The Sex and the City star is ready for the uphill struggle to dislodge incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo
From prime-time to politics: what Cynthia Nixon did next
It is difficult to imagine Miranda Hobbes of Sex and the City ever setting foot in a grimy New York subway. But that is where Cynthia Nixon, who played hotshot lawyer Miranda on the hit TV show, took her upstart campaign to become governor of New York on a recent rush-hour morning, generating a mix of irritation, bemusement and star-struck excitement among harried commuters emerging from the busy number four train.
Two young women on their way to school greeted her with hugs and shrieks. “I’m not too involved in politics,” said Lily Tynpanic,17, afterwards, admitting that she really only knew the candidate from her TV career, “but I know she’s supported by a lot of people and I believe we need more women in office.”
The response is typical of a campaign that is viewed through the prism of President Donald Trump's presidency as Democrats ponder whether a sharp-tongued celebrity candidate from the radical wing of the party is the best way to fight the uglier impulses of the current unconventional administration.
As well as the recognition factor, Ms Nixon brings a long record of campaigning for environmental, labour and gay rights causes in New York.
She faces an uphill struggle to make it on to November’s ballot, however. She must first find a way to dislodge Andrew Cuomo, who has served two terms as the Democratic governor of New York and counts on the support of big donors and unions, from the party nomination.
Which is what brought her - in grey heels - to Borough Hall station on a damp, grey Friday morning. Nixon has put overhauling the city’s crumbling transit system at the heart of her campaign, turning the subways into a crucial battleground where she can differentiate herself from the incumbent centrist.
As she reminded The National, she is a frequent straphanger (as Americans call subway riders) unlike the city's governor and her own character on Sex and the City. “That’s a role that I played. I’m on the New York city subway every day, so’s my wife, so are my kids,” said the 52-year-old actress, who would be the first openly gay governor of the state if elected. “We know the problems.”
If the subway dies, the city dies, she said.
“We have a governor who for the last two terms has slashed taxes on corporations and banks and the super wealthy, who has decimated the infrastructure of our state,” she said, standing in front of a bank of ticket machines.
“This is apparent all over the state and a perfect example is the New York City subway, which has the worst on-time record of any major transit system in the world.”
Her solution is to overhaul the network with proceeds from a congestion charge for motorists driving into the city, as well as fees on companies that pollute in New York State and a millionaire’s tax on the very wealthiest.
Her ideas were welcomed by many of the travellers to whom she spoke. They shared tales of delays, line closures and weekend disruption for repairs.
“It is good to see that someone cares about us and about the MTA,” said Jonas Lukosevicius, a student, referring to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the subway.
He spoke above the rumble of trains coming and going, and a harried New Yorker trying to push his way through a media scrum, bellowing: “Get out the way, I have to get to work.”
Ms Nixon’s impact goes beyond New York transport policy. Her energetic attacks on big corporations, calls for tax increases to pay for services, and sharp criticism of a centrist opponent reflect the debate that has coursed through Democratic politics since Bernie Sanders took on Hillary Clinton and which will shape the next presidential race: Are elections won from the centre, or do these extreme times call for more radical solutions?
She has won the endorsement of Our Revolution, a group that spans out of the Sanders run, and her campaign includes Sanders alumni intent on another grass-roots David versus corporate Goliath battle. In contrast, Mrs Clinton is backing Mr Cuomo.
With much of the party establishment backing the status quo, Ms Nixon is some 22 points behind the governor according to a survey published by Quinnipiac University last month.
Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political operative in New York, said history suggests it is all but impossible to defeat an incumbent governor in a primary.
“She can galvanise the left,” he said. “She can create a significant, mobilised opposition to him. She can attempt to interfere with his relationship with African American voters and she can embolden the mayor, Bill de Blasio, to broaden the scope of his conflict with the governor.”
Since she entered the race, Mr Cuomo has changed tack on a string of major policies, something her supporters describe as the “Cynthia effect”.
He has all but dropped his opposition to legalising recreational use of marijuana (Ms Nixon advocates its legalisation), proposed a ban on plastic bags (days after Ms Nixon publicised her green agenda) and promised to restore voting rights to up to 35,000 felons.
A day before Ms Nixon’s subway station appearance, he announced his backing for the MTA’s new transport strategy that would use congestion pricing to help pay its $19 billion bill (Dh69.7 billion).
“It’s not been a priority for him because he’s never on the subway and it’s not something his wealthy donors care about,” said Ms Nixon.
Each shift is claimed as a win by campaign aides, but they insist the actor is not interested in merely shaping the debate.
“That’s not enough,” said one. “She is running to win because we need someone in the job who is going to fight and fight.”