration is real job creation upstate. And again, it’s because of prioritizing corporations. If we really want to create jobs, we need to invest in minority-owned businesses, we need to invest in community banking. We need to invest in community-driven development, rather than what we’re doing now, which is handing over hundreds of millions of dollars to corporations as payback for political contributions, with little job creation to show.

If we really want to create jobs, we should do it by investing in infrastructure, which is a great job creator for today [and] a great investment in our state for tomorrow. Also, I’m a big proponent of a bill we have here in New York — the Climate and Community Protection Act — which holds corporate polluters accountable and raises $7 billion in revenue in the first year alone that we can use to create 100,000-plus good jobs, green jobs, across the state.

If we really want to create jobs, particularly in our communities of color that have really been untouched by recent economic development, this is one of the most important things we can do.

Ella Nilsen

Have you given thought to what the most pressing need is, and what your day one agenda would be if you had to rank all these issues that you just listed off?

Cynthia Nixon

Sure — I mean, I can tell you there’s a few very concrete things I would do on day one, but almost every change that I would enact has to do with combating inequality. Racial inequality, economic inequality, gender inequality. Certainly on my first day, and this is something that shocks me that our current governor has not done this yet — by executive order, the governor of New York state can expand access to driver’s licenses for undocumented people. And I will do that on day one.

Not having a driver’s license and being undocumented, that’s the No. 1 way that ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is able to identify who you are, come tear your family apart, deport you, and turn New York into a police state. If we really care about protecting our immigrants and combating the Trump agenda, this is something we need to do immediately in New York.

Also, there was a thing in New York — the Moreland Commission — that was doing a great job investigating corruption in Albany, and it got a little too close to Andrew Cuomo and to his top donors and he disbanded it. I would call for a second Moreland Commission that would be fully independent and that would investigate corruption anywhere it saw it or suspected it.

But really, all the changes that I would fight for and enact would fall under the umbrella of combating inequality. Certainly, I would fight to legalize marijuana, because it’s a racial justice issue. Eighty percent of the people arrested for marijuana are black and Latino, despite the fact that everyone uses marijuana at the same rate.

I would fight to end cash bail in New York state. We’ve got 25,000 people in New York’s jails on any given day; 70 percent are there because they can’t afford bail — in other words, they’re poor.

I would fight and enact foundation aid, which is something that when Eliot Spitzer was our governor, he was doing. But Andrew Cuomo came in and made a $1.3 billion cut to education the same year he instituted a massive tax break for corporations, banks, and everyone earning over $300,000 per year.

One of the great inequalities in New York state is educational inequality. We have the second most unequal education system in the entire country. New York itself is the most unequal state, and it’s not just because we have Wall Street and so many wealthy people here. We also have such deep poverty. The depth of the poverty I think would really surprise people who haven’t experienced it. We’ve got more than half of the kids in our upstate cities living below the poverty line, and Syracuse has the most concentrated black and Latino poverty of any single city in the entire country. In New York state! One of the wealthiest states in the United States.

This is completely unacceptable, and the only reason we have allowed this poverty not only to exist but to deepen is because of the power of corporations and the wealthy, and because we have a governor without the political will or, frankly, the political interest to do anything about it.

Ella Nilsen

How do you cut through machine politics in a state where machine politics has existed for well over 100 years?

Cynthia Nixon

Well, one of the things we have to understand is we are in a new moment where our voters are so far ahead of our elected leaders — even our Democratic leaders — in calling for change. You galvanize public opinion. The other thing is, we’ve had a governor for the last 7.5 years who has incentivized Democrats to vote with Republicans to give Republicans control of the state Senate.

What that means is Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who will be the first female African-American leader of the state Senate, will be in control come the new year. She, along with me, will fight for the real progressive change that we want in New York and that’s been so long in coming.

It’s not that we don’t want the ability to enact this foundational change; it’s that we have a governor who doesn’t believe in it, and doesn’t want to pay for it, and has spent his career as governor trying to position himself in a centrist enough way to eventually run for president.

He comes from a time, in 2010 when he was elected, when Mitt Romney was going to be the president — that’s what everybody thought, right? But the time for centrism is long past, and we want our Democratic leaders to really be Democrats and really fight for Democratic values.

Everybody will understand, when I unseat Andrew Cuomo, that it’s a new day in Albany and people can get on board, or they can be next. If we can unseat Andrew Cuomo, we can unseat any Albany politician.

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