Cynthia Nixon Is Raging Against The Machine
The insurgent candidate for governor is fed up with the status quo and pushing her blue state toward serious change. Are enough New Yorkers with her?
Cynthia Nixon is racing down Broadway to catch the R train. It’s a scorching mid-August Friday afternoon, and the candidate is headed to the next stop on her jam-packed schedule: a meet-and-greet with voters in Carroll Gardens, where she'll spend about an hour talking to potential voters. Later that evening, she’ll be at happy hour cocktails with comedian Phoebe Robinson and Taylor Schilling from Orange Is the New Black.
Her impenetrable schedule means I’ll be interviewing her in transit as she’s traveling from a recording session with Refinery29’s co-founder/global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich for the UnStyled podcast. She’s in heels and I’m in flats on our walk to the 28th Street train, but I keep up even though my head feels like it’s been hot-boxed in this swampy weather. Naturally, the first question that comes to my mind is about the bong giveaway Nixon hosted with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. In an effort to raise awareness about the racial injustice surrounding marijuana arrests (86% of those locked up for pot in New York City in 2017 were Black or Latinx, even though people of all races use marijuana at similar rates), they gifted an autographed glass bong signed by the Broad City stars to one lucky campaign donor. It was a gutsy move, and some lawyers questioned whether it was even legal, while a clergy group put up a protest. So, who comes up with these ideas?
The small campaign team typically brainstorms together and sees what sticks, the New York gubernatorial candidate tells me, as people stop her every few seconds to say, “You have my vote!” or to ask when the election is (“September 13! It’s a Thursday this year!”). On a recent campaign stop, she described her challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reign as a “David and Goliath-type” fight, and one gets the feeling she likes it that way. “Going up against Andrew Cuomo is a formidable battle,” she says. “But we’re an insurgent campaign, and if we can’t have moxie, what’s the point? When we think of something, we say, ‘Is that too far?’ ‘Nah, let’s go for it.’”
During her August 29 debate with Gov. Cuomo, her moxie was on full display. In response to his “Can you stop interrupting?” she retorted, “Can you stop lying?” and at one point, she accused him of “using the MTA like an ATM.”
This is a year when moxie is the name of the game. Say what you will about him, but Donald Trump had it, and now he’s changing the rules so fast that playing nice just doesn't cut it anymore. Political strategists say it’s smart for Nixon to have come out of the gate swinging at Gov. Cuomo because of how notoriously difficult it is to defeat an incumbent. “When you’re a non-incumbent, you have to go on the attack. You have to give people a reason to change what they’re doing,” political strategist Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime operator in New York politics who worked with Bill Clinton and Mike Bloomberg, tells Refinery29. It’s particularly hard to beat an incumbent with a $30 million “war chest,” friends like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, and endorsements from the New York Times and even the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ group, something that has upset many of Nixon’s backers. But this so-called “unqualified lesbian” is not backing down.
At the beginning of the campaign, the question on everybody’s lips was whether The Liberal Actress Who Played Miranda on Sex and the City was “serious enough” to run a bona fide campaign. But now, the question is whether the progressive momentum already seen taking hold around the country — and the substantial, but perhaps not substantial enough, anger toward Gov. Cuomo — is enough to help her beat his well-oiled machine. If she does, she’ll follow in the footsteps of progressive gubernatorial candidates like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, and Ben Jealous, who all unexpectedly defeated establishment Democrats in this year’s primaries. Big upsets like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ bode well for insurgent candidates like Nixon, too — as does the fact that women as a whole are racking up wins in Democratic primaries.
What unites these next-wave candidates is a desire not only to stand up to Trump by talking the #resistance talk — Gov. Cuomo likes to boast about how many times he's sparred with the president on Twitter — but actually walking the walk and enacting progressive policies, not milquetoast, halfway compromises. “We have this sense that New York is such a wealthy place, and it’s such a progressive place,” Nixon says. “It’s a two-to-one Democratic state. But because of Andrew Cuomo’s empowerment of the Republicans, there’s so little progressive change that’s happened here.”
