It's 7:40 p.m.—40 minutes after New York's newest gubernatorial candidate is set to take the stage—but the crowd packing Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn doesn't seem to mind. It's not every day a hopeful politician hosts a pay-what-you-can party at the birthplace of the gay rights movement. It's also not every day an actor from one of the most beloved TV shows runs for governor. A famous person gunning for office? Where have we heard this story before?
Curiosity, it turns out, is a potent mobilizer—it's pounding snow outside and the place is elbow room only. Someone even brought their baby. "We're at max capacity," a publicist says.
Cynthia Nixon, famous for her role on Sex and the City, has no prior governmental experience. And on Monday, after months of speculation, she announced that she would be running as a progressive rival to Andrew M. Cuomo, who has been the governor of New York since 2011. CNN summed up the race this way: "It's not all that crazy to think Cynthia Nixon could be the next New York governor." As we know, crazier things have happened. But unlike others celebrities who have crossed over into politics, Nixon knows the issues: She has more than 17 years of LGBTQ rights and education activism experience—a passion, she says, that was sparked when her daughter Samantha, the eldest of her three kids, entered the public school system.
"Look, she's an underdog," says partygoer Ferny Reyes, 30, an educational administrator in Harlem, who campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. "Would I prefer a candidate with a ton of government experience? Yes, but that doesn't exist. And right now she's speaking to my issues." Says Allison Harbin, 31, who runs the academia blog Post-Ph.D: "I've been following her activist work for years. And when I read she came out, that was a big part of my own coming out process." If Nixon were to win, she would be the state's first female and openly-gay governor.
A little before 8 p.m., Nixon takes the stage. When she delivers the line, "I don't have my certificate from the department of lesbian affairs, but in my defense, there is a lot of paperwork involved"—a rebuttal to Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's jab that Nixon is an "unqualified lesbian" running for office—the crowd hoots and hollers. When she announces, triumphantly, that her campaign has raised more in small donor donations in 24 hours than Cuomo has in seven years, many snap in approval. She will go on to deliver this same 11-minute rally cry twice more, once downstairs, and once at the neighboring bar The Monster, which I overhear someone call a "hellmouth." Welp, into the hellmouth Cynthia Nixon goes.
The next morning, at her apartment in Manhattan's Noho neighborhood, Nixon is still riding high. "I feel incredibly optimistic," she tells me, moments before an Audubon Society clock breaks into birdsong. In the first on-the-record sit-down interview since announcing her bid for the highest office in New York, the 51-year-old opens up to Glamour about her fears, her family, and why sometimes "naïveté is what we need" in politics.
GLAMOUR: I want to start with the location of your announcement, the Brownsville neighborhood in East Brooklyn. Why was this an important place to launch your run for governor of New York?
CYNTHIA NIXON: I think that one of the most important things that we have to do in this campaign—and one of the most important things we have to do as a state—is address racial and economic injustice. The entire state has been negatively impacted by Andrew Cuomo’s massive budget cuts to corporations and the wealthy, but I think that some areas, some neighborhoods, have been impacted a lot more than others. They feel the punch much harder, because they’re more vulnerable. So that’s why I wanted to start in Brownsville. I wanted to talk to people. And, when I’m speaking to people in low-income communities of color, there are a number of issues that keep popping up: protecting undocumented people, the subways, and a whole host of things. But, by far, the number one issue that keeps coming up is the lack of affordable housing and the tyranny of landlords. Our government, particularly in New York state, is so owned by the real estate lobby. Our rent laws have been shredded.
GLAMOUR: African-American women are a big part of voter turnout, especially during elections where we really need people to show up. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Ralph Richard Banks wrote, "So many Americans profess to be blind to race, which ensures only that it will remain salient." You clearly have that demographic very much in mind, and are very outspoken on its behalf. What brought you to your current outlook?
