As many of you might already know, I spent some time as a community organizer for a liberal organization based in Rochester, NY. I was there back in 2010 while Andrew Cuomo was running for his first term as governor of New York and was in several strategy meetings trying to figure out how actively we should be supporting his candidacy. I came down on the side of saying he was better than the GOP nominee (Carl Paladino), but that we should be focusing on winning local elections and supporting Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the special election she faced to keep her seat.
With that in mind, I’ve been closely following the Democratic primary for NY governor this year between Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon. Hofstra University hosted the first and only debate between the two candidates last night and featured several interesting exchanges between the candidates (including one where Cuomo called Nixon a “corporate donor” and she had to remind him she’s actually a person), but one moment really stood out to me.
During a “lighting round” of questions, Cynthia Nixon was asked if she would refuse to take a salary as governor since she’s wealthy and identifies as a Democratic Socialist. While she quickly responded “sure” and confirmed the answer when the moderator followed up, there are several reasons why this question should never have been asked.
Perhaps the biggest objection I have to this question is it implies we only want elected officials who are in a position to work without receiving a salary. In other words, only the wealthy need apply. While somebody’s economic success shouldn’t disqualify them for office, we shouldn’t be creating an environment where only the super wealthy can serve. In fact, the Founding Fathers actually specifically dictated in the Constitution that elected officials receive “a compensation” so our country wasn’t solely represented by the aristocratic elite.
Secondly, it’s wrong to assume someone believes we should work for free just because they belong to the left-wing of the Democratic Party. The left doesn’t think we should be working for free, we simply believe everyone should be treated fairly. Anyone who doesn’t understand this hasn’t been paying attention to the political debate in recent years.
Thirdly, Andrew Cuomo is also extremely wealthy. Why wasn’t he asked if he’d give up his $179,000 salary if he’s re-elected? It seems weird that the liberal female candidate was asked, but the male candidate with a demonstrated history of corporate ties wasn’t asked.
Finally, refusing to take a salary doesn’t automatically mean a politician will look out for the best interests of the general public. Look at Donald Trump. The president promised he wouldn’t take a salary and claimed it meant he wouldn’t be beholden to corporate interests. Since being elected to office, however, he’s given out tax cuts to billionaires and corporations (a move that added billions to the deficit) but announced today that he won’t give federal workers scheduled pay increases because it would be bad for the budget.