Even then, no one was quite sure what to make of Cynthia Nixon.
It was 2009, nearly a decade before her campaign for governor of New York, and Ms. Nixon was in Albany lobbying lawmakers on a marriage equality bill. One Republican senator began their meeting clutching a printout that suggested Ms. Nixon had been hypocritical. “Married people are the enemy,” the senator read, citing a quote attributed to her on the internet.
Ms. Nixon cut him off. She had indeed said that. As Miranda Hobbes, her character on “Sex and the City.”
“He just kind of folded up the paper and put it away,” Ms. Nixon recalled recently as she sat in her kitchen in Manhattan, where a birthday card from her in-laws showed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s face being punched by a golden fist. “So many people think they know me. They know one slice of me, and the slice that they know is really mostly a fictional character.”
For months now, Ms. Nixon, 52, has been straining to introduce new slices of herself, challenging Mr. Cuomo in a Democratic primary on a platform of boundless progressivism, disdain for squishy centrism and higher taxes on the rich to finance much of her agenda. She is a lifelong New Yorker trying to convey urban authenticity — surely the only candidate in history who said she had no trouble performing nude on television because she had already breast-fed on the No. 2 train. But she is also a figure with effectively zero government or executive experience asking voters to make her New York’s chief government executive, giving pause even to some who generally agree with her.
And if Ms. Nixon’s goal feels more plausible in the Trump era — if a reality television star can be president, why can’t a worldly and accomplished actor run a state? — it is also more complicated. Many Democrats see the nation’s government-by-celebrity experiment as a disaster, compelling Ms. Nixon to sell a liberal mass audience on her most challenging role to date: the well-chosen celebrity, the one who can do it right.
“I think I’m being underestimated,” she said. “I think the campaign itself is being underestimated.”
This appraisal says as much about the current mood in the Democratic base — the appetite for nontraditional candidates and simmering populism — as it does about Ms. Nixon. It has been an unusually good year for women who think they are being underestimated. Ms. Nixon was the most prominent figure to endorse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before her upset victory last month. As results came in, Ms. Nixon hustled from her apartment to the watch-party in the Bronx, leaving behind a dinner that her wife, Christine Marinoni, declined to identify. (“I don’t want to tell you what it was,” she said, stopping herself after letting the word “quinoa” slip. “You’re going to think we eat weird food.”)
Public polling shows Ms. Nixon trailing Mr. Cuomo by more than 30 points, and he holds a significant fund-raising advantage. But the Ocasio-Cortez win has reinforced Ms. Nixon’s belief that voters in New York’s Sept. 13 primary will reward insurgent energy, a view buoyed by double-digit polling misfires in Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s race and another in the state.
And Mr. Cuomo has supplied Ms. Nixon with a political opening, her advisers believe, after two terms of Clinton-style triangulation that has grated on progressives, and recent guilty verdicts in corruption-tinged cases involving close allies of the governor.
In contrast, Ms. Nixon’s admirers see in her an unquestionably liberal messenger to match the moment, with a textured biography and an instinct for distinguishing her stances from the pack’s. She has called Immigration and Customs Enforcement a “terrorist organization.” She has highlighted part of her criminal justice plan, which includes marijuana legalization, with a campaign-sanctioned bong giveaway, tweeting the details at 4:20 p.m. on a recent Sunday.
She talks passionately about raising taxes on the rich — a sometimes precarious stance for a statewide candidate whose jurisdiction would include the nation’s financial capital — arguing that she can speak with authority on the matter “because of my privilege, frankly.”
She says she grasps the threat to abortion rights because her mother had an abortion when they were illegal. Ms. Nixon brought a wire hanger to a rally to make her point.
“Both the media and the Democratic establishment, they’re not quite getting this moment that we’re in,” Ms. Nixon said, “and how hungry people are for a change.”
Mr. Cuomo’s team has alternated between projecting nonchalance about the challenge — while taking care to highlight his success with left-leaning causes like marriage equality and raising the statewide minimum wage — and casting Ms. Nixon as a clueless entertainer.
“It’s clear that voters don’t believe she has the chops,” said Lis Smith, a Cuomo campaign spokeswoman.
Questions about her experience are both fair, Ms. Nixon said, and plainly gendered.
“If I were a man with exactly the same résumé, I would not be getting this question to the extent that I am,” she said.
