They say politics is Hollywood for ugly people, so it’s understandable that the question of why exactly Cynthia Nixon is running for governor of New York is one that keeps coming up. After all, Nixon has had the kind of career most actors dream about. The past two years saw her inhabiting complicated, interesting characters like Emily Dickinson and Nancy Reagan and taking home a Tony — her second — for the Broadway production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. She could’ve kept going, agitating for her favored progressive causes while looking for the kind of part that would’ve netted her an Oscar, the last award she needs to get an EGOT.
And: “There actually was a part,” Nixon admitted recently, sitting on a barstool in her Noho kitchen on a weekday morning. It was playing a female politician, she said, and it was good, and although she declined to say who the character was, looking at her layered bob (several shades lighter than the red she’d had as Miranda on Sex and the City), intelligent blue eyes, button nose, and Cool Whip complexion, you wouldn’t have to be a genius casting director to figure it out.
“Blonde?” I asked. “Partial to pantsuits?”
Nixon pursed her lips in a mysterious smile that only served to emphasize that she’d have been an excellent Hillary Clinton.
But instead of playing a politician, Cynthia Nixon has decided to become one, a choice many have found confounding. Who would trade all of this — the career, the apartment, the comfortable distance from reality — for glad-handing, and stale coffee in Styrofoam cups, and answering for a number of decades-old Sex and the City grievances, and, you know, Albany? “People were like, ‘I think it’s great, but just why?’ ” Nixon said onstage at the Cutting Room in Murray Hill, at her recent 52nd-birthday party, which doubled as a fund-raiser. “Why would you possibly do this?”
The main reason, she said, is Donald Trump. Like many liberals, Nixon was shocked and shaken by the outcome of the 2016 election, and while she’d gone to the Women’s March, wearing a pink pussy hat and saying Washington had “better think twice about messing with women,” it hadn’t seemed like quite enough. “There was this sense that politics was now intensely personal in a way that it had never been before,” she told me in her apartment. “It felt like if we wanted to fight against the Trump agenda, we really had to do everything we could to get involved. Including running for office.”
As she saw it, Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, was the Trump in her own backyard. “We’ve had such a sense like, Oh, we’re a deep-blue state. We’re Democratic. I’m sure those people in Albany are doing the right thing and taking care of us,” she said, her voice getting stronger as she slipped into candidate mode. “But New York is the single most unequal state in the entire country, and it’s become more and more unequal under Andrew Cuomo.” For years, people in the liberal-activist circles that Nixon and her wife, Christine Marinoni, travel in had chafed at the governor’s arrogance, his backroom wheeling and dealing, and especially the concessions he has made to Republicans. He has allowed them to redraw their own districts and enabled the Independent Democratic Conference, a bizarre splinter group of senators who were elected as Democrats but chose instead to vote as Republicans, thus often watering down progressive legislation. The governor “presents himself as a progressive champion, but really nothing could be farther from the truth,” Nixon told me, credibly delivering the line as though she were saying it for the first time. “He slashed taxes on the wealthiest, and he’s slashed services on everybody else. He’s lost $25 billion from state revenue,” she said, referring to tax cuts under Cuomo’s tenure. “And we need it. Think of all the things we are craving here, whether it’s funding our schools or fighting for single-payer health care or renewable energy or fixing the subways or ending the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Nixon and her friends had been talking about finding a candidate with a progressive agenda to run against Cuomo the way Fordham professor Zephyr Teachout had back in 2014, when she startled everyone by capturing 34 percent of the Democratic vote — “even though she had very little money and no name recognition and had a hard time getting the media to cover her,” said Nixon. “So we were saying we needed someone like that, but maybe with a bigger megaphone.”
But what Democrat would be brave enough to take on a governor whose brand is as familiar to New Yorkers as Duane Reade, a man notorious for his political chess-playing and ruthless vengeance? Maybe Attorney General Eric Schneiderman? An upstate mayor?
In years past, Nixon said, she’d been asked to consider filling this role and had always demurred. But at the Tonys in July, while Nixon spoke about inhabiting her character and other actorly things, her mind was clearly elsewhere. Hellman’s play was “eerily prescient,” she mused in her acceptance speech, implicitly connecting the 20th-century work to Trump and the Women’s March with a quote from the playwright: “There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it, and other people who stand around and watch them eat.”
