April 4, 2018 at 2:53 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Cuomo has key LGBT support as Nixon launches primary challenge

Despite Cynthia Nixon’s challenge, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has key LGBT support in the N.Y. primary. (Photo of Nixon by Yahoo, courtesy Flickr; photo of Cuomo by Diana Robinson, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In the aftermath of “Sex and the City” star and LGBT progressive activist Cynthia Nixon’s recently announced primary challenge to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the LGBT community isn’t lockstep in whom to support, but key LGBT rights supporters — including the Human Rights Campaign — are staying loyal to the incumbent governor.

Chris Sgro, a spokesperson for HRC, said Wednesday the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group — which endorsed Cuomo in January months before Nixon entered the race — would commit resources to support the governor for the primary on Sept. 13.

“HRC will absolutely be mobilizing our nearly quarter of a million members and supporters across the Empire State to support our endorsed candidates, including Andrew Cuomo,” Sgro said.

HRC is sticking with the incumbent even though it has ties to both Cuomo and Nixon. In February, the organization honored Nixon with a visibility award at its New York gala, but also gave a platform to Cuomo to address attendees.

HRC’s position is consistent with other LGBT Democratic activists in New York, many of whom said they were wary of a primary at a time of ongoing anti-LGBT attacks under the Trump administration.

Andrew Lane, a prominent gay donor in New York, predicted Cuomo “will win this race” and said the reasoning behind a primary challenge against him “while the rest of the country is on fire, with the barbarians literally at the gate, is beyond me.”

“Andrew Cuomo has been an exceptional advocate for LGBT issues,” Lane said. “Securing the freedom to marry in New York and protecting the rights of people of diverse gender identities through administrative action were significant victories, both here and nationally; they simply would not have happened without his leadership and the support of his staff. Ms. Nixon cannot, aside from appearances, lay claim to a similar record.”

Nixon, who’s said she’s bisexual and is in a same-sex relationship with education activist Christine Marinoni, is challenging Cuomo with a pledge to shake up New York with a strong progressive message. An advocate for equitable funding for school districts, Nixon has made support for public schools a cornerstone of her campaign.

The race is different from other insurgent candidacies because Nixon has enormous name recognition as a celebrity actor and built a record as a progressive. Although Nixon faces an uphill challenge stealing the Democratic nomination away from an incumbent it’s not impossible. In 2014, the Democratic challenger secured 34 percent of the vote in a primary challenge to Cuomo. That’s considered the basement of support on which Nixon could build her campaign.

In a statement to the Washington Blade, Nixon said LGBT people in New York should join together behind her candidacy to address societal injustices facing communities across the board.

“Being visible and queer has been one of the great unexpected pleasures of my life,” Nixon said. “But right now we’re at a critical moment for the LGBTQ community. Many of us are being left behind: Queer people who are black or Muslim or undocumented or trans or working class. While some part of our community is enjoying new positions of relative privilege, many other parts of our community are being targeted every single day. We need a governor who is going to fight for all New Yorkers, not just their big money donors.”

Nixon formally kicked off her bid to become governor at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York City, which is considered the birthplace of the modern LGBT rights movement. Undecided members of the LGBT community in New York may look for her vision on LGBT rights as they determine whom to support in the primary.

Elliot Imse, a spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said on Tuesday Nixon “has not yet applied” for an endorsement from the organization, which seeks to elect openly LGBT candidates.

“If she applies, however, we will review her application as we do for all candidates seeking our endorsement,” Imse said. “Our criteria for endorsement require the candidate to be openly LGBTQ, supportive of reproductive freedom and full LGBTQ equality, and to be viable. We would consider her endorsement in the totality of those criteria.”

Nixon is one of several openly LGBT candidates running for governor in 2018 at a time when expectations are high for Democrats in the mid-term elections. Others are U.S. Rep. Jared Polis in Colorado, Gov. Kate Brown in Oregon, State Sen. Rich Madeleno in Maryland and former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez in Texas.

