Cynthia Nixon is sipping green tea while sitting at the counter in her kitchen in her New York City apartment in lower Manhattan. In her living room, large windows overlooking her neighborhood welcome daylight that reaches into the kitchen. Behind her is an off-white pantry covered with drawings by her 7-year-old son, Max.
In between the drawings are signs of Nixon’s political ambition; a piece of paper reads, “I can’t take 4 more years of this. #CuomosMTA #FixOurSubway,” with the number 4 depicting the symbol for the New York City subway train. Another piece of paper, taped below a photo of her wife, Christine Marinoni, and Max, reads, “Fix the G D subway #CuomosMTA #FixOurSubway.” Both are clear shots at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s strongly criticized handling of the city’s troubled subway system.
As Nixon sees it, Cuomo doesn’t care about poor people. Under his leadership, she charges, the city’s most vulnerable will never have a shot at success because the system is rigged against them—and Cuomo is to blame, she insists.
“Gentrification is just pushing people out,” Nixon told The Root on a recent Friday afternoon. “People who’ve sometimes been in those buildings in those neighborhoods [for] decades. We can pass rent regulation, and we can close the loopholes.”
Indeed, Nixon knows how it feels to struggle—she grew up in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, wearing hand-me-down clothes, as her mother struggled to pay rent. But Nixon also recognizes that she’s had certain advantages that most white people take for granted—and it bothers her.
“It’s very important to acknowledge my own white privilege, because we want a New York that works for everybody,” Nixon said. “We’re so far from everybody having equal opportunity. I think often, white people are afraid to speak about these issues for fear that they’re going to say the wrong thing. I think it’s important to talk and share ideas in a respectful way.”
Nixon is pretty convincing when discussing how she plans to use the power of the governor’s office to challenge the racial inequality that devastates the poor and people of color in the state—if she wins.
From the time Nixon launched her New York gubernatorial campaign in March, she has made a point of arguing that Cuomo hasn’t fulfilled his commitment to black and poor people, as he claims. Yet she is trailing behind Cuomo with black voters. A recent Siena College Research Institute poll has the current governor leading Nixon by 57 points among black voters and 35 points overall. (Nixon’s team counters that the poll targeted general election voters, not primary ones.)
Either way, it’s not looking good for Nixon, and most political observers doubt that she can win the Democratic nomination. More than two months remain between now and the primary in September, so anything could happen. But her dearth of support among African Americans is a concern. Nixon cannot win without black support—and she knows it. When asked what she must do to win over more black voters, Nixon posed a series of questions for them to consider.
“Think about how this governor has said he will enact criminal-justice reform, and he hasn’t,” she said. “Think how he has done nothing to address the inequities in our school system. Think how he has let the real estate industry dictate what our rent laws are, and that’s causing these enormous, skyrocketing rents when wages have basically been flat. We have the single-most-unequal state when it comes to income and the second-most-unequal when it comes to schools. And I’m running to do something about that.”
Nixon’s campaign is unique in that its style and tenor operate slightly beyond the safe confines of traditional politicking. Sure, she has a robust education plan, strong views on the state’s cash-bail system and plans to dismantle it, and she has employed some of the best political operatives in the state. But it has been Nixon’s outspokenness on racism that distinguishes her gubernatorial run. One could argue that white people—especially a white woman—can take on racism without suffering the blowback that would tank a black candidate’s standing among white voters. In recent years, communities of color have long urged white people to use their privilege to speak out against racism and white supremacy, and Nixon seems to be answering that call.
However, her candor on race hasn’t helped her win over significant black support. At the New York State Democratic Convention in May, not only did Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez endorse Cuomo, breaking from the DNC’s pledge of not endorsing primary candidates, but also zero black delegates voted for her—despite signs indicating that the governor could be vulnerable.
Recently, members of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network complained that Cuomo essentially used them as props during a campaign stop. (A Cuomo campaign aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that there was a staff-level miscommunication, and a meeting is scheduled with the activists in the coming weeks.) In April, The Intercept reported that Cuomo’s executive order to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies came primarily because Nixon’s run pushed him to do so.
Nixon’s campaign has been seen more as one that is forcing Cuomo, who has 2020 presidential ambitions, to legislate further from the left than as a run that can actually unseat him.
