Nixon’s the One

A journey across the state she wants to govern has landed actress, activist, and insurgent gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon in the upstairs library at the state capital’s oldest men’s club (women were admitted grudgingly in 1989) taking questions on the particulars of tax policy. When she doesn’t have a precise answer on hand, Nixon reverts to a softer, prettier version of the refrain Bernie Sanders customarily shouts: “I think that voters across New York would agree that millionaires and billionaires could afford to pay a little bit more.” She blinks and pauses for even longer than usual while trying to conjure an explanation of how she’d navigate a state senate that’s announced it’s unwilling to revive the failed proposal to “tax millionaires” she’s promised she would resurrect if elected.

Last month, Nixon blinked and paused in Brooklyn, too, at a pop-up press conference on a subway platform, when a reporter asked how she’d fulfill the promise of “no more train delays” that she’d just made to a Manhattan-bound commuter. And here in Albany, she haltingly holds forth again. This Nixon is a telling contrast to the candidate I heard the night before, chatting confidently about the one subject she knows better than anyone: Cynthia Nixon.

Tanner ’88 is about a man running for president, and I’m his daughter,” Nixon explained to me about the 1988 HBO miniseries made by Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau, which Altman revisited 16 years later. “But in 2004—in the world of Michael Moore—Altman, who was not a fan of Michael Moore, not a fan of documentary, or at least thought it was getting more glory than it deserved, made a mockumentary about my character making a documentary about my dad’s failed bid for the presidency. It is not a very interesting sounding documentary and that was part of his point.”

We were in Ithaca at a twee event space stocked with Bernie Sanders delegates. The role of Alex Tanner, the college-age activist daughter of a liberal longshot candidate, was a natural for Nixon, 52. “I’m a person who comes from people who will believe in social change through protest,” she said. “There’s a photo of me at age five at a Vietnam protest outside of my school.”

I’d asked about Tanner because at her talk in Ithaca, Nixon had echoed the controversial proposal Jack Tanner makes in the show: His only defined policy position is the legalization of drugs, all of them. And Nixon, for her part, proposes not just to legalize marijuana in New York state—“We’re putting people of color in jail for something that white people do with impunity” runs her racial-equity pitch on pot—but, as of the Ithaca event, to provide safe spaces for heroin users to shoot up. “I think 100 percent, I don’t know why it hasn’t happened already. We need safe-injection sites,” she said, of a policy so far enacted only in San Francisco and Philadelphia. “We need safe-injection sites here, to save people’s lives.” This and her legal weed plug were the big applause lines in Ithaca.

Three months out from the state’s Democratic primary, it’s still Nixon’s most famous acting job that defines her candidacy. From 1998 to 2004, she was the sarcastic, high-powered lawyer Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City. She was the “smart one” and the least conventionally sexy of the ensemble cast. Being Miranda makes her a stronger and better-known challenger to Andrew Cuomo than was Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout in 2014. But Nixon’s poor showing at the party convention on Long Island last month reminded the starstruck subset of the electorate what a powerful head start the two-term incumbent Cuomo has: Less than 5 percent of Democratic delegates cast votes for Nixon, who’s since moved on to collecting signatures to get on the primary ballot.

She says such setbacks only affirm her rallying cry that Albany is a cesspool of corruption and favoritism—as do the conviction of Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco for bribery and the sitting governor’s record of pay-for-play politics in the statehouse. A veteran political operative and ex-Cuomo staffer admits, “I’ve been surprised by how many people are favorable to voting for her just because they don’t like Cuomo.” As an adamant public education advocate for 17 years, Nixon is “respected by serious people,” this Albany insider notes. But for her actually to win in September, “something would have to happen”: a late-summer surprise on the scale of the career-ending revelation that ex-New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman abused his girlfriends. “Were something like that to happen, she’s absolutely situated to win,” the former staffer says, launching into the story of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s sexual exploits with escorts. “Stranger things have happened in New York politics.”

This unofficial slogan of the Nixon campaign—and of the post-2016 era in American politics—hangs in the air wherever she goes. Stranger things have happened. In the most recent public poll, Nixon was 22 points down. But her celebrity carries undeniable force.