She acknowledged that her campaign operation, with a few dozen paid staff members, the majority of them female, is the largest entity she has overseen. In a 40-minute interview, Ms. Nixon initially laughed when asked to describe her management style, before settling on “collaborative” and “opinionated.” Her critics have been less generous, though at times their efforts have backfired. When a Cuomo supporter, Christine C. Quinn, the former City Council speaker, called Ms. Nixon an “unqualified lesbian” — Ms. Quinn is also a lesbian — Ms. Nixon’s campaign printed the phrase across official T-shirts. It became a best-seller.
Ms. Nixon has also been credited with moving Mr. Cuomo to the left, with her team trumpeting a “Cynthia effect” in the governor’s shifts in marijuana policy and other areas, which Cuomo allies have insisted is unrelated. “Cynthia Nixon Has Already Won,” read a New York magazine headline less than a month after her campaign began.
But Ms. Nixon seems unsure. Is this the kind of winning that she would consider a success?
On the one hand: She declined to name the senator who had confused her for Miranda all those years ago, on the logic that they might be working together soon.
On the other hand: She would like to wait before answering the question of what qualifies as Cynthia Nixon winning.
“You’ll have to ask me,” she said, “at the end of this campaign.”
‘Girls are more sensible than boys’
By her freshman year of high school, Ms. Nixon had reached a conclusion about the sexes.
“My main ambition in life is to have a daughter,” she told The New York Times in 1980, as an aside in an article about her stage debut. “Girls are more sensible than boys.”
The only child of an actress and a radio journalist who separated when she was 6, Ms. Nixon was raised largely by her mother, Anne, in their fifth-floor walk-up on 75th Street, near the East River.
She began acting to save money for school and was by all accounts too talented to stop. While still a teenager, Ms. Nixon achieved an uncommon feat of Broadway stamina and masochism: racing between theaters each night to star in two productions at once.
Her living area now includes a life-size cutout of herself from one of the shows (“Hurlyburly”); a piano on which her two Tony Awards rest; and a red pillow that reads “First Lady” — “from when I played Nancy,” she said, in the television movie “Killing Reagan.” In one corner of the room, Ms. Nixon keeps a portrait of her father, Walter, alone, listening to Thelonious Monk; in another, a painting of herself and her mother, side by side. (Both parents are deceased.)
“She really instilled in Cynthia, ‘Don’t be so impressed with yourself,’” said Beth Sufian, a close friend since college, when Ms. Nixon, a Barnard undergrad, had a job sorting mail during a semester at sea.
After a decade of steady, if not stratospheric, success on stage and screen, Ms. Nixon found a defining character in Miranda Hobbes, the career-minded lawyer on “Sex and the City,” earning overnight recognition and a platform that she came to value.
She took issue with some of the high-living show’s “consumer aspects,” she said, recalling her unease when an audience at a premiere cheered at the sight of an expansive closet. But she expressed no regrets about a notable cameo from the second season: Donald J. Trump. “He was kind of an iconic New York figure then,” she said.
As a candidate, Ms. Nixon has found some political purpose for Miranda, embracing the character’s hyper-competence and concern for other women. Another friend, Wallace Shawn, the actor and playwright, suggested Ms. Nixon’s capacity for empathy in performances was transferable to effective government. “Good actors know how to put themselves in other people’s shoes,” he said, “to imagine what it’s like to be somebody not yourself.”
Ronald Reagan once wondered how anyone could hold office without being an actor. Ms. Nixon sees some merit in this.
“Actors are really communicators, right?” she said, making an exception for “introverted geniuses” like Philip Seymour Hoffman and James Dean. “I’m not introverted, and I’m not a genius.”
Her interest in political activism began at the peak of her “Sex and the City” fame, as her oldest child was entering kindergarten. Ms. Nixon was arrested in 2002 protesting budget reductions at City Hall and became a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group.
Ms. Nixon has framed education as the cause of her life, the biggest reason she ran when no other prominent Democrat stepped forward in the primary against Mr. Cuomo. “The fish rots from the head,” she told a group of school superintendents in Albany last month, lashing the governor over funding decisions.
Supporters have cited her work in education as perhaps her most significant credential. “She’s a natural and legit organizer,” said Jonathan Westin, the director of New York Communities for Change.
But some former city and state officials say Ms. Nixon’s prominence in local education fights has been overstated. Marc La Vorgna, a former press secretary for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — who himself had a chilly relationship with Mr. Cuomo — said he was taken aback this year to see Ms. Nixon “labeled as an education advocate.”
“It was the most contested issue during Bloomberg, with 15 to 20 major education flare-ups and moments every year,” said Mr. La Vorgna, who worked at City Hall from 2008 to 2013. “She was relevant in zero.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Ms. Nixon was “always out there with us” early in Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure but seemed to be less present at times since then.