“I look at her campaign much more in terms of what she is doing to Cuomo in terms of 2020, not 2018. Cuomo has many flaws, but he has a stronghold in New York,” said Christina Greer, who is an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “He’s shored up unions and lots of different types of communities throughout the state. Cynthia Nixon’s greatest victory is pushing Cuomo to the left. She’s going to make it harder for him in 2020.”
In an email to The Root, Cuomo campaign spokesperson Abbey Fashouer rejected any suggestions that the governor is being forced to push progressive legislation, saying: “His long record of progressive accomplishment is irrefutable. Any claims otherwise should be seen for what they are: baseless, election-year rhetoric.”
Fashouer also noted Cuomo’s signing of legislation that raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, the appointment of a special prosecutor in matters relating to police killings and the closure of 24 prisons, among other achievements.
One of the challenges Nixon faces is name recognition among black voters. Her acting career hasn’t helped her so far (Sex and the City almost never featured any black actors or storylines) and may actually be seen as a negative, given that Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency has tainted anti-establishment candidates with entertainment backgrounds. A pollster for Cuomo told the New York Times in March that Democratic voters are looking for candidates to “counter what they see as the chaos of the inexperienced.”
While Nixon, 52, doesn’t have electoral experience, she has more than two decades of education activism under her belt. Noliwe Rooks, director of the American-studies program at Cornell University, said that Nixon has broadened the conversation about education—her signature campaign platform—in ways that politicians rarely discuss and that parents aren’t prepared to engage in.
“It’s a little heartbreaking that there’s not more of a response, because some of what she’s raising are systemic fixes,” Rooks said. “Very often, when we start talking about education with black and brown and poor folks, usually what people—including black, brown and poor parents—say is that the parents need to ‘do more.’ The kids need to ‘do more.’ It’s individual work ethic they think is missing, and a lack of parenting and respect for education. She’s talking about systemic fixes, changes in funding, the ways you organize districts.”
A parent of three children—Max and Charlie, 15, are both currently enrolled in New York City public schools; her oldest son, Seph, is 21—Nixon is running primarily on a platform to make quality education more accessible to the poor and students of color. Her 24-page education plan (pdf) calls for eliminating both suspensions for minor infractions and arrests for school violations and misdemeanors; the plan also includes home-visiting programs that provide coaching for parents. Almost every page seems to address something that would benefit people of color.
But she’s challenging a two-term governor whose name many black people are familiar with—and one that Hillary Clinton recently endorsed. (“Black people love them some Clintons,” Rooks said). Add that to her acting career, which obscures her decades of education advocacy.
When Bertha Lewis, head of the Black Institute, met Nixon more than 20 years ago, she was unaware that the actor had a starring role in one of the most iconic romantic dramedies in television history. Lewis had no interest in “watching white women in high heels drinking cocktails with no work to do.” Most of the interactions between her and Nixon revolved around school-equity issues, and they developed a close working friendship.
“When I met her, she was just a regular person,” Lewis said. “She didn’t have an entourage.”
What most impressed Lewis about Nixon was when they were both arrested in May 2002 after protesting then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to cut $350 million from the school budget. Nixon, along with 11 other protesters, blocked the City Hall entrance singing, “We Shall Not Be Moved” until they were taken into custody.
“She kept showing up,” said Lewis, who supports Nixon’s run.
On Sex and the City, Nixon played Harvard-educated, career-focused lawyer Miranda Hobbes, who lived a fairly privileged lifestyle. Hobbes’ fictional biography hardly matches Nixon’s paycheck-to-paycheck upbringing in Manhattan. Her father was a radio journalist and her mother worked in television. After Nixon’s parents split when she was 6, she and her mom moved into a one-bedroom, five-story walk-up on the Upper East Side.
Around the age of 11, Nixon began acting. Her mother told her then that she could not afford to cover Nixon’s education after high school.
“‘I want to be clear. I’m not able to save any money for your college. You’re going to have to figure that out,’” Nixon recalls her mother saying. She eventually earned a degree from Barnard College, taking acting jobs to pay her way through school.
It’s the ideal New York City come-up story, but these aspects of her personal narrative do not seem to be helping her shake the celebrity veneer that cloaks her candidacy.
