Why Cynthia Nixon and Her Race For Governor of New York is Good For Politics

Fans of former Sex and the City co-lead and progressive activist Cynthia Nixon were elated when she announced, back in March, that she was challenging Andrew Cuomo to become the next Governor of New York.  Nixon, known for her extensive activism on education and health care, has painted herself as a stark contrast to the corporate-friendly gubernatorial tenure of Governor Cuomo (now running for his third term) by touting her outsider status with the slogan, “I’m a Miranda, and I’m voting for Cynthia.”

I know what you’re probably thinking:  Oh, not ANOTHER celebrity!  These egotistical caricatures get elected by starstruck voters, and then they proceed to make it all about THEM!  But let’s put aside the abysmal job Donald Trump has done in the last year-and-a-half.  Critics of “celebrity politicians” will go even farther back: invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s divisive tenure as Governor of California from 2003 to 2011.  Or even pointing to how Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House degraded our social safety net and caused a rise in homelessness. Not to mention the sordid actions of Al Franken during (and leading up to) his time in the U.S. Senate – although, in Franken’s case, his leftist defenders will proceed to engage in cognitive dissonance.

As with any group, celebrities who wish to go into public service should be judged based on their own individual merits…or lack thereof, as the case may be.  Former NYC Council Speaker (and onetime mayoral candidate) Christine Quinn – an ardent Cuomo ally – recently referred to Nixon as “an unqualified lesbian.”  Apparently, the fact that Quinn herself is openly-lesbian absolves her from invoking Nixon’s sexual orientation when it should really be irrelevant to whether or not Nixon is actually “qualified.”

Cynthia Nixon has been hitting Andrew Cuomo hard on issues where she believes he is too “pro-establishment.”  Whether she wins their September primary for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination remains to be seen – although the odds seem to still favor Cuomo.  The defeat of longtime U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley by insurgent rabble-rouser Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the June 26 Democratic congressional primary only further riles up an already-pronounced division between business-as-usual Democrats and hungry-for-change (self-described) progressives.  The establishment will circle its wagons around Cuomo or (due to a ballot technicality) the defeated Crowley while trying to stymie the efforts of Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez (who are now campaigning together).  But the takeaway, here, should be clear:  don’t underestimate those with grassroots followings…as we are entering an era where citizens demanding more will become the norm rather than the exception.

Unbeknownst to the mass public, Cynthia Nixon isn’t the only “celebrity figure” running for office this year.  Former actor/model/heartthrob Antonio Sabato Jr. is running as a Republican against Democratic incumbent U.S. Representative Julia Brownley for California’s 26th Congressional District.  Former NFL wide receiver Anthony E. Gonzalez will be the Republican nominee for Ohio’s 16th Congressional District (vacated by U.S. Representative Jim Renacci, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown for the U.S. Senate).

On the Democratic side:  ex-linebacker Colin Allred (formerly of the Tennessee Titans) is challenging Republican U.S. Representative Pete Sessions in the 32nd Congressional District of Texas.  Former Amazing Race contestant Justin Kanew has been vying to run for Marsha Blackburn’s open seat in Tennessee’s 7th District.  This past spring, political writer and past CNBC host Dylan Ratigan competed for the nomination to take on Republican incumbent Elise Stefanik in New York’s 21st District – although he ultimately lost that primary contest to progressive rising star Tedra Cobb.

In the past few election cycles, there have been other less-prominent celebrity figures throwing their hats into the ring.  American Idol superstar Clay Aiken was famously defeated, in a long-shot 2014 campaign, against then-Representative Renee Ellmers in North Carolina’s heavily-Republican 2nd Congressional District.  Two years earlier, ex-astronaut José M. Hernández lost to incumbent U.S. Representative Jeff Denham in California’s 10th District. During that same election cycle, former Empty Nest costar Park Overall lost the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent U.S. Senator Bob Corker; this year, Overall is challenging Republican incumbent David Hawk for District 5 of Tennessee’s state house.

Don’t be dismayed by the obstacles that Aiken, Hernández, and Overall had faced during those election cycles.  These seats were in overwhelmingly-Republican districts during years when Democrats had control of the White House.  Regardless of whether the U.S. House or U.S. Senate flips in November…Donald Trump and a dysfunctional array of advisors will still occupy the White House during the 2020 election cycle.

For that reason, we should look beyond the highest office in the land.  The corporate-owned mainstream media tends to focus on *Marquee_Names* in anticipation of the 2020 presidential slugfest.  Oprah Winfrey. Tom Hanks. George Clooney. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

By and large, these names that have been floated are tossed around in order to manufacture sensationalistic headlines.  Winfrey seems highly skeptical of a presidential bid, and the others appear content to continue making big budget movies while doing charity work on the side.

But why not set our radar a little lower downticket?  Park Overall is running for a state-level seat after her U.S. Senate bid from six years ago fell short.  Critics of Cynthia Nixon are encouraging her to consider switching over to compete in a New York state assembly race if she loses the Sep. 13 primary to Cuomo.

