Nixon capitalizes on celebrity in her New York campaign against Cuomo

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Actress and liberal activist Cynthia Nixon held a rally in Brooklyn on March 20 to kick off her campaign for governor of New York, challenging incumbent Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination. (Reuters)

NEW YORK — Cynthia Nixon probably wasn’t the first politician to tour the crumbling housing complex in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood this week.

But she likely was the first to have dozens of reporters trailing her, residents who took selfies and “Inside Edition” asking how her celebrity was playing in New York.

Nixon, the star of the longtime HBO series “Sex and the City” and an actress with numerous movie and TV credits, has launched a primary challenge against two-term Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, casting the incumbent as insufficiently liberal in a strongly Democratic state.

Celebrity worked for Donald Trump in 2016 as the nation elected him to run the country. The question is whether New York Democrats will be swayed by celebrity and toss aside an experienced politician with his own famous political name.

“When it’s election time, voting time, then you see Cuomo, but when it’s not, you can’t reach him,” said Joann Campbell, 55, who talked to Nixon during her Brooklyn stop. “So she’s an actress. We had a president, (Ronald) Reagan — he was an actor. We got Trump. How bad can it go?”

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is seeking a third term, but faces a spirited challenge from actress Cynthia Nixon, a first-time candidate. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Trump erased barriers for celebrities as voters who have grown more cynical about politics embraced the newcomers. Oprah Winfrey delivered a buzzy speech at the Golden Globes earlier this year and stirred speculation among Democrats about a 2020 presidential bid. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban is mentioned as a possible White House hopeful.

Trump also has proven the power of an outsider pitch, and the audience for anyone who insists that the political class had failed. Nixon, standing with Brooklyn borough president Eric L. Adams, has capitalized on her celebrity, drawing TV cameras and a crowd for her visit to the troubled housing project.

“All you people come out and cover it, so we can talk about what’s really happening,” Nixon said. “That’s the frank matter about celebrity. It’s what Eleanor Roosevelt said about herself. When she went places, the press would follow.”

Nixon, 51, who played Roosevelt in the 2005 TV movie “Warm Springs,” has been an activist for years on education and gay rights. She faces tough odds in her bid to unseat Cuomo. The incumbent has $30 million in campaign funds, the backing of nearly every elected Democrat in the state and a poll showing a 3-to-1 edge among New York City voters.

He mocked the idea of her primary challenge earlier this month. “Normally name recognition is relevant when it has some connection to the endeavor. If it’s just about name recognition, then I’m hoping Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Billy Joel don’t get into the race,” Cuomo said.

Hunkered down in Albany to finish the state’s budget, Cuomo’s office responded to Nixon’s more recent criticism by saying he sought “real and immediate remedies” to the housing crisis.

But her candidacy clearly unnerved the governor and his allies. Within 24 hours of Nixon’s announcement, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had dismissed her as an “unqualified lesbian.” Nixon embraced the moniker and is selling $5 blue-and-white campaign buttons with those words.

Cuomo, son of former governor Mario Cuomo, has a strong liberal record of helping legalize same-sex marriage in the state in June 2011, banning fracking and strengthening gun control. Nixon has called the governor “Andrew the Bully” and compared him to Trump. She insists that he could direct more money to schools, housing and public transportation, especially the aging New York City subway.

“In terms of racial and economic equality, New York is so far behind when we should be leading,” Nixon said in an interview on the subway as she left Brooklyn. “I feel like people in the press know these things, but what are they going to do? They can’t write editorials 24 hours a day about the dirty secret of how unprogressive New York has become under Andrew Cuomo.”

Before Nixon’s announcement, Cuomo had been rolling to a third term amid talk of a possible presidential bid in 2020. Republicans had lost out on their first, second, and third choice of challengers; even Rob Astorino, the rising Republican star who challenged Cuomo in 2014, had lost his job in the 2017 Democratic wave. Cuomo’s feud with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made headlines but did not cost him votes.

Then came Nixon, who echoed de Blasio’s criticisms of Cuomo and gave them electoral force. De Blasio could blame Cuomo for underfunding the city’s subway; Nixon could be delayed to her own launch event by broken trains, and turn the subway system into a national story.

Cuomo’s allies are infuriated. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), whose district includes heavily African American neighborhoods of Brooklyn, said that Nixon revealed an “absence of governmental sophistication” by attacking Cuomo over the subway.

“The communities that I represent will strongly embrace his candidacy for reelection,” said Jeffries. “As Democrats, we should be singularly focused on winning the House of Representatives back so we can put a check on an out-of-control president.”

But a Democratic victory is not enough for New York’s liberals. In 2012 and 2016, Democrats won control of the state Senate. But after each election, a group of Democrats joined the Independent Democratic Conference, which voted to let Republicans run the chamber.

Democrats who have been campaigning to break the IDC identified one major problem: It was in­cred­ibly difficult to get voters to know or care about it. Nixon is trying to change that. On Monday, she echoed the IDC’s opponents, like the Working Families Party, by calling the senators “Trump Democrats.” On Thursday, she tweeted a video about the IDC narrated by fellow actress Edie Falco, a star on HBO’s “The Sopranos.”

“She brings celebrity to this, and she brings a platform,” said Alessandra Biaggi, who is challenging Sen. Jeff Klein, the IDC’s leader, in the Democratic primary. “To break through the noise, you need something like that to amplify your message.”

In the second week of her campaign, Nixon joined the New York State Alliance for Quality Education — an organization she’d worked with for years — to blame Cuomo for the gap in funding in schools that largely serve nonwhite communities. But first, Nixon stood quietly for 10 minutes as parents displayed funding charts and told the media what had been happening at their schools.

“I think it’s wonderful that all the cameras are here. It’s a beautiful thing. But I hope the story will reflect that the woman behind us was coming up here when y’all weren’t here,” said Zakiyah Ansari, the AQE’s advocacy director.

And in her speech in Albany, Nixon asked the media to reverse its thinking about acting and politics.

“It’s all scripted,” she said of Cuomo. “He deserves an Oscar for his performance. Some might say his lack of acting-experience makes him unqualified, but I actually think he’s doing pretty well. Just goes to show you what a novice can do if they put their mind to it.”

The primary is Sept. 13.

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