A day after news broke that actress Cynthia Nixon was in talks with two Democratic strategists about entering the 2018 governor’s race in New York, the two-term incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, wasted little time in denigrating her as a second-tier celebrity who had been egged on by his longtime Democratic rival, Mayor Bill de Blasio.
His accusation set off a familiar war of words between Cuomo and de Blasio that took on added weight in light of Cuomo’s possible primary contest.
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday about a looming snowstorm, Cuomo laughed aloud at his answer to a question about whether the mayor, a longtime friend of Nixon, is behind her possible candidacy.
“I think it was probably either the mayor of New York or Vladimir Putin,” Cuomo said with a chuckle. “I am going to leave it to you, great investigative reporters to follow the facts and ferret out the truth.”
Cuomo also mocked Nixon’s celebrity status. She is best known for her role in the hit “Sex and the City” franchise, though she has also won Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards for her work.
“Normally name recognition is relevant when it has some connection to the endeavor,” Cuomo said in the call. “But if it’s just about name recognition, then I’m hoping that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Billy Joel don’t get into the race because if it’s just about name recognition, that would really be a problem.”
A publicist for Nixon did not respond to a request for comment.
Nixon has flirted with challenging Cuomo since last summer but her talks with the Democratic strategists Bill Hyers and Rebecca Katz, both veterans of de Blasio’s campaigns, represent one of the strongest signs she will actually run. An education activist in New York for years, Nixon has also been studying up on other policy areas, including transportation, according to people familiar with her activities.
The struggles of New York’s subways are seen as one of Cuomo’s chief political vulnerabilities, including by Cuomo’s allies.
Nixon is a longtime friend of de Blasio, campaigning aggressively for him back in 2013. Her wife works in the de Blasio administration on education, as well.
“She’s a strong independent woman who makes her own decisions,” de Blasio said in a news conference, responding to the governor’s suggestion he was behind her campaign. He went on to call Nixon “extraordinary,” adding, “Whatever she does, it’s her own choice.”
De Blasio declined to say if he had spoken to Nixon — who has been spotted around City Hall in the past and was on the stage for his swearing-in this January — about challenging Cuomo, saying he was “not going to go into any private conversations with a friend, obviously.”
But the mayor did not leave the issue there. He declined to say if he views Cuomo as a progressive. “I obviously have real political differences with the governor,” he said, adding that “there is a reckoning occurring” in Democratic Party primaries across the country.
Not long after, Cuomo called into the local cable network NY1 and continued the fight. He bashed de Blasio on everything from his handling of public housing to the jails on Rikers Island.
Cuomo said he and the mayor “just view progressive politics differently,” saying he was more focused on outcomes.
“I don’t think progressive politics is a function of rhetoric and words,” Cuomo said. “I think it’s a function of results.”
He ticked off a list of measures passed on his watch including same-sex marriage, a minimum-wage increase and gun control. “My progressive accomplishments are, I think, irrefutable,” Cuomo said.
Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo from the left in 2014, finishing with 34 percent of the vote, has spoken with Nixon, along with the other potential challengers to Cuomo this year. She said that the governor was trying to distract voters.
“Every part of his response is an effort to avoid the real issues New Yorkers want to talk about,” she said. As for the name-recognition comment, she invoked Cuomo’s father: former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
“Let’s just be clear: Andrew Cuomo wouldn’t have had a political career if it wasn’t for his dad,” Teachout said.
Jefrey Pollock, a pollster for Cuomo, said that Nixon, if she runs, would represent even less of a threat to Cuomo than Teachout did in 2014. “Zephyr Teachout four years ago was running with the wind of a strong issue in fracking and a progressive following,” Pollock said. “Nixon has none of that today.”
The Democratic primary for governor is scheduled for September.
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