Governor Andrew Cuomo defeated Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon fairly handily on September 13, when attention began to shift to the race between Cuomo and Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro, currently the Dutchess county executive.
But while Cuomo and Molinaro are the nominees of the two major parties, and each will also appear on at least two other party ballot lines in November, there are three other candidates running serious general election campaigns for governor of New York. (It remains to be seen if Nixon will stay in the race as the Working Families Party nominee, though several signs point to her relinquishing the ballot line, possibly even to Cuomo.)
Like Nixon and Molinaro, Stephanie Miner, Howie Hawkins, and Larry Sharpe are campaigning both on criticisms of Cuomo and their own visions for leading the state. Miner, a Democrat and former two-term mayor of Syracuse, is running with the Serve America Movement party, a new bipartisan group she is seeking to help establish with this campaign. Hawkins, who has thrown his hat in the ring for the third straight time, is again the Green Party nominee. In 2014, he won about 5 percent of the vote as Cuomo secured a second term with 54 percent, and Republican nominee Rob Astorino received 39 percent. Sharpe is the Libertarian Party nominee.
All three candidates are attempting to stake out an alternate vision to Cuomo and, to a lesser degree, Molinaro. Hawkins has made a direct plea to Nixon primary voters that he is now the clear progressive alternative to Cuomo. Sharpe offers himself as the only true outsider voice who can provide a makeover to state government. And Miner says she has the right blend of executive experience, independence, political know-how, and focus on the key issues facing New Yorkers, like infrastructure.
While their paths to victory appear daunting, each candidate is offering something they hope will appeal to an increasing number of New Yorkers sick of the status quo, both in terms of the incumbent and the two major parties. How many votes each can earn remains an open question, but all three are likely to impact the race.
Monday, September 24 will mark 44 days until Election Day, November 6. Gotham Gazette spoke with Miner, Hawkins, and Sharpe about their candidacies.
Miner, formerly mayor of Syracuse and chair of the state Democratic Party, is running chiefly as a good-government reformer and infrastructure expert with sound ethics and a no-nonsense leadership style. She’s to the left of Cuomo on certain issues and to his right on others, running with a Republican for lieutenant governor, as they attempt to help build a bipartisan movement that appeals to voters of all stripes. She presents her candidacy as a “rebuke of Andrew Cuomo’s policies and a rebuke of where we are as a state,” as she described it to the New York Times in June, announcing her candidacy.
Miner has for years argued that the Empire State’s politics are in need of an overhaul, especially following a falling-out with Cuomo. During an appearance on the Max and Murphy podcast, recorded as Miner was mulling a run for governor, she painted a grim picture of the status quo.
“For me, backroom dealings and politics as usual is not serving anybody,” she said. Every time New Yorkers look at the news, Miner said, someone else in the governor’s circle was being tried or sentenced for corruption or other wrongdoing. And while the establishment has been “silent,” she said, voters across the state are “angry and upset and frustrated.”
But clearly not everyone appears to be fed up with the way the state is being governed. In the primary, Cuomo won by a wide margin over an outsider who promised to if elected reimagine the state’s politics. Miner, in an interview Tuesday, painted herself as a different kind of opponent, and explained how she is highlighting Cuomo’s faults. She also downplayed his decisive primary victory and outlined a different general election landscape.
“Twenty-five million dollars blanketing the airwaves can get you a lot of votes,” she said. “Democrats are eager to vote, they have enthusiasm, and they despise Donald Trump.”
In a higher-turnout election with a broader electorate, including many unaffiliated voters, Miner said she would be able to gain traction ahead of November, despite Cuomo’s domination of the September primary. She has also pointed to her very different resume from Nixon’s.
“My target voter is someone who is fed up with the corruption, both in Washington and in Albany, wants problems to be solved, and recognizes that we have a state government that is not solving problems, and is instead appealing to only vested interests and campaign contributors,” said Miner, who previously served as a Common Councilor in Syracuse and a labor attorney at Blitman & King.
Miner also favors nonpartisan legislative redistricting and closing the LLC loophole in campaign finance laws, which allows entities to donate money to candidates in virtually unlimited sums by using several limited liability companies.
While harmful effects of money in politics is a cause regularly taken up by the left, it’s also clear that Miner could not have served as a candidate in the mold of the unabashedly left-wing Nixon in the the Democratic primary. Miner, for example, does not include raising taxes on the wealthy as a campaign pledge -- she believes taxes are too high already, on the wealthy and many others.