Soon after, Nixon decided she could no longer stand around watching the Earth Eaters. On March 19, she launched her campaign for governor, releasing a homey, wistful video filmed partially in her living room and prominently featuring her youngest son, Max, who happened to be home sick the day I visited. “I think what we learned in 2016 is we can’t take anything for granted,” Nixon told me, dodging a kick in the face as Max, a 7-year-old with a mop of bright-red Weasley curls, climbed into her lap like an oversize tabby. “And if we want our priorities front and center, we have to make them happen.”
As the video made its way around social media, questions about Nixon’s intentions piled up along with the Sex and the City jokes. The politerati couldn’t help but wonder: What was the meaning of this quixotic gambit? Was it a stunt, like Kid Rock running for Senate? Or a vanity play by an emboldened celebrity, a dangerous precursor to an Oprah–Bon Jovi 2020 ticket?
Those more familiar with Nixon’s history suggested it might be something else: a next-level troll of the governor from an ally of his nemesis Bill de Blasio. Or, more cannily, a targeted strike intended to force the governor to the left. “Remember when Al Sharpton ran for president in 2004?” says Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham. “His whole point was, ‘If I’m not in this race, then John Kerry will start to mimic George Bush and move to the right.’ He served a really important role in the discourse. Cynthia Nixon began as a figure who could do that.”
But in the three weeks Nixon has been on the campaign trail, she’s evolved into a different kind of figure, a liberal fairy godmother radiating the warmth and empathy missing from the current political landscape, not to mention from the standoffish personality of her opponent. Where Cuomo barely shakes hands, Nixon hugs — like in Crown Heights during a tour of NYCHA housing, when she embraced a crying mother while blasting the governor and mayor for the dilapidated conditions. Where the governor talks, she listens, like upstate in Hoosick Falls, where she met with residents whose water supply has been contaminated by toxic manufacturing chemicals. Where Cuomo points to the realities of overhauling a decrepit subway system and talks of “deferred maintenance,” Nixon vows to get it done whatever the cost. “We need to invest in our infrastructure,” she said at her birthday party, to cheers. “If we let the subway die, the city dies too!”
While victory is a long shot — the governor enjoys a $30 million war chest, support among unions and other factions, the incumbent bias in underattended primaries, and a 43-point lead in the first poll — it’s not out of the question. Looking at the numbers, one analyst from CUNY estimated Nixon needed to win only 75,000 votes away from Cuomo. “It’s more doable than I would’ve thought,” he told Politico. And Nixon brings advantages of her own: her familiarity (especially in New York City), her celebrity charisma and humor, and, more generally, the promise of a mom swooping in to make things right. “I vote with my heart,” says Michele Baker, who attended the meeting in Hoosick Falls with her daughter. “And Ms. Nixon won my heart.”
After all, these are emotional times, and Recent Events have demonstrated that it’s possible for a candidate to surf to victory on a wave of feelings. “In three weeks,” says Greer, “what started as a kamikaze mission has turned into: Could this be a competitive primary?”
“Where’s my educated ladies at?” boomed the fedora-wearing hype-man at a Chelsea studio whose live audience, wearing going-out tops and earrings and necklaces and lipstick and bedazzled jeans and at least one giant flower pin, was making the most of a rainy Tuesday afternoon while awaiting the appearance of one of the city’s most influential women: Wendy Williams.
Perhaps needless to say, Andrew Cuomo has never been invited to sit on Williams’s pink velour sectional and talk about which celebrities are cheating and which ones have The Secret. Nor has the governor been asked to place his sturdy loafers in front of the “ShoeCam,” on which Nixon, arriving for her first television interview, gamely danced in her white snakeskin slingbacks.
This is the “bigger megaphone” Nixon was talking about, and today she pointed it directly at black and brown women. Teachout performed poorly with this audience in 2014. Nixon is determined not to make the same mistake.
