‘This is his turf’: Cynthia Nixon works a tough convention crowd

To win, Nixon must expand her appeal beyond the faction of die-hard activists who despise Cuomo
Cynthia Nixon speaks at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., May 23, 2018.
Cynthia Nixon speaks at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., May 23, 2018.

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The giant banner hanging above Cynthia Nixon’s head was as clear as it was ominous: “Welcome to the lions’ den.”

Technically, the sign was for the mascots of Hofstra University, where New York Democrats were gathered for their state convention. But it was a more than fitting welcome for Nixon into a convention hall in the tight grasp of her rival, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

With the sign looming above, Nixon addressed the party’s progressive caucus Wednesday without the aid of a microphone, straining to be heard. Nearby, the party’s executive leadership was meeting in a space fully equipped for audio amplification.

“This is his turf,” Nixon said knowingly.

The two-day Democratic convention, which concluded Thursday with Cuomo’s formal acceptance of his party’s backing, punctuates the challenge facing Nixon’s insurgent candidacy; to win, she must expand her appeal beyond the faction of die-hard activists who despise Cuomo, to the broader Democratic electorate.

In a 45-minute speech Thursday before delegates cheering “four more years,” Cuomo cast New York as the bulwark of Democratic politics against a Republican-controlled Washington.

“New York is the alternative state to Trump’s America,” Cuomo said moments before a celebratory balloon drop.

From the opening prayer, which served as much as a sermon on Cuomo’s accomplishments as a general invocation, it was clear just how much this was the House of Cuomo. “Today, under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, New York is a true beacon of justice,” one of the ministers said as the two-day convocation began Wednesday.

That was followed by two PowerPoint presentations heralding the governor’s varied accomplishments. “This is a long list!” exclaimed Christine C. Quinn, the vice chairwoman of the state party and a former New York City Council speaker, as she worked her way through it. She kept going.

Nixon herself sat through the presentations in the second row, alongside a handful of campaign aides and Jumaane D. Williams, the Brooklyn city councilman who is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, and who, like Nixon, has the Working Families Party’s backing.

When Nixon’s name was formally put up for nomination, there was only sporadic applause.

“We’re here to show that we are not afraid, that this is our party too,” Nixon had said as she arrived in Hempstead. Her team pitched that her attendance showcased a fearlessness; it also guaranteed her a share of the media spotlight at an event that drew camera crews from across the state.

In the end, Cuomo was placed on the Democratic ballot for a third term by a landslide with more than 95 percent of the delegates. Nixon had exited the convention hall before the lopsided vote was tallied. She plans to file petitions to make the ballot.

Nixon’s poor showing at a convention scripted by Cuomo and his allies was hardly a surprise. Nonetheless, some of the praise from the governor’s big-name surrogates would tell part of that story seemed intended to tweak her claim as the only progressive in the race.

Hillary Clinton delivered the keynote speech Wednesday endorsing Cuomo, saying that “now more than ever, we need leaders who will stand up for progressive values.” Former Vice President Joe Biden delivered a passionate and meandering follow-up address Thursday.

“Andrew Cuomo has never backed away from his progressive principles — not one single time,” Biden said.

Nixon countered with Carlos Menchaca, a city councilman from Brooklyn, one of the few elected officials in the state to back her insurgent candidacy.

“The fact is, he can rack up all the endorsements that he wants, but at the end of the day, people are going to vote for him or not vote for him,” Nixon said in an interview on the train en route to the convention. “It’s his progressive record, or lack of it really … voters are going to judge him on.”

As he seeks a third term, Cuomo has tried to sell New York under his governorship as a progressive leader, from gun control to an increase in the minimum wage to closing prisons. After initially avoiding challenging Trump during his first months in the White House, Cuomo has steadily heated up his rhetoric, calling the president’s promises “fool’s gold.”

As Cuomo often does, he cast himself as a leader who gets tangible results. “We strive for the ideal but we live for the real,” he said Thursday. “People want and need help now.” Once wary to wade into national politics, Cuomo offered his approach as a national model for Democratic success in the future.

A smiling Cuomo spoke to reporters after Clinton’s speech and glowed that his 95 percent mandate was “more than I expected” and a ratification of his record. He dismissed talk among Nixon supporters that party officials did not represent the true Democratic grass roots.

“Who are those people in there, conservatives?” Cuomo said, gesturing toward the hall of delegates with a laugh. “Those are the most progressive people in the state.”

George Albro, a co-leader of the New York Progressive Action Network, which has endorsed Nixon, argued that party members did not demonstrate the type of grass-roots energy that propelled Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries. “I think the people here are really out of step with those forces,” he said of Democratic State Committee members.

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