And when asked about how to fix the MTA, Miner begins with her core message: the governor’s chronies must be uprooted from positions and replaced with people who truly have the best interest of New Yorkers at heart. Cuomo’s appointments to the MTA board, she said, “would have to resign” is she is elected governor and “be replaced with people who have actual experience in transit.”
“For too long,” she went on, “we have a system that just reacts to people who give campaign contributions, that swings widley when other vested groups make noise. We need to make sure that we get everybody gathered around the table to figure out how we can put the best policy forward to solve all of our goals.”
But in lieu of additionally taxing high earners to help fund the desperately needed subway repairs, one method preferred by Nixon and Mayor Bill de Blasio, Miner emphasized reining in costs.
“The issue with the MTA is that you can’t simply say ‘Give the MTA more money.’ The MTA also has to take responsibility for managing more effectively and to changing their policies, so that we are no longer the place with the single most expensive mile of track,” she explained. “The MTA has to accept management responsibility for changing those trends as well.”
She went on to note that employee benefits like health care costs need to be discussed at the bargaining table, and described excessive spending on them as an obstacle to mending the struggling MTA.
“If your benefits outstrip in terms of cost what is the national average, that’s going to be less money for you to improve the system,” she said. Miner added that she would ensure that the mentality at the MTA would be an obligation to riders first and foremost.
“Your responsibility is to make sure that we have a transit system that works,’” is the approach Miner said she would instill if elected governor, who appoints a plurality of MTA board members and the leadership of the authority, while also playing a key role in MTA budget decisions.
Asked how she would navigate the treacherous politics of cutting MTA project costs, which would in all likelihood spark outcry from the Transit Workers Union, among others, Miner cited her experience as Syracuse mayor being willing to take heat from a firefighters union, because it favored spending money on a revamping a firehouse — an effort she thought was not worth the cost.
“When I was mayor, we had a firehouse that needed millions of dollars of improvement in order to be viable,” she explained. “And the firefighter union desperately wanted to keep the firehouse open. And I looked at the cost and benefits and said ‘No, we can’t, because it would be too expensive for us to do. We need to make sure that we take that money and actually provide service to people of the city of Syracuse, not using it to spend on a firehouse that we don’t need.’”
Her moved sparked outcry — Miner was picketed, she recalled — but she said she stuck to her central approach to government, putting her constituents first.
“The union still is very angry at me, but sometimes you have to risk the wrath of vested interests in order to make sure that you’re doing the public’s work,” she said.
Miner has a similar critique of Cuomo on economic development, saying that the state ought not be “picking winners and losers.” She prefers investment in infrastructure that will create jobs, she has said, and spur economic activity.
Miner has several times lamented that New York has the highest tax burden in the country.
She said that if elected would seek to “stimulate the market” to build more housing. And, Miner outlines on her website, rent regulation alone is an insufficient measure in the goal of “maintain[ing] affordable housing for New York City’s residents.”
In an interview on The Capitol Pressroom, Miner described herself as more open to charter schools than some other Democrats who have decried Cuomo’s stance on the privately-run public schools that the governor has supported and have proliferated in New York City especially.
“I was the mayor of a city that had completely unacceptable education results. And I determined that the best way to change those results was to work together to give families choice,” she explained in the interview with Gotham Gazette when asked to explain her stance further. “So families had opportunities to go to charter schools, they had opportunity to go to parochial schools, and they had opportunities to go to public schools.”
“What we need to understand is that…there’s not a magic solution for everybody, and what we need to do is give everybody the flexibility that they need to determine what is the best option for their child and at the same time, schools and teachers and administrators the support necessary to implement innovative and creative solutions,” she said.
Miner also breaks from more free-spending Democrats on pensions — an issue that in part led to her falling out with Cuomo after he had appointed her as a leader of the state party. She said this was a “hard and fast example” of her not fitting neatly on either side of the ideological spectrum.
“[I]t was clear to me there needed to be a discussion about how pensions, and the costs of paying for pensions were impacting local government, and Andrew Cuomo and the leadership of the state said that the best way to solve this problem was to allow localities to borrow to pay their pensions, and I stood up and said ‘That is fiscally irresponsible. It’s what got the city of Detroit into bankruptcy, and we shouldn’t do this,’” she recalled.
