“Cynthia Moved the Debate”

Waleed Shahid

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.

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

Interview by
Ella Mahony

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.

Ella Mahony

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?

Waleed Shahid

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.

Ella Mahony

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?

Waleed Shahid

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.

Ella Mahony

Speaking of those non-electoral movements, let’s talk about labor in New York. Cuomo has a stranglehold over most of the labor leadership. Do you think that will harden over the next few years or will there be opportunities to loosen it?

Waleed Shahid

The majority of labor told Cuomo and his donors: we’re not going to endorse Cynthia Nixon. We’re not going to endorse Jumaane Williams. We’re not going to endorse Zephyr Teachout. But while Cuomo and Hochul were trying to consolidate some of their ranks, some of those unions, like SEIU and CWA, did endorse in primary challenges in the state senate. Labor support for those candidates, like Alessandra Biaggi or Julia Salazar, is nothing to sneeze at. It was critical in their victories.

People think Cuomo plays four-dimensional chess; this time around, unions and the Left also played four-dimensional chess.

We didn’t win everything, but we were able to create the political space for these anti-IDC challengers to win, which is super important.

In the past we’ve seen labor play an aggressive role with the governor. Fifteen dollars an hour wouldn’t have happened in New York without labor and the community organizations making it a priority in Cuomo’s second term. And using Zephyr Teachout’s primary challenge as a way to show that the governor was vulnerable on that issue.

There’s enormous potential there. It just depends on whether or not they’re willing to use it and play hardball.

Ella Mahony

Labor was an area that Cynthia struggled in. She got a lot of blowback for her comments early in the campaign regarding unions and the MTA that some people perceived as attacking transit workers. First, do you think that that had a long-term impact on her campaign? Second, can you talk about the process of adopting the labor platform proposed by DSA? What impact did that have, and what was learned in that process?

Waleed Shahid

On the first question, I don’t think that it had a significant impact on the results of the election. She was referencing the construction contracts in that comment. I think that they would have been with Cuomo regardless. That said, the fact that she gave a clarifying statement pretty quickly, and then tried to center labor issues later on, shows that she saw it as something important to address head-on.

In terms of your second question. The labor platform came about as a result of a dialogue with DSA members who are also union members or have experience with the union movement. What they brought to us seemed resonant with Cynthia’s values and Cynthia’s campaign.They also seemed important to lift up as issues that the union movement could keep moving forward on — regardless of whether the union leadership was going to support it.

Generally, the left policy think tank infrastructure does need to be much more developed, and much more ready to withstand the test. The attacks are going be relentless, from the center-left, the center, and from the right. People have to be prepared for that. And I think Cynthia was held to a much, much higher standard on her policy proposals than Andrew Cuomo was after nearly eight years of governing. That’s something that people shouldn’t be surprised about.

Ella Mahony

If you’ll allow me to editorialize a bit, I think that the dynamic of the “right to strike” plank illustrated one of the goals that we should shoot for in left policy: we want policy that creates organizing opportunities for us. The union establishment might be against public-sector workers’ right to strike, but it creates serious organizing opportunities for us among the rank and file.

Waleed Shahid

I think it points out an enormous contradiction in Cuomo calling himself a champion of labor. Cuomo walks into the debate with almost every labor union’s endorsement. He points to the crowd, saying, “How am I with labor?” And the crowd cheers.

At the same time, Cynthia says, “I support the right of public-sector workers to strike.” And then Cuomo is like, “It would be chaos if teachers were allowed to strike.” Meanwhile, teacher strikes are happening all over the country, and they’re enormously popular and have the sympathy of the public.

It’s a good wedge issue to be like, “Okay, but what does it say about the so-called champion of labor, if he’s unwilling to support the right to teachers striking, who are striking in West Virginia and Arizona and places around the country?” It shows that he’s acting out of political expediency, not a deep commitment to labor.

Ella Mahony

Why was the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) endorsement so important to Cynthia? It was a long process that ended up getting a lot of press, and it was probably did not play out exactly how she expected. Why was it so important and how would you view that relationship now, after the election?

Waleed Shahid

I think that for the campaign, DSA’s endorsement was important because of the victories that DSA was instrumental in with Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato’s elections in Pennsylvania and the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

There was a sense that there was momentum at DSA’s back that could be translated into a much bigger campaign, one that had much more media attention. And that it was a logical next step for DSA to take on the Goliath of the Democratic Party establishment.

