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Cynthia Nixon Knew Her Chances of Becoming New York Governor Were Slim. One Year Later, She Has No Regrets About Running

7 minute read

Whenever Cynthia Nixon leaves her Manhattan apartment, people thank her. “Still every day multiple people come up to me and say, ‘I voted for you,’” the actress and one-time gubernatorial candidate tells me. “They say, ‘Thank you for running.’”

One year ago, Nixon announced her run for governor of New York, challenging two-term incumbent Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination. A longtime education activist, she was a first-time candidate going toe-to-toe with a political dynasty. After a bitter race – during which Nixon called her opponent a corrupt liar and a flier paid for by the state Democratic Party, which Cuomo effectively controls, painted her as an anti-Semite – she lost the September primary, garnering just 34 percent of the vote.

“I ran to win. I hoped to win. I did everything I could to make that a possibility,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I knew the most important thing about my running was to shed light on these issues.” She recognized that her odds of winning were “very, very small,” and says she didn’t truly believe it would happen, given Cuomo’s deep political ties and massive spending advantage. (His campaign outspent hers 10-to-1.)

Instead, success has come through the election of her allies and the enactment of more progressive policies. During the campaign, as Cuomo appeared to tack left on marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform and other issues, some cited the Cynthia Effect. (Cuomo’s team disputed this characterization, with a spokesperson telling the New York Times, “The governor’s long record of progressive accomplishment is irrefutable.”) But Nixon is quick to share credit, explaining that, although she ran knowing her celebrity status would attract media coverage and force a conversation on progressive issues, she was actually part of a larger trend.

At the end of the day, I knew the most important thing about my running was to shed light on these issues.

“A lot of people ran in New York. A lot of people ran across the country. A lot of them were women. A lot of them were people of color. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, if this one thing hadn’t happened, this other one thing wouldn’t have happened,’” she says. “But I think there was a sense in New York and across the country – and I think there is coming up to 2020 too – we need all hands on deck and we have to step outside our comfort zones, whatever that means in terms of political engagement. And for a lot of people, including me, that meant running for office.”

In January, New York’s freshly minted Democratic state legislature passed a long-stalled abortion law, which, among other things, expanded the circumstances under which a woman could terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks. Nixon had made reproductive rights a focus of her campaign, calling attention to the legislature’s Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of moderate Democrats who voted with Republicans, and accusing Cuomo of using them as cover for not pushing through stymied progressive legislation like the abortion law. (The group broke up last April, and six of the eight former members lost re-election.) Throughout the race, Nixon also worked with the Sexual Harassment Working Group, women who said they had experienced or reported sexual harassment or abuse while working in the state legislature. Nixon has continued to publicize their efforts, and last month, the group held its inaugural hearing, the first on sexual harassment in the state legislature in nearly three decades. Nixon’s running mate, Jumaane Williams, won his election last month for New York City public advocate, and New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom Nixon endorsed early on, has become a progressive superstar. (Nixon says she and Ocasio-Cortez still text every so often.)

“When I see all these things,” Nixon tells me, as she sips iced tea in her apartment, “and when I see them gaining steam not just in New York but on the national stage, too, I feel like I won.”

It wasn’t without a toll. “It was very scary,” she says of the campaign, tearing up. “It was very hard on me. It was very hard on my family.” The day after the election, she wrapped herself in a blanket, sat on her couch and gave herself permission not to do anything for a day — a luxury, she notes, for a mother. “I just kind of sat there and drank water,” she says. She called to thank people who had been part of the campaign. But mostly, she just “let go.”

Luckily, she says, she had a life to go back to, a career she could pick back up. A few months after her defeat, she signed on to Netflix’s Ratched, which imagines the origin story of the vicious Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “I actually play a person with political ambitions,” she says. The character, an aide to the governor of California right after World War II, plans to run for office herself because she “sees a new day on the horizon.”

Nixon’s defining role, as no-nonsense lawyer Miranda Hobbes on HBO’s Sex and the City, pervaded her campaign. She leaned into it hard, even making merchandise that trumpeted “I’m a Miranda and I’m voting for Cynthia.” “It was a really useful fundraising tool,” she tells me. “People know me as Miranda, and I share a lot in common with her. I think it was kind of a shorthand for saying, ‘Women like me are stepping up and are outspoken and are warriors and crusaders in the way that Miranda was.’”

But her fame was used against her, too. Of all the barbs she faced — the bizarre jibe that she was an “unqualified lesbian,” being labeled too angry to govern after her fiery debate performance — her most frustrating experience with sexism was when she was attacked for being an actress. “It’s not a neutral descriptor,” she says. “The way it was used against me in the race, it meant ditsy or vain.” In another dig, the Cuomo campaign toasted their primary-night victory with cosmopolitans, the signature drink of Sex and the City.

Nixon hasn’t left politics entirely. Since her defeat, she’s returned to her education advocacy, particularly trying to bring attention to the billions of dollars that activists say the state owes New York City public schools after a 2006 court ruling, and she plans to get involved in the 2020 presidential campaign. She’s impressed by Elizabeth Warren but wouldn’t tell me who she’ll endorse because it’s still “early days.” (She did, however, say that Miranda would probably like Kamala Harris’s “kickassness.”) When another likely presidential contender, Joe Biden, recently described Vice President Mike Pence as a “decent guy,” Nixon called him out. Biden walked back his comments, tweeting to her that “there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights.” Nixon says she hopes the exchange “will make him think twice about giving someone like Mike Pence cover.”

Would she run for office again? “I don’t think I will, but you never know,” she says. “Life is long and strange.”

She still can’t quite believe she ran at all, but, she tells me, it was worth it. “I do feel like particularly as women it is the thing that we throw up so many roadblocks in front of ourselves — that I am not qualified, that I am not ready, that I have not earned my place. What’s the worst that can happen? Let me try.”

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