The day before at her apartment, when I’d asked her about the people who had encouraged her to run, she’d mentioned that strangers often come up to her on the street. “African-American women in particular,” she said. “I remember I was having this exchange with an African-American woman at the supermarket, and she was saying that she was a fan of mine and whatever. And there was no segue, but it was like we were spies in a spy movie talking to each other, and she said, ‘I want you to know that I vote, and not just in presidential elections.’ ”
Why does she think that happens with specifically African-American women? “I think because they don’t buy the bullshit about a normal political path,” Nixon said smoothly. “I think they understand that women get things done.” She went on in this vein for quite a long time. It started to seem a bit like … overdoing it. Pandering, maybe? But according to many analysts, she was just being smart. “People who are running for office need to cultivate black women,” says Bertha Lewis, president of the left-wing Black Institute and a longtime friend of Nixon’s. “We’re the single most consistent voting bloc. We’re not the ones who voted for Donald Trump. Wasn’t us.”
Williams, for one, is already sold. “How can black women help you become governor?” she asked in the studio.
“Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Nixon told her. “Look what black women did in Alabama. Look at how they supported Hillary Clinton in a way that white women didn’t at all.”
Nixon turned the conversation to Albany, where, because of the Independent Democratic Conference, the Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, “a black woman, has been regularly excluded from important conversations,” including recent deliberations over the budget and sexual harassment. “Four men in a room,” Nixon said, as an image of Stewart-Cousins materialized above the sectional. “One of the men has been accused of sexual misconduct. He was allowed to weigh in, and the top female legislator in this state was barred.”
The audience went wild. “Whaaaaat,” shrieked the hype-man, grabbing his hat to keep his mind from being blown.
“And do you know what?” Nixon finished. “Black women are going to stop showing up for the Democratic Party if the Democratic Party doesn’t start showing up for them.”
Toward the end of the segment, Williams leaned in. “How are you going to deal with being fussed over all the time?” she asked Nixon. “People messing with your hair and fussing with your clothes? Every time you and Christine make out,” she said, miming photographers, “they’re going to be there! Click-click!”
Nixon laughed. She’s far too polite to say, “You mean the way it’s been my entire life?”
Nixon was 9 the first time she appeared on television, impersonating a cowgirl on To Tell the Truth, a game show on which her mother, Ann, worked. (An actress, Ann was hired to coach performers who came on to fool the contestants.) Nixon’s parents had separated when she was 6. Her father, a radio journalist with a family back in Texas, “had troubles,” she said, and early on her mother warned that she probably wouldn’t be able to pay for Nixon’s college on her own. So Nixon took up acting, diligently completing her homework in between roles on television and onstage. Directors liked her — she tended to get along with people and was a hard worker.
“She liked going on auditions,” recalls David Rind, the longtime boyfriend of Nixon’s mother, who died of breast cancer in 2013. “I remember once she went to an audition, and her mother said afterward, ‘Do you even want the part?’ And Cynthia was just like, ‘No, I just wanted to audition.’ ”
Which was funny, Rind said, because Nixon didn’t strike him as particularly competitive. “Even now that she’s running as a sort of competitive thing, that sort of surprises me,” he says. “What Cynthia likes to do is, she likes to do a good job. She wants to do things well.”
It was the early ’80s, and Nixon soon fell into the pack of child actors making after-school specials and message movies like Little Darlings and My Body, My Child, in which she and Sarah Jessica Parker starred as the daughters of a woman — Vanessa Redgrave — agonizing over whether to abort a child with severe birth defects.
“My mother told me that she had an abortion and that it was illegal and it was awful,” Nixon told me. “I think it was very difficult for her to talk about. But it was important to her that I knew this.” Nixon’s parents were politically involved; her father did an award-winning series on the civil-rights movement, she proudly recalled, and she remembered her mother taking her into the voting booth on Election Day and explaining that they were not only Democrats — they were liberals. (“What would we say now? The Elizabeth Warren branch of the Democratic Party.”)
As she grew older, Nixon adopted the same set of beliefs. “Certainly, I grew up with a fair number of gay men in my life, and when the AIDS crisis hit, a lot of us stepped up and spoke out,” she said. “I was in Angels in America” — in 1994, she replaced Marcia Gay Harden in the Broadway production — “and it felt like being in the USO. Gay audiences would come and they would understand we were doing it just for them. And it was a wonderful artistic act, but it also felt like a political act.”
