Hempstead, N.Y. (CN) – Any concern that the room temperature would be set too low were, at least metaphorically, put to rest at New York’s Democratic gubernatorial debate Wednesday evening – the arena was absolutely frosty.
On Tuesday, Cynthia Nixon’s campaign, pre-empting what it claimed would be incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s insistence on an icy room, asked that the thermometer be set to 76 degrees.
Wednesday evening, just a few weeks before the state’s Sept. 13 primary elections, Gov. Cuomo and challenger Nixon traded blows for an hour in the televised debate, descending into what one audience member later called “catty” exchanges.
“The debate – it felt like a fight,” said Hofstra University undergraduate student Stevens Martinez, who attended with two classmates. The debate was held at Hofstra’s David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Long Island, about 30 miles east of New York City.
The candidates were seated on opposite sides of the stage when the debate began and did not make opening or closing statements. Between the barbs, they touched on about a dozen issues, including homelessness, mass transit, campaign finance reform, taxes, single-payer healthcare and marijuana legalization.
Nixon touted her position as a political newcomer, noting that being an “Albany insider” like Cuomo doesn’t mean everything.
“I think experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re not actually good at governing,” she said in her response to the opening question.
Cuomo, meanwhile, flexed his “experience” muscle, and took a few jabs at Nixon’s history as an actress and activist.
“The job of the governor of New York is not a job about politics; it’s not about advocacy,” Cuomo said in his rebuttal. “It’s about doing. It’s about management. This is real life … you’re running a $170 billion budget. You’re in charge of fighting terrorism. You’re there in cases of fires and floods and emergencies and train wrecks. You have to deal with a legislature that’s very, very difficult, and today, you have to fight Donald Trump, who is the main risk to the state of New York.”
Cuomo is running for his third term as governor and has the backing of the state Democratic Party machine, having racked up establishment endorsements from the likes of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and the New York State Democratic Committee. Nixon, running on the progressive wing of the party, has consistently pushed Cuomo left.
Early in the debate, Cuomo was answering a question about a fare hike to the New York City subway and took another jab at Nixon.
“My opponent lives in the world of fiction,” Cuomo said. “I live in the world of facts.”
He began to answer the question, and Nixon tried to jump in to refute him.
“Can you stop interrupting?” Cuomo said to his opponent.
“Can you stop lying?” she shot back.
“Yeah,” Cuomo responded, “as soon as you do.”
Nixon has said she wants to implement a single-payer healthcare system in the state, known as “Medicare for All.” Moderator Maurice DuBois told her a Rand Corporation study estimated that cost at $139 billion — almost the size of the state budget.
Nixon countered that the same group also said the system would result in “tremendous savings” for the state.
“We can do it better, we can do it cheaper,” she said. “We can do it with no copays, no deductibles and 98 percent of New Yorkers would pay less.”
Cuomo agreed that in the long term, single-payer healthcare would work, but didn’t seem to want New York to stick its neck out on the issue.
“It works easier on a national level to make the transformation,” he said, adding the country should elect a Democratic Congress and pursue the single-payer system on the federal level.
“We have to do it on state level first to show that it can be done,” Nixon replied.
Moderator Marcia Kramer confronted Cuomo on the corruption scandals that have surrounded his administration, referring to the governor’s promise to clean up Albany.
Cuomo himself has not been implicated and has sought to distance himself from his former allies, particularly Joseph Percoco, his former right-hand man who was convicted in March of taking over $300,000 in bribes from political donors.
“It would seem the Capitol could still use a good scrubbing,” Kramer said.
In response, Cuomo laid out an ethics plan.
“No outside income, period, full financial disclosure, and campaign finance reform because we have to take the money out of politics,” he said.
Afterward – even though Cuomo has been criticized for taking corporate donations – his campaign manager Maggie Moran hammered home the point.
“I will say without question in this process, one of the things we have to do is get public financing of campaigns, and campaign LLC loopholes closed down,” Moran said. “This is something that has to change. When we get a Democratic Senate, we will have massive reform.”
Nixon reiterated her support of legalizing marijuana in New York, calling it a “racial justice issue.”
“We need to prioritize the individuals and communities that have been the most harmed by the war on drugs,” she said.
Cuomo said racial injustice starts with a lack of schools and job opportunities.
In the short-answer section, Nixon said sports gambling needs to be studied more but that she does not support its legalization in New York. Cuomo said he does, “in the right places, under the right conditions.” The practice is legal in New Jersey.
Both candidates said the state needed better care and mental health support for its homeless population. Nixon put some blame on Cuomo, accusing him of being in the pocket of the real estate industry and corporate developers. Cuomo, for his part, blamed New York City’s scandal-ridden and crumbling public housing system, the New York City Housing Authority.
Neither candidate would go on the record wanting an endorsement from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Notably, de Blasio has not endorsed either candidate, though he’s a longtime ally of Nixon and famously feuding with Cuomo. It’s possible he does not want to further irritate Cuomo, the likely September winner.
Cuomo swore on the record that he would serve all four years if re-elected, quashing rumors he’s considering a 2020 presidential run. For her part, Nixon – who identifies as a democratic socialist – said “sure” to foregoing the governor’s six-figure salary and donating it back to the state, should she win.
The debate was heavy on New York City shop talk, with discussions of subway fare hikes, police presence and an old bridge over the Hudson River. One criticism of Nixon’s campaign is that she has been too city-centric.
Neither candidate emerged afterward to speak to the press, though Nixon’s wife, Christine Marinoni, walked through the media filing center at one point following the debate and in response to a reporter’s question flung her arms wide and said, “She kicked ass!”
New York is considered a safely Democratic seat for governor. Whoever wins in September’s primaries will face GOP Duchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro on the ballot in November.