Cynthia Nixon has a key qualification for New York governor that her biggest rival lacks

Cynthia Nixon (L) in Sex in the City 2, the movie. IMDb
  • Cynthia Nixon has already made fixing New York’s public-transportation problem a signature issue of her nascent campaign for governor.
  • She is challenging Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary.
  • Cuomo has largely neglected these transit problems, giving Nixon an opening to lay down a marker.

Former New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn, a top political ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, stuck her foot in her mouth Tuesday when she criticised Cuomo’s primary challenger, the actor Cynthia Nixon, as an “unqualified lesbian.”

That’s in contrast to Quinn, the qualified lesbian whom Nixon did not support for mayor in 2013.

But Nixon has one key qualification to serve as governor that even Cuomo doesn’t have: She acknowledges that the governor is in charge of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York’s troubled subways, buses, and commuter rail.

Cuomo has often acted like the subways are someone else’s problem.

“I have representation on the board,” the governor told reporters last May. “The city of New York has representation on the board, so does Nassau, Suffolk, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, other counties, ok?”

Andrew Cuomo: just a guy who gets to make a few appointments to the MTA board.

En route to her campaign launch event, Nixon said she allowed 90 minutes for what should have been a 30-minute subway trip, yet arrived with little time to spare. She blamed “Cuomo’s MTA.” (An MTA spokesperson told the New York Daily News the delay was caused by a sick passenger.)

“As governor, Cynthia will immediately make the emergency rescue of our transit system a top priority of her administration,” her campaign website declares.

If she were elected governor, it would be hard for her to use the “I just appoint some guys to the board” excuse when the subways underperform.

The governor runs the subways

It’s admittedly an odd arrangement. The subway runs entirely within New York City, but it’s funded and administered by the state, run by an MTA board under de-facto control of the governor.

The governor nominates the MTA chairman and its CEO. He also nominates all the voting members of the board, though 8 of the 14 board votes are cast by members the governor appoints on the recommendation of local officials, as Cuomo notes.

In practice, the governor runs the MTA on a day-to-day basis, because his appointees do what he tells them to do. The MTA’s budget, like that of any state agency, is something he has to work out with the legislature – and with other state agencies, we don’t take this as an excuse when things go wrong.

So while the subway seems like a local issue, something that ought to be discussed in a mayoral race, you have to be elected governor if you hope to do anything about it.

Cuomo has neglected transit

Transit is hard, so Cuomo has preferred to focus on other aspects of the government where it’s easier to rack up wins – and as Nixon has accurately complained, his transit-related initiatives have often been superficial, like putting Wi-Fi on buses.

He has not pursued more difficult challenges, like getting New York’s outlandish subway construction costs under control so the subway can be affordably expanded.

In December, The New York Times published an investigation into the question of why New York’s subway capital projects cost several times more, per mile, than subways built in peer cities like Paris. One problem the Times identified is collusion between politically connected contracting firms and the unions that represent their workers. Both the unions and the contractors have an incentive to push prices up, as they can just send the bill to taxpayers.

A Cuomo spokesman, asked about this, told the Times to call the MTA, as they’re the ones who handle contracting.

Here’s what MTA board member Charles Moerdler had to say to the Times about the agency’s approach to capital contracting: “I think people like doing business with people they know, and so a few companies get all the work, and they can charge whatever they want.”

You’d think a governor who is cognisant of his or her ultimate control over the MTA would be alarmed by a statement like that, and wouldn’t be content to pretend the MTA is an independent agency.

Cuomo has irresponsibly managed MTA finances

Subway new york city

Another Times investigation looked at the MTA’s troubled operating budget, squeezed between rising labour costs on one side and state spending diversions on the other. The Times described Cuomo’s approach to transit labour relations like this:

“The governor, who is closely aligned with the [Transport Workers’] union and has received $US165,000 in campaign contributions from the labour group, once dispatched a top aide to deliver a message, they said. Pay the union and worry about finding the money later, the aide said, according to two former MTA officials who were in the room.”

Of course, liberals are not necessarily opposed to a generous approach to labour. But Cuomo has not combined this generosity to workers on the MTA’s behalf with generous state funding of the MTA. Instead, he has diverted funds away from the MTA. In one particularly egregious instance, he pulled $US5 million from the MTA’s budget to bail out a financially troubled, state-run ski resort.

If you give out raises with one hand and pull funds out of the MTA’s coffers with the other hand, the likely results are obvious: higher fares, less service, and deferred maintenance.

This investigation also drew a blame-shifting response from Cuomo’s office, which noted as usual that the governor does not make all the appointments to the MTA board and that MTA capital spending requires legislative approval (duh). A Cuomo spokesperson told the Times the MTA handles its own labour relations and they weren’t influenced by political donations.

Nixon has laid down a marker: The subways will be her problem

I’m not sure Nixon will have the right answers on fixing the MTA. So far, she is saying the right things about state funding cuts and about spending on vanity projects.

I hope she would also take on the broken contracting process that has led to New York building the world’s most expensive subway tunnels. And I hope she would address the MTA’s non-financial problems, such as the authority’s dubious speed-control choices that the Village Voice has identified as a major driver of subway slowdowns.

But just two days into her campaign, Nixon has cleared an important bar: She had made clear that if she is governor, the subways will be her problem, and that her reputation will rise or fall on whether they get fixed. That commitment should give her a strong political incentive to find ways to fix the MTA, whether those fixes align with the ideological preconceptions of the voter constituencies she initially appeals to or not.

And even if Nixon loses to Cuomo, an outcome initial polls say is likely, she may be able to shame our sitting governor into focusing on fixing the subways.

Well over half of New York state’s population lives in New York City or suburban counties served by MTA commuter rail. Transit is therefore one of the most important parts of any governor’s portfolio.

It’s time we had a governor who understood that.