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Cuomo manages controversies in final days of primary campaign

Karen DeWitt

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had been gaining momentum in the days leading up to the Sept. 13 Democratic primary for governor, but two controversial incidents over the weekend could set the governor back in his race against challenger Cynthia Nixon.

Cuomo spent the first few days of September making daily announcements on infrastructure achievements, including the groundbreaking of a third track for the Long Island Rail Road, a new and brighter entrance to the beleaguered Penn Station, and last Friday, the opening of the final span of the Mario Cuomo Bridge, named after the governor’s late father. It replaces the old Tappan Zee Bridge on the New York Thruway.

Cuomo, joined by former first lady Hillary Clinton, rode Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 Packard across the bridge.

“This bridge restores confidence in ourselves,” Cuomo told the audience. “As the largest infrastructure project in the nation, I think this project is of national significance.” 

But just hours later, the planned Saturday opening of the new span was delayed after engineers heard a loud popping noise from the old bridge, which is in the process of being disassembled. They feared the old bridge could buckle and fall on part of the new bridge. Boat traffic on the Hudson River below also was halted. 

Cuomo on Sunday called it a “bizarre coincidence” and said he wasn’t responsible for the old bridge anymore.

“The state does not own the old Tappan Zee Bridge. The contractor called Tappan Zee Contractors owns the old Tappan Zee Bridge,” Cuomo said. “So it is not our bridge. We are not responsible for it.”

Cuomo’s opponents pounced, saying the governor rushed the bridge opening for political reasons and should have waited until he was sure it was safe. Actor Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo from the left in the primary, held a news conference at the foot of the bridge in Tarrytown. 

“It seems very clear that the bridge was not ready to open,” Nixon said Sunday. “And that the decision of the bridge that Andrew Cuomo pushed through was based on a political calculation, on a great photo op for him, he thought, a week before Election Day.”

The Republican candidate, Marc Molinaro, is calling for a federal investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. 

The new bridge has now been declared safe by the contractors. In a statement, they said the old bridge may still collapse, but will not harm the new bridge, which will reopen Tuesday, weather permitting.

Perhaps more damaging to Cuomo is a mailer sent out by the state Democratic Party, which the governor controls. It was addressed to Jewish voters, and it called Nixon anti-Semitic and said she “won’t stand strong for our Jewish communities.”

Nixon attends a synagogue regularly and is raising her children in the Jewish faith.

“I am the mother of Jewish children, and I am very alarmed at the rise of anti-Semitism in this country and globally,” Nixon said Sunday. “To us, this kind of unfounded charge as a political weapon in a smear campaign is unworthy of Cuomo’s Democratic Party.”

The mailer sparked outrage and condemnation from leading Democratic politicians, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called it “Trumpian.” The New York Times, which endorsed Cuomo, issued a scathing editorial calling the move “sleazy” and “dirty politics” and demanding an apology from Cuomo. 

Cuomo said the mailer was a “mistake” and “inappropriate,” but he said he didn’t have anything to do with it.

“I didn’t know about the mailer,” Cuomo sad. “I heard about the mailer. I haven’t seen the mailer.”

The executive director of the state party, Geoff Berman, said a new mailer will be sent correcting the record, but Nixon and her supporters say voters won’t see it before Thursday’s primary election. They want Cuomo to personally record a robocall apologizing for the mailing and setting the record straight. 

Meanwhile, a Siena College poll conducted before the weekend shows Cuomo’s lead widening over Nixon to 41 points, at 63 percent to 22 percent. 

Nixon’s campaign points out that the survey was conducted before what they say was a “game-changing weekend” for the governor. Spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in a statement that polls have missed the mark several times this year, including the surprise election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Congressman Joe Crowley in a June primary. 

Siena spokesman Steve Greenberg said his poll accurately reflects those surveyed, but he said “anything could happen.”

He said the real poll occurs when Democrats come to the voting booth on Thursday.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.