At the Buffalo Pride Parade on June 2, a group called Queers for Racial Justice is waiting for Nixon to meet them at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Allen Street, in Buffalo’s “gayborhood.” Bridge Rauch, a 32-year-old trans person with a five-o’clock shadow and punk­ish garb, disapproves of the parade’s sponsorship by M&T Bank but looks forward to meeting the candidate. Nixon’s choice to march with Queers for Racial Justice, the parade’s intersectional contingent, Rauch explains to me, “shows she’s not trying to perpetuate the systems of corporate control that applaud cisgendered people for accepting us.”

But, except for a post-parade photo-op with their organizer, Nixon didn’t join the Queers for Racial Justice. She ran late at Lincoln Memorial Methodist Church and after the service stopped at her hotel to change her shoes. I find her several blocks away from Bridge’s group, wearing purple Converse high-tops with towering wedge heels and stopping often to hug, shake hands, and take selfies with well-wishers while her wife, Christine Marinoni, walks backwards to keep pace. “Mirandaaaa!” a costumed member of a gay black men’s advocacy group shouts from atop a Black Panther-themed float. “Oh my f—ing God,” another Cynthiac says when he sees her on the parade route.

When things have quieted down, we talk about the Methodist service she attended that morning. She’s no stranger to progressive Protestantism, though she takes her two children from a previous relationship to synagogue. “We’re both Episcopalian,” Nixon tells me, with a smile at Marinoni. They were married in 2012 by the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, whose elevation threatened a schism in the Anglican Communion. “My mom died the following January, so we kind of just made it. She held on,” Nixon says. “It was theater, it was theater,” she laughs, remembering what the ritual meant to her devoted stage mother.

The pre-parade service in Buffalo was not overtly political, Nixon assures me. The pastor, George Nicholas, in casting the Old Testament covenant in contrast to the New “made one reference to ‘who you love,’ ” she recalls of the sermon. “But it was more that threats shouldn’t be used in the name of religion. In the same way that we should rule with love, in the same way that scaring your children into behaving doesn’t really work. You’ve got to love them into behaving.” Scripture applies to the political game too, she thinks, especially once you’ve won. “I feel that governing with fear is not the right way to lead,” she adds.

Jim, a lawyer who asks that I conceal his surname for fear of recrimination from the governor, gives me a lift back to my car after the parade. I pack in with three of his friends. They will all probably vote for Nixon in September—if only “to send a message to Cuomo,” Jim says, describing the governor as callous, selfish, and mean. Cuomo legalized same-sex marriage in 2011 and because of it he wins fealty from New York’s gay community that Jim doesn’t think he deserves: “He got marriage, but was only for his agenda, not ours.” There’s an urban myth that Cuomo, while managing his father’s gubernatorial reelection campaign in 1982, plastered New York City with “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” posters when then-mayor Ed Koch was still in the running. One of Jim’s friends gasps at the story, “He didn’t?” Jim intones, grimly, “He did.” Jim repeats a line I heard often during my days upstate: “Andrew Cuomo, even his friends hate him.”

But at least they know him. A couple of progressive Ithacans, a blogger and a freelance writer, wonder just what brand of progressive retail politics—economic populism or identity politics?—Nixon is campaigning on. Given the choice, she throws in with Sanders: “If I had to pick one of those categories, I would say I’m a progressive populist,” she says, “We need government that listens to the people, and responds to the people.”

But her stump speech opens with a timely story of female grit: Nixon and her mother living in a one-bedroom walk-up, just the two of them, after separating from her abusive father. “There have been 56 governors of New York and not a single one has been a woman” is another of her signature lines. And downstate, race dominates her talking points: Nixon started her campaign in late March at a black church in Brooklyn.

One man likely to vote for Nixon is Patrick Meagher, 42, a Manhattanite working on a public-art installation in Ithaca. He admires her controversial argument that legalizing marijuana represents “reparations” for black people. “It was brave of her to say what she actually meant,” he thinks, “whatever the connotation. It’s true, and it’s about time.”

A straight-talking protest candidate recycling policy proposals from anywhere to the left of the incumbent, Nixon makes the most of her celebrity. Her greatest gift, an even Trumpier feature than her fame or inexperience, is that partisans tend to see in her whatever kind of champion it is that they want. To become the left’s Trump, all Nixon has to do now is actually win.

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