National News

From Hollywood to Public Office: Cynthia Nixon Tests a Role Played by Men

Posted June 19, 2018 9:31 p.m. EDT
Updated June 19, 2018 9:36 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Arnold Schwarzenegger. Al Franken. Ronald Reagan. Sonny Bono. Fred Thompson. Jesse Ventura. Donald Trump.

All were celebrities of a sort. All won high office. All were men.

As Cynthia Nixon, the actress made famous from her turn on “Sex and the City,” runs for governor of New York, she isn’t just bidding to become the first woman and first openly gay governor in the state’s history. She would be one of the first female celebrities elected to a prominent political office anywhere in the United States.

Every celebrity seeking office, especially those with show-business backgrounds, has confronted the question of qualifications. But will a famous woman be treated differently from all the famous men who have come before her?

The crosscurrents of Nixon’s challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo — celebrity and dynasty (Cuomo’s father also served as governor); incumbency and insurgency; gender and ideology — have made their Democratic primary among the most closely watched in the nation.

Women have captured numerous congressional primaries this year, but few female stars have even sought public office in recent decades. Actress Ashley Judd briefly considered a run in 2013 against Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, but never entered the race. Bess Myerson, who was the first Jewish Miss America and a television personality, later pivoted to public service, but lost her bid for Senate in 1980.

Shirley Temple Black ran for Congress in 1967, arguing that “it wouldn’t hurt to have a woman’s viewpoint.”

She lost.

Decades earlier, Helen Gahagan Douglas, an actress from the 1930s, won a California congressional seat and ran for Senate in 1950 against Richard Nixon, the future president. He campaigned against her as a communist sympathizer and a woman at the same time, calling her “pink right down to her underwear.”

He won.

Cynthia Nixon, who is not related to Richard Nixon (though she has sported a vintage “Nixon’s the One!” button on the stump), is attuned to the potential extra gender hurdles she must clear in trying to unseat Cuomo, a two-term incumbent.

“Not just in politics but in most industries, women have to prove themselves five times over to be thought of as qualified,” Nixon said in a recent interview.

Academics largely agree. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that years of research have shown women running for office “have to prove their credentials more than men.”

“There is an assumption,” Walsh said, “that men are qualified.”

Nixon said that perception is internalized, too. She noted she had first been approached to run for governor back in 2010. The idea took years to sink in. “I think women ourselves feel like unless we have a Nobel Prize, written a best seller and labored in the industry for 20 years then we’re not qualified to put our hat in the ring.”

Like so many male Hollywood stars before her, Nixon is trying to turn her lack of government experience into an asset, casting herself as an outsider not “beholden to the special interests.”

“I’m not an Albany insider,” she almost reflexively declares when asked about her qualifications, in an anti-establishment strategy with echoes of Trump in 2016. But in New York, where 75 percent of Democrats said they preferred “experience” over someone “new to politics” in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, she faces a tough audience.

If fame poses a challenge for Nixon, it has also provided much of the political oxygen fueling her insurgent candidacy.

Her launch video was seen millions of times. She recently appeared for 10 minutes on “The Daily Show,” after already chatting on Stephen Colbert’s late-night couch and Wendy Williams’ daytime program — the kind of exposure most neophyte challengers, especially ones more than 20 percentage points behind, could only dream of. And when she campaigns on crowded subway platforms, she is trailed by a crush of cameras and celebrated by commuters.

“This is really happening!” squealed one young woman on a recent Friday morning. “She’s beautiful!” exclaimed another after they snapped selfies. “I know her from the movies!” said a third.

Her first campaign financial disclosure, on Monday, revealed donations from numerous women in the entertainment world: “Sex and the City” co-stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Kristin Davis, actresses Allison Janney, Laura Linney and America Ferrera, and playwright Eve Ensler, among others. Rosie O’Donnell, the comedian and actress, gave $21,000, the maximum allowed.