CN: I think we only have to look at the election of Donald Trump to see that we are so clearly not living in a post-racial society. Maybe even less than we thought we were. I’ve been speaking out and doing fundraisers, for Planned Parenthood and NARAL, since I was 13. My mother was a breast cancer survivor, so I’ve been speaking out about the importance of early detection since about that time. Since I fell in love with my wife [in 2012 Nixon wed longtime partner Christine Marinoni, who recently stepped down from her role as special adviser for community partnerships in New York City's Department of Education] I’ve been doing LGBTQ stuff and before that, I did a lot AIDS stuff in the '80s and '90s. But my main kind of activism that I’ve been doing over the past 17 years, since my oldest kid entered kindergarten, is fighting for funding for the public schools. Our schools are very, very segregated certainly in this city, and this state. Once you get involved in fighting for the system as a whole, you meet a lot of different kinds of people and you get to hear about their experiences. I’m an ardent democrat, but I feel that the party’s increasing reliance on corporate money and the demands of wealthy political donors means they are more and more removed from working class people. If the democratic party is going to stand for what it says it’s going to stand for, we have to, as you say, not just call on African Americans when it’s election time and then forget about them the rest of the time. They’re our core base. They’re our most loyal voters. But also, when things like Donald Trump happen—and, frankly, when things like Andrew Cuomo and his massive disinvestment in our state happen—they’re the hardest hit. And they're the first hit.
GLAMOUR: Last night you talked about how in 24 hours you raised more from small donors than Cuomo has in seven years. But only .2% of his nearly $31 million "war chest" is actually small donors…
CN: That’s correct! I’m not saying we raised so much money. My point is not that we raised a lot of money. No, my point is that he raises massive amounts of money, but he doesn’t bother with the people he perceives as the little fish. So much so that his website, even after Donald Trump was elected, said ‘Make New York great again.’ That’s how little attention they’re paying to his website.
GLAMOUR: Wait, for real? It doesn’t say that anymore, does it?
CN: It doesn’t say that anymore, but it said that. You’d donate on his website and you wouldn’t even get an email back saying, ‘Thanks for joining us.’ It was like an abandoned house with cobwebs everywhere. So I’m not saying we raised so much money. I’m not bragging about like, 'Woo! We’re in the money.' I’m saying that we’re finally speaking to the every day New Yorkers that [Cuomo has] completely neglected.
GLAMOUR: I have noticed that your campaign feels really modern. You’re interacting with people on Twitter, taking the way the MTA failed you and pivoting on your heels and making fun of it.
CN: If you take the MTA, it’s a pretty good gamble nowadays that it’s gonna fail you. It wasn’t like, 'Wow, what a tremendous thing.' It was like, 'See what we’re talking about?'
GLAMOUR: Yeah, but it feels like you’re tapped into how people feel. I grew up in a political family—my mom [former Congresswoman Jane Harman] actually ran for governor of California in 1998. I know first-hand that it is a hard slog. How are you guys planning to mitigate whatever comes your way? You know the next six months are gonna be…
CN: Really hard. You know, I think they’re excited and they’re proud.
GLAMOUR: Meaning your family?
CN: Yeah. But I also think they’re worried about what it means [for our family life]. We’ve got a pretty regular family. My wife or I or the two of us together make dinner every night, and some of that obviously is going to—it’s going to be 7 p.m., and we’re gonna be like, "We should order some food." That’s already started to happen. You know, so far, it’s not so bad in terms of paparazzi and reporters and stuff like that, but I worry. I worry, but I think [running is] important. The thing I hope that makes [the campaign] better [for our kids] is that they’re all at very different ages—they're 21, 15, and seven.
GLAMOUR: I was 12—a horrible age for girls—and I was like, "Mom, don’t do this, don’t do this. You’re ruining my life." Now I tell her, "I was the worst!"
CN: Right. I think it’s interesting. I’m obviously a career person. My mother was a career person—she was really the only breadwinner in our household. My dad had a lot of problems, and then they separated when I was six. My grandmother was very happily married, but she was also the breadwinner in her household. My mom grew up in Chicago, on the South Side, and she would talk about the few times that my grandmother picked her up from school—my grandmother was a scientist, a bacteriologist—she’d be in a suit and a hat and heels and stockings. My mother felt shamed, because every other mother would be in a house dress. Now, I’m sure my grandmother looked great, but you don’t want your mom to be different; you don’t want your mom to attract too much attention. As a kid you just sort of want your parents to be generally benevolent, boring, and not attract too much attention.
GLAMOUR: That is true. I do think it takes a certain kind of person to buck the trend, and that’s obviously something you’ve done time and time again. When is a time that being tenacious has bit you in the ass?
