Albany. Here in Gotham we rarely think of this quiet city of 100,000 people that lies on the west bank of the Hudson River 150 miles to the north of the Big Apple’s hustle and bustle. Yet, it is in the state capitol where much of our city’s fate is decided: the functioning of our mass transit system, the quality of our public schools, whether we will have protection from rapacious landlords and much more.
At Albany’s center is a giant, windswept government plaza made of 240,000,000 cubic feet of concrete and 600,000 cubic feet of stone imported from three continents. From miles away, you can see four identical 23-story state office buildings. They stand on one side of the plaza with a 44-story monolith on the other. In this weird, alienating realm there is also a quarter-mile long office building modeled on the Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s Temple, a giant egg that contains a public theater and a garish, castle-like capitol building erected in the late 1800s.
To stand in that plaza is to feel small and powerless. The ideal of representative government of, by and for the people never seems more remote. And that’s just fine with the people who run the joint on behalf of the special interests who fund their campaigns.
The dominant player in Albany is Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Like Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle, Cuomo sits astride a political machine and commands all that he sees. Famously vindictive and with his hands on the levers of state government, few in the political class dare to cross him. Meanwhile, his wealthy backers have filled his re-election campaign coffers to the tune of $31 million and counting. But what if ordinary New Yorkers decided they had had enough of Cuomo’s misrule and began to stir? Could we topple Cuomo like poor ol’ Yertle who famously face-planted in the muck from which he rose?
For their loyalty, New York City residents haven’t received much in return from Gov. Cuomo.
In 2014, previously unknown law professor Zephyr Teachout won 34 percent of the vote against Cuomo in the Democratic primary running on an anti-corruption message. On March 19, the actress Cynthia Nixon announced she would challenge Cuomo in this year’s Democratic primary. Best known for starring in the hit television series Sex and The City, Nixon is a native New Yorker who has been a prominent advocate for public schools over the past 15 years. She came out as gay in 2004 and has also championed LGBTQ rights and Planned Parenthood.
Nixon has the celebrity firepower that Teachout did not. She will raise far more money than Teachout (who is serving as her campaign treasurer) even while eschewing corporate campaign contributions. Nixon is running to the left of Cuomo on support for public education, universal health care and reforming the state’s archaic elections laws that protect incumbents of both parties. Above all, she will try to make hay of Cuomo’s abysmal oversight of the MTA and the disastrous decline in subway service during his two terms in office.
But, is being a smart, well-meaning white lady enough?
Cuomo is the devil we know. Son of a three-term governor, he is nothing if not familiar with the machinery of state government. Four years ago, Cuomo’s strongest support came from the city as well as the immediate suburbs. While Teachout carried more than 30 upstate counties, Cuomo crushed her here in the five boroughs with overwhelming support from Black and Latino voters.
For their loyalty, New York City residents haven’t received much in return. Cuomo oversaw the completion of the Second Avenue line at a cost of more than $1 billion per mile but hasn’t bothered to do anything about the system’s decrepit signal system ensuring continued subway chaos. Wall Street-backed charter school chains get favored treatment while public schools continue to be underfunded. CUNY students have seen their tuition increase 35 percent under Cuomo while per-pupil state support has declined. An unholy alliance between Cuomo, State Senate Republicans and the real estate industry make it impossible to win more protections for rent-stabilized tenants. And so on.
We deserve better than this.
Nixon faces long odds. She will have to persuade voters between now and the Sept. 13 primary that she is up for the job. That said, defeating Cuomo from the left with a candidate who would also be the state’s first female and LGBTQ governor would be a big deal. Progressive reforms that have been stymied for decades would have a real shot at moving forward.
So is Nixon the one? We owe it to ourselves to listen to her closely and find out.
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Photo: Cynthia Nixon. Credit: cynthiafornewyork.com.