The symbolism could not have been more stark: On the opening morning of the New York State Democratic Party Convention at Hofstra University in May, the progressive caucus had been relegated to a curtained-off area that fit fewer than half the folks who showed up. There were no microphones, and speakers had to yell to be heard. Nearby, hired acts practiced their routines; for a while, a gospel choir soared. Across the way, the party’s powerful executive committee began its meeting in a much roomier space. They had multiple microphones, and their voices boomed over those addressing the progressive faithful. Against this backdrop, upstart gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon strained to make the case that she deserved to have her name put on the primary ballot to challenge two-term incumbent Andrew Cuomo. The governor, she said, has “slashed taxes on the rich, slashed services for everything else, and has run the New York subway into the ground.” Nixon promised to fight for single-payer health care and “real criminal-justice reform,” end the school-to-prison pipeline, legalize marijuana, and “make sure we are enacting all possible protections [for] immigrants.”
She finished to polite but less than rousing applause. Quickly, a delegate pressed her. “I never hear details behind the wish list,” he complained. Talking a bit louder, Nixon repeated some of what she’d said, adding a few more issues like fully funding New York’s public schools and strengthening tenant protections. “We have the wealth, if we would only use it,” she argued. But her answers lacked the policy details that this insider crowd craved. At any rate, her inquisitor appeared unimpressed.
Later that day, Nixon would win less than 5 percent of the delegate vote, far below the 25 percent threshold needed to get on the ballot. But the popular actor counted her visit to “the lion’s den” of the party establishment as a success nonetheless, telling reporters the next day that she always expected she’d have to collect the 15,000 signatures necessary to put her name on the ballot. She’ll far exceed that, promises Joe Dinkin, communications director of the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Nixon: “There’s no doubt she has the volunteer energy, because people know her as a bold and fearless activist, not an actress. She’s been in the trenches [on education, labor, LGBTQ, and civil-rights issues] for decades.”
In 2002, another upstart Democratic gubernatorial candidate likewise used a petition to get on the ballot. The young Andrew Cuomo eventually dropped his campaign against State Comptroller Carl McCall days before the primary, blaming his low standing in the polls on race. “The negative here,” he explained to The New York Times’ Bob Herbert, “is that I was running against the first African-American. It was his turn…. How could I go against Carl McCall? How could you do that? Don’t you like black people?”
Ah, there’s that trademark Cuomo charm! While the governor is widely feared by Democratic insiders, he is warmly backed by few. He has undoubtedly notched some progressive accomplishments, from marriage equality to paid family leave. But his brash contempt for democratic norms, alongside a notable failure to lead on a range of progressive issues, from cleaning up Albany corruption to education funding and tax equity, has left him vulnerable to challenges from the left—first by law professor and activist Zephyr Teachout in 2014, and now by Nixon. “I don’t think people are excited about voting for Andrew Cuomo. I just don’t,” Nixon tells me later in the bright, homey kitchen of her Noho apartment. “We want to get people excited again about the Democratic Party.”
Teachout, who is supporting Nixon while running her own campaign for state attorney general against the Cuomo-backed candidate, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, shocked the party by getting almost 34 percent of the vote. She thinks Nixon can surpass that—and even win. “She’s doing better than I was at this point in 2014… I wasn’t even running yet,” Teachout reminds me. She was attending the state convention as a delegate from Dutchess County, where she ran and lost a race in 2016 for an open seat in Congress. Teachout has urged the party to bring in the energy of anti-Trump resistance groups like Indivisible and to stop excluding insurgent candidates. “It’s very brave of Cynthia to be here, even just to talk to individual delegates,” she says. (Later that day, Teachout herself would get only 5 percent of the convention vote.)
For her part, Nixon dismissed the lopsided tally against her as the harrumph of party insiders loyal to Cuomo. “I’m looking forward to September 13, when the great majority of New Yorkers will vote, not just the establishment,” she said the next day. “Everybody loves an underdog.”
Nixon is indeed an underdog—the latest poll has Cuomo leading 50 to 28 percent—but she comes with powerful name recognition from her 40-plus years of acting, most famously as the pragmatic lawyer Miranda Hobbes in HBO’s iconic Sex and the City, but also as the Tony Award–winning star of The Little Foxes and Rabbit Hole. Nixon’s acting career goes back to her days at New York City’s Hunter College High School—and, in a way, so does her activism. Drawing from her experience as a public-school student and as a parent, she has long been a powerful voice for equity in public-education funding. Her campaign so far has highlighted that record, while also using it as a springboard to talk about other progressive issues, such as housing, transit, mass incarceration, and health care.
