CYNTHIA NIXON ON POWER, PRIVILEGE AND THE PERILOUS STATE OF US POLITICS

  • Thomas McCarty

A year after campaigning—and ultimately losing—against Andrew Cuomo for governor of New York, Cynthia Nixon is still uncompromisingly committed to bringing on a change in US politics. In one of her first interviews since the much-covered election, the actor and politician speaks openly about her run, the rise of ‘The Cynthia Effect’—and who would be the right candidate for 2020. Photography Thomas Mccarty⁠⁠ Styling Rachael Rodgers⁠ Hair Josué Perez⁠ Make up Deanna Melluso ⁠ Set Design Ariel Biz⁠ Production Julius Salvenmoser⁠

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Wearing an outfit that is one part professional pantsuit and one part pleated schoolmaster trench dress—like something you’d see at a futuristic summit of the world’s governments in 2086—Cynthia Nixon is power posing for the camera, hips cocked and angular, face serious and stern. If she were any other celebrity, this would seem quotidian. This is a photoshoot: flexing and posturing and performing in front of the camera is par for the course.

But the deconstructed pantsuit and the ferocity in her stare telegraphs something different when it’s Nixon. She isn’t just your everyday recognisable film and TV star—one with a filmography of over thirty films, a dozen plays, an almost EGOT (she’s only missing an Oscar), and an enduring legacy as a cult TV character on a cult TV show.

Instead, the pose, combined with the look, delivers less of a statement than it does ask a question.

What if?

What if Cynthia Nixon, who ran for New York governor in 2018 against the two-term incumbent and Establishment politician Andrew Cuomo, had won? What if a queer woman, a lifelong actor and lifelong New Yorker, a public education activist, the parent of a transgender child, an advocate for marijuana legalisation, a fierce opponent of ICE, a fighter for abortion rights, a proponent of criminal justice reform, and a committed and outspoken supporter of other progressive women running for local office, like Tiffany Cabán for Queens DA and Brooklyn State Senator Jessica Ramos, were the governor of one of the bluest states in the nation? What if Nixon’s power pose came from the confidence of a public servant, a woman determined to make a Democratic state fulfil all the promises of its progressive reputation? What if this woman were the one in charge instead?

What if?

But things didn’t pan out that way. Nixon lost the election in 2018 after only gaining 34.47% of the votes to Cuomo’s 65.53%. But her goal in running was always to force Cuomo’s hand on issues that he’d long ignored, to put facts in front of his constituents that he’d long buried, to draw attention to the ways old-guard politicians are letting us all down by being too afraid of upsetting corporate donors to actually put up a fight for their people, to shape the future of her state. She didn’t win but she did ignite something that politicos were calling ‘The Cynthia Effect’—pushing Cuomo leftward on issues he previously dismissed entirely. Legalise weed? Why not. Make Election Day a national holiday? Sure! Get rid of plastic bags?

Hey, let’s try it.

Nixon may not have won but—even briefly, in a studio, as the flash of the camera goes off—we can pretend.

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So I saw your friend Cuomo today.

You did?! How come?

He was on one of the floats at the US women’s national soccer team World Cup victory parade.

Got it, got it.

Are you sports fans in your house?

My wife [activist Christine Marinoni] and her whole family are huge soccer people. Her dad is French, and she and all her siblings played soccer. Her dad played soccer until he was 80. He had a heart attack and they said the reason he survived it is because his heart was in such amazing shape from playing soccer. Harvard tried to get my wife to go there by offering her a soccer scholarship. She was really good.

So seeing these women takeover must have been exciting for all of you then.

We watched the final. I want to start watching more of the games and maybe try to go to more of the games. They’ve been so articulate about women’s sports and the pay disparity and it’s just, I don’t know; I feel like of all the women’s sports, soccer is really the one that’s broken through. I think it’s because we’re so behind as a country in soccer in general.

That it’s sort of an equaliser because we’re coming from behind.

