Earlier this week, Cynthia Nixon sat down with Wendy Williams for the first major TV interview of her New York gubernatorial campaign. Williams, the famously mischievous talk-show host, spent the previous segment of the Wednesday morning show disparaging Tiger Woods and the rapper Tyga. Once Nixon arrived, however, Williams assumed the expected decorum, opening with small talk about fashion and Sex and the City but then shifting into discussion of police brutality, gun control, and incumbent New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
After a few minutes of friendly interrogation, Williams cut to the chase. “How do black women help you become governor?” she asked.
Nixon answered Williams with an urgent assessment of black women as a political force. “They are the cornerstone, they are the backbone of the Democratic Party and we need to let them lead,” Nixon concluded. “Black women are going to stop showing up for the Democratic Party if the Democratic Party doesn’t show up for them.”
It is clear from her campaign rhetoric, and from her choosing The Wendy Williams Show as a debut venue, that Nixon has identified black voters as the most vital faction in her campaign against Cuomo. As much as the interview marked Nixon’s first big TV appearance as a political candidate, it was also the first time recently a white politician—really, any major politician—has taken The Wendy Williams Show seriously enough to appear on the talk show, a black TV stronghold. For Nixon, Williams is a gatekeeper for black voters whom other white New York politicians, including Cuomo, have seemingly neglected.
In the early weeks of Nixon’s campaign, political observers have struggled to understand how, exactly, the celebrity insurgent plans to challenge Cuomo’s cold dominance of the state’s Democratic politics. To date, Cuomo has fought Nixon rather passive-aggressively. In Nixon’s first week on the campaign trail, the former New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn, a Cuomo ally, disparaged Nixon as “an unqualified lesbian.” Meanwhile, Cuomo courted black constituents through a series of public appearances. In the final weeks of March, Cuomo made the Sunday rounds, addressing two black congregations in the weeks surrounding Nixon’s campaign launch. The Rev. Clinton Miller, who leads a large black congregation in Brooklyn, denied Cuomo’s request to speak at his pulpit, and then swiftly reached out to other black pastors, asking them to withhold their support for Cuomo’s events. Rev. Miller, too, recognizes the degree to which Cuomo—a previously comfortable incumbent—has taken his political base for granted.
It is a truism to observe that a competitive Democratic primary will likely break in line with black voters. But Nixon—a white woman from the Upper West Side—seems to have grounded her campaign by paying attention to this particular detail, in hopes of rallying black voters against an otherwise popular (if also ineffective and frequently divisive) Democratic governor. Nixon launched her campaign in Brownsville, Brooklyn, speaking about transportation and education to a mostly black audience; and she has most sharply distinguished herself from Cuomo by underscoring the governor’s supposed inattention to marginalized voters, who are often hit hardest by budget cuts and the failing subway infrastructure.
“I’m running as a New York City subway rider,” Nixon later told Williams. “That’s enough to make anyone want to run nowadays!”
Williams is not a journalist by trade. She engaged with Nixon not as a critical subject, but rather as a potential ally. It was strange to see a gubernatorial candidate sitting for an interview with Williams—not because Williams is an unsuitable host, but rather because no major politician had thought to court Williams or her daytime audience until now.