Cynthia Nixon is no Oprah, but she can win in New York

Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex & the City” co-star, is challenging Gov. Andrew Coumo in the Democratic primary.
Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex & the City” co-star, is challenging Gov. Andrew Coumo in the Democratic primary. AP

When Cynthia Nixon announced her campaign for New York governor, many scoffed at yet another celebrity candidate in an age that’s already full of them. But Nixon may be less an example of how stars seeking a career change are doomed to fall short — and more a model for how they can succeed.

With President Donald Trump smashing china in the Oval Office, it’s no wonder some think the country suffers from too much puffery and too little policymaking. Speculation about an Oprah Winfrey run for president was met with as many sneers as cheers a few months ago, and when Nixon entered the fray, webizens seized on a “Sex and the City” trope straightaway: The Internet couldn’t help but wonder: Was she a viable candidate? Carrie Bradshaw’s episodic typewriter-ready musings have an air of cliche that observers appear eager to apply to the political aspirations of the woman who played her confidante Miranda Hobbes for so many years. The same skepticism comes through in many of the articles covering Nixon’s campaign.

But that underestimates Nixon. First, she has positioned herself as an outsider. Albany, she says, swarms with cronies of “millionaires, billionaires and corporations.” That rhetoric recalls Bernie Sanders, and it also recalls Trump: Nixon has identified a swamp, and because she has spent her whole life a couple hundred miles south of Albany, she thinks she has enough distance to drain it.

Also like Trump, Nixon is trading on her celebrity status (she looks an awful lot like Miranda Hobbes while strutting down the sidewalks in her inaugural ad), and she knows how to stage a spectacle. That means riding the embattled subway to a launch event and griping about “Cuomo’s MTA” when it lands her there late. And it means responding to Christine Quinn’s calling her an “unqualified lesbian” with a cheeky tweet — and then reprising it at a campaign party at the Stonewall Inn.

These choices certainly make strategic sense. Nixon’s focus on capitalism run amok has piqued the interest of some prominent New Yorkers with far-left sensibilities, and her cachet as the star of a show popular among mainstream progressive women should win her a sizable portion of the Clintonite crowd. But more important than whether Nixon can win is whether she should — whether she has the liberal bona fides to bolster her acting acclaim, or the governing chops to lead a state of almost 20 million people.

Trump is the obvious cautionary tale here. He won by selling the American people something he couldn’t deliver and may never have even believed in. In contrast, for someone who won her fame pretending to be other people, Nixon radiates genuineness. Billionaire is Trump’s brand, but he didn’t make that money himself, and his bountiful debt along with his bankruptcy filings suggest that he ran his business only marginally better than he has run the country. Nixon tells a story that feels a whole lot realer than a sitcom. She was born in New York and grew up in a fifth-floor walk-up with a single mom. She went to public school in the city, and she sends her kids to public school, too. She knows the trains don’t work because she’s been taking them for a while.

Winfrey, of course, had a compelling story, too, and still many Democrats flinched at the idea of her omnipresent face becoming the face of their party. But that’s because Winfrey has been so busy promoting people and products throughout her life that a list of her purported viewpoints looks more like a pick-and-choose catalogue than a coherent platform. And some of the products in that catalogue, liberals probably wouldn’t buy - her peddling of pseudoscience chief among them.

Nixon, though, has built a consistent progressive profile. She has flung herself into the advocacy arena time and time again, including her 2003 arrest outside City Hall protesting proposed cuts to public education and her role on Bill de Blasio’s advisory board to forge public-private partnerships that offered New Yorkers essential services in areas such as mental health and immigration.

Plus, Nixon is a local candidate running for state office: She can’t claim that the experience she has earned qualifies her to run the country. But she sure can claim she has a handle on how New York works.

We often treat celebrities in politics as beautiful but blank slates onto which we project our own desires. Occasionally, though, one comes along who has already filled the slate for herself. Nixon is no superhero — she hasn’t even played one on TV — and she may struggle as much as any candidate to straddle the space between New York City and the very different world that lies to the north. But she’s not just Miranda Hobbes, either.

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