Miner said she could have gone along with the borrowing and let the next mayor deal with the financial repercussions, “but it was not fiscally responsible, and I think we need to be very open about that and I did that.” What’s more, after not getting the response she felt was necessary from the governor and party officials, she expressed the view in a New York Times op-ed, which cracked the gulf with Cuomo wide open into a rivalry that persists to this day.
Miner may have sound critiques of Cuomo and her own vision to run on, but does she, along with running-mate Michael Volpe, the Pelham mayor, have a path to victory? Does any 'minor party' candidate?
The most recent data from the state Board of Elections shows that as of April there were about 11.3 million active registered voters in the state. Of those, the largest group by far is Democrats, at 5.6 million, followed by 2.6 million Republicans, and closely behind, nearly 2.4 million voters unaffiliated with a party. The fourth largest group is roughly 436,000 active voters registered with the Independence Party, many of whom likely believe they simply registered to be independent of any party, or unaffiliated. (Cuomo has the Independence Party ballot line in November.)
Turnout is often very low in non-presidential elections, but this year is expected to see a significant surge, brought on by anti-Trump sentiment as well as high-stakes elections for Congress, the state Senate, and the governor’s race.
It is unclear exactly which voters Miner, a Democrat running as an independent, needs to attract in order to outpace all of her competitors, but it’s certain she will need significant funding to get her name and message out, especially in the short time period before Election Day. In that regard, she and all the other candidates lag far behind Cuomo.
In addition to his sizeable fundraising advantage, one key part of Cuomo’s resounding victory over Nixon was his support among black New Yorkers. Miner attributed this outcome to Cuomo casting himself as someone who offered a starkly different vision than the president’s. “I think that his message in saying that he is not Donald Trump was successful and I think it clearly resonated in those communities,” she told Gotham Gazette.
Miner also touted her experience as mayor of Syracuse, where she said she implemented “enlightened” criminal justice policies.
“I’m going to talk about the fact that I will end cash bail,” she continued. “The governor has just talked about it, [but] hasn’t done anything. We need to approach criminal justice in a very different way. We need to talk about issues like bias and looking at reforming the way our criminal justice system operates, so that it is not victimizing people, ending mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline."
In an interview with New York NOW, Miner said that she favors legalization of recreational marijuana, but said she is opposed to New York attempting to institute its own single-payer health care system. Like Cuomo, she said she favors such a system on the federal level, but worries how New York would pay for it.
Despite the uphill climb ahead, Miner is convinced her broader message will resonate with a vast swath of the electorate.
“I think that there are a great number of New Yorkers who are deeply dissatisfied with the direction the state is going…And so those are the people who I think are very open to the message of the current status quo being terrible, and that both parties are complicit in this culture of corruption and the politics of status quo,” she said. “Whether you are in New York and see the subway system crumbling around you, or you’re upstate and you see your family fleeing because of a lack of opportunity, you’ll understand that all these policies start at Andrew Cuomo’s feet.”
Hawkins, who was among the Green Party co-founders and is a perennial candidate who ran for governor in 2010 and 2014, has since launching his 2018 campaign in April made social, racial, and environmental justice again at the center of his vision, including tenets like desegregating public schools and improving environmental sustainability. He hopes to gain the votes of the 26,462 active Green Party voters in the state along with others on the left disappointed with the governor.
“We call it the Green New Deal,” he told Gotham Gazette on Monday in an interview. “Basic economic human rights, the right to a job or an income above poverty, comprehensive healthcare, a decent home, a good education…Those are the things [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt said in his last state of the union address that ought to be part of a second Bill of Rights.”
Hawkins, who in Syracuse has run for Common Council, mayor, and auditor, said the plan would create an “economic boom” and that Democrats have pushed for similar policies but have “watered down the content.” A socialist, Hawkins says capitalism is the enemy of sound environmental policy.
“Capitalism's blind, ceaseless growth is devouring the environment,” he said in April. “As long as workers are bound to a fixed wage and capitalists take the remaining value that labor creates as profit, the rich get richer and the rest of us struggle to make ends meet. We need more social ownership and democratic planning to provide a decent standard of living for all that is ecologically sustainable.”
Hawkins is a marine corp veteran from the Vietnam War and a retired Teamster. He said the Green New Deal is "the alternative to Cuomo's corrupt corporate welfare posing as economic development.”
He favors single-payer health care funded through payroll taxes, and allocating additional funding to public schools.
