“Can you stop lying?” Nixon shot back.
“As soon as you do,” Cuomo said.
Such was the tenor of the first and only debate between the incumbent governor and his insurgent challenger, who faced each other just two weeks before the state’s Sept. 13 Democratic primary.
As the two traded barbs in Cuomo’s first head-to-head debate in a decade—he stood across from Jeanine Pirro (yes, that one) in 2006, when they jockeyed to be New York attorney general—Cuomo sought to portray himself as the leader of a vanguard against President Trump, while Nixon challenged him on his progressive bona fides, corruption in the state’s capital, and his vision for improving public transportation in the state.
Cuomo’s focus on Trump even prompted an early question from the moderators about whether he could commit to being governor for four additional years and not mount a presidential run in 2020.
“Yes and yes,” Cuomo responded. “Double yes.”
He added that “the only caveat is if God strikes me dead.”
Nixon, who has been trailing by double digits in publicly available polling—though New Yorkers are all too familiar with those polls failing them recently—spent more time attacking Cuomo, labeling him a “corrupt corporate Democrat.”
Best known as an actress, Nixon hasn’t held office, and she was questioned about her experience and whether it would translate to a successful tenure in the governor’s office. “I’m not an Albany insider like Governor Cuomo, but experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re not actually good at governing,” she answered.
Cuomo’s response to questions about experience, and the lofty goals—single payer, marijuana legalization among them—of a prospective Nixon administration, was to argue that he was effective and to dismissively say that “you don’t snap your fingers” just to get stuff done.
Both of their respective camps suggested that their opponent was losing their temper throughout the debate. Melissa DeRosa, secretary to Cuomo, tweeted early on that Nixon “appears unhinged.” A release from Nixon’s camp after the event said the governor’s temper erupted.
“Now we know why Andrew Cuomo hates debates so much,” Cynthia for New York spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in a statement. “The governor was visibly angry about Cynthia contrasting his corrupt, centrist administration with her progressive vision for New York—and his resulting temper flare-ups and rants told the story.”
Neither of the candidates showed up in the spin room for reporters, held on the side of the gym where the debate took place. (The room was, in fact, quite cold following a reported battle about what temperature it would be.)
On policy specifics, Nixon went after Cuomo for his handling of New York’s mass transit system, the MTA, saying he used “the MTA like an ATM.”
"As someone who is on the subway literally every day, I know that delays have tripled under Cuomo," she said, promising to delay the next fair hike.
“It has been declining for decades,” Cuomo said, passing the buck.
During an exchange about corruption, specifically Cuomo aide Joe Percoco, who was found guilty in a bribery conspiracy, Cuomo hit Nixon for asking for favors from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, saying, “You are a corporation.”
“I’m a person,” Nixon responded.
They also differed on New York’s Taylor Law, which curtails the right to strike for public employees. Nixon is against it, saying, “We’re in a moment of unprecedented attacks on labor. Our labor unions are the most important counterbalance we have to unrivaled corporate power and greed."
Cuomo disagreed, saying that if workers were allowed to strike, it “would cripple the city,” with teachers possibly going on strike, sanitation going on strike, and subway workers going on strike.
The debate ended in a brief lightning round of short answers in which Nixon promised not to take a salary as governor of New York and both candidates were noncommittal about getting an endorsement from de Blasio.
“I love Mayor de Blasio. I’m sure he loves me in a strange sort of way,” Cuomo remarked of their notorious relationship.