Sitting in the open kitchen of her New York City apartment, the first-time political candidate snacks on pistachios and talks campaign-finance reform. “In New York, you can’t call out Wall Street, right?” says Cynthia Nixon, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York. She rises to buzz in a delivery, and on the way to the door continues in campaign mode. “The private prison system is built on debt, right? Without the banks lending them all this money to expand, they would not be able to do what they’re doing. Fundraising is monopolizing everything.” Just before opening her door, she says, “That’s why campaign-finance reform is so important. It’s the mother reform, the reform that makes all the other reforms possible.”
She opens the door to accept a large, thin box. “You look like an actress,” the messenger says. Nixon has grown accustomed to this: “I am. Sex and the City.” Nixon’s most famous role is but a beat in a conversation dedicated to the role for which she’s now auditioning.
To those who hadn’t followed Nixon’s activism before she announced her candidacy, she’s still Miranda Hobbes, the tough-talking best friend from six seasons’ and two movies’ worth of Manhattan exploits. But to New York politicos, she’s a rising challenger to Governor Andrew Cuomo. New York politics has long been defined by personality and often haunted by scandal. (The state’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, resigned on May 7 after allegations of his abusing women were published by the New Yorker. “I have not assaulted anyone,” Schneiderman told the magazine.) Nixon appears, for a celebrity, almost prosaically scandal-free. Her persona–the smart, relentlessly logical law nerd from Sex and the City–precedes her and may help make her case.
Supporters say Nixon has already begun pushing Cuomo further to his left. Since Nixon began her campaign in March, the governor has announced that he intends to restore voting rights to paroled felons and signaled that he may legalize marijuana, saying, “The facts have changed.” Nixon’s campaign calls this “the Cynthia effect.”
Cuomo allies contest this, pointing to liberal accomplishments like New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2011 and the state’s $15 minimum-wage plan and paid family leave policy. His campaign, in a statement, said, “The governor’s long record of progressive accomplishment is irrefutable. Any claims otherwise should be seen for what they are: baseless election-year rhetoric.”
A recent Quinnipiac poll shows Nixon’s support among Democrats at 28%, trailing Cuomo by 22 points. “Power never concedes without a challenge,” Nixon says. “And so that seems particularly true of Andrew Cuomo.”
While the 2018 midterm election has many first-time candidates taking on establishment politicians, the most watched among them have been Democrats challenging Republican candidates who support the President. Nixon’s opposition, a man who she says has few core beliefs, is a member of her own party. Nixon will need to convince Democratic primary voters that she’s better equipped to carry out a governing vision than a two-term incumbent experienced at handling the levers of power. Listening to her clear, often lengthy but plainspoken answers, it doesn’t seem impossible. Stranger things have happened, and recently.
I talked with Nixon on the afternoon of May Day, after she took part in a morning protest against private prisons. Nixon, closely trailed by reporters, is aware of her ability to draw the media’s attention. “The press, I watched them,” she says. “They were trying to get me in the crowd, and they were trying to find me, but then what was happening was so profound! You could see the cameras turn from me, and they started filming what people were doing and what people were saying.”
The Emmy- and Tony-winning actor inherently understands politics’ “theatricality,” a word she used to describe her May Day rally. Up against a governor born into a political dynasty who has mastered the gestures that play in New York, she’s willing to play the skeptic. “Cuomo is such a skilled politician that I think sometimes he’s too skilled,” she says. “Sometimes it bites him in the butt. He’s very cognizant of investing money in things you can take a photo next to.”
Nixon has been an activist for progressive causes for 17 years. She says she has been urged to run for governor since at least 2010, the year Cuomo was elected. Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a coalition that fights for public-school funding, recalls Nixon’s working in 2007 to buttonhole Republican lawmakers in Albany, the state capital, to get more funds. “She’s one of the key players in making that happen,” Easton said.
Despite the availability of the governor’s bully pulpit, Cuomo does not appear invincible. In 2014, a little-known law-school professor named Zephyr Teachout got 34% of the Democratic primary vote against the then first-term governor. And Nixon’s more visible campaign is riding the wave of female activists and candidates who emerged in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s election loss. “I do think sometimes out of defeat there can be victory,” Nixon says of Clinton. “And I think that she inspired so many people, including me, to run in a way that, had she been elected, I would not have felt that same need.” She pauses, considering another inspiration point. “And Bernie Sanders too, frankly.”
Nixon says she finds inspiration in both of the 2016 Democratic rivals, whose supporters fought bitterly at times. “I think I’m a candidate of this time,” she says. “If you take Hillary’s message and you take Bernie’s message, it’s not hard to combine them and say the Berniecrats have to do a better job of talking to people across the board and the Hillary–I don’t know what the nickname is, the Hillaryheads, we have to really get serious about income inequality and about how our country is more and more stratified. And that’s how we end up with a Donald Trump.”
Nixon draws inspiration from emerging candidates this year as well, including Stacey Abrams, the woman making a pathbreaking run to be Georgia’s first black female governor. Nixon remarks on how impressed she was that Abrams didn’t “find that daunting–she said, I’m going to be the first!” Does Nixon wonder about the symbolism inherent in her own run: a woman, in a same-sex partnership (either would be a first for the governor of New York), running against …
“A bully?” she asks. (I had been thinking a straight white man.) “I really don’t, and when people say it back to me, it’s very nice, but I never vote for anybody because of the category they fit in, except maybe progressive.”
As our conversation ends, Nixon apologizes twice for having been “long-winded,” then knocks on an interior window to bring out her wife, Christine Marinoni, an education activist, who had been doing some household chores. Nixon seemed doubly advantaged–a star accustomed to sharing her mystique with her public, and an insurgent candidate making connections not available to a traditional politician. For someone in the middle of an already contentious race in a high-drama state, Nixon was almost normal. Whatever happens in the election, she’s cleared the first hurdle, with a bit of help from the jostling force of recent history. The outsider given to long answers and challenging the mainstream seems, in 2018, a natural politician.
This appears in the May 21, 2018 issue of TIME.