National News

In Cuomo-Nixon Showdown, Black Votes Are an Early Flashpoint

Posted March 26, 2018 4:50 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Not long after it became clear that Cynthia Nixon would challenge Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the Rev. Clinton Miller, who leads a mostly black, 1,200-member congregation in the Brooklyn borough of New York, received a call from a close associate of Cuomo’s asking if the governor could speak at his church.

The answer was a swift no. Miller said the governor’s office had not been responsive enough to community concerns such as contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses.

Cuomo wound up finding an audience at black churches each of the past two Sundays — rare back-to-back appearances for him at the pulpit.

In between his visits, Nixon formally declared her candidacy, making her first appearance in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, speaking before a mostly black audience in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city. And she gave her first formal interview to the oldest black newspaper in the country.

The Democratic primary for governor may be less than a week old, but the battle between Cuomo and Nixon for the African-American vote is already underway, underscoring the importance of a voting bloc where Nixon’s own advisers acknowledge she must make inroads to have any chance at victory.

Privately, Cuomo’s team has been blitzing the cellphones of politically connected African-American pastors and elected officials in recent days. Publicly, he has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with black and Latino residents and decried the state of public housing in New York City as a “civil-rights abuse.”

Nixon, an education advocate and actress best known for her role in “Sex and the City,” has also personally been reaching out to community leaders, knowing she must crack Cuomo’s hold on the black vote. He scored 77 percent support in the race’s first poll among African-American voters.

Black leaders in clergy, politics and the media are well aware of the courtship and savoring their newfound leverage.

“We’re free agents,” said the Rev. Johnnie Green Jr., the pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, who hosted Cuomo on Sunday after he said he rejected a request the week before to introduce the governor at a sister church. “We’re like LeBron James in the hotel room waiting for the phone to ring.”

Senior administration officials say the governor’s recent activity has nothing to do with Nixon and everything to do with the state budget, due next week, where the governor is seeking to mobilize black support for some of the thorniest remaining issues, including on public housing and school funding. Cuomo has appeared at black churches during past budget seasons. Miller, the pastor of Brown Memorial Baptist Church, said that after he hung up with Cuomo’s team, he sent text messages to another 30 black pastors across New York City to ask that they not reflexively acquiesce. “I requested that they think carefully about hosting the governor until he becomes responsive to our concerns,” Miller said.

Cuomo has had a complex relationship with black leadership in the state dating back to his first failed run for governor, in 2002, when he challenged H. Carl McCall, then the state comptroller who was seeking to become New York’s first black governor, for the Democratic nomination.

But in recent years, black voters have provided him a bulwark of support. Cuomo’s last challenger, Zephyr Teachout, never penetrated Cuomo’s political standing in minority communities. She finished with an abysmal 14 percent of the vote in the Bronx.

“Clearly, Cynthia Nixon understands that if she can’t break through Andrew Cuomo’s African-American firewall, she has no shot at being competitive,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a Cuomo ally.

Before she launched her campaign, Nixon gave a quick heads-up call to the Rev. Al Sharpton, the influential civil-rights leader and media figure. She also sat down privately with the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., senior pastor at the 10,000-member First Corinthian Baptist Church in Central Harlem; she showed up to services unannounced the following Sunday. Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute and a longtime community activist, said Nixon also called her days before announcing a run to solicit her opinion.

The exact minute that Nixon announced her campaign on Twitter — 2:02 p.m. March 19 — she personally texted Elinor Tatum, the publisher and editor of the Amsterdam News, the historic black newspaper, to alert her to the news. Nixon granted her first sit-down interview to the paper.

“She understands how important the African-American vote is,” Tatum said. “And she is not taking it for granted.”

Nixon, who also attended services on Sunday at a predominantly African-American church, Mount Pisgah Baptist in Brooklyn, is expected to follow up her call to Sharpton with a meal together soon at the famed Harlem soul-food restaurant Sylvia’s, likely at the same window table where Sharpton met separately with Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders as they ran for president.

Sharpton “will weigh in after he’s met with Ms. Nixon,” according to Rachel Noerdlinger, a spokeswoman for Sharpton. Sharpton has worked closely with Cuomo on criminal justice-matters, praising him at the governor’s mansion as recently as last month. Not all of Nixon’s early maneuverings have played well.

She made her first stop in Brownsville, for instance, without alerting the area’s elected officials. Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the local Brooklyn councilwoman, called it “disrespectful.”

Ampry-Samuel said she still had not heard from Nixon or her team as of Friday but has spoken with the governor’s team multiple times in recent days, mostly about the state budget.

In addition to his private outreach, Cuomo has appeared alongside mostly black and Latino residents multiple times this month at New York City Housing Authority developments to decry their “filth” and threaten to declare a state of emergency.

Earlier this month, the governor met with a small group of influential black leaders in Albany about education equity funding, related to a proposal he made in January.

One of the attendees, the Rev. Alfred L. Cockfield II, executive pastor of God’s Battalion of Prayer Church in East Flatbush, got a call from Cuomo’s team afterward asking if the governor could appear at his pulpit.

Cockfield said he knew “it was strategic” for Cuomo, and that he experienced some pushback from some Democratic elected officials, but decided to let him speak anyway.

“It’s the first time any sitting governor came to our church. Why would I turn down that opportunity?” he said.

The governor’s speech was about closing Rikers Island, fixing public housing and equitable education funding — all issues tuned to appeal to an African-American audience, and potentially at stake in the state budget.

“It tells you he thinks there’s a vulnerability there,” said Bill Hyers, a senior strategist advising Nixon.

“The governor has overwhelming support in the African-American community, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t take any African-American votes for granted,” said Charlie King, an adviser to Cuomo who has helped with black outreach, “And I know that he won’t.”

Cuomo’s operation pointed to his track record for the black community, including increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and issuing an executive order naming the state attorney general as a special prosecutor for police-related civilian deaths.

“Why in the world would we abandon him when throughout his time in office he’s never abandoned us?” Jeffries said.

Some black leaders are looking for more.

Green, president of a group of pastors named Mobilizing Preachers and Community, said he rejected Cuomo’s first request to introduce him at a black church a week ago in part because he is unhappy with the governor’s record on minority contracting. “Why should we continue to give him access to our pulpits?” he said in an interview earlier in the week.

But as he introduced Cuomo on Sunday, he said, “Someone said wise men disagree but fools fall out.” He praised the governor for providing money to public housing and pushed him for more: “We ask, Mr. Governor, that you not stop there.” Cuomo swayed and clapped as the congregation sang, he hugged and kissed members of the choir and he quoted scripture three times in his speech.

Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, who has been critical of Cuomo on minority contracting, said the governor’s team has begun reaching out to her almost daily about Vital Brooklyn, a $1.4 billion proposal from March 2017 to address poverty and violence, since it became clear Nixon might enter the campaign.

Another wrinkle is that Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, is facing a challenge from Jumaane Williams, a black New York City councilman from central Brooklyn. Shortly after Williams announced, it was floated that Cuomo was considering swapping Hochul for Lovely Warren, the mayor of Rochester, an African-American woman.

“Gov. Cuomo generally is concerned about himself, so I’ve found he treats people in those positions like chess pieces,” Williams said.

Cuomo has since said Hochul would be his running mate.

Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who has been critical of Cuomo, leapt into the middle of the primary on Tuesday when he requested on Twitter that Nixon tour a Brooklyn public housing complex with him. “This campaign season gives us the chance to raise these issues,” he said.

It took Nixon all of 25 minutes to respond on Twitter: “I accept.”