She’s had a few hiccups, too—like the time she called for the legalization of marijuana as a means of reparations, which caught flak among a group of black pastors in the state (I strongly disagreed with their reactions). Legalization could help reduce policing practices that negatively impact people of color—a move that some voters may see as overzealous pandering.
“People may feel like it’s very targeted and be suspicious,” said Carla Shedd, an associate professor of sociology at the City University of New York. “I remember talking to my aunt, who lives in Michigan, about Bernie Sanders, and she was like, ‘He’s selling wolf tickets. He’s just saying what he thinks people want to hear, but he could never win.’ Yeah, people will never win if you don’t vote for them.”
The current hot-button issue in New York City concerns diversifying the city’s specialized high schools, which are overwhelmingly white. Mayor Bill de Blasio presented a plan that would phase out the admissions test for some 17 schools and grant admission to the top 7 percent of students from each of the city’s 600 middle schools. Some 70 percent of all high school students in New York City are black or Latinx.
This proposal has made a lot of well-to-do white parents very upset. A viral video showing a group of pissed-off parents complaining about the plan quotes one woman in the crowd as saying, “You’re talking about an 11-year-old, you worked your butt off and you didn’t get that, what you needed or wanted. You’re telling them that you’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!”
Nixon supports the school diversity plan, which may not endear her to those white moms whom you’d expect to endorse her candidacy. She’s used to angry, privileged white women complaining about school diversity issues—and challenging them. Back in 2008, a roomful of parents booed her as she spoke out against a plan to move the more ethnically diverse Center School inside a larger elementary school on West 70th Street. She argued that it would lead to a “de facto segregated building on 70th Street.”
Ten years later, the same issue is bubbling up again—this time during her run for governor. When asked what she thought about those white mothers complaining about their kids sharing their classroom with black and brown kids, she said, “We have to recognize how segregated and unequally funded our school system is, and how we have to change that, particularly when you’re talking about the specialized high schools.
“This is some of the best public education you can get anywhere in the state, and it’s not right that it’s so segregated and there are so few black and brown children in those schools,” Nixon continued. “For white parents who have gotten the lion’s share of everything for so long, I think they need to think about the big picture. What are you so afraid of?”
Nixon has been campaigning heavily upstate, where Cuomo is not at his strongest. Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and other cities where folks are struggling economically may be pockets of hope for Nixon’s uphill battle to win the nomination. The Working Families Party of New York, which has endorsed Nixon, is helping to reach diverse communities outside of New York City to help get her already well-known name further recognition as a credible and promising political player.
Nelini Stamp, national organizing director for the Working Families Party, said that Nixon is talking about all of the right things and has the right policy ideas. Stamp believes that more people need to hear her speak truth to power, as she has been for years—that’s what she has going for her. But some critics say that she can afford to be so outspoken on race because she’s so far behind in the polls and therefore has nothing to lose.
“I don’t think she would be any different if she was in the lead,” Stamp said. “I’ve actually seen Cynthia Nixon around, since I was coming up doing street actions and organizing. There are a lot of famous activists, but I have always seen her out there—not trying to talk on the mic. So it is hard for me to believe that if she became the leader in the polls that she would change, because she [has progressive] values.”
Another issue that should appeal to black voters is her challenging of the state’s bail-bond system. On Juneteenth, Nixon’s campaign released a video of her decrying Kalief Browder’s three-year detention at the city’s Rikers Island jail because he could not afford bail, and comparing his treatment with that of Harvey Weinstein.
“So two people are arrested in New York City,” she said. “One of them is a wealthy white man accused of decades of sexual assault and rape—and he walks free because he can afford to pay his $1 million bail. The other is Kalief Browder, who is a black, 16-year-old kid accused of stealing a backpack. And his family can’t afford to pay his $3,000 bail, so he spends the next three years on Rikers Island, where he is beaten and placed in solitary confinement.”
Short of donning a black glove and throwing her fist in the air, there is little Nixon can do to demonstrate her commitment to taking on the racism that pervades the state’s education and criminal-justice systems. Maybe more people will catch on to her policy outlook and her electoral fortunes will improve; maybe not. But her candidacy so far has been exhibit A for what most communities of color have long asked of white politicians: to speak out against white supremacy, in all of its ugliness.
“We’re never going to solve the problem of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow if we just keep our mouths shut,” Nixon said.