ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo got himself a primary opponent Monday in the form of Cynthia Nixon, an actress and activist who is poised to tap into her celebrity status to raise money, as well as her novice political profile.
The announcement sets up a contest over the soul of the state’s Democratic Party that Cuomo controls.
Nixon, a longtime advocate of higher funding for public schools, ended months of speculation with an announcement Monday that she will challenge Cuomo for at least the Democratic Party line for governor.
“Next stop Albany,’’ a voice says at the end of an online video her campaign released showing her riding aboard a train.
Nixon, who has ties in the left wing of the Democratic Party as well as to the small but influential Working Families Party, has been mulling a run against Cuomo for several months.
In her video, Nixon does not mention Cuomo by name. Her announcement comes just a week after Joseph Percoco, a longtime adviser and friend of Cuomo, was convicted in a major corruption case that landed a political hit on Cuomo and his administration.
“New York is my home. I’ve never lived anywhere else,’’ Nixon, 51, says in the video. But she laments the state of health care, education and the crumbling New York City subway system.
“Half the kids in our upstate cities live below the poverty line. How did we let this happen?’’ said Nixon, who starred in the TV show “Sex and the City.’’
Nixon, who is openly gay, highlighted her public school roots and being a parent of New York City school children. Nixon has worked over the years with the Alliance for Quality Education, a group heavily funded by unions that has pushed for more equitable distribution of state aid to public schools. She said she was raised by her mother in a fifth-floor walkup apartment in New York City.
If elected, Nixon would become the first openly gay statewide official.
“We want our government to work again. … We are sick of politicians who care more about headlines than they do about us,’’ Nixon says in the video.
Nixon’s looming candidacy has unnerved some supporters of Cuomo. In 2014, little-known and underfunded Zephyr Teachout, a college law professor, scored 34 percent of the vote against Cuomo in the Democratic Party primary.
In that race four years ago, Cuomo refused to debate Teachout. That campaign produced one of New York’s more memorable recent political moments: video of Cuomo ignoring Teachout – with some blocking help from Percoco and other top Cuomo aides – when she tried to say hello to him at the start of a Labor Day parade in Manhattan.
On Monday, Nixon filed a notice with the state elections board creating her gubernatorial committee called Cynthia for New York; Teachout, a Fordham University professor, is listed as the campaign treasurer.
— Cynthia Nixon (@CynthiaNixon) March 19, 2018
Cuomo has been steadily moving left in advance of an expected primary by someone more liberal than he. In recent days, with Nixon’s candidacy looming, Cuomo has rolled out the endorsements of a number of influential and gay individuals, including Elton John, who does not live in the United States.
Cuomo’s campaign said he will tap into his some of his accomplishments – legalization of gay marriage, the SAFE Act gun laws, a ban on natural gas fracking and free SUNY tuition for some students – to appeal to people on the left in the September primary.
The Cuomo campaign did not respond on the record to Nixon's announcement, but instead released a written statement: "It's great that we live in a democracy where anyone can run for office."
Two Republicans – Sen. John DeFrancisco and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro – are seeking the GOP nomination to run against Cuomo in the general election.
Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic Party consultant who has worked for Cuomo in the past, said Nixon will have access to people happy to donate to her campaign “and lots of angry people” who do not want to see Cuomo elected to a third term.
“That gives her something to move on. The governor will take her very seriously,’’ Sheinkopf added.
The party consultant said the environment that spawned such things as the #MeToo movement will also limit Cuomo’s ability to go harshly negative against Nixon. Cuomo has never been shy about negative campaign tactics against political opponents. “This time the boxing gloves he usually puts on cannot be laced up,’’ said Sheinkopf, who is not working for Cuomo or Nixon.
“He doesn’t want to be seen as a bully,’’ added Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.
Muzzio said that Cuomo, at this stage, is likely to beat Nixon, but that she could be a serious threat to the two-term governor if she can raise enough money and can present a viable message to voters. Moreover, her candidacy will get assistance from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who Muzzio said will all but certainly tap into his political arsenal to help Nixon rough up Cuomo; the mayor and governor have had a running and bitter personal feud for several years.
“She’s a danger and Cuomo knows it,’’ Muzzio said of Nixon.
In her two-minute online video, images are shown of Nixon walking the streets of New York, hanging out with her children, the wind of an approaching subway blowing her hair, boarded up buildings and a nearly desolate-looking downtown of some presumably upstate community.
The announcement, given Nixon’s celebrity status, made for worldwide news Monday afternoon; she was heavily trending on social media outlets like Twitter.
Nixon’s entry into the governor’s race came on the same day a Siena College poll showed Cuomo with worsening job approval rating among registered voters, but also with a commanding lead over Nixon and his GOP opponents.
Cuomo in January reported having $30.5 million in his campaign account.