For both men’s and women’s soccer, yeah. I gotta say, the way that Megan Rapinoe has handled Trump and been very respectful…. I saw her on Anderson Cooper. The way she’s taken Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi up on their offer, I think it’s great.

It’s interesting; there is obviously so much politics wrapped up in sports that we don’t often talk about.

In a time when Trump is our president, we’re finding American heroes in different places.

So—about Cuomo on that float; it’s been eleven months since his re-election. Have you seen any sort of change in the way he’s governed?

I think he’s a politician, I think he’s a pragmatist, and I think what the New York state legislature was able to do this session was unparalleled.

Would you call that ‘The Cynthia Effect’?

I’ve heard other people call it ‘The Cynthia Effect’ and I’ll take the compliment. But I think a lot of us came together to say, ‘Hey, we’re supposed to be this two-to-one Democratic state. Everybody is leaving us in the dust.’ Getting rid of the Independent Democratic Conference was an enormous thing. Now, Democrats are in control of the Senate and Andrea Stewart-Cousins has done an amazing job. Activists who were very involved in our campaign and helping us not just with the campaign itself but helping us develop policy, they’re finally breaking through. It’s amazing.

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Do you still have criticisms about what Cuomo is up to? I know he said that passing marijuana legalisation might not happen now.

I think that if we do it, we do it right. Legalising it would be a step in the right direction, but if we don’t do it right, with marijuana equity, it’s going to be a real loss. And I think, look, he had cover from the legislature this time, and now, he’s gotta sign it or he’s gotta reveal himself. They’ve done a lot of good. We’re very involved in Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens District Attorney and I really hope that the bill gets signed, that votes are really counted. When the intention of the voter was clear, and the legitimacy of the voter who is voting is proven and obvious, we should count those votes. We should count those votes! If Carl Heastie would give that to Governor Cuomo and Cuomo would sign it, we’re all waiting to see.

The recount for the election is still on-going, right? Cabán hasn’t technically taken the position yet?

Yes!

How did you get involved with Tiffany? Why were you inspired to get behind her campaign?

There was a guy who worked on her campaign, when she had, like, two people working for her, and he called us and said, “You should meet with her.” So I met with her and we were just knocked out by her immediately because—as with so many of the really exciting young people in politics—who she is as a person and what she wants as an elected official, there’s just a total continuum there.

And that’s not something you see traditionally in politics.

If we’re trying to do real criminal justice reform, we need to have a DA be somebody who is a public defender and can look at it through the eyes of someone accused of a crime and someone who is Latina, who is queer, who is working class. She speaks so eloquently about her grandfather and his violence and how, because of his violence, his family removed him from the home, but then when he was an old, dying man, he came back and she knew him as this elderly, very loving grandfather. And she’s said, this is a guy who would hit his wife, who would hit his daughter, but because they were poor, there were no services to help him work through coming back from war and having PTSD and self-medicating with alcohol.

So you see her as someone who speaks her own truth.

She speaks her own truth and she says,‘Look, I have all these things in my history.’

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There’s clearly a lot of momentum around candidates like Cabán, people who actually represent the people in their communities. She is from the community she’s representing. Joe Crowley wasn’t even raising his kids in Queens. I know you wrote something on this for The Cut about the new progressives taking down the Establishment. Tell me about seeing these women, being inspired by them, being in your own right part of that. What has it been like in the past year to see this progress?

I just think there is a really exciting way where young women in New York state, and also on a national level, that they’re really working together in a really powerful way. I was so thrilled when AOC endorsed me, and she was such a great help during our campaign, but also Jessica Ramos, who was elected in Queens, she’s been such a power in the legislature with all her anti-IDC [Independent Democratic Conference] people. I feel like I never would have run for governor if attorney Zephyr Teachout hadn’t done it four years before and made such a tremendous showing. She’s one of the people who recruited me to run. Until she herself was running for a different position, she was our treasurer. I feel like there is a way in which we’re redefining how politicians work together. We feel like, we’re coming in, we’re trying to take over, and we’re movement politicians. We’re trying to bring each other along because we’re stronger that way. The more we help each other, the better off we are.