Whatever plan Nixon articulates on LGBT rights, she’ll run against a two-term incumbent who has already built a strong record on the issues both through legislative and executive action.

The crown jewel of Cuomo’s record on LGBT rights is mobilizing the split New York Legislature — the Democrats controlled the Assembly for years, and the Republicans control the Senate — to legalize same-sex marriage in the state in 2011, years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality nationwide.

New York was the only state that legalized same-sex marriage through the legislative process with Republicans controlling a chamber of the state legislature. Cuomo was credited with helping convince Republican Senate leaders to allow a floor vote on same-sex marriage and enough Republicans in the chamber to back the measure to ensure it passed.

With Republicans still in control of the legislature, Cuomo has turned to executive orders to make other changes for people in New York. In 2015, Cuomo signed a directive against anti-transgender discrimination by ordering the state to interpret its human rights law against sex discrimination to apply to transgender people. In 2016, Cuomo signed an order barring public and private health care insurers from covering widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy in New York.

But one transgender activist in New York took issue with Cuomo seeking to advance transgender rights through executive action when legislation that would have enshrined those rights into law remains stagnant.

Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, said the executive order was in fact responsible for the inability of the legislature to pass a transgender non-discrimination law in New York.

“Andrew Cuomo loves to brag about getting the same-sex marriage bill signed into law, but of course the real credit for getting marriage equality enacted by the state legislature belongs to the hard-working LGBT activists who made it happen; and what Cuomo doesn’t mention is the fact that he refused to lift a finger to get the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act through the New York State Senate, which his cronies control,” Park said. “In fact, the governor’s executive order effectively killed GENDA in the Senate and the transgender non-discrimination regulations he promulgated do not have the force of statute law.”

Park said she won’t support Cuomo for re-election for governor because his “record as governor is an extremely mixed one and in most areas, he’s been anything but progressive,” and said she’s leaning toward backing Nixon.

“Cynthia Nixon isn’t just an actor and a celebrity, she’s an activist who has been actively involved with education and other public policy issues for years,” Park said.

Cathy Renna, a lesbian Democratic activist who’s a New York native, but now lives in New Jersey, said both Cuomo and Nixon have compelling backgrounds for the LGBT community, but the issue of experience and the fact Nixon has never held political office may be a deciding factor.

“Running for governor is very different than running for state Senate, or even a city council,” Renna said. “Running a state government is a gigantic responsibility, so my hope is that if she’s really serious about this run that she will, understanding that, make sure she’s surrounded by people who can support her.”

For LGBT people in New York, Renna said deciding whom to support in the primary will “be very difficult” and predicted it may be a divisive issue.

“I think it’s fair to say there will be some division,” Renna said. “There always is. It’s New York, and it’s the queer community. How could there not be, right? But I also think it could elevate the conversation about how LGBT issues fit into a larger progressive agenda, and how there still is a tremendous amount of work to do in New York, in particular for the transgender community.”

That division already played out publicly after lesbian former New York City Speaker Christine Quinn, a Cuomo supporter, called Nixon an “unqualified lesbian.” The two have an antagonistic history because Nixon backed Bill de Blasio, not Quinn, for mayor in 2013. Quinn later apologized for the comment, but Nixon capitalized on it when her campaign began selling T-shirts printed with the message “unqualified lesbian.”

At the end of the day, Renna said the primary is beneficial because it demonstrates in New York during the Trump era “we have an abundance of support and riches when it comes to politicians who are going to stand for us.”

“Politics can be very rough and tumble in New York, but for our community, I think this could be a positive in terms of elevating the level of conversation about what’s really needed, and talking about some issues that are related to things that we need to still tackle, whether it’s trans issues, anti-violence, non-discrimination in schools,” Renna said. “There’s a lot still to be done in New York.”

The Cuomo campaign didn’t respond to a request to comment on LGBT support for his governorship by the time the Blade went to press.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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