With future control of the U.S. Senate (and, by extension, the U.S. Supreme Court) being so precarious, wouldn’t it make sense for a slate of levelheaded “outsiders” to mount serious opposition to the current rubber-stamp incumbents?

In the 2020 election cycle alone, there will be U.S. Senate seats up for grabs in “red states” such as Texas, Louisiana, Alaska, Oklahoma, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota.  Traditionally, these areas have been a tough sell for generic Democratic candidates on a statewide ballot. Most political observers assume that, even in a year projected to be as contentious as 2020, these incumbents will be safe in their rural, conservative-leaning regions.  Or, if any of them retire, it’s assumed that another generic Republican would just hold any of those seats for the GOP.

So-called “conventional wisdom” can be a very dangerous thing, as the 2016 election cycle proved.  If we’re going to find ourselves fascinated by celebrity political candidates…why not follow Cynthia Nixon’s example, and encourage some public figures to run who will bring something to the table beyond slogans, platitudes, and peacock-strutting?

Celebrity status, in and of itself, shouldn’t be the main qualifier.  Any celebrities who run for a lower office must possess the interpersonal skills to relate to – and serve the interests of – voters who’d otherwise be turned off by Hollywood’s frequent elitist reputation.  They should have some meaningful degree of civic involvement or charitable background in addition to their résumés in the worlds of television, film, music, or professional sports.  Any of them need to possess a down-to-earth understanding of the hardships that ordinary Americans are currently enduring…not treating their campaign as an excuse to mug for the camera or promote their latest project.

Take someone like actress Shailene Woodley (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars).  Aside from her huge fanbase, Woodley is passionate about fighting climate change (having co-founded All it Takes with her mother, and protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock) as well as promoting healthy female empowerment.  Since Woodley grew up in both the Santa Clarita and Yucca Valleys at different points in her life, she could easily make a run for the U.S. House of Representatives someday – most likely against either Paul Cook, Ed Royce, or Steve Knight.

When U.S. Senator John Cornyn is up for reelection in Texas during the 2020 cycle, this is a golden opportunity to defeat someone who is emblematic of everything that’s wrong with politics today.  Cornyn oozes the hypocrisy that drools from the mouths of the Talking Heads on Fox News, while sharing Cuomo’s personality defect of acting like a major ass toward his dissenters. Cornyn will probably be renominated by the Republican Party, and the Democrats will likely run a sacrificial lamb who is too liberal for Texas statewide.

But what if a celebrity with roots (or current residency) in Texas mounted an Independent senatorial candidacy against both Cornyn and the eventual Democratic nominee?  Someone who could actually draw Perot-style voters and younger libertarian Millennials and GenXers away from Cornyn. With all the media cheerleading for business mogul Mark Cuban to run for the presidency – why not draft Cuban to offer up himself as a third choice against Cornyn and the eventual Democratic challenger?

Or another high-profile public figure with Texas residency who is visibly involved with charitable work and knows how to relate to viewers from America’s heartland – Donald Driver, Matthew McConaughey, Clyde Drexler, Angie Harmon, Kyle Chandler, Emmitt Smith, or Kelly Clarkson come to mind.

Each of these conservative-leaning states will have different dynamics that need to be taken into account.  Louisiana, for example, has a “jungle”-style General Election where multiple candidates will appear on the General Election ballot, even if several of them are from the same party.  If no single candidate hits a 50% majority, the top two vote-getters advance to a two-person runoff several weeks later. This potentially prolonged campaign season in The Pelican State should attract a well-liked, philanthropy-driven celebrity who also owns a residence in Louisiana – for example, Sandra Bullock, Calvin Mackie, Jake Delhomme, or Drew Brees – to run as an Independent against the smarmy Cassidy.  Or against John Neely Kennedy (Mr. “Your-User-Agreement-Sucks”) in 2022.

In northwestern states such as Alaska and Idaho, conservatives tend to dominate the political landscape along with a blend of libertarian-minded Independent voters – which is why Republican candidates have historically done so well in these places.  Imagine if either actress/activist Irene Bedard or Scandal’s Darby Stanchfield took on U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan back in their Alaskan homestate.  Idaho’s junior U.S. Senator, Jim Risch, may very well retire in 2020 when he will be 77-years-old.  A Millennial or GenX actor who grew up in The Gem State – Chaske Spencer or Rumer Willis, perhaps? – could energize younger generations in this part of the country…particularly if Risch’s probable retirement makes this an open seat race.

Then we have the staunchly-conservative bloc of the Great Plains.  Out of these states, Kansas might be the ripest place for a well-known Independent candidate to upend both major party establishments.  U.S. Senator Pat Roberts is very likely to retire when his term is up in 2020; in the 2014 race, Independent businessman Greg Orman could have defeated Roberts if he’d begun campaigning earlier and developed a more visible, aggressive public profile for himself.  In 2020, a native Kansan with a strong entrepreneurial/creative background – a Martina McBride or a George Brett – could give both the Republican and Democratic nominees a run for their money.

