Midterm Elections Preview: The NY Governor’s Race

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Andrew Pulrang

This year, we have choices. That alone is something to celebrate.

Two weeks ago, we explored how state governors can affect disabled people’s lives. 34 states will elect governors this year, and New York is one of them. That would be important in any year. But, this year’s governor’s race is shaping up to be one of the most interesting in recent memory, and interesting an unusual way specifically for disabled voters.

In short, disabled voters in New York have a real choice to make, and at least three substantive candidates to choose from, each with a distinctive record and perspective on disability issues. Let’s start with the Democrats.

Cynthia Nixon is challenging Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic Party nomination. It’s unusual for relatively popular and successful incumbents like Cuomo face such a challenge. These are unusual times though, and Gov. Cuomo is being forced to defend his position from a fellow Democrat with a different vision for the state, and a low opinion of Cuomo’s political practices.

Cynthia Nixon is a newcomer to politics. She was previously known for her longtime role as Miranda in the TV show “Sex and the City.” Her ambitious progressive policy positions on issues like health care and corruption, and her outsider status and independence, have generated a lot of energy on the left side of the party. Her challenge to Cuomo is both exciting and substantive … clearly much more than a TV star’s vanity exercise. Still, Nixon does lack practical political experience, and its still unclear whether such a aggressive progressive agenda can really succeed with voters.

Gov. Cuomo is broadly popular in New York, though not quite loved or admired. He points to progressive policy accomplishments in several areas, including marriage equality, gun control, college tuition, and an increase in the minimum wage. He is also generally regarded as “fiscally responsible,” which can either mean frugal and prudent, or stingy and heartless, depending on your point of view. Cuomo has also had a lot of trouble with charges of political corruption among his aides and allies, and because he is perceived as an anti-progressive, “establishment” force in the Democratic Party.

This is all pretty much how the average voter will see the Cuomo / Nixon race. But for people with disabilities, it’s even more interesting.

On disability issues, Gov. Cuomo has been strikingly unresponsive. On the one hand, he moved early on in his governorship to investigate and act upon claims of abuse in state institutions, group homes, and developmental disability programs. However, these efforts have often felt overly bureaucratic and ineffective in practice. Plus, Gov. Cuomo has repeatedly failed to act on even modest priorities put forward by the disability policy community, and has pursued some policies that could be harmful to disabled people in the near future.

Gov. Cuomo approved a Medicaid managed care plan that threatens to increase institutionalization for people with disabilities. He has failed to act on stagnant wages for home care workers, which also greatly affects our ability to maintain our independence. Gov. Cuomo has repeatedly killed a widely supported “visitability” bill, which would require basic accessibility features in all new homes … and he has failed to fully fund Access To Home, a low-cost program to help people with disabilities make people make their existing homes more accessible. In addition, funding for the state’s Independent Living Centers has remained flat, during a time when the state’s economy is in a strong recovery.

Cynthia Nixon has made a point during her campaign of reaching out to the disability community, and has shown in her rhetoric a rare familiarity with disability issues and concerns. She has also introduced a comprehensive disability policy platform. It includes positions on home care worker wages, visitability, ending the sub-minimum wage, and a host of other items on the New York disability policy community’s long-term wish list. In many ways, Nixon is reaching out to disabled voters exactly the way we say we want from all politicians.

However, as a challenger from outside politics, Nixon faces difficult odds to win, and has no record on disability policy accomplishments, because as a newcomer, she has no policy accomplishments at all. These are not hits on her commitment or sincerity, They are simply factors to take into account. Cuomo may be uninspiring and disappointing for disabled voters, but he is a known quantity, and could theoretically be capable of improvement on disability issues, if the right kind of pressure is applied … pressure like a strong showing from an outsider challenger with a strong showing among disabled voters.

Either way, disabled New York voters with a Democrat / liberal outlook have a complex set of factors and strategies to weigh before they vote in the gubernatorial primary on September 13. The usual calculations may not apply, and it’s not as simple as choosing to follow your head or your heart.

While most of the attention right now is on Cuomo vs. Nixon, Republicans are still running for the governor’s office, and the party’s nominee is Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.

Marc Molinaro’s campaign emphasizes traditional New York Republican themes like lower taxes and making the state more friendly to businesses. However, he is also strongly campaigning against corruption in government … by Gov. Cuomo in particular … and against political polarization. Overall, he seems to be projecting an image of calm, good sense, and simple wholesomeness, possibly to portray himself as an alternative to the more contentious candidates like Cuomo and Nixon. Molinaro is way behind in the polls, and lacks the big personality of his opponents. But like the others, for disabled voters specifically, he offers an interesting alternative perspective.

As Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro championed #ThinkDifferently, a program that encourages communities to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. It combines a public awareness campaign with sponsorship of special events, and a searchable database of available disability services.

#ThinkDifferently seems to be an example of a non-political approach to disability issues that may be more familiar and comfortable to people who shy away from the complex specifics of deep disability policy, and the adrenaline and ideology of disability activism. The program is more of a moral persuasion than a blueprint for systemic change. It’s more than charity, and a little less than policy. It also has the look and feel of a program created by families of disabled people, rather than by disabled people themselves. This makes sense, as Molinaro has a daughter with autism.

Some disabled people and their families may prefer this more persuasive, public awareness approach to disability. Others want more concrete policies that address hard inequities and structural problems. Molinaro has said he will issue a more detailed disability policy platform. It will be interesting to see if he engages with a broader array of disability issues involving actual legislation and budgetary decisions.

As New Yorkers with disabilities, we are fortunate this year to have three candidates with distinct approaches to disability issues. They aren’t equal in complexity, depth, or probability of success. But they each offer something for just about every kind and perspective of disabled voter.