Do you see that also happening within the Establishment?

It’s not a traditional Democratic tenet. It’s part of the movement. We’re the exception, not the rule.

So how do you become the rule?

We keep getting elected, we keep identifying each other, and saying, ‘Hey, you liked me? Take a look at this candidate.’ I think there is such a hunger on the part of the electorate for people who are really trotting out big, bold ideas—in terms of climate change, in terms of economic inequality, in terms of criminal justice reform, particularly through a racial lens. I think that—because a lot of us have never run for office before—we’re really coming very directly from populations that are wanting change. We’re more focused on the change we want to bring than the long-term health and fundraising of our political careers.

You’ve mentioned, though, that you wouldn’t run again. Would you?

I mean, I have a career that I love that I’ve been at for 41 years. I really love it. I didn’t run because I wanted to be in politics; I ran because I wanted someone to run against Cuomo and bring attention to all these issues. I didn’t work for a year and a half. I didn’t earn any money for my family or myself for a year and a half. It’s not something you can do on the side. Supporting other people, you can do on the side. But you can’t run for office yourself as a side job.

You said you were inspired by Glenda Jackson, right?

Right. I worked with Glenda when I was 23, and she did one more play after that, and then she ran for Parliament and was gone for 26 years. We were very aware that she was going to run. She’s amazing. And I mean, look at her. Look at her!

If you had won, you would have wanted to be governor, right? You didn’t just run to draw attention to the issues.

Yes! We ran as hard as we could to win.

It’s been a bit over a year since you announced you were running. How has the year been? It’s not that you’re slowing down in terms of your activism, but how has running changed the way you’ve gotten involved? Or the causes you’re focussed on?

I think we needed to recuperate as a family and get back to being together. And I needed to get back to work eventually. In New York, it is really exciting what has happened in this past year. I’ve been involved with these issues, specifically in New York state, since my oldest kid, who is going to be 23, was five. I think there is very much a sense that all these seeds that we have been sowing for so long are now really blooming. We just have to keep at it. Across the country, it’s a truly terrifying time. I’m not quite old enough to really, really remember the Vietnam War protests, except as a child, but it’s like that. People are so involved because Trump is the president. People are so involved because of the planet and because of Black Lives Matter and because economic inequality is just destroying us. It’s this paradox—when times are really, really bad, that’s when people step up.

Do you have guidance for people who are exhausted by this point? Everyday there’s a new terrible thing to combat. How do you convince people that these fights are actually worth it?

Look at what is happening to Jeffrey Epstein, this is amazing. This is a sea change. They have to prosecute him; they don’t have a choice anymore. If you look at #MeToo—we haven’t figured out quite how to handle it, but we are at least saying, ‘I don’t care how powerful you are; I don’t care how wealthy you are. If you rape girls, you’re going to be prosecuted.’ You look at all these men that were protected for so long. The thing about the ‘60s was that people were so angry and so horrified by women and children and men being burned by our government, the horror of it. I think a lot of our country is as horrified right now by what we’re doing on our own soil with immigrants. My oldest kid, his grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and he was part of the Never Again demonstration in Chicago two days ago.

The thing that they knew in the ‘60s was that it was a movement that couldn’t just run on vitriol. That it had to also have a lot of humour and creativity. You don’t want to go to a thing where you just scream and are upset. You want there to be puppets and you want there to be funny signs. And you want it to be a thing that people can bring their kids to. That’s what I think the great thing about the Women’s March was. First, just how diverse they were in every way. But also with the pussy hats. I  still have photos on my phone of hilarious signs. Take your anger and make your point creatively and with humour—it’ll go a lot further. You have a sign that says,“Fuck the president”, like, okay. That’s one way of saying it. It’s not going to stay with someone.

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You think we’re taking inspiration from that time and letting it influence how we protest now?

I think it’s very new and different now. I got Whoopi Goldberg to speak at the first Women’s March in New York and she looked out at the crowd and said, “This is how we ended the Vietnam War. Just look around you and look how upset you are but look how many of you there are.” I think everybody has sort of been collectively holding their breath waiting for 2020.