Other states would prove to be trickier – but not impossible – for puncturing the duopoly of career politicians.  Although Oklahoma’s senior U.S. Senator, Jim Inhofe, will probably retire in 2020…an open seat race here might conceivably be won by a celebrity who spends a significant amount of time amongst Oklahoman citizens.  It could be somebody as high-profile as Trisha Yearwood or Vince Gill…or from a younger generation, such as NFL quarterback Sam Bradford or actor Ryan Merriman. All of these public figures are known for their strong work ethic, generosity, and likeability.

The 2020 election cycle might be too early to overthrow Ben Sasse in Nebraska or Mike Rounds in South Dakota.  But anyone with long-term amenability to dive into public service could certainly lay the groundwork for a senatorial or congressional run in 2026.  Olympic bobsledder Curt Tomasevicz or WWE/MMA star Shayna Baszler, while not overtly-political, have spoken out on public issues important to them, and might want to do something different following their respective athletic retirements.

And if Lamar Alexander retires from his Tennessee U.S. Senate seat, two years from now, almost any country music star with a serious desire to advance our political discourse could make a viable run.  Tim McGraw has already explicitly shown interest in a gubernatorial or senatorial race someday.  In 2016, Knox News columnist Frank Cagle opined about a fantasy scenario where Dolly Parton might combine her immense popularity and her passion for humanitarian work to make a run for Governor of Tennessee.  Although Parton (whom almost everybody loves!) is highly unlikely to directly enter politics herself, a case could be made for any of her charismatic Nashville-based peers who’ve devoted their spare time to finding solutions for society’s problems.

The best part is that most of these people could (and probably would) run as Independent candidates.  Their abilities to self-finance while harnessing social media followings and grassroots enthusiasm would make them viable against any Republican or Democratic standard-bearers.  Even better for them…if they won their General Elections as Independents, they would be courted by both the Republican and Democratic Caucuses – both of which would crave freshmen senators with “star power” to serve alongside them within their voting blocs.  This would give such newly-minted celebrities-turned-lawmakers a great deal of leverage to negotiate on behalf of their states’ constituents for appointment to plum committee assignments.

This doesn’t mean that just any ole celebrity should run for office solely based on name recognition per se.  Examples such as Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and Franken should serve as cautionary tales for what NOT to look for in candidates.  At first, the things coming out of their mouths sounded good to the voters whom they were courting. But a toxic mixture of personal ego, gimmicky interpersonal skills, and overemphasizing style have ultimately tarnished their legacies.

For some context, let’s look at Cynthia Nixon’s campaign.  It is true that she’s using her Miranda Hobbes character to springboard her message that highlights Andrew Cuomo’s inadequacies.  But Nixon herself has been a lifelong activist:  her work has included opposing the Vietnam War, strengthening NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and lobbying for education reform.  Cuomo’s record has been marred by the indictment of his former campaign manager, Joseph Percoco, while the governor himself neglected New York’s subways and allowed housing costs to skyrocket.  Ever since Nixon’s entrance into the gubernatorial race, Cuomo has magically reversed his formerly-milquetoast positions on cannabis legalization, environmentalism, and criminal justice reform. But it hasn’t caused his reputation as a bully and a corporatist to subside, as he has openly threatened the unions that even entertain any thought of endorsing Nixon over him.

Cynthia Nixon’s greatest problem with Andrew Cuomo is his lack of follow-through.  She points to how he brags about putting more money into housing programs, but he doesn’t actually back it up with action – Cuomo is essentially grandstanding, she says, because the money ends up getting allocated elsewhere.  Nixon also alleges that Cuomo enabled predatory lending practices during his time as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing & Urban Development.  His support for reproductive freedoms is lukewarm.

Above all else, Andrew Cuomo embodies the putrid stench of corruption in politics that has rankled Americans for decades.  The presidential ambitions of Bernie Sanders were only the opening shots against a more long-term war on cronyism and ineffectual governance.  Look no further than how the New York Democratic establishment denied Nixon even a mere microphone at their May 23 state convention...whereas Cuomo received an entire sound system.

Even if Cynthia Nixon doesn’t get elected Governor of New York this year, her candidacy could serve a greater long-term purpose:  sabotaging any hypothetical presidential ambitions of Andrew Cuomo in 2020, while paving the way for someone more upstanding and electable to replace Trump – with Marc Veasey, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Steve Bullock being amongst the many possibilities.

Celebrities in politics can be a positive thing.  While America may not be receptive to Jesse Ventura, Peyton Manning, Kid Rock, Curt Schilling, Tim Tebow, Ashley Judd, or Jerry Springer – there are more levelheaded, credible voices from within the Hollywood community who could represent those of us who’ve been relegated to the sidelines for so long.  Any such voices can elbow their way in front of the media and follow Cynthia Nixon’s lead by taking on corporatists from within both the Republican and Democratic Parties alike.

Featured image by MTA Photos –– Flickr.