CN: Gosh! I don’t feel like I have a really good big example of that. But I will say to you—because I’m a Shakespeare head, right?—there’s a thing that Viola says in Twelfth Night, when she’s in this big muddle and she’s in love with someone, but she’s pretending to be a boy and a girl’s in love with her, it’s a big mess. She has this exasperated soliloquy, and she finally says, "Time thou must untangle this, not I. It is too hard a knot for me to untie.” In my daily life, if something is really important, I just go at it. And the harder it gets, the harder I go at it. Even in a conflict with, like, my seven year old. And sometimes you can’t solve it in that fight—you just have to go to your own corners and calm down. Maybe there’s more of a compromise there than you think.
"In my daily life, if something is really important, I just go at it. And the harder it gets, the harder I go at it. Even in a conflict with, like, my seven year old."
GLAMOUR: You've said that people have been hoping you would run for office for a while. So what gave you the patience to wait until now? Cuomo’s been in office for almost eight years, why now?
CN: I think it’s a lot of things. I think it’s the election of Donald Trump. I think it’s the defeat of Hillary Clinton. I think it’s what Bernie Sanders showed us is wrong with our party, and what we can do. What women did with the Women’s March knocked me out. It wasn’t just a day to scream and cry and to go home and forget about it. It was a shot over the bow, like, "We’re here, and there’s a lot of us and we’re not going away. You’re going to have to contend with us."
GLAMOUR: It could have been very easy to just pack it in and be like, "What do you want for lunch?" I thought that would be the reaction.
CN: I did too. At the New York march there were a bunch of people who were slated to speak—heads of organizations, activists, and also some celebrities—and then there were some other celebrities who were hiding in the crowd. Like, I found Helen Mirren, and I got her to speak. Whoopi [Goldberg] was here, and I was like, "Whoopi, come on. You gotta speak," so Whoopi got up there and said, "Look around. This is how we ended the Vietnam War. When things are really bad, that’s when there's a possibility to change things."
GLAMOUR: You’ve talked a lot about "better democrats" and "real democrats." What does a "real democrat" mean to you in 2018?
CN: A real democrat doesn’t slash taxes on the wealthy. A real democrat doesn’t slash corporate taxes. A real democrat doesn’t give away billions of dollars in economic development money to his cronies and his donors with no strings attached. A real democrat doesn’t lose us $25 billion dollars in revenue in eight years—money our state desperately needs to put into our schools, our transit system, and our public housing. The fact of the matter is, our working class doesn’t look like the working class from 1955. Our working class is largely women and people of color—it’s people like social workers and daycare workers, people who run senior centers and after school youth programs and people who work in schools. We need to fund those things. We need to fund those things because we need those services. We also need to protect the people who are doing those jobs, and make sure there's $15 minimum wage—not just in the city, but in every part of the state.
GLAMOUR: Speaking of the rest of the state, obviously in New York City, there is a lot of excitement around this. What is your plan for getting people upstate to feel that excitement and to feel seen?
CN: I think the important thing is to go around and visit those places. I did a tiny bit of that when I was still making up my mind to run. I think we have some sense of poverty in the city, but unless you are living in an upstate city or rural area, the extreme poverty in those places is news to you. Like I said last night, New York is the single most unequal state in the country. That doesn't just have to do with how many wealthy people we have here. According to a [2015 studySyracuse] has the single greatest concentrated poverty of black and Latino population of anywhere in the country. Syracuse is ground zero. And I think that people are really hungry for jobs up there. And they are hungry for investments in their schools. That is something that we can do that would have an effect immediately, and people would feel seen and valued again. Andrew Cuomo has thrown a lot of money upstate lately, but without any oversight. If the state was more proactive and took back some of those tax breaks that are being given to big corporations, we could invest that money ourselves. My wife has worked for two decades fighting for public schools. A lot of what she does is parent outreach, and the number one commandment in her world is, If you want to improve a school, go to the families in that school and say, What does this school need? I think that is true in our upstate cities and municipalities and rural areas: Don’t give money to a big corporation and tell them to go in and build something. Go in and say, "What do you need funded in your community? What kind of jobs do you need?"
GLAMOUR: It sounds like you plan on doing a lot of listening.
GLAMOUR: A random person on the street might ask, Why you? Why do you feel compelled or obligated to do this? Why Cynthia Nixon?
CN: Because we so badly need someone to run against Andrew Cuomo. To show who he is. And to show everything that’s been lacking here in the last eight years and everything New York could be in opposition to Donald Trump. And the blunt truth is that Andrew Cuomo has a [nearly] $31 million dollar war chest, and he is famously vengeful. It is almost impossible for anybody who is in Democratic politics to run against him....I think somebody who is supposed to have the public interest, but rules through fear, is exactly the person you have to go up against. Bullies have to be confronted.