That’s got a lot of appeal. Nixon has already won the support of the Working Families Party, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Our Revolution, Daily Kos, and Democracy for America, plus upstart New York Democratic clubs like the Village Independent Democrats. But many New Yorkers are like the delegate looking for “details behind the wish list,” and some say that Nixon has been slow to flesh out her inspiring but somewhat bare policy platform. “For the broader primary electorate, she still has time if she really bones up on the issues,” says Pablo Zevallos, a Columbia Law student and activist with the progressive Community Free Democrats club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But so far, Zevallos hasn’t been convinced by what he’s seen.
With three months to go before the primary, Nixon will have to persuade a lot more voters to take a chance on a first-time celebrity candidate who wants to start public service at the top. And then, of course, there are the inevitable comparisons to another television star from New York who decided to run for high office with no political experience. Donald Trump powers the progressive political resistance that helps make Nixon’s run plausible. But he also powers a resistance to putting celebrities with no governing experience in big, important offices. It’s not clear which resistance will prevail in this race.
“Why didn’t you tell me Miranda was on this train?” one female Long Island Rail Road conductor asks another as Nixon, trailed by staffers and journalists, disembarks in Hempstead, New York, for the short ride to Hofstra. Wearing a jaunty, double-breasted blue-and-white tweedy suit with white patent-leather loafers—cheeky machine-pol costuming, if you ask me—a smiling Nixon embraces the pair for a selfie. Soon enough, a half-dozen twentysomething African-American passengers, mainly women, crowd the candidate for photos. Nixon’s celebrity clearly remains a draw, and not merely for Sex and the City fans, the mostly white women, now in their mid-30s to 50s, who thrilled to the show every Sunday and debated whether they were a Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, or Miranda.
Black millennial women, like those on the LIRR train, represent the constituency that Nixon hopes to make the backbone of her campaign. She’s an evangelist for an approach to politics that centers black women as the Democratic Party’s most reliable and important base, noting that 94 percent of them gave their support to Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy Nixon also strongly supported. (Clinton, however, recently endorsed Cuomo, while the Bernie Sanders–backed Our Revolution has endorsed Nixon.) “Black women are going to stop showing up for the Democratic Party unless the Democratic Party starts showing up for them—all year long, not merely at election time,” she tells me. (Nixon has already used this line with New York magazine, which is a sign either of practice or conviction.)
“We have to talk about mass incarceration,” she continues. “We have to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. This is something parents and students keep saying to me in a graphic way. We’re criminalizing the behavior of children of color at a very early age, as we’re ushering white children into college! The level of suspensions is through the roof for children of color.”
Nixon’s political calling card is her long history of passionate advocacy for public education. She traces it to growing up in modest circumstances with her single mother, Anne—also an actor and activist—in a five-story walk-up in 1970s Yorkville while attending the local public school. “The city was broke back then… a lot of crime and muggings,” she recalls. “The subway was a disaster, loud and filled with graffiti—and so many empty trains! But there was a sense of community here that I felt growing up. Everybody I knew went to public school.”
Nixon got into the prestigious Hunter High, but she’d already started an acting career as a way to pay for college. “My mother was very clear with me from about the age of 10: ‘I can’t pay for your college, so you’re going to have to go to public college—or pay yourself.’… But the mantra in our house was: ‘Child actors don’t become adult actors. This is to save money for college, and when you go to college, you will find something to do once you age out of this profession.’ It was very good advice, because very few of us do make it.”
Nixon, of course, did make it, starting out in movies like Little Darlings and The Manhattan Project, while also landing coveted Broadway roles in Angels in America, Indiscretions, and other plays. Her life-changing turn in Sex and the City began in 1998, and by the time her young daughter (with her then-partner, Danny Mozes) was ready for school in the early 2000s, Nixon would have been easily able to afford to send her to a private school. Instead, she committed her family to public education. “One of the profoundly confusing things for me when I started to have children was that all of these nice families that I became friends with were not sending their kids to public schools. They were not even going to look at the public schools, because it just seemed like not an option!”
Nixon toured several public schools in 2001 and enrolled her daughter Sam in what seemed like a good one. “But when she started that September, it looked really different, because they’d had massive budget cuts over the summer,” Nixon recalls. “They fired two-thirds of the paraprofessionals: the art teacher, the music teacher, the assistant principal.” And so a fierce education activist was born. Nixon soon joined the Alliance for Quality Education, a grassroots organization founded in 2000 to advocate for quality public schools for all. Former ACORN head Bertha Lewis recalls first meeting Nixon at an AQE protest. “We were all chained together with this white woman; she didn’t say, like, ‘I’m a celebrity’ or anything,” Lewis told New York magazine. “She said, ‘My name is Cynthia Nixon; I am a public-school parent.’ Then we got hauled off to the precinct.”
