BROOKLYN, New York—Winsome Pendergrass, a 59-year-old resident of Flatbush, was having the rarest of experiences early Tuesday afternoon: an actually enjoyable ride on a Manhattan-bound 3 train.
“I’m a celebrity, look who’s my friend,” Pendergrass explained. “Put it in the papers.”
Next to Pendergrass sat Cynthia Nixon, the longtime activist and star of Sex and the City, who had just completed her inaugural event in her campaign for governor of New York. As the two chatted, wedged in a row of seats facing a cadre of television cameras, another woman was pulled into an interview with NBC 4 after she considered getting off the train.
The train hurtled to a stop and the media mob swayed. Earlier on in the day, Pendergrass and Nixon exchanged a laugh. Asked about it later on, the Brooklyn native recalled the line she had delivered to her new celebrity-politician friend.
“Everybody in the city is having sex, but tenants not getting any,” said Pendergrass. “We’re getting screwed over.”
As she campaigns for governor of New York, Cynthia Nixon may not be able to escape her identity as Miranda. But she can hope to meld it into something politically potent. During her first day on the trail, she managed to exemplify a kind of leftist ideal for a Democrat running against an entrenched, money-beholden incumbent from the same party—one with political bonafides in the activist community.
And yet, her candidacy remains bound by a tension, as seen by her interactions on the train. Nixon, for better or worse, is being propelled by her celebrity even as she makes charges that the elites have had it way too good.
Instead of running away from that, Nixon is openly acknowledging it, saying in her first ad that she was given chances growing up in the city that she doesn’t see for children these days.
Earlier in the day, Nixon had swung by the Bethesda Healing Center, a multicultural congregation in Brownsville near East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Entering into a small room to chants of “CYN-THI-A, CYN-THI-A,” she was treated like a populist hero—an HBO fixture-turned avatar for progressive change.
Nixon was late to the event, like most New Yorkers are late to essentially everything these days. And she and her campaign went to great lengths to emphasize this, documenting her trip on Twitter, to the largely minority voter-filled Brownsville audience.
“I got here just in the nick of time,” Nixon said at a podium in front of a large CYNTHIA FOR NY sign. “I allowed an hour and a half for what should have been a 30 minute ride. Cuomo’s MTA.”
Cuomo would be the governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose tenure in Albany has inspired scorn among national progressives and eye-rolls among New York City denizens, primarily for the rising dysfunction of the city’s sprawling subway network. It is the provincial thorn in the side of the governor’s office and a rallying cry for every New Yorker with access to Twitter. “FIX THE GODDAMN TRAINS,” is a social media staple during frenzied morning commutes.
Though her professional roots are in acting, Nixon is no political neophyte. She’s been involved in numerous political causes and clearly knows a campaign cudgel when she sees it. She has taken note of the MTA horror show and used it against Cuomo, casting him as an elitist insider who has let public transportation (not to mention education and affordable housing) wither on the vine.
She assailed Cuomo for kowtowing to corporate interests in language that was just as sharp as a speech from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and even seemed to echo Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. “New York for the many,” Nixon declared, “not just the few.”
She tore into Cuomo for taking cash from David Koch and his wife in 2011 and for his lack of small dollar contributions in general. “If you are a regular person in New York,” Nixon declared, “the chance that Andrew Cuomo is going to care about your concerns is exactly that: 0.1 percent.”
It was a sharp, pithy, and ultimately effective line (at least judging on crowd reactions). But it doesn’t say much about Nixon’s road ahead. Campaigns aren’t just speeches. They are continuous conversations, both with voters and the opposition. And no sooner had Nixon started running for governor than Cuomo’s allies hit back.
“Cynthia Nixon was opposed to having a qualified lesbian become mayor of New York City. Now she wants to be an unqualified lesbian to be the governor of New York,” former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Cuomo supporter, said in an interview with the New York Post. Quinn, a lesbian, was referring to Nixon’s decision to back New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over her in the 2013 Democratic primary.
Even seasoned New York political observers were a bit stunned by how quickly Nixon had gotten under Cuomo’s skin. And though Quinn later apologized, the expectations are that the next few months will turn into a bitter political affair.
Whether Nixon has the chops to endure it will be the defining question of the race. Certainly there is enough antipathy towards Cuomo to give her an opening.
“I’m set to go right now,” 66-year-old Norman Frazier told The Daily Beast. He had previously voted for Cuomo but was more enthused about Nixon, particularly after hearing her speak.
Traipsing away from East 98th Street towards the Sutter Avenue-Rutland Road train station after addressing the Brownsville audience, Nixon chit-chatted with voters about affordable housing and the impending Nor’Easter that is hurtling down on the city on the first day of spring.
When she ducked into the station, she briefly spoke to reporters on the platform, her words nearly drowned out by an MTA announcement saying that, once again, there were delays, this time due to the tragic death of a young MTA employee.
On the train she talked to Pendergrass, who had walked with her from the Bethesda Healing Center and now seemed open to the possibility that a previous television star could very well run the state. Especially, if that person was Nixon.
“Well if Donald Trump is in there, I don’t see why she can’t go,” Pendergrass said.