Also, Cynthia started her campaign referencing Jeremy Corbyn’s “for the many, not the few” in one of her launch speeches. There was a natural alignment there, between what DSA believes in, regarding housing and health care and justice, and the things that Cynthia believes in.

That was an opening for a mutually supportive relationship. Cynthia could lift up the issues that DSA cared about, namely rent control and health care, and it would popularize DSA’s platform through the vessel of our campaign.

But also, if Cynthia were victorious, I would think that her being a democratic socialist would be part of the conversation. To me, it’s still remarkable that someone who’s a democratic socialist, someone who’s queer, someone who’s a woman, someone who’s never ran for office before, someone who hasn’t had a real career in elected office, was still able to win a third of the vote in New York.

People forget that Jumaane Williams was also part of the DSA endorsement. He also referred to himself as a democratic socialist, and he got half the vote. It’s not necessarily a factor at the doors, like “Oh, you’re endorsed by DSA? Of course I’m voting for you.” That’s not where DSA’s at yet. But it’s important to national conversations about the future of the Democratic Party and what place ideology has in that.

Ella Mahony

Personally I think that Jumaane’s endorsement was enormously important. You could see DSA as a pole within a larger coalition that might, in the future, be something more than the sum of its parts. To act effectively as that pole, it’s very important for DSA to have a relationship with Jumaane and New York Communities for Change, Make the Road — that community organizing milieu.

Cynthia wasn’t only a DSA candidate; she campaigned at the intersection of a lot of those progressive groups in the city. From that perspective, what was her impact on the No IDC push and the slate of candidates she campaigned with?

Waleed Shahid

Every stump speech that Cynthia’s ever given, whether at a bar or at a rally or upstate or downstate, referenced the IDC. And Cynthia communicated with more voters than any of the other candidates who were on the ballot. So I think her talking about the IDC constantly, and specifically about Cuomo and Jeff Klein’s role in it, worked as a sort of popular political education with voters. Alessandra Biaggi told CNN in an interview, “As soon as Cynthia got into the race, she kept saying IDC, IDC, IDC. And it had an enormous impact on my campaign, my election,” just because Cynthia was able to lift up what that was for a much bigger audience than she could ever reach.

Cynthia represented the left pole of the entire ballot. So when you have the New York Times say, “We agree with Cynthia’s critique and analysis, but we just can’t take the risk on someone who doesn’t have any elected experience,” that made it much more likely for them to take a risk on people like Zellnor Myrie and Alessandra Biaggi and others. Cynthia moved the debate in such a progressive direction, that people were willing to take risks on the down-ballot candidates.

Ella Mahony

What you make of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent comments about rallying behind the governor to make sure that he wins in November? Is Republican challenger Molinaro really such a threat that a left challenger could possibly play spoiler in this election?

Waleed Shahid

I don’t know. I think any third-party candidate can play the role of a spoiler, given our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system. I think that if her position is “I’m going to support whoever that Democrat is, whoever wins the primary,” then that’s her position. I think in terms of Cynthia, there will be ongoing conversations with her and the Working Families Party about what to do about the ballot line, how fusion fits into it, all things that I can’t comment on myself right now. But those discussions will happen.

Ella Mahony

Looking at Cynthia and Jumaane together as a ticket, what kind of base and what kind of politics did Cynthia bring into that, and what did Jumaane bring into it? What were their respective strengths that they combined?

Waleed Shahid

Cynthia’s strength is that there are lots of women and queer people who saw themselves in Cynthia’s campaign. There are also lots of women who voted for Hillary Clinton and didn’t like Bernie Sanders, that wanted to vote for Cynthia, even though Bernie and Cynthia shared ideological commitments.

Jumaane did best in Brooklyn. I live in Flatbush. There are lots of people in Flatbush who voted for Jumaane but didn’t vote for Cynthia. Maybe because Cynthia didn’t get the word out in this part of Brooklyn, or maybe because they belong to unions that are supportive of Cuomo. Who knows? But it’s worth looking into, to understand what candidates can speak to where voters are at. Because voters care not only about ideology; they also care about representation. Jumaane had very few resources, and still got 48 percent of the vote, because he’s well-respected in the community, and he represented a good contrast [to Hochul] in terms of his commitments and his story.

You see it with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you see it with Ayanna Pressley, you saw some of it with Abdul El-Sayed. Candidates of color who hold a left political vision are going to be key in a lot of these races that we want to be victorious in.

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Waleed Shahid was policy director for Cynthia Nixon. He also worked for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and served as communications director for Justice Democrats.

Ella Mahony is an associate editor at Jacobin.

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