On the trail, Nixon has tried to focus on her history as an education activist and public school parent for more than a decade. Over that period, she got arrested outside City Hall and trekked to Albany to lobby for schools.

When “Sex and the City” hit its 20th anniversary, Nixon drew parallels between her candidacy and her role on the show as Miranda, a career-oriented lawyer.

Her campaign store offers merchandise with the tagline, “I’m a Miranda and I’m voting for Cynthia,” and she wrote an essay on what it means “to be a ‘Miranda’ in 2018.

But she hasn’t settled on how to sell her acting career (she has won an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy) as preparation to govern a state as large, complex and unwieldy as New York.

Cuomo’s campaign team has signaled that they plan to leverage her lack of government or management experience against her; one of his campaign taglines is “proven leadership.” They have also highlighted some of Nixon’s rookie missteps, from misspelling Ithaca in an email to her shifting rhetoric on tax breaks for filming in New York — often with biting Hollywood puns about how governing “requires more than just reading off a script,” as Cuomo spokeswoman Lis Smith has said.

Rebecca Katz, a top adviser to Nixon, dismissed the criticism, suggesting Cuomo gained an advantage from being the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo. “Cynthia is a self-made woman who didn’t inherit her success,” Katz said. “Her father didn’t get her her first job.” The qualifications bar has been a central challenge for past male celebrities. George Gorton, an early adviser to Schwarzenegger, said focus groups before the actor ran showed approval ratings that were off the charts. But no one wanted to actually vote for him. “He looked like a thug in a leather jacket,” Gorton recalled. “That was his image politically.”

The Schwarzenegger team sponsored a ballot measure to soften and make more serious his image, starring him in television ads about after-school programs in 2002. He won the governorship in 2003.

One factor working in Nixon’s favor, according to academics and political strategists, is that the Miranda character on “Sex and the City” was a high achiever.

“She’s very much like her character,” Brittany Burrows said approvingly after she ran into Nixon while commuting in Brooklyn recently.

Strategists who worked against Trump in 2016 have attested to the power of a television-formed image: The perception of Trump as a decisive billionaire executive from his years on “The Apprentice” was almost impossible to dislodge.

Sheila Kuehl experienced this herself. As a child actor, she played Zelda Gilroy on the popular 1960s sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” and when she ran for the California Legislature three decades later, she said voters still linked her with that brainy character.

“That helps. Unlike so many women of my generation I had not been forced to play the dumb person,” said Kuehl, now a county supervisor in Los Angeles.

Glenda Jackson, an Oscar-winning actress later elected to Parliament in England, also has a history of playing intelligent women. Nixon recently visited with Jackson, who won a Tony Award this year for Best Actress in a Play. “I offered to bang on doors if she needs a helping hand,” Jackson, 82, told Vanity Fair.

In the current governor’s race, gender is already playing a prominent role.

She has attacked Albany under Cuomo as an “old boys’ club.” She released an ad about the governor’s record on sexual harassment. And she made her bid to be New York’s first female governor into a key applause line. (A second female candidate, Stephanie Miner, the former mayor of Syracuse, has since joined the race as an independent.)

Nixon has been less forceful, however, about her résumé. Pushed in the interview about her preparation to be governor, Nixon named “being a progressive fighter” as a top credential, saying she would cajole lawmakers by marshaling public opinion.

“Many of the issues that I’m running on, they’re moral issues. If you want to get something passed, the fact of the matter is legislators don’t want to be on the wrong side of history,” she said. “You really, you create a groundswell among voters, you make it an issue they care about and then people can’t — legislators can’t ignore their constituents.”

Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist who has worked to advance female candidates, said that “celebrity is a logical choice” when recruiting nontraditional candidates because it offers two of the hardest-to-find qualities: name identification and a potential fundraising base.

“We would have had a woman governor by now,” McIntosh said of New York, “if the traditional paths allowed for a woman.”