On Monday afternoon, Cynthia Nixon — yes, the Sex and the City alumna, no relation to Richard Nixon — announced her 2018 campaign for governor of New York. The next morning, Nixon greeted supporters at her first campaign event at a church in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Naturally, Nixon launched her campaign with a few sharp jokes about the MTA.
Nixon’s announcement came after months of speculation in the press and tentative expressions of interest from the candidate herself. Two weeks ago, the rumors solicited groans from the incumbent governor, fellow Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who seems to perceive Nixon as a nuisance dispatched by his nemesis, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Nixon and de Blasio are friends, and Nixon stumped for him during his 2013 campaign, citing de Blasio’s support for public school funding. (Cuomo, in contrast, is a staunch proponent of charter schools.)
Nixon will face Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, scheduled for September 13. While Cuomo is generally favored to win the contest — and to win reelection — Nixon is an exceptional threat to Cuomo’s incumbency. In his second term, Cuomo is a popular but embattled governor, and Nixon is a beloved character actor whose decades of advocacy for education reform and gay rights suggests a credible, leftist alternative to Cuomo’s hardball incrementalism. Cuomo is a second-gen patrician, the son of legendary New York governor Mario Cuomo (also a Democrat). Nixon is a new, exciting player — an actor with more mature political instincts, and a more substantial political portfolio, than your average celebrity candidate.
But there was no great media circus drumming around Nixon’s campaign launch; only the initial rumors, confirmed with Nixon’s taped announcement, and then followed by Nixon’s live debut in Brownsville. In the video announcement, Nixon doesn’t channel, mention, or even hint at her stardom. For two minutes, she speaks about economic inequality and hometown pride. En route to her Brownsville campaign launch, Nixon rode the subway, greeting frustrated commuters who were responding to the MTA — the most beleaguered agency in New York — taking a Brooklyn-bound 3 train out of service. “I allowed an hour and a half for what should have been a 30-minute ride,” Nixon later told her small audience in Brownsville. “Cuomo’s MTA.”
At the onset, Nixon doesn’t seem to be waging a blockbuster campaign. Unlike presidential candidate Donald Trump, or the stunt Senate candidate Kid Rock, Nixon isn’t threatening her opponents with a frivolous, fantastical blitz. Her ties to the entertainment industry will certainly help her fundraising, but they do not seem to inform her composition as a candidate. This is, frankly, strange to witness. There’s a fraught lineage of celebrities who have migrated from entertainment to elected office — from Sonny Bono and Ronald Reagan through Al Franken and Donald Trump — and that tradition is largely defined by flamboyant rhetoric, unconventional tactics, and a transcendent silliness that trumps even the base frivolity of U.S. politics.
But Nixon launched her campaign for governor — a post where celebrity candidates seem to flourish — without blockbuster production. She studiously avoided the press in her campaign’s formative weeks; she didn’t pull a Kid Rock. Unlike many famous men who precede her, Nixon has not proved ludicrous or otherwise overbearing about her celebrity. Conspicuously, she seems legit. She seems normal. And, through normalcy, Nixon appears likely to disarm the post-Trump skeptics — such as myself — who suspect that little good comes from the popular conflation of celebrities and politicians.
Ideally, Nixon’s campaign will alleviate the general concern — which has become profoundly urgent ever since Trump’s election — that celebrities inevitably blur the distinction between politics and entertainment. In January, when Oprah Winfrey stoked rumors of a 2020 presidential bid, countless observers wondered whether her political commentary and hard-news interest, as demonstrated in her decades of TV production, amounted to the sort of credibility that the Democratic Party should expect from a presidential candidate. Ultimately, Winfrey denied any intention to run for public office, but the concerns raised by the prospect of her bid — and by Trump’s presidency — remain.
What do entertainers do to our politics? And will we, in general, regret it? Cynthia Nixon isn’t Oprah; she’s a relatively quiet celebrity running a conventional statewide race. Cuomo’s earliest responses to Nixon reveal a man who is clearly prepared to cite her celebrity as cause for derision and doubt. Nixon has answered Cuomo with quiet resolve. For once, the entertainer offers a serious counterpoint, a real challenge.