This spring, Cynthia Nixon, the actress most familiar to fans for her role as Miranda on HBO’s Sex and the City, announced a Democratic primary challenge to New York’s powerful incumbent governor, Andrew Cuomo. Nixon has no experience in government and few of the qualifications generally associated with running for elected office, though she has been a vocal activist for public schooling in New York City, where she lives. She’s also a prominent supporter of the city’s self-styled progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, which has led to speculation that he put her up for the job; the mayor and the governor, nominal allies and one-time friends, have for several years been mired in a petty and petulant feud, the roots of which no one can quite seem to get at. The emerging contest has some hallmarks of a typical New York battle—sharp-elbowed, personal, and parochial—yet it has national implications, and not merely because both candidates are obligated to denounce Donald Trump.
For one thing, Cuomo, vying for his third term as governor, is expected to run for the Democratic presidential nomination two years from now. He has spent many years assiduously amassing political power and has the support of Queens Congressman Joseph Crowley, the current chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who quite possibly could leapfrog Nancy Pelosi to become speaker should Democrats flip the House this fall. As for Nixon, she’s running an anti-party-establishment campaign, an outsider articulating the frustrations of “true” progressive Democrats who feel betrayed by a sullied insider making shady, mutually beneficial deals with Republicans. Cuomo maintains a high favorability rating among all voters, but Nixon polls well among liberals and Democrats under the age of fifty. Were she somehow to upset Cuomo in this September’s primary, it could be seen as validation of a strategy the restless progressive grassroots has been clamoring to take nationwide. (Though see Ohio, where Dennis Kucinich—proudly brandishing his “F” rating from the NRA—lost to former Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Richard Cordray—endorsed by Elizabeth Warren—in May’s “true-blue” primary contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.)
Nixon’s announcement of her candidacy drew condescending ridicule from Cuomo, who has since appeared rattled and defensive, and at times indignant at the temerity of his challenger. Nixon seems able to rile the governor, though that may say less about the sharpness of her tongue than the notorious thinness of his skin; he showed similar discomfiture four years ago when challenged from the left by liberal law professor Zephyr Teachout. As a campaigner, Nixon has at times exhibited shaky command of policy and confusion about New York’s complex mechanisms of finance and funding. But she is comfortable before an audience, issuing reliably energizing salvos—He’s a bully! He’s power-hungry!—along with soothing expressions of empathic progressivism. This has sufficed for the mostly like-minded audiences she has drawn in her mostly New York City–limited appearances. Her first major proposal was for legalization of marijuana, the justification being that, if white people have been getting away with using it for years, why shouldn’t black people? There’s good reason to look at pot legalization, and an ever-urgent need to address racial disparities in the justice system. But in welding the two issues she weakened her argument on both ends. A curious voter might ask: Why not enforce existing marijuana laws equally, across the board, regardless of race, income, and zip code? A skeptical one might think: virtue signaling.