I had heard the rumors that Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon planned to primary New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, but I didn’t believe them. It made so little sense to me that I ignored it until yesterday, when Nixon actually declared her candidacy. According to the Siena College poll of registered Democratic Party voters and self-identified liberals cited in Talking Points Memo yesterday, Cuomo is currently ahead by 47 points in the polls. He has $30 million in the bank, which worries me less. With the right fundraiser, $30 million is not that hard to come up with, even if you don’t take corporate donations. In the 2000 presidential primary season, John McCain once raised $2.7 million in a week; in 2004, insurgent Democrat Howard Dean raised $15 million in three months.
I must admit that, fanciful as it seems to me, there is some rude justice in Nixon’s candidacy. For some of us, it naturally revives memories of a famous dirty tricks campaign during the 1977 New York City mayoral campaign between Cuomo’s father, Mario, and Ed Koch. Residents of Queens woke up one day to find flyers plastered up and down Queens Boulevard that said: “Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo.” The flyers appeared again in 1982, when Koch challenged then-lieutenant governor Cuomo for the gubernatorial nomination, and that time maybe it worked. While Jeff Toobin’s 2015 New Yorker profile of Andrew claims there is no proof that this ever happened, Koch — a closeted gay man who never did come out — was angry about it for years, and believed that it did, although he and Mario eventually made up. Someone posted a picture of the 1982 flyer on Twitter in November 2014, and the image is once again making the rounds. Among other things, it inferred — in the first years of the AIDS crisis, mind you — that under a Koch administration, members of the North American Man-Boy Love Association would be hired as public school teachers.
So yes, it is satisfying that Cuomo is being challenged by a homo — one who is savvy, out, and highly popular (at least with all the white people I know on Facebook, many of whom will not be casting votes in New York this summer. But never mind.)
And for all I know, Nixon has something to offer: Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken and Jesse “The Body” Ventura are all good examples of celebrity candidates with no background in politics, people who did a passably competent job once they were elected. Why not Cynthia Nixon? I’m open to it. Furthermore, Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who cut her political teeth on Howard Dean’s 2004 insurgent bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, is running the campaign, which I do find intriguing. Together with Joe Trippi, Nicco Mele, Kelly Nuxoll and others, Teachout reinvented political campaigning for the age of the Internet, and my guess is that she can pull in some good talent. Basic things that we take for granted now, such as supporters self-organizing at the grassroots, small donation fundraising over the Internet, and sending emails to supporters, originated in the Dean campaign. In 2014, Teachout herself tried to take Cuomo out, and won an astonishing 34% of the vote. The following year, she won the Democratic nomination for the House seat in NY-19, and lost in the general.
That said, the only endorsements Nixon has pulled down so far are from her fellow cast members from the Sex and the City franchise, where Nixon had her best known film and TV roles between 2008 and 2014. Which is something: if I were running for governor, I would hope at the very least that people who had worked with me were willing to give the thumbs up. But there is nobody so far who is actually in New York politics who is willing to back her yet, even Bill de Blasio, whose endorsement for mayor of New York by Nixon was crucial for bringing LGBT voters on board in 2013. De Blasio’s caution also makes sense. Some of us are thrilled that he has finally acquired some when it comes to baiting his arch-enemy in Albany. Cuomo is, I think, a truly terrifying, old-school, political boss, one who has actively undermined the best interests of New York City to appease upstate machine pols and has an iron-clad grip on the party apparatus. And Cuomo is part of why the Democratic Party in New York State, and the City, is in such poor shape that the only fresh faces New Yorkers have had in the last twenty years are an out-of-stater (Hillary Clinton), a Clinton protégé (de Blasio), and now a TV star. Meanwhile, talented young people like Letitia James, the New York City public advocate, who knows the issues Nixon is running on inside and out, continue to toil in obscurity.
Speaking of obscurity — guess who isn’t happy about Nixon’s bid to be the first lesbian governor of New York? Christine Quinn, that’s who. You remember Chris Quinn: she was the first female and first openly gay speaker of the New York City Council. In 2013, she ran for mayor. To her horror and confusion, she saw lesbians, gays and feminists all flocking to Bill de Blasio, even as Quinn insisted she was the real progressive in the race. One part of this dynamic was that Cynthia Nixon, not particularly well known for her political work at the time, played the spoiler role, announcing that she was endorsing de Blasio because Quinn did not support paid family leave. Quinn lost the primary miserably, coming in third with a little more than 15% of the vote.