Asked about his school integration plan, Hawkins called it “controlled choice” and cited what he said were similar policies in Wake County, North Carolina and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“So you have the public school choice, the children pick the schools in order of preference, they rank them, and you combine that with the plan to have them socioeconomically balanced. So basically, family income,” he explained. “That’s because [in] integrated schools, the lower-class kids test scores come up, the upper-class kids scores don’t go down, and all kids show do better on things like intellectual self-confidence, and creativity and problem solving, teamwork.”
He added, “Those are good qualities that ought to be part of the education system.”
And high-stakes testing, he said, was about “competition not education,” and should be done away with. Hawkins’ lieutenant governor running mate this campaign is Jia Lee, a New York City public school teacher and United Federation of Teachers chapter leader.
On housing, Hawkins favors a system of rent control, but says the current set-up is not enough, especially without repealing the Urstadt law, which handed control of rent policies to the state, and without building a lot more new housing. “We need to radically expand public housing in order to make affordable housing a reality for all,” he said in a press release earlier this month.
Asked who he sees as his target voters, Hawkins said he hopes to gain the support of those who voted for Nixon in the Democratic primary.
“Nixon got the same percentage as [Zephyr] Teachout [in 2014], which means about a third of the Democratic Party doesn’t like Cuomo. That looks good to me,” he said. “Those are my people.” Hawkins got 4.7 percent of the votes in the 2014 general election to Cuomo’s 53 percent, but 2018 is forecast to be a much higher turnout year, as indicated in part by the massive increase in Democratic primary voters from four years ago.
Hawkins in June told the Post-Standard that Miner will peel away some of the centrist vote for Cuomo. “It seems it's really going to hurt him,” he said of her candidacy. He also believes he should be able to lure liberal voters who picked Cuomo over Nixon but didn’t have his candidacy to choose from at the time.
Additionally, he believes he will earn a decent share of votes well outside New York City.
“I think upstate we can do really well, I think part of our program is having the state pay for its unfair disadvantage, something they talk about but don’t do much about. Because our property taxes kill us upstate,” he said. “The state doesn’t pay for its mandates, it balances the state budget on the back of the property tax payers and it doesn’t share revenues like it used to.”
“We’re going to the neighborhoods, we’re doing the traditional things, I mean there’s no magic bullet. … In seven weeks it’s hard. In the long run, we’ve got to establish grassroots, Green Party clubs and chapters in those neighborhoods so that people have a relationship to us,” he said of campaigning and forming a successful coalition.
Hawkins also insisted he would fair well among black voters.
“They’re not in love with the Democratic Party,” he said. “They’re afraid of the Republicans so they vote defensively. I think if you look at the polls, where we stand on the issues, like single-payer healthcare, now they’re with us on that, the majority.”
Sharpe, who in 2016 ran unsuccessfully for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination, is running on legalizing marijuana, severing ties with the United States Department of Education, including by refusing its funding, licensing bridge and tunnel naming rights to corporations to pay for subway repairs, allowing students to graduate high school earlier, and expanding gun rights.
A former marine who now works as a consultant, Sharpe said in an interview with Gotham Gazette that his top goal is decentralizing power. “The campaign is all about having a decentralized situation where counties can be counties, regions can be regions, and cities can be cities,” he said. “We are a very diverse state and we should be allowing our counties to be different. Albany shouldn’t be telling every single county what is should do or not do.”
Sharpe is vying for the governorship alongside Andrew Hollister, the libertarian lieutenant governor candidate. The pair is campaigning in the Libertarian model on a platform of shrinking government and making what remains much more efficient and decentralized.
Among the ways Sharpe wants to cut what he sees as overly burdensome regulations is repealing the SAFE Act, a gun control bill passed in early 2013 that Cuomo touts as one of his signature accomplishments.
“The problem with the SAFE Act is the SAFE Act didn’t make anybody safer,” Sharpe said, delivering one of his most frequent campaign lines. “You lose your Second Amendment rights because you’re on some secret list. That’s a bad idea,” he added, in apparent reference to the list of individuals deemed mentally unfit for gun ownership. The law also banned new sales of assault-style weapons, made current owners of those guns register them, and put limits on magazine sizes, among other provisions.
Sharpe said in an interview with New York NOW that the SAFE Act was a “bandaid” and that other problems aside from guns are what must really be targeted.
“[T]he problem is we have unhappy people. Unhappy people is the problem. If you take away his gun, he uses something else. If he’s unhappy he will do bad things,” he said. “There are two things that most of these people, one that they have and one that they don’t have. … Number one thing they don’t have, a girlfriend. The thing they do have: a prescription to psychotropic drugs.”