Her “watershed moment” with politics didn’t come until a few years after she had her first child. Nixon and her then-partner, Danny Mozes, had met at Hunter College High School, and New York City public education was what they intended for their daughter, Sam. The parents of Sam’s friends, they found, felt differently. “And I got this sense of how things had changed economically in this city, and that these very nice people who seemed like my peers were not planning to send their children to public schools. They weren’t even touring them. That was shocking to me.”
When their daughter started kindergarten in 2001, Nixon discovered the Alliance for Quality Education, a parent organization that advocates for increased and equitable distribution of school funding. “It was like, okay, here’s a place that I can affirm my belief in public schools and their worth and their goodness, and also my belief that our government is neglecting them and underfunding them,” she said. At the time, Sex and the City was at its zenith, and Nixon threw her star power behind the organization, at one point chaining herself, along with a group of other public-school parents, to the gates of City Hall.
“On the Broadway side,” recalls Bertha Lewis, who was also present. “We were all chained together with this white woman; she didn’t say, like, ‘I’m a celebrity’ or anything. She said, ‘My name is Cynthia Nixon; I am a public-school parent.’ Then we got hauled off to the precinct.”
It was also through the Alliance that Nixon met Christine Marinoni, then a director at the organization and a longtime activist and union organizer. “They’d be on the phone writing speeches and stuff,” Nixon’s Sex and the City co-star Kristin Davis later told The Advocate, “and I thought, She’s really into this.”
She was. Nixon later described this period as being one in which she found her voice. “First of all, it was a great pleasure, after having said other people’s words for so long, to actually be expressing my own thoughts,” she told me.
But she was also really into Marinoni. Later, after Nixon and Mozes split and she and Marinoni began dating, Nixon became devoted to the fight for LGBTQ rights in New York, co-founding an organization to oust state legislators who had voted against gay marriage. In doing this, she developed a taste for political strategizing. “There was a lot of negotiation and figuring out, sort of like with the IDC [Independent Democratic Conference] in the State Senate,” she said. “You’ve got a group of people and it’s a problem, and what can you do to flip this group and say — you know, you want to be on the right side of history.”
She and Marinoni got married in 2012, about a year after Andrew Cuomo passed the Marriage Equality Act, for which Nixon gives the governor credit, grudgingly. “He had a lot of big Republican donors who wanted the marriage issue to go away because they thought it was making the party look bad,” she told me. “And it was getting embarrassing — Iowa had marriage equality and not New York.”
Still, she admitted, “I think he spent political capital on it, and I think he was very savvy about the way he did it.”
Marinoni joined us from the other room, where Max was watching cat videos. As his birth mother, she shares his ginger coloring, and she spent several years as a stay-at-home mom to him and Nixon’s children with Mozes. (She resigned from her most recent job, at the city’s Department of Education, once Nixon’s gubernatorial bid became serious.) Nixon beamed as she entered the room. The couple is very, very affectionate, and very, very close. More than one person who knows them, when I asked questions about Nixon, referred to “they” instead of “she.” “We generally operate very much as a team,” admitted Marinoni, who prefers to stay in the background. Nixon called the relationship “symbiotic.”
“She came home from work one day when she was union organizing,” Nixon told me, “and she said, ‘They talked to us about something at work today, and I understand who you and I are now. They said, In life, there are expanders and contractors. And I’m an expander, and you’re a contractor.’ ”
“That means when there’s any decision to be made, I throw out 7,000 different ideas,” Marinoni explained. “But she gets at some point exasperated with all the talk, talk, talk and wants to just — ”
“Take a direction,” finished Nixon.
“I like to think big, but I have trouble moving out of the gate,” said Marinoni. “Cynthia moves out of the gate strong.”
“Like, even the way we got together,” Nixon said with a tiny smile. “I mean, I think there was a lot of desire on both parts, but I was the one who was like: You. Come here.”
