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Cuomo could face a liberal primary challenge from several hopefuls

Longtime education activist and former

Longtime education activist and former "Sex in the City" actress Cynthia Nixon may be considering a run for governor of New York state. Credit: Getty Images / Theo Wargo

ALBANY — A mayor, a former state senator and an activist/actress are floating the idea of challenging Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a Democratic primary for governor in 2018.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, former state Sen. Terry Gipson from the Hudson Valley, and “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon of Manhattan all have said they are thinking about a run. None have yet committed to the decidedly uphill fight against Cuomo, who has a massive campaign fund, two terms of building relationships with party leaders and a statewide organization to get out the vote. But the talk signals continued unhappiness with Cuomo by some party progressives.

Democratic primaries — state and national — are traditionally dominated by liberal voters, and some Democrats and political scientists say a challenge from the left in ’18 could hurt any Cuomo run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

Meena Bose, political science professor at Hofstra University and director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, said a liberal challenge against Cuomo for governor could make some liberal Democrats in 2020 doubt his progressive credentials.

Cuomo faced a primary when running for his second term in 2014 and could be in for a repeat, some experts believe.

“It’s going to be very difficult to avoid a primary,” said Judith Hope, the former state Democratic Party chairwoman and a longtime national Democratic leader. “This is the Democratic Party. There is always more than one candidate.”

The question is whether a small corps of candidates backed by a half-dozen vocal liberal leaders means there is widespread dissatisfaction among progressives for the son of liberal lion Mario Cuomo.

“We have to separate out leadership from membership,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Research Institute poll and a former Democratic strategist. “Andrew Cuomo appeals to progressive liberals, left-leaning voters, and when he campaigns for their support he is going to be talking about marriage equality, paid family leave, the SAFE (gun regulation) Act, and clean energy standards that could [be] the toughest in the nation. He’s got quite a lot of accomplishments that appeal to liberal voters.”

In 2014, Cuomo faced a challenge for the liberal Working Families Party endorsement, which he won over political novice, Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor. Just over two months later, Cuomo defeated Teachout, 65 percent to 35 percent, in a Democratic primary. In the 2014 general election, Cuomo collected 126,244 votes through the Working Families Party line, even though just 48,678 voters were enrolled in the liberal party at the time, according to state Board of Elections records.

In 2018, Greenberg said he expects Cuomo to face a Democratic primary for governor, but the challenger is unlikely to be well-funded or well-known enough to mount a competitive race against the two-term governor with a very large campaign fund — as of July, Cuomo’s campaign had more than $25.6 million on hand — and an iconic family name. In that case, presidential primary voters in 2020 probably wouldn’t know or care about “internal squabbles among Democrats in New York . . . it’s political insider stuff,” he said.

But trends in the liberal vote could still concern Cuomo.

The 126,244 votes cast through the liberal Working Families Party for Cuomo with in 2014 helped counter the Conservative Party vote of 250,634 for Republican Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive. But that Working Families Party vote for Cuomo in the 2014 general election was 28,591 fewer than in his 2010 election.

In addition, another liberal party, the Green Party, is becoming a bigger draw for liberal voters. The Green Party attracted 59,906 votes for its own candidate for governor, activist Howie Hawkins, in 2010. In Cuomo’s re-election year in 2014, the party attracted three times that many — 184,419 — for Hawkins, state Board of Elections records show.

For 2018, Greenberg said that if a Democratic primary challenger with enough time, name recognition and funding could reach 40 percent in the Democratic primary, “it would be huge. That would certainly leave an impression among Democratic leaders nationally, among the media and among the talking heads. That would hurt him.”

So far publicly, Cuomo’s campaign is mostly ignoring the prospect of a primary challenge.

“This governor doesn’t talk about progressive issues, he actually gets them done,” said Bill Mulrow, Cuomo 2018 campaign manager. “Governor Cuomo passed a $15 minimum wage, the strongest paid family leave program and gun control laws in the nation, banned fracking, raised the age of criminal responsibility, and enacted the first-ever free college tuition program for middle class families. Governor Cuomo has the strongest progressive record of any elected official in this country — period — and we look forward to building on that record in the third term.”

Cuomo’s other liberal wins also include legalizing gay marriage.

Some liberal leaders noted that Cuomo had to be pushed to enact the higher minimum wage and the fracking ban and he has so far failed to deliver on his promise to help Democrats take control of the Senate.

Hope noted that running for a third term by any official is “always more difficult for sure . . . what we want to avoid is a divisive primary.”

That also may be difficult.

“There seems to be a loss of confidence,” Miner said of Cuomo. “I think the governor has actually said a lot of good things in terms of public policy. The question is what has he done? Has it been substantive?”

In 2013, Miner criticized the effectiveness of Cuomo’s proposal to make the state pension system more affordable for governments, school districts and their taxpayers. She did it at the height of Cuomo’s power and popularity, in a guest column in The New York Times, that shocked many back in Albany.

“We should not engage in short-term gimmicks to address long-term problems,” she said.

Nixon’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Sides Cappellan, said the longtime education activist in New York has no comment on any political plans and won’t be available for an interview about them. But Nixon has conducted a flurry of interviews in which she speaks out on New York issues that she sees a needing to be fixed.

“That gap now between our richest schools and our poorest schools is wider under Governor Cuomo than it ever has been before, and that’s got to stop,” Nixon said on the “Today” show. “We’ve got a real problem on our hands in New York State.”

Gipson is reaching out to liberal groups to gauge the support he might garner for a run. “In Trump’s new America we cannot afford to wait,” he said.

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