Nixon knows what the haters have to say, but she doesn’t care. Now is her moment. “[As women,] we have to get better at trusting our hunches and trusting our opinion, even if someone in authority is telling us to move along or telling us that we're wrong or, ‘Oh, little missy, you don’t know how the big, bad world works,’” she says.
As women, we have to get better at trusting our hunches and trusting our opinion, even if someone in authority is telling us to move along or telling us that we're wrong or, 'Oh, little missy, you don’t know how the big, bad world works.'
Her campaign is convinced she will win, despite tough odds. “We will win because we're part of a movement that is embracing new, progressive ideas rather than rejecting them offhand as ‘idealistic,’” Lauren Hitt, Nixon’s chief spokesperson, tells Refinery29.
As the rebel candidate, it isn’t part of the actress and activist's image to use a personal driver or even an Uber (which contrasts with Gov. Cuomo’s hefty traveling security detail, as well as his well-documented passion for Corvettes). After all, she wants to fix the subway, the need for which is obvious as we descend into its fiery, unpredictable depths while she rattles off all the ways in which she believes Gov. Cuomo is a Republican in disguise.
On the way down the stairs, she lists what she sees as his failings without skipping a beat: Gov. Cuomo for years has allowed the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of Democratic State Senators who caucus with the Republicans, to continue blocking multiple pieces of progressive legislation, including a bill that would modernize New York’s abortion laws in case Roe v. Wade falls. (In April, shortly after Nixon launched her campaign against him, the IDC was dissolved after Cuomo finally used his clout to push for the deal. Republicans said it was because he's "scared to death" of Nixon.) Beyond that, Cuomo gave tax breaks to real estate developers in return for campaign cash; he cut funding for public schools despite multiple counts from various reputable advocacy groups showing they are underfunded by $4.2 billion, an issue that has personally affected Nixon, who has three children; and he thinks single-payer healthcare is a pipe dream. All of this, she says, has made New York “the single most unequal state in the country,” where the top 1% make 45 times more than the bottom 99%.
“We’re in a place where so many voters are so far ahead of where the party establishment is, and the change that we want is really foundational,” Nixon says. “We really want to turn the system upside-down. Because of the ever-expanding economic, race, and gender inequality that’s swallowing our democracy whole...so many of our elected leaders don’t seem to realize that we’re in a state of emergency.”
Near the turnstile as we enter, a couple of young women in jeans and crop tops stop her and ask her to take a selfie. She graciously smiles into the camera. “Thank you!” they yell as they scurry away, ecstatic to have met her. It’s hard to know what they’re more excited about: seeing Miranda from Sex and the City or potentially meeting their next governor.
Although she is still best known for her acting career, Nixon is no stranger to the inner workings of democracy — and bureaucracy. Nixon’s political awakening came early. After her parents split up, 6-year-old Nixon moved into a one-bedroom, fifth-floor walkup with her mother — who played a huge role in her surge in public life. “One day she came to me and she was really agitated and she said she had been suspicious lately about the rent that we had been paying,” meaning the landlord was overcharging them, Nixon says. After investigating, she “discovered that our landlord had been lying to us. And that he had been lying to us ever since we moved in, and she was really angry… The rent had been really hard for her to come by every month.”
Because her mother, Anne Elizabeth Knoll, held the landlord accountable, she was able to get the rent reduced and their money refunded. Nixon credits this moment with helping her learn to stand up to the powerful and greedy for the rest of her life. “What I most especially remember is how proud she was of herself that she hadn't just believed what she was told,” Nixon says. “She trusted her own intuition.”
Nixon has carried this lesson from her mother with her ever since. When her now-21-year-old son was entering kindergarten, budget cuts hit the public school system in New York City hard. “I walked into the school on the first day with him, and it was so different than the school that I had toured in the spring and picked out,” because of the massive budget cuts, she says. They had let go of the art and music teachers, the assistant principals, and two-thirds of the paraprofessionals (a.k.a. assistant teachers and other staff). Soon after, Nixon joined her first protest and she never looked back. Since then, she’s been a spokesperson for the Alliance for Quality Education, a campaigning for public-education fairness, where she’s helped fight back against education budget cuts over the years (and even got arrested protesting budget cuts outside of City Hall in 2002). During her campaign, she’s pushed back against the growth of charter schools, denounced over-policing in schools, and called for doubling Gov. Cuomo’s proposed increase to school aid to $1.5 billion by raising taxes on the wealthy.
