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Cynthia Nixon strikes a chord for some Buffalo voters

Photo by kc kratt


Who are Cynthia Nixon’s core supporters in Western New York? If an event held Saturday night in downtown Buffalo is any indication, it’s people who feel they or their communities have been left behind by Buffalo’s much-touted renaissance, giving them less to lose in any possible retribution from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration and the Democratic party machine.


“He’s too tied into establishment politics, he’s a supporter of the status quo,” says retired city planner and longtime local transgender activist Camille Hopkins, who attended a Nixon event held in downtown Buffalo’s Main Street Gallery on June 2. “And the status quo does not support people like me.”


A few hundred feet away from the event, a couple dozen demonstrators waved signs declaring the Buffalo area is “Cuomo country” in a sort of protest (or defense). But, for the people speaking on a panel that actress, activist, and upstart gubernatorial candidate Nixon traveled here to listen to, a panel largely comprising LGBTQ people and women of color, the Cuomo version of the Democratic party is not a “country” that prioritizes them and the needs of their communities.


The panelists spoke to Nixon, and to a small audience of her supporters and members of the media, about issues ranging from criminal justice reform to cooperative economic development to inclusionary zoning. Nixon committed to supporting some specific policies, such as the non-discrimination bill GENDA and drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. She also committed to some general priorities such as improved mass transportation, renewable energy,  and investing in better funding for low-income schools, noting that New York has the second least equal school funding in the nation. She cited Cuomo’s enabling of the Independent Democratic Conference as a major roadblock to the passage of more progressive legislation.


More generally, though, a frequent theme was that Cuomo’s New York, the New York of the Buffalo Billion and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, is not one that lifts up everyone equally.


“They say a rising tide lifts all boats,” said India Walton, the panel’s moderator and one of the leaders of a group that established Buffalo’s first community land trust, in the Fruit Belt neighborhood. “But if you don’t have a boat, it’ll drown you.”


Panelists cited rising rents in low-income neighborhoods, poorly funded schools that offer little college preparatory coursework, and newly created jobs located outside the reach of mass transit as the the way a growing, changing Buffalo area looks from where they sit.


Nixon said frequently people in low-income communities don’t vote because of a perception that the system is rigged. “And in one way,” she said, “they’re right, because wealthy donors and developers have it sewn up in this administration.” She added that people see state money being spent on projects such as large-scale real estate development, “but they can’t get anywhere near it.”


While most media accounts I have read about Nixon’s campaign focus on her lack of experience in elected office and whether or not she is forcing Cuomo to tack to the left, no one seemed particularly concerned about any of that at the panel event, and focused instead on a need for investment in their neighbors, schools, and communities.


After the discussion, panelist Harper Bishop noted that former county lawmaker Betty Jean Grant, who no longer holds elected office, is the only Western New York public official he knows of to come out in support of Nixon’s campaign. “There are very real political consequences to not toeing the party line,” he notes, “which is funny given that one of the criticisms that Democrats have about Republicans is that they are too quick to fall in line, particularly in the age of Trump.


“An open and transparent election includes new people running for office, voices that have previously been marginalized like women and queer people. And we should want as much participation in that process as possible. Right now, that’s now what’s going on, and it seems to me like we can’t tout our progressive history as a state until we practice it in real time.”


Echoing concerns that have been voiced around New York State, particularly after Bill Lipton, the state director of the Working Families Party, claimed Cuomo had threatened organizations who affiliated with Nixon and the WFP (which endorsed her) with reprisals and funding cuts, Bishop reports that many local leaders of the arts, cultural, and not-for-profit communities are supporting Nixon, but quietly, so as not to jeopardize their organizations’ 501c3 status or incite retribution from the governor.


Lorna C. Hill, a retired teacher and the founder of Ujima Theatre Company, referring to the panel, saying, “Everyone here takes such care not to say where they work. Everything we do ends up being labeled as political.”


Nixon said she was there to “amplify the voices of people who have been doing the work” and to listen to what people in New York’s communities need from their government. But what comes after the listening?


Bishop says that, win or lose, the Nixon campaign “challenges the Democratic Party to decide who it is going to be, similar to what we saw in the 2016 election. The Democratic Party is either going to decide that it’s going to continue to do what it has done, by continuing to support those in power and Wall Street, or it’s going to move to the left to meet both the voters and the political era that we are in. Whether Cynthia wins or not, she will have shifted and changed the conversation in significant and important ways, similar to Bernie in 2016, and that unto itself is a major victory.”   


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