Let’s talk about the upcoming presidential elections in 2020. Are you endorsing anyone?

Not yet.

Who has the most compelling plans and platforms for you?

Elizabeth Warren always has the most compelling plans, right? I like all the progressives. I was really thrilled by what Kamala Harris did, even before running. I understand people being very troubled by her record of prosecuting people, but I think she’s amazing. I think Bernie Sanders—I know he’s really old and he’s really white and he’s really male and all those things—but he is more responsible than anybody else, I think, for so many of the problems we’re facing in our country, how we’re starting to move on them so quickly. It’s been waiting for so long and all of a sudden, it’s ready to go.

You had taken umbrage at billionaire Tom Steyer running. Why is that? If anyone feels like they’re the right person for the job, shouldn’t they go for it?

I can imagine a magical, fictional billionaire who would be a good president, but the idea that you’re already bragging about the fact that you can spend 100 million dollars…. We have so many people with such personal wealth in this country and they can’t just think that—by virtue of how much money they’re willing to spend—that they can buy an elected office, any elected office, much less the presidency. He used to be really powerful on climate change activism, so he should take that 10 million and spend it on climate change and on investing in green energy because that’s what we need. We need companies and capitalists to invest in green energy and get the ball rolling so that everybody wants to do it. You need a certain critical mass to really start it moving.

“We have so many people with such personal wealth in this country and they can’t just think that they can buy an elected office… much less the presidency.”

Education has been your cause for a very long time, but there have now been so many things that you’ve spoken about and been involved in. Is there an issue right now, in the immediate today, tomorrow, this week, that you’ll focus on and put all your energy behind?

I’ve worked on abortion rights since I was a teenager. I’ve worked on LGBT rights since before I was LGBT. I’ve worked on education since my kids entered school. I think the thing that we need to do locally and on a national level is to get more progressives elected and to not listen to people who say, ‘Oh, it’s too radical; oh it’s too far-fetched.’ They’re just wrong.

I like the fact that you focus so much on local politics. How do you convince people that they should be voting in their local elections?

As Democrats, we’ve really missed the boat on focusing on statehouses, and so many of the battles we’re behind in are because Republicans have focussed on it with gerrymandering and campaigning. But local politics are what you have to focus on if you’re wanting to change who is in office and not just have it be old white guys. Because people knew who I was, I was able to do something as presumptuous as run for governor, but most people, if they’re going to step out of their comfort zone and run for office for the first time, they’re going to do it on a local level. A city councillor a statehouse. We’ve got to start doing that and thinking it’s not just a professional class of people who are also politicians.

Who has shaped your perspective in the years that you’ve been an activist? Are there people you can think of who led that conversation for you and helped you understand what issues to focus on?

When I got involved in better funding for education in 2001, it was because of the Alliance for Quality Education. I never would have run for governor if I hadn’t been involved with them. Then, New York Communities for Change, or Make the Road, or Citizen Action; these are really the people I go to to see what battle we’re going to fight next. They were there when I said, pa‘okay, if I run for governor, what do we want to do on this issue? Rent, education, criminal justice?’ These are the people who are now starting to get people elected like Jumaane Williams. Tish James was their baby way back when in the day. She was the first person elected on the Working Families party line. They’re the people who are in there fighting every day for decades. It’s slow. I have to say, I’m relatively new to them, but I also feel like the Democratic Socialists of America are transforming the debate very, very quickly.

So, tell me what you’re working on right now.

I just finished last week doing eight episodes of this new Ryan Murphy Netflix show called Ratched, with Sarah Paulson starring as Nurse Ratched. It was great.

How does it feel to be back to acting?

It feels great. I, of course, know Ryan’s stuff—there is so much of it; how could you see it all?—but I loved him and Sarah, and I go back a bunch of years and I love her. He has such a big canvas that he works on. He thinks so big. There’s just not a person in the world that he wouldn’t call up and say, ‘You want to be on my show?’