Yet, for some, her experience lobbying lawmakers and organizing parents are not enough proof she can run the state of New York. During the late-August debate, the first question posed to Nixon, by CBS New York anchor Maurice DuBois, was: “What in your experience and background should give voters confidence that you can run a state of 20 million people and a budget of almost $170 billion?” Nixon responded truthfully — touting her various accomplishments as an activist, campaigning for equal funding of public schools and raising $800,000 to oust anti-LGBTQ+ state senators.
Gov. Cuomo rebutted in the mansplain-iest of tones. “The governor of New York is not a job about politics,” he replied. “It’s not about advocacy — it’s about doing. It’s about management. This is real life. … You are in charge of fighting terrorism. You are there in cases of fires, floods, and emergencies, train wrecks. You have to deal with a legislature that’s very, very difficult.”
Nixon jabbed back: “Experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re not actually good at governing.”
As hard as Nixon has worked to prove her chops, it’s unclear if she can really clinch it. The fact remains: She is still trailing Gov. Cuomo by more than 30 points.
Even many Manhattan and Brooklyn-dwelling, left-leaning young people still wonder whether she's truly in it to win it, the question inevitably turning to whether her campaign has even been upstate.
It has — multiple times. Labor Day weekend, Nixon kicked off a multi-day upstate tour, visiting Rochester, Syracuse, Ithaca, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, and Kingston, to talk schools, infrastructure, and Gov. Cuomo’s $15 minimum wage policy, which currently excludes upstate. And she’s now challenging Gov. Cuomo to join her in another debate, this one focusing on upstate issues since their last debate made no mention of the region. He has yet to respond.
Another progressive candidate tried to beat Gov. Cuomo in 2014: Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law professor who is currently running for attorney general. (Teachout joined Nixon on the campaign trail on Saturday, at a rally in Ithaca where Nixon talked about being “tired of the corruption and dysfunction in Albany.”) Despite having little name recognition, Teachout got 34% of the vote, which shows that the dissatisfaction with Gov. Cuomo is not insignificant. How much has it grown? And will Nixon’s celebrity status help her inch closer to victory?
“Look, it’s difficult for anyone who’s an incumbent,” says Sheinkopf. “It’s a difficult task by any measure,” he adds, but particularly for someone who’s trying to bring down a political dynasty.
In a historically low-turnout primary like New York’s, the result will essentially come down to a numbers game. Fewer than 10% of the state’s Democrats voted in the Cuomo vs. Teachout primary in 2014. Back in April, Steven Romalewski, head of the Graduate Mapping Center at CUNY, predicted that Nixon would only need to take 75,000 voters from Gov. Cuomo to win — if she captures all of Teachout’s votes and the votes of the 2014 third-party candidate’s (who got 3.6%). But it remains to be seen whether there will be a surge in voter enthusiasm this year. Sheinkopf isn’t convinced.
“She should be admired for taking on the battle. Can she win? Not likely. Is it important to have people like Cynthia Nixon run for office? Absolutely,” he says.
Whatever the outcome of the primary, the “Cynthia effect” will already have taken place. “Our campaign alongside so many other inspiring progressive candidates and partner groups helped spark national conversations around single-payer healthcare, justice reform, mass transit, universal rent control, democratic socialism, and abolish ICE,” Hitt says.
In that sense, David has already chopped off Goliath’s head. But, on that sauna of an August Friday, Cynthia Nixon is reveling in the tiny win of having found that one air-conditioned subway car. (Plus a seat, score!) She’s eating her lunch out of a Tupperware container while savoring a rare quiet moment in-between stops. Over the next few days, she’ll visit two Sikh temples in Queens, canvass on the Upper West Side, meet voters on Harlem Day, and host a Latinx for Cynthia event on the Upper East. Somehow it feels like no matter what happens on September 13, she’ll never stop raging against the machine.