Wanda Salaman, head of Mothers on the Move, a longtime engine of community change in education, housing, and environmental justice in the Bronx, met Nixon when they were both fighting for “education justice in state funding.” Salaman, who had earlier worked with Nixon’s now-wife, Christine Marinoni, on education issues in the 1990s, tells me, “I found [Nixon’s] education work really impressive. She obviously didn’t have to do it.”
I remind Nixon of this in our interview, that she could have afforded to send her children to top private schools. “No! I got a terrific education—why would I pay for something I don’t need to pay for?” she answers, sounding very much like her frugal mother’s daughter.
A day after her visit to the Democratic Party convention, Nixon sits in a windowless room in the Bronx at a meeting convened by Salaman, listening to residents of the nation’s poorest congressional district complain about how Cuomo has neglected them. Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, a teenager who was held at Rikers Island without trial for three years—nearly half of them in solitary confinement—and who later killed himself after his release, is speaking to the group. Browder has been pushing to end the policy of cash bail and to establish the right to a speedy discovery process and trial. He reminds the audience that Cuomo once “brought us to Albany to promise it would be done this year. It never happened.” The reforms were blocked by Republicans in the State Senate, Nixon notes, who were joined by the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of state senators who often vote with the GOP and have been supported by Cuomo.
This roomful of activists, mostly women of color, speaks passionately about broken promises by generations of Democratic leaders, not just Cuomo. Most inveigh bitterly against the conditions at buildings run by the New York City Housing Authority—rat-infested apartments with no heat, leaks that lead to the scourge of mold and mildew, 35-year-long waits for a new boiler. “They’re trying to break it so they can replace it,” Nixon says of NYCHA, giving voice to community fears that New York developers would like a chance to privatize public housing.
But at this meeting, too, Nixon is challenged for specifics. Bronx dynamo Tanya Fields, head of the BLK ProjeK, which works on issues of food justice, environmental cleanup, and community health, talks spellbindingly about the neighborhood’s tragedies, including its high rates of maternal mortality and gun violence. “We are dying just to give birth; our kids are dying as they go to school,” Fields says. “I want to know: What is your actual plan?” On the spot, Nixon shoots back, to appreciative laughter, “You should run for office!”
“No, I got too many nudie pics, and I like my long fingernails,” Fields retorts. Nixon then launches into her plans to fight charter schools, which she identifies as an agent of gentrification. She also outlines her vision of “rent justice”: expanding rent stabilization; ending the “vacancy bonuses” that can sharply increase the rent even on rent-regulated apartments once the previous tenant leaves; and closing the “loopholes that incentivize landlords to push people out.” She talks about the 57,000 human-service jobs that state budget cuts have eliminated: “Those are working-class jobs—plus we need those services in our community.” She tells the group that she’s running “to amplify your voices” and promises, if she wins, to govern according to “a road map we’ve developed together.”
“We just need to get her elected,” Salaman declares as she adjourns the meeting. The political veteran was happy with Nixon’s answers, she told me later. “But this wasn’t convened for her to talk; it was for her to listen and get information she can take back.” Yet even in the Bronx, among black and brown women, Nixon may have a tough sell, Salaman concedes. The Bronx Democratic Party is legendarily strong—and strongly united behind Cuomo. “This is not her turf,” Salaman says. “We are all Democrats here, but we want really different things.”
By some measures, you might say Nixon has already won by pushing Cuomo to the left. In her press conference before the convention, she ticked off several issues on which Cuomo has moved. He now opposes a controversial Finger Lakes incinerator, after Nixon came out strongly against it and criticized Cuomo’s inaction. Though Cuomo blocked New York City’s effort to eliminate plastic bags, he’s now calling for a ban on them. He used to call marijuana “a gateway drug”; now, after Nixon made it a leading issue, he’s pivoted to saying that the situation with marijuana has “changed dramatically.”
Most notably, Nixon announced her candidacy pledging to go after the Independent Democratic Conference. A few weeks later, Cuomo announced a plan to bring IDC members back into the fold. He’s made such promises before, but this deal came with at least nominal commitments by the legislators themselves.
Indeed, Cuomo is running as an anti-Trump progressive this year. At the convention, he told reporters that he had “the greatest record of accomplishment of progressive values in the country.” Teachout, however, mocked Cuomo’s aspirations, calling his New York “a rolling scandal” and insisting that “if New York is going to take on Trump, we’ve got to clean up.”
