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Cuomo, Nixon spar in testy gubernatorial debate

Cynthia Nixon twitter

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon squared off in the only debate before the Sept. 13 election. It was a testy and contentious hour-long discussion broadcast from Hofstra University on Long Island.

The choice, according to Nixon and Cuomo, is between who is more qualified to run New York State, versus the desire for change. 

Nixon, who is running to the left of Cuomo on issues like single payer health care, taxing the wealthy and cleaning up corruption, says a candidate’s previous years in office doesn’t always count.

“I think that experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re not actually good at governing,” Nixon said.

Nixon repeatedly attempted to make the discussion about Cuomo’s record. The governor at times tried to make the debate about President Trump.

“Today you have to fight Donald Trump who is the main risk to the state of New York,” said Cuomo. “The first line of defense is New York, and the governor leads that fight and you have to know how to do it.”

Nixon differed with Cuomo’s assessment. She referenced an incident earlier in August, when Cuomo said in a speech that America “was never great” and later clarified his comments to say he has always believed the nation is great.

“Donald Trump did tweet at you about whether or not America is great and you backed down pretty quickly,” said Nixon. “You stood up to him about as well as Trump stood up to Putin.”

Cuomo countered that Nixon, who says she is the more progressive candidate, is really the “corporate democrat” in the race, because the actor oversees an S Corporation to manage her earnings, which totaled over $1 million last year. And he accused Nixon of asking for favors from New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio, after she donated money to his campaign.

“You are a corporation,” Cuomo said to Nixon.

“I am a person,” Nixon replied.

Nixon says she did not donate money and the request she made was for city helicopters to not fly over performances of Shakespeare in the Park.

Debate opening statements and questions; audio courtesy of WCBS

The two sparred over who can better fix the subway system, reform campaign financing to limit big money donors and who released more details of their past tax returns. And they often bickered with one another.

“Can you stop interrupting?” Cuomo said at one point, as Nixon tried to speak over him.

“Can you stop lying,” Nixon countered.

“Yeah, as soon as you do,” Cuomo responded.

Both want to legalize marijuana, but shared minor disagreements on the issue. When asked what to say to a parent who is trying to teach their kids to stay away from drugs, Nixon called it a racial justice issue.

"We're not talking about children smoking marijuana, right? We're talking about adults and we're talking about that, effectively, that marijuana in New York State has been legal for white people for a long time and it's time to make it legal for everyone else," Nixon said to applause.

Cuomo said he doesn’t think racial injustice in criminal justice starts with marijuana, but acknowledged it is prevalent.

"It's not a coincidence that the majority of people in jail are people of color and poor. It's not a coincidence," Cuomo said. "That's why I started 15 years ago to work on reforming the Rockefeller drug laws, which finally got done and made a fantastic difference."

Cuomo endorses the legalization of marijuana, but in the past called it a gateway drug.

Sparks flew on the issue of affordable housing

The candidates disagree on whether public worker should be allowed to strike. Nixon says yes, Cuomo says it’s a “terrible idea.”  

Cuomo also pledged, if re-elected, that he would serve out the entire four years. The governor has been talked about as a potential presidential candidate in 2020.  He said the only caveat is “if god strikes me dead.”

Nixon says if she’s elected governor, she won’t take a salary.

WBFO's Nick Lippa contributed to this story.

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.