This was pretty much the way they arrived at the decision to run for governor. Marinoni had been the cheerleader. “I’ve been doing this kind of work my whole life, and sometimes you start to see things in a very — you know, blinders on,” she said. “But Cynthia has this ability to just put her finger on the pulse of like, ‘No, this is the issue, and this is how we need to resolve it.’ And to communicate that to folks in a way that people aren’t used to hearing.”
As she turned the suggestion over in her mind, Nixon told me, she was reminded of a conversation she once had with her father not long after she graduated from Barnard. “I had already been acting for a long time, so I had a certain amount of, whatever, celebrity. And my college asked me to come and speak in the auditorium. And I was daunted. I thought, Oh, I don’t know what I would say, and it seemed easier to just make some excuse that I wasn’t available.” Later, she told her father that she’d said no. “And he wasn’t judgy, but he was really clear, and he said, ‘I think you made a mistake. If a group of people ask you to come and tell them what you think, you should not let that opportunity pass, and I hope that if you get asked to do that again, you’ll rethink your decision.’
When, after a series of “fits and starts,” it became clear that Nixon was ready to move out of the gate, Marinoni panicked. “I remember we were in bed, and you turned to me and you were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to run. You’re going to run. Oh my God,’ ” Nixon teased.
“This is obviously a very difficult and challenging thing to take on,” Marinoni said. “And I did not want to have been responsible.”
“It’s exciting,” protested Nixon, ruffling her hair.
“It’s very exciting,” Marinoni agreed.
But it was also a little scary. “I said, ‘Sweetheart, you are going to get hit with a firestorm,’ ” recalls Bertha Lewis. “Welcome to the Thunderdome.”
After that, “a lot of things happened.” They met with Bill Hyers and Rebecca Katz, the political strategists who’d crafted the populist message behind the 2013 mayoral campaign of Bill de Blasio. “I was like, ‘Hell yes,’ ” says Katz about Nixon approaching them in December. A Brooklyn mom who’d spent much of her time since the 2016 election working for Planned Parenthood, Katz tells me she had been “deeply affected” by the resolve she saw in women in particular and how that energy might be channeled toward a candidate like Nixon. “I felt like, We can do this,” says Katz. “It’s the year of the fired-up mom.”
Plus, as Hyers points out, Nixon has an edge many candidates do not. “With de Blasio, we had to practice his stump speech for days before it was remotely perfect. But Cynthia’s a natural.”
Too natural, for some. “I was thinking of her, to be honest, as kind of a TV character,” admits Zephyr Teachout, whom Nixon also arranged to meet with during that time. Nixon’s lack of experience gave her pause, but after they spoke for several hours, getting deep into tax arcana and their shared opinions about closing the LLC loophole, Teachout came away impressed. “She’s clearly so personable and so curious and she knows a lot. And I was impressed that this wasn’t a woman who was afraid,” she says. After she left, Teachout says, she called a friend and said, “She might win this thing.” Or, as Jezebel put it: “Jesus Christ, Miranda’s gonna be my governor.”
It’s April, and the weather in New York, like the national mood, is foul. As Nixon and her group picked their way from Wendy Williams’s studio to the E train, flecks of mud splashed the slingbacks that had been featured on the ShoeCam. It felt like a metaphor: New York politics — everyone gets dirty. Although it reminded Nixon of something else. “Did you see the cartoon in The New Yorker where I’m on the bus and it’s splashing Andrew Cuomo with mud?” she asked delightedly.
For a supposedly noncompetitive person, Nixon has taken to needling the governor. “I think it’s really important to pull the veil away and say, ‘Look, this is the way it’s been for eight years, and it’s not working, and it’s not what he says it is,’ ” she told me. “I imagine that would get under his skin.”
By all appearances, it has. Even members of Cuomo’s own team have cringed at the governor’s “unartful” response to Nixon’s rollout, as one insider calls it, from his initial comment that Nixon’s candidacy begat the start of “political silly season” to his teasing that Billy Joel might enter, too, and, of course, his playful suggestion that Nixon had been put up to run against him by the mayor or Vladimir Putin.
