The nation’s biggest LGBT group is trying to defeat a liberal queer woman in the New York governor’s race, exposing a rift within the LGBT movement amid one of the most closely watched Democratic primaries of the year.
The Human Rights Campaign has thrown its weight behind Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will appear on next month’s ballot. A centrist by Democratic standards, Cuomo, who is straight, has indisputable bona fides as both an LGBT ally and critic of President Donald Trump.
But Cuomo also carries baggage for exacting pain on unloyal progressives, backing lawmakers who blocked progressive LGBT bills, and undermining the New York City Subway system.
Yet the most upsetting aspect of HRC’s endorsement, critics say, is that the group snubbed Cynthia Nixon, a bisexual woman and longtime political activist.
“The HRC endorsement hurts Cynthia Nixon’s chances,” New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a gay man who has endorsed Nixon, told BuzzFeed News. He said the group is chipping away at support for a queer woman whose platform reflects much of the state’s diverse, transit-reliant LGBT base in New York City.
“Coming out against a viable progressive queer person is the wrong thing to do,” he said.
The star of Sex and the City announced in March she’d mount a challenge, six weeks after HRC had endorsed Cuomo.
Since then, HRC has redoubled its commitment to the governor, who has raised more than $30 million on his own. The organization says it will campaign for him by working with its members to send emails and make phone calls — and participate in events — while using its volunteers to support his reelection.
The dispute is about more than just one race. It highlights longstanding critiques of HRC and debates over the LGBT movement’s future — and it reflects the divides in the Democratic Party more broadly.
The crowd at galas for the HRC looks a lot like a men’s suit catalog. The group has struggled with diversity — a 2015 internal report showed staffers accused it of being a “white men’s club” — while grassroots activists have groused that HRC caters foremost to its centrist, well-heeled chums.
“The Human Rights Campaign has been more interested in their real estate, high salaries, and hobnobbing with middle-of-the-road Democrats — while, in many cases, thumbing their nose at labor and other civil rights groups,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a progressive LGBT political organization in New York that is backing Nixon.
HRC’s views reflect a more established faction of the LGBT movement, which has invested in career politicians who know how to pull the levers of power. This thinking tends to relegate more populist activism to the province of naive dreamers. Yet, this centrist approach to LGBT rights is tied to a dream of its own: that advocates will be able to rely on the Democratic Party's moderate factions to deliver LGBT equality long-term.
“Their endorsement is not based on what’s best for the community — it’s about what’s best for their brand,” Roskoff told BuzzFeed News, noting that he helped organize some of the first HRC dinners and has known Cuomo since he was 18 years old.
His group endorsed Nixon for her broad progressive platform — including her plan to fix the failing subway system, supporting public schools, legalizing marijuana, and protecting undocumented immigrants from undue punishment by Trump.
But Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director, told BuzzFeed News the campaign backed Cuomo because "we stand with elected leaders who stand with us.”
HRC refused to answer questions from BuzzFeed News about how it responds to LGBT progressives who are mad it’s assisting Cuomo’s efforts to beat Nixon.
But Rouse noted that two other LGBT groups have backed the governor: the Stonewall Democratic Club and the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats. That’s because Cuomo, with years of Albany experience, “led the fight for marriage equality in New York,” he said, while taking executive action to expand transgender protections under the state’s Human Rights Law.
Still, more liberal factions of the LGBT movement point out that many establishment Democrats have been fair-weather friends to LGBT people, waiting for activists to make an issue viable (such as same-sex marriage) before a cavalry of politicians joins them for a final lap. Instead, they say, the LGBT movement has amassed strength through confrontational activism (such as AIDS die-ins and pride marches) while building coalitions with other minorities.
Roskoff agreed that Cuomo was on the right side of some LGBT issues, but he says the governor tacitly blessed the Senate's Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of Democrats who joined forces with Republicans, keeping them in control of the Senate and blocking progressive bills. Among them, one bill that would have banned anti-transgender discrimination died without the Senate’s support. (Cuomo had lied to one LGBT group about endorsing a member of the IDC.) Cuomo backed off his support for the IDC this year and presided over a reunification of the Senate Democrats, after Nixon hammered him.
Abbey Collins, a spokesperson for the Cuomo campaign, stressed Cuomo’s record — which contrasts with Nixon’s lack of experience in government.
“The governor is focused on results. We’ll leave the baseless election-year rhetoric to others,” she said. “With LGBTQ rights under attack from Trump, New Yorkers know they can count on Governor Cuomo to stand up and fight back.”
Sarah Ford, a spokesperson for Nixon, however, argues Cuomo’s LGBT record is overblown by his backers, saying he hasn’t passed a law to ban anti-transgender discrimination or so-called conversion therapy. Moreover, she said, Cuomo overplays his role in helping pass a same-sex marriage.
The Washington Post reported this year that Cuomo “overstates his record on same-sex marriage” by making “exaggerations” about the political difficulty of the task and the risk he took.
“Gov. Cuomo may have signed the bill, but Cynthia was fighting alongside other activists for the right to marry her now wife, Christine,” Ford said by email. “She understands the needs of the LGBTQ community as a wife and mother of a transgender son on a deeply personal level.”
The Cuomo campaign then pointed out Nixon had praised Cuomo's role passing marriage in the past, calling him "a driving force" for the bill in a Newsweek essay and reportedly saying at an event "we couldn't have done it without him."
Given Cuomo’s reputation for being vindictive to those who cross his path, combined with polling numbers that show Cuomo with a healthy lead — with especially strong advantages among moderates and conservatives — HRC may be reluctant to upset an incumbent who looks likely to win reelection.
HRC has waded into governor’s races before with dubious results. Most notably, in North Carolina, HRC helped oust Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016 for his role in passing a law to ban transgender people from certain public restrooms. The group crusaded to elect Democrat Roy Cooper — but as governor, Cooper quickly made a deal with Republicans to replace the old anti-transgender law with a new anti-transgender law. HRC issued statements condemning the deal, but ultimately, HRC moved on while other LGBT groups were left to sue Cooper to challenge the new law.
“I intellectually understand where HRC is coming from, but I think it’s at odds with the political moment,” Van Bramer said, adding that Nixon’s unabashed liberalism has pushed Cuomo to the left on several issues. “It’s tone-deaf to the desires and experience of a lot of LGBTQ people.”