Quinn is said to take such things very personally, and reportedly has a terrible temper. According to the New York Times, (March 25, 2013), displeased with how public advocate Betsy Gotbaum had performed in a contentious City Council meeting, Quinn screamed at her, “slamming her hand on a table for emphasis, according to Ms. Gotbaum, who was on crutches at the time” (emphasis mine.) Given her history of retaliation, and that she is a highly competent public servant who is now more or less on the political trash heap, it isn’t a surprise that Quinn took the wave of enthusiasm among queer New Yorkers for Nixon’s candidacy hard. “Cynthia Nixon was opposed to having a qualified lesbian become mayor of New York City,” Quinn said yesterday in an unbuttoned interview with The New York Post. “Now she wants to be an unqualified lesbian to be the governor of New York. You have to be qualified and have experience. She isn’t qualified to be the governor.”
It seems to be Quinn’s fate to go down in history as the sorest loser on the planet. By making a point of it in exactly the wrong way, she has managed to deflect attention from the true fact that Cynthia Nixon has no experience running anything, not even a film set, and certainly not a complex and corrupt set of moving parts like New York State and its New Democratic Party. Furthermore, she has given Nixon a catch phrase that has been immediately embraced across the political spectrum. Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro tweeted: “Quinn embraces universal lesbian background checks to prevent unqualified lesbian electioneering.” And Shapiro doesn’t seem to be the only conservative willing to give Nixon a chance: Andrew Dolan, a former White House intern in the Obama administration, tweeted yesterday that Nixon was polling well with conservative Democrats upstate: “This is a trend that’s repeated at least since the ‘08 presidential primary,” he wrote. “Seems like a way to register frustration with national party brand/leadership.”
But Quinn’s basic point about what it means to have evidence that a politician is a capable executive should not be overlooked. Nixon is reviving a fantasy on the right and the left about “outsider” candidacies, one that very rarely pays out. Nevertheless, I have friends who are thrilled about Nixon’s candidacy. Many of them are also mostly people who supported Hillary Clinton from beginning to end in the last presidential cycle as the most qualified candidate in American history, and now, with no sense of irony whatsoever, are backing Nixon because she is an “outsider” without experience in government. There could not be two candidates more different than Clinton and Nixon — yet weirdly, many of my progressive friends see the Nixon candidacy as a mere extension of their loyalty to Clinton. It is as if progressive Democrats have a grand fantasy about handing messy, bad, problems that other people can’t fix, over to women as if that — and that alone — were a guarantee that they would be fixed.
Can I see Cynthia Nixon as governor of New York? Sure, and I would like to think that someone as passionate and sincere as she is could be elected over someone like Andrew Cuomo, who manages to keep his thumb on any progressive initiative in the state, and who seems to hate New York City in particular. For what it’s worth, I even made a small campaign donation to Nixon (remember: I am a huge Zephyr Teachout fan!) But could we engage in some civic education, please, instead of just jumping to the next celebrity — whether that’s a politician, an athlete, or a movie star? You have got to worry just a little bit about the extent to which voters on the left and the right, even when they know intellectually where the candidates stand on the issues, are moved by fantasies cultivated by savvy image-makers about how easy it is to fix politics. Joe McGinnis predicted in 1969 that candidates would increasingly be sold to Americans “like so much toothpaste or detergent” (The Selling of the President, New York, 1969), and sadly, the Nixon candidacy — whatever its eventual merits — seems to prove that out. It’s not that Nixon’s platform isn’t dead on — income inequality, the collapse of public transportation, and a deeply segregated public education system — it’s that we have no evidence that she can change any of those things.
Good ideas are not enough, and running against Albany, as if it will somehow become a different place when someone with those good ideas explains them properly, is naive: if elected, Nixon actually has to go work with those people. The idea that we should all vote for her and let her “try” because things couldn’t be any worse than they are, is an uncanny — and thoughtless — reflection of why many independents and conservative Democrats voted for Trump. Actually, as it turns out, things can get worse. And I suspect that the only reason Republican political bosses have not dumped him is that they aren’t done with him. Yet.