Like Christine Quinn’s now-iconic branding of Nixon as an “unqualified lesbian,”these remarks have largely backfired on the governor. (The Nixon campaign is now producing “Unqualified Lesbian” merchandise.) “He is acting really shook,” says Christina Greer. “He is like Tom Cruise on the couch right now.” For the record, “Mayor de Blasio has got nothing to do with Ms. Nixon’s candidacy,” a spokesman tells New York, adding that “the paranoia of those who think otherwise is a sexist underestimation of her independence.” (Vladimir Putin could not be reached for comment.)
And Cuomo has already moved to the left. He had, until recently, shrugged off the situation with the Independent Democratic Conference as something he was powerless to manage, despite the fact that it blocked progressives from having more power negotiating this year’s budget. Then, the same day that Nixon taped her comments at The Wendy Williams Show, the governor suddenly announced he had brokered a peace deal. If it could be done “over coffee and cookies,” as the Times reported it had, then, one Cuomo insider seethed, “Why the fuck didn’t you do it before?”
In 2014, Cuomo underestimated Teachout and was caught flat-footed by her relative success. Now the governor is in a relatively fragile position: He’s running for a third term, during a time when Establishment candidates are not exactly in favor and with a state-politics corruption trial looming this summer. A Marist poll released last week showed Nixon at 21 percent to his 68 percent, but still: The last thing he needs before the September 13 primary is a name-brand challenger, during a time of high political engagement, whose joy is pointing out his flaws. Over the weekend, the influential Working Families Party endorsed Nixon despite intense pressure from the governor’s office. And even a high percentage loss would be embarrassing. “If you are Andrew Cuomo and part of your raison d’être is you are going to run for president someday, you can’t lose 40 percent of the vote,” says a source close to the governor.
Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, tells me they are taking Nixon’s candidacy seriously. “We take everything seriously,” she says. And it’s clear he aims to lean into his reputation for bullying, as when he reportedly told any unions supporting Nixon that “they can lose my number.” Privately, others in the office deride Nixon’s candidacy, questioning her substance and suggesting that she is the one who is Trump-like. “Just think about it,” says one. “She’s a celebrity with no experience running a campaign entirely based on negativity, because she doesn’t have a track record of her own.”
They point out that Nixon has yet to offer any detailed policy positions that contrast with Cuomo’s, with the exception of supporting a more complete legalization of marijuana. “You know, I am disappointed with the attack style so far,” says Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, which gave an early endorsement of the governor before Nixon entered the race. “I would have liked to be talking more about the issues and how she could improve the quality of life for New Yorkers. What I’ve seen so far is soft on substance and heavy on ‘Everything is Andrew Cuomo’s fault. The flowers are late to bloom; it must be due to Andrew Cuomo’s incompetence.’ ”
She was particularly disappointed, she says, in one of the comments Nixon made on Wendy Williams, in which she suggested the governor was soft on gun control; just a few days prior, Ossorio pointed out, Cuomo had negotiated a deal with the Legislature to require anyone with a conviction for domestic abuse to surrender their guns. “That’s not easy to accomplish, and it’s not insignificant,” she says.
Nixon is “a confident, ambitious woman, and it’s her right, and generally it’s healthy,” says Ossorio. “But like someone in my office said, this is the way Sex and the City should have ended. With Miranda leaving corporate America and running for governor. And someone else said, you know, mayor would have been more realistic.”
Looming over Nixon’s candidacy is this question, which even a sympathetic voter might entertain: Can Cynthia Nixon actually run the government of New York State?
Back on the E train, Nixon pulled Marinoni in for a kiss, and a few New Yorkers who had been studiously ignoring The Celebrity reflexively pointed camera-phones in their direction. “This is exactly what Wendy was talking about,” Marinoni murmured.
As the train pulled into Canal, two of the phone-wielders, a pair of lanky teenagers in crop tops and eyeliner, shuffled adorably up to Nixon. “Are you from Sex and the City?” one asked, moving nervously from foot to foot. “You’re running for something!” the other said.
Nixon gave them her Clinton-esque smile and explained that yes, she’s running for governor. She wrapped her arms around them while one of their dads took a photo. “Good luck,” he said as she exited the subway, which everyone knows is not something you say to an actor.
*This article appears in the April 16, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.