“She wasn’t active as we were having the fights against Cuomo a few years ago, when he went after teachers and the union,” she said. “I just assumed she was busy with her acting career.”
Rebecca Katz, a top adviser to Ms. Nixon, disputed any suggestion that her engagement had wavered, flagging news articles about Ms. Nixon’s education work in recent years and noting that she had spoken at the teachers’ federation national convention in 2014 at Ms. Weingarten’s invitation.
Ms. Nixon’s advocacy did introduce her to two people who would prove consequential in her life. One was Ms. Marinoni, a veteran activist whom Ms. Nixon married after a long companionship with a man, Danny Mozes, whom she met in junior high school. (Mr. Mozes is the father of Ms. Nixon’s two oldest children; she and Ms. Marinoni have a third.)
The other was Bill de Blasio, then a councilman in Brooklyn. Ms. Nixon became a central player in his 2013 run for mayor, corralling endorsements, organizing benefits and promoting his plan for universal prekindergarten. Celebrating his primary victory, Mr. de Blasio saluted Ms. Nixon as one of the “architects” of his race.
“Very generous,” Ms. Nixon said in the interview. “I mean, you know, I don’t want to dispute.”
Ms. Nixon said she had not spoken to the mayor since her campaign began. Mr. de Blasio, who has feuded loudly and frequently with Mr. Cuomo for years, declined an interview through a spokesman.
A steep learning curve on policy
Ms. Nixon threw her right shoulder into the closing door of the No. 6 train, and hoped.
“That takes chutzpah,” Vicki Schwaid, 60, called out from across the car, after Ms. Nixon’s maneuver kept the door open long enough to get her party aboard. “Just because of that, I’m voting for you.”
Though Ms. Nixon’s advisers insist she has much to offer residents upstate, it is here, on the stalled-out subways of her own city, where she has staked much of her candidacy. This is partly a matter of urgent policy substance, given the subway’s dismal performance, and partly a keen bit of political signaling.
“Cynthia Nixon rides the subway every day,” riders have been told on her bold-type fliers underground.
While she has little background in transportation policy, Ms. Nixon has sought the counsel of experts like Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Charles Komanoff, a veteran analyst.
She has called for the adoption of congestion pricing — long a contentious issue in Albany — and a millionaire’s tax to help cover necessary repairs, criticizing Mr. Cuomo for deflecting blame for a system that the state controls.
“There are people in New York City and New York State who are doing very well,” Ms. Nixon said, “but who would not mind, and would actually welcome, the chance to pay more in taxes if it goes to the things that would benefit the great number of New Yorkers.”
In person, Ms. Nixon generally presents as policy-fluent and has mostly avoided notable gaffes with reporters. Some who have briefed Ms. Nixon describe her as a quick study but concede the learning curve is steep.
When pressed for a second or third beat on a subject, Ms. Nixon can be vague (though so, too, can many sitting officeholders). Asked how she might reimagine the M.T.A. to improve its function and rein in the cost of capital projects, she focused only on replacing the current chairman, Joseph J. Lhota, a Cuomo nominee who has said that he opposes a millionaire’s tax because his rates would increase.
“Maybe that was a joke?” she said, chatting on the train. “I’m not even sure.” (Mr. Lhota, whose term expires in 2021, declined to comment.)
Ms. Nixon’s greatest hurdle in September is not necessarily a New York electorate that loves Mr. Cuomo. It is those Democrats who find him tolerable enough to re-elect anyway, concerning themselves more with control of Congress this fall.
But Ms. Nixon has made clear that her decision to run is very much about Mr. Cuomo in particular. He is proof, she argued, that experience in government can be corrosive anyway: Already this year, the architect of Mr. Cuomo’s signature economic development initiative was convicted in a bid-rigging scheme, and a former top aide was found guilty of accepting bribes.
“Let me put it this way: If Mayor Bloomberg was our governor, I would not be running,” she said, suggesting faint praise for a figure whose reign she helped repudiate with Mr. de Blasio’s election.
Ms. Nixon stepped off the train at 103rd Street, bound for an event in East Harlem. “People are very angry,” she said of Mr. Cuomo. “And people are onto him.”
When she reached street level, a woman with a cellphone sidled up, recording her day via social media live-stream. “I’m here with Cynthia Nixon, one of the most fashionable-est women in New York City!” the stranger said, angling the phone as Ms. Katz, the Nixon adviser, shouted the primary date, which did not seem to register. “We’re here doing it up in the city!”
Ms. Nixon stared into the camera and reintroduced herself.
“Hi,” she said, smiling slightly. “I’m running for governor.”