In 2014, Teachout made an issue of Cuomo’s shutting down the Moreland Commission, which he had appointed to investigate government corruption in the state. When Preet Bharara, then US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, suggested that he might investigate the governor’s interference, Cuomo sounded more than a little bit like Trump: “It’s my commission,” he asserted. “My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it…. So, interference? It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.”
Four years later, allegations of corruption continue to dog Cuomo—and to boost Nixon’s candidacy. When she pledged to reappoint the Moreland Commission, Bharara tweeted his support. “The rare sequel guaranteed to be better than the original,” he said. “The first Moreland Commission never should have been disbanded and every New Yorker should support a strong anti-corruption measure like this.”
Nixon talks regularly about Joe Percoco, the former top Cuomo aide—the governor once described him as “a brother”—who was convicted this year of taking $300,000 from businesses seeking state contracts. Meanwhile, the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan is reportedly probing Crystal Run Healthcare, a fast-growing Hudson Valley firm that has received more than $25 million in contracts from the state health department after employees and their spouses contributed more than $400,000 to Cuomo’s campaign.
Still, even some supporters say Nixon needs to build out her progressive platform beyond its rough scaffolding. She is undeniably brilliant on education equity and funding issues. Beyond that, many of her proposals are aspirational, not quite ready for Albany—or even the Upper West Side. At a candidates’ forum there in May, Nixon left some progressives cold with the sketchy state of her answers, especially on subway reform, one of her signature issues.
“When someone really knows what they’re talking about, they mention agency names. They talk about key players. They talk processes,” says Zevallos of Community Free Democrats. Nixon “gave us a lot of generalities and vagueness, not step-by-step processes.” In the end, the progressive club endorsed Cuomo.
To pay for much-needed fixes to the New York subway system, Nixon quickly announced that she supported a tax on millionaires and a controversial plan for congestion pricing—imposing fees on cars coming into and leaving the city—but she didn’t flesh out which vehicles would be included and at what price. When I asked her about it, and about how she would push the policy from Albany, where many legislators are hostile to it, Nixon punted: “Well, that’s the business of governing, making it a number-one priority and seeing what you trade for it.” After the Bronx forum, she promised that her subway plan would be coming soon, but with June approaching and the questions from reporters and voters accelerating, it seemed that it couldn’t come soon enough.
Then, on May 31, Nixon finally announced a fairly detailed plan, to be paid for not just by a millionaires’ tax and a tax on polluters, but also by imposing a steep $5.76 fee on cars entering and leaving the most congested parts of Manhattan (though these are not identified in the plan). To counter claims that the fee will hurt poor and outer-borough commuters, Nixon pointed to a Community Service Society survey that found that only 2 percent of the city’s working poor would be hit with the fee, and that only 4 percent of outer-borough residents drive to jobs in Manhattan anyway. To make the plan more equitable, Nixon would use some of the funds to lower road tolls in regions not served by the subway. She also endorsed the subway-improvement plan announced by NYC Transit Authority president Andy Byford, though she said she would change how the improvements would be prioritized.
Before Nixon released her plan, the Working Families Party’s Joe Dinkin made a virtue of her cautious approach. “She has proven herself more than capable of rolling out detailed proposals, as she’s done on education,” he said.
Nixon will also benefit from the surge of progressive activism among women—as organizers, volunteers, donors, and candidates. Rebecca Katz, the campaign’s senior strategist, calls it the “Year of the Fired-Up Mom.” One of Nixon’s top aides, Brooklyn NAACP president L. Joy Williams, joined her at the state Democratic convention straight from the airport, flying in from the victory party of another progressive female candidate, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.
Yet thinking about Abrams, and all the other women who are fighting to turn their districts, cities, and states from red to blue, made me wonder: Does Nixon ever have second thoughts—for example, that perhaps she’s draining resources from more urgent campaigns, like Abrams’s, when we have a Democratic governor in New York who mostly does the right thing, even if reluctantly?
“I never have second thoughts,” Nixon replies, “because I don’t think he mostly does the right thing. I think he does the right thing every now and again. I think he does the right thing as little as he can get away with for a thin sheen of progressivism.”
Despite her loyalty to Abrams, Williams doesn’t feel conflict in the slightest, she says. “First of all, I don’t think we need to give ground to anybody who’s weak at raising the progressive banner, and [Cuomo] is weak. Plus, I’m not willing to accept that there’s not money for both [Nixon and Abrams]. I’ve learned that when progressive white folks want to do something, they find the money for it.”