Asked to clarify what he meant, Sharpe said that while school shootings are murders, they’re “at their core public suicides.”
“The goal is not to simply say ‘Lets take away guns.’ The goal is to say ‘Stop having so many unhappy kids that want to kill other kids,’” he said. “I don’t want our kids to be killing other kids. I want happier children. That’s the key.”
Further, Sharpe favors allowing teachers and administrators who are licensed to carry guns to do so in schools.
Asked if his stance on guns would be appealing to voters in a blue state, where just over 3 percent of voters in the 2016 presidential election voted for the libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, and Hillary Clinton won handily, Sharpe said his policies on the matter would have “legs.”
“There are over four million gun owners in New York state,” he said. (The gun ownership rate in New York is slightly over 10 percent). “They’re more than happy to hear someone say ‘Let’s repeal the SAFE Act. Let’s have our second amendment rights back.’"
As the debate continues over how best to fund and fix the beleaguered MTA, Sharpe has raised ideas that are not yet part of mainstream discussions: allowing public bridges and tunnels to lease their naming rights to corporations, for example. It’s part of his “Faster Forward” plan on the subject he has released, which takes its name from the MTA’s new Fast Forward plan that has yet to be approved or funded. Molinaro has also released a plan of his own.
“These are companies that drop millions of dollars every year on marketing,” he said. “They drop $20 million on a stadium that gets used on the weekends. They will easily drop $20, $30, $40 million on a bridge or tunnel.”
Sharpe also pledged to not give the MTA a dime until its management figures out a way to cut costs.
“I’m not giving them a new contract until they change their practices. The practices of the MTA are a disaster,” he said. “They are one of the most inefficient organizations we have. They will shift and adjust. Why? I’m not giving them extra money, period. They’re not getting extra money, period!…They will change their way of doing business.”
On criminal justice, Sharpe does not want people to be put in jail for marijuana use. “Why in the world are we putting people in jail for having a plant in their pocket?” he said.
“We need to make sure that we absolutely regulate hemp and cannabis like onions,” he said, adding that farmers upstate should be allowed to grow cannabis if they opt to do so.
“We have a lot of farmers who are suffering,” he added.
He also would like to put an end to cash bail. “We’re putting people in jail because they’re poor,” he said.
Sharpe articulated a drastically different vision for K-12 education. For too many high-schoolers, 11th and 12th grades are a waste of time, he argues.
“The last two years of high school for too many kids is just gym, study hall, video games, and probably smoking weed,” said Sharpe. “Nothing but bad.”
After students complete the 10th grade, under his plan, they would take a test and would graduate if they pass it. Then, graduates would able to go to attend a college or university, a two-year prep school, go straight to work or a trade school.
Additionally, Sharpe said he would get rid of standardized testing altogether until students reached high school, stop abiding by Common Core learning standards, stop taking government funds from the Department of Education, and reduce the number of administrators at schools, using the saved funds for more teachers and school supplies.
Asked about government corruption, an issue dogging Cuomo as he seeks a third term, especially given recent convictions of members of the governor’s inner circle, Sharpe explained the issue isn’t something he really emphasizes in the campaign, other than to criticize Cuomo.
“I don’t talk much about this, and the reason is everyone’s answer is ‘Put ‘em in jail, put ‘em in jail, put ‘em in jail, more laws, more laws. That’s not the answer. The more laws you put and the more people you put in jail, it doesn’t help anybody,” he said. “If Cuomo goes to jail, or his cronies go to jail, that’s fine. I’m fine with that. I just want Cuomo to leave Albany, so I can start fixing things.”
Sharpe, who has been keeping an aggressive campaign schedule for many months, holding events throughout the state, expressed confidence his message will triumph over those of the major parties as well as Miner, who he called part of the establishment.
“The two frontrunners are the definition of career politicians. They're the definition of the establishment. Both of them only know politics. Nothing else. They can’t drain the swamp they live in a swamp,” Sharpe said of Cuomo and Molinaro, who he has repeatedly attacked during his campaign. “To ask them for change is to ask them to burn their own house down.”
“The only person that has any chance of making any real impact is me,” he went on. “I’m the only one who can get Democrats and Republicans and independents and people who haven’t voted. I’m the only one out there crossing the state, doing north of 30 events every single month. I’m the only one that’s exciting. It’s only me.”