Let's just get this out of the way up front: I think Cynthia Nixon is immensely talented. She has had an amazing career. I'm sorry I missed her and Laura Linney - who I also admire - trading roles in The Little Foxes. Hers is the most wondrous role of Sex and the City, from the very first minutes of the pilot, to the brilliant Models and Mortals, and on and on - even if she couldn't salvage the misbegotten sequel feature film.
None of that, nor her moves into political activism I'm afraid, makes her a necessarily great choice to be the next Governor of New York.
Just how formidable an opponent she might or might not be to Andrew Cuomo isn't entirely clear, and likely never will be. Since she announced her intention to run, backed by the array of allies who backed Zephyr Teachout's more left field challenge to Cuomo that unleashed a torrent of bad feeling for our current Governor, Cuomo has responded with the kind of machine gun to kill a mouse approach that seems to suggest that he's at least looking to not repeat the last debacle. What's less clear is whether Nixon really poses a threat even on par with Teachout, never mind beyond that.
Cuomo's side started early and hard, with Christine Quinn coming out before Nixon even officially entered the race to term Nixon an "unqualified lesbian" who'd been especially unhelpful in Quinn's run for Mayor (as the "qualified lesbian"). Quinn's score settling was so heavy handed that she had to back away from the implications that she was knocking Nixon's later life coming out for fear of ruining her political ties to gay activism (God knows, she's never going to run again in New York for anything, ever). But that episode wasn't helped by a slow-footed response from Nixon and her team that spoke to her challenges as a campaign neophyte... underlining the very things Quinn raised.
New York politics - especially in the city, but really, across the state - is not a nice or pleasant business. Set aside the sense of general sleaze in Albany - which animates the dissatisfaction with Cuomo - and there's still the everyday unpleasantness of a statewide web of political clubs and organizations who use arcane rules and complex procedure to handicap all but the most dogged of political ambitions. It is not for the faint of heart, the delicate of sensibilities or the naive. And Nixon isn't the first, or last, New Yorker with a name to get tossed into a maelstrom of political storms based on a well meaning attempt to ride fame and recognition to glory.
And so it was that Nixon found herself this week managing to get the endorsement of the Working Families Party - a key endorsement for lefties unhappy with traditional Democratic Party machine politics - in a battle that may well have undone the whole party's existence. Before dropping out of the contest entirely, Cuomo used his weight as their chief negotiator to...well, who can say, exactly, but let's try "encourage" WFP's main union backers - SEIU and the downstate local of the CWA - to walk away from their support. Thus Nixon now has a party endorsement from a party that, without it's basic coalition of activists and union groups, doesn't quite have a reason to exist at all.
The existence of the WFP, and a number of similar small parties not familiar to many outside the state, is just one of our interesting wrinkles. It's why, for instance, the well meaning insurgents on Team Sanders found themselves blindsided by not gearing up early or actively enough in 2016, when the state's arcane rules left them without lines on the small party ballots and voters who hadn't known early enough to switch their party allegiances had no way to vote in the state's primary (that 10 month window - which has passed this year as well - will also hurt Nixon). "Reformers" talk a good game of attacking the interconnected web of New York rules (don't get me started on petitioning, our time honored extra hurdle), but the fact is, the people who benefit from those rules are the ones who'd have to vote to change them. And that, as we say, ain't happening.
There's no reason to fault Nixon for not knowing what many newcomers don't know... but that doesn't excuse a savvy operator like Teachout, who is Nixon's treasurer, from having some insight into the potential messes long before now (like the way, for instance, Cuomo started a "Women's Party" to help stall her chances, and headed it up with... Christine Quinn). And it is a point that Nixon's fame and name recognition is also her Achilles heel - because she's more visible, her name likely to attract readers to New York's splashy but struggling tabloids, every shudder and misstep plays out very publicly. That's the problem of a celebrity neophyte - and a New Yorker doesn't need to look much farther than Donald Trump to see how bad that can be. Sure Trump, more or less steamrolled his way into office... but his campaign was marked, repeatedly, by dumb, unforced errors played out in splashy fashion because of his name recognition (and just as splashily, are stlll likely to get him remove from office sooner rather than later).
Worse still is the fact that Andrew Cuomo's lumpish, disliked presence as Governor is ripe for a strong, thoughtful challenge; it beggars belief that Teachout herself, coming off a surprisingly strong finish against him last time, didn't just re-up herself, even with her more painful loss in an upstate Congressional race in 2016. Teachout's laserlike focus on a platform of combined governmental reform and pledge to focus on the needs of everyday New Yorkers played especially well. Nixon, by contrast, has embraced a set of proposals that seem tailored to both the narrow swath of Sanders stye lefties and a city specific audience happy to hear about lowering apartment rents and tackling the MTA. Missing from that is the basic core of Democratic party success - threading the needs of economically challenged upstate communities with the appeal to minority interests needed to prevail across the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. So far, Nixon is shaping up to be Teachout lite: an amiable protest vote that will never pose much threat to Cuomo, and that he can easily co-opt by adapting her more attractive proposals to his placating whims. Which is exactly what he did to her this week on recreational marijuana.
The simpler fact is that Nixon, for many, doesn't cross the threshold to be Governor; this is a state of active, thoughtful voters (especially in primaries) with a high bar and serious criteria. Nothing in Nixon's fine resume as a performer suggests the skills needed in a Governor, and nothing in the early days of her run suggests the kind of nerve and political savvy needed in a state as complex and diverse as New York. If she'd started small, if she'd started earlier... who can say? But sadly - and cynically - her run seems to be exactly, well, what it seems: plucking a name brand celebrity with some lefty cred and throwing her out there in the hopes that she can thrown Cuomo off balance enough to pose a real threat. Sure it's deeply unfair to voters to play them like that... but ultimately I'm a little more sad for Nixon herself - she didn't, and doesn't, deserve this.
And so, we'll get what we'll always get: more time with a connected guy from a political family who long ago ceded his integrity for power and some limited prestige. Cuomo is so badly damaged - if nothing else, he's an ethical disaster - that he has no chance on the national stage, yet he commands the levers of a well oiled political machine so skillfully that no ordinary opponent can stop him in state. Zephyr Teachout was the kind of wild card that threw a wrench into that machine. Nixon, quite simply, isn't. And knowing that now, with so much yet to unfurl, is the real trial we all face, here in the Empire State.