ALBANY – Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon said the state’s economic development programs overseen by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo need an overhaul, which she said will become especially evident this summer during the corruption trial into the awarding of the Buffalo Billion and other upstate projects.
“I think it’s going to be incredibly damaging" for Cuomo, Nixon said in an interview with The Buffalo News about the political impact of the pay-to-play trial of several Buffalo and Syracuse executives and the recent conviction of a former trusted adviser of Cuomo.
“In the corruption Olympics that is Albany, I think Andrew Cuomo is winning himself some gold medals," said the actress and political activist who on Monday announced her Democratic primary run against Cuomo.
In a 16-minute interview, her first with a daily news outlet since her campaign started, Nixon kept up her barrage of assaults on Cuomo and sought to lay out a path for her candidacy.
Though focused in the early days on New York City, Nixon said she expects to begin an upstate campaign either next week or the following week.
Nixon, 51, best known as one of the stars of the "Sex and the City" television series and movies, is making her first run for elected office. She said one of the reasons she is running is “because of Andrew Cuomo’s enormous tax breaks” that she said have benefited wealthy people and corporations.
Asked for her view of a major tax break Cuomo has championed for the film and television industry, Nixon said she is studying the issue. But, she quickly added, “I don’t think there’s any real truth that that enormous expenditure of money is making a significant enough different in production to justify it.’’ She added that the more than $420 million annual tax break the industry receives “doesn’t merit the investment” the state is giving in tax credits. She said the beneficiaries are predominately large entertainment companies.
Nixon, who has been involved in public school funding activism for 16 years, slammed Cuomo for not providing enough state aid to the Buffalo city schools. She estimated Buffalo schools would be owed more than $100 million in aid from the state, had Albany followed the decision that came out of a landmark school funding lawsuit won by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a group Nixon got involved with when her oldest teenager began as a kindergarten student in a New York City public school.
But Nixon saved much of her attacks on Cuomo over the component of the Buffalo Billion program that is going to be front and center in a federal courtroom later this summer. “If you look at (Cuomo’s) attempt at economic development, there’s just been enormous giveaways with not a lot to show for it. Buffalo Billion is a prime example of the intersection of corruption and pay to play, giving state business to his donors without a lot of oversight, without a lot of strings attached," Nixon said.
“The thing that’s so awful about the Buffalo Billion is the corruption, of course … but also how much money is being spent with so little accountability. The corruption is one thing, but these are just a bad investment of taxpayer dollars," she said.
Nixon added that “it was good that jobs were created” in the broader Buffalo Billion program, but she questioned the way in which economic development dollars are dedicated by the Cuomo administration and said more state money needs to be spent on crumbling infrastructure needs. “We need an overall, real investment in our infrastructure," she said.
The looming Buffalo Billion trial in June is partly over alleged pay-to-play bribery allegations involving the state’s more than $750 million contract to build the solar manufacturing plant at Buffalo’s RiverBend. Cuomo has not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing by federal prosecutors.
The Buffalo News interview Thursday was the first Nixon gave to a daily or upstate media outlet. Earlier this week, she did an interview with the Amsterdam News, a weekly in Manhattan that is one of the oldest African American publications in the nation.
Nixon said her campaign will not take any corporate donations. Her campaign said in the last four days it has received 2,214 contributions from backers giving her $200 or less. “In one day of fundraising I received more small donor (contributions) than Andrew Cuomo received in seven years," Nixon said.
Asked why that mattered, she said: “Andrew Cuomo has a $31 million war chest … but it’s overwhelmingly from millionaires, billionaires and corporations (and) a lot of that is people looking for influence in Albany who want to do business in the state, who want political appointments."
In Manhattan this morning, Cuomo was asked by Zack Fink, a NY1 reporter, about the number of small individual donations going to Nixon.
“I’m going back to Albany to work on the budget and I’ll answer your little questions later,’’ Cuomo told Fink. (Cuomo later told NY1 that his campaign would be targeting smaller donors in the future.)
Nixon began her campaign a week after Joseph Percoco, a longtime confidante to Cuomo, was convicted of using his top post in the governor’s administration to help companies that steered more than $300,000 in bribes to Percoco.
But she said the Percoco case “didn’t enter into the thinking” for her final decision to run, saying she was influenced by everything from the election of President Trump to what she sees as a declining state of New York.
An unabashed liberal, Nixon was asked if she had any centrist policy or fiscal views. “I consider myself right in line with what New Yorkers feel. I don’t feel we have a centrist state. I feel we have a real progressive state," said Nixon.
“Andrew Cuomo is not anyone I’d describe as a centrist. I’d describe him as an opportunist," added Nixon, who has spent her first four days attacking Cuomo.
Nixon has kept her fledgling campaign in New York City so far. In 2014, Cuomo was also challenged from the left by Zephyr Teachout, an unknown law professor who ended up with 34 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. In that race, 107,000 of the 192,000 votes Teachout received came from outside New York City, and she won a number of upstate counties over Cuomo.
Asked about plans to spread her campaign beyond the boroughs of New York, Nixon said her campaign will announce an upstate swing shortly. She then volunteered that two of her best friends – she did not name them – are from Buffalo, that she attended a wedding in Buffalo and recalls having a great vegan meal at Amy’s Place in Buffalo.
With no government experience and having never run for office before, Nixon is seeking a job whose occupant must oversee a $170 billion budget and more than 100,000 state employees, as well as deal with diverse issues in a diverse state.
“I think certainly I’m not a political insider. But we’re looking at a moment in history where New York State government is so mired down in corruption and corporate influence that that’s trumping … everything else that’s going on in New York State," she said.