"The blunt truth is that Andrew Cuomo has [a nearly] $31 million dollar war chest, and he is famously vengeful. It is almost impossible for anybody in Democratic politics to run against him."
GLAMOUR: It's been reported that less than four percent of governors running for reelection have lost their primary since 1970, which is a tough statistic. How do you feel on day four—I know it’s very early days yet—do you feel optimistic about this?
CN: I would say that I feel incredibly optimistic. I think that if you look at what Zephyr Teachout [who ran against Cuomo in 2014 and won 34 percent of the vote] did with no name recognition and almost no endorsements and no money. You bet on the incumbent. You bet on the big dog, right? But you have only to walk around and see the anger and the hunger for an alternative. This is a wave year. This is really a wave year. When I went out to Brownsville that day—my first day walking around in the world after it had been known that I was running—what surprised me was the anger. People were saying, "You’ve got to get him out of there. He’s a crook. He makes Chris Christie look like a choir boy." And, so, Andrew Cuomo has big name recognition and he has big money, but in terms of loyalty of the person on the street, I think it’s pretty small.
GLAMOUR: A lot of the coverage that has come out is about Miranda. I love that you are not like, "I don’t want to talk about Sex and the City."
CN: I love Miranda! Miranda’s great.
GLAMOUR: Miranda is great! I've always loved Miranda. Well, actually, that is not true. When I first watched Sex and the City I was like, "Ugh I don't want to be the Miranda." But now, everyone wants to be the Miranda.
CN: It’s such a funny thing. You know, when I started the show, I was 30 or 31. People would ask me, "How are you like your character?" And I was like, "I am not like my character at all! I am in this longterm relationship. I am a mom—I always knew I’d be a mom. I am very domestic. I am not a confrontational person. I am, yes, smart and a career person, but those are the only two things Miranda and I have in common." What was fascinating to me is that when the show ended, and people would say "How are you like Miranda?" I would be like, "I am just like her in just about every way!"
GLAMOUR: It took you six years? Or, she grew with you?
CN: Well, both. She became a mom. She became all of these things. But it was interesting to me—and I don’t know if it was putting her on all those years, or if it was just me growing up—but she and I are so much more interwoven than we were at the beginning of the show.
GLAMOUR: And, 20 years later, you still are! How do you make sure that people see past the veneer of celebrity?
CN: I think by just talking to people and making yourself available. People are always surprised to see me around and about as if I am living in some cloud somewhere. They’re like, "Why are you on the subway?" And I'm like, "Why are you on the subway? Aren’t you going somewhere? I am going somewhere too!"
GLAMOUR: There seems to be, and I don’t know how we change this, a delta between normal people—regardless of how much money they make—and celebrity. And a lot of people are saying, "We don’t need another celebrity politician, because of Trump."
CN: Andrew Cuomo is a celebrity politician because he was Mario Cuomo’s son. He is in a political celebrity family, and I am in a theatrical celebrity family. He was also a celebrity when he ran. But I don’t know. To me, celebrity seems like a distraction. It seems to me that the thing that is happening in the city and the state and this country is this vast gap. We have so much wealth here. You know, the thing I said last night that the top one percent of New Yorkers earn 45 times what the other 99 percent earn combined. I mean that is a staggering statistic.
GLAMOUR: And wealth begets wealth.
CN: Exactly! And the thing that is scariest about that is it’s not just the statistic, but it’s the speed at which it’s widening. Andrew Cuomo has put us on this austerity budget, but these are relatively prosperous times in New York. We’re doing well. Why is he tightening our belt so we can’t breathe?
GLAMOUR: There’s a lot of crazy stuff in the news at all times, it seems, these days. What is something you recently read or heard about that was uplifting and gave you the energy to keep persisting and resisting?
CN: I think Emma González and the kids in Parkland. For anybody who is saying to me, "What credentials do you have? What right do you have? You’re unqualified," look how long our government has been affirming that we have to do something about gun violence. And these teenagers have completely upended the debate on gun violence. We talk a lot about outsiders, but sometimes a little naïveté is exactly what is needed. With a jaded system everybody says, "Yeah, well, that’s the way it is." You need somebody to come and say, "Why? Why is that the way it is? Don’t try to tell me that I don’t have a right to stand here and say, "I want to be Governor, because I think you’re doing a lousy job." Nobody is talking about the things that you’re not doing, so I am going to do it.