Critic's Notebook: No Love Lost Between Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon in Heated Debate

Cuomo Nixon Debate_Split - Getty - H 2018
Craig Ruttle-Pool/Getty Images

The gubernatorial debate between the two featured some definitely surreal moments, such as when he brought up Sarah Jessica Parker's tea house.

During their New York gubernatorial debate on Wednesday night, Cynthia Nixon made it clear that she was running against Andrew Cuomo. And Andrew Cuomo made it clear that he was running against Donald Trump.

Cuomo spent less of his allotted time attacking his Democratic primary opponent than he did the president, whom he has increasingly made a target during his campaign. "You have to fight Donald Trump!" Cuomo declared in the opening moments. "He tweets at me weekly, I welcome it!" he added. "Only Donald Trump has had less transparency on his taxes than Ms. Nixon," he pointed out during a heated exchange over Nixon's release of her tax returns. "Trump is the problem, we have to stand up to Trump!" Cuomo thundered when asked whether public workers should be allowed to go on strike.

It all sounded like a prelude to Cuomo running for president in 2020. But the governor steadfastly affirmed that he would serve his full term if elected, even if he did get a little cutesy about it.

"The only caveat…" he added with a sly grin as the audience erupted in groans, "is that if God strikes me dead." It was an awkward moment. As Cuomo has often demonstrated, humor is definitely not his strength.

The event was a decidedly chilly affair, and it had nothing to do with the Nixon campaign's earlier request that the auditorium be heated to a balmy 76 degrees. There was no opening handshake or cordial opening statements. The debate began with the candidates seated at separate tables, and it was immediately apparent that there was no love lost between them.

Nixon stumbled on the first question, when she was asked what qualifications she had to manage a state with a nearly $170 billion budget. She cited her many years of working for progressive causes and her involvement with the activist group Fight Back New York. But she had little else to provide, other than to point out that she was not an "Albany insider" like her opponent whose administration has been marked by "incredible corruption."

Nixon did have some potent attack lines. "He used the MTA like an ATM," she said of Cuomo during an exchange about New York City's mass transit system. Cuomo, meanwhile, took some not-so-thinly veiled swipes at her acting career. "My opponent lives in the world of fiction, I live in the world of facts," he said at one point, clearly relishing the insult. Cuomo also became visibly annoyed when Nixon repeatedly interjected while he was speaking.

"Can you stop interrupting?" he snapped several times. "Can you stop lying?" she replied.

The evening got a bit surreal when Cuomo accused Nixon of asking for favors from politicians in exchange for donations. "You are a corporation!" he bellowed, referring to her tax status. When she denied asking for any favors, Cuomo pressed further. "What about the tea house for Sarah Jessica Parker? That wasn't a favor?"

"I don't even know what you're referring to," Nixon answered, looking befuddled. "You should read the papers!" he snapped back. It was a shame the debate lasted only one hour. This was clearly an issue that deserved further exploration.

Almost as strange was Cuomo's reply to a question about wanting the endorsement of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. That the two men can barely stand being in the same room is well established, but Cuomo sounded like all they needed was a little couple's therapy.

"I love Mayor de Blasio," Cuomo cooed. "I'm sure he loves me, in a strange sort of way," he added, admitting that they have a "dysfunctional relationship."

Nixon made some news during a question about her reported wealth. Asked if she would forego the governor's salary if she were elected, she paused for a moment, as if doing some math in her head. Nixon finally said that she would accept no salary, although you could tell she was making a mental note to call her accountant the next day.

The two candidates' vastly different personal styles were on ample display. Nixon's acting experience was evident in her very emotive facial expressions of dismay, disappointment and scorn while Cuomo was speaking. And the governor, who is very much lacking in the warmth and charisma department, mainly looked annoyed throughout.

There's little doubt that Cuomo will win the nomination. But Nixon has succeeded in pulling him to the left on a few major issues, which may have been her goal from the beginning. On the other hand, maybe she did think that she had a good chance to unseat him as the Democratic nominee despite her total lack of political experience. After all, look who's in the White House.