My platonic ideal of a political candidate to serve the people of my state would be a progressive gay feminist mom who runs on issues like prison reform, public education and reproductive justice. It's just that she'd also have to have experience. Any experience. So hear me out: What if TV stars who've never held down a public service job running for office actually isn't a good idea?
The announcement Monday that Emmy and Tony-winning actress Cynthia Nixon was officially running for governor of New York was immediately met with a barrage of "Sex and the City" jokes and a baffling amount of support. "She's got my vote," an educated, successful female friend of mine instantly opined. On Twitter, Charlotte Clymer enthused that "Cynthia Nixon has been a political activist for years. She's also quite charismatic. You may argue against her positions, but if you've voted for Trump, Schwarzenegger, or Reagan, claiming she's just 'an entertainer with no political experience' translates to 'She's a woman.'"
OK. But how about if you didn't vote for any of those people? Is it sexist to point out that Nixon's political career thus far seems to be limited to playing a character who serves on her building's co-op board? History can question Reagan's abilities forever -- and for good reason -- but he began his political career as president of the Screen Actors Guild nearly a decade before he ran for governor of California.
Nixon's campaign treasurer Zephyr Teachout calls her "a long time education activist who rides the subway every day, opposes the contingent of conservative Democrats who have stalled the majority party in the state, is fearless and strong, supports single payer, [and] speaks out against big money in politics," adding, "She will be a great governor of our amazing state."
You know what? That's not an impressive endorsement. Literally every woman I know has those exact qualifications, and none of them would automatically get my vote either. Teachout herself ran against Cuomo in 2014 as a political newbie too, mounting a strong but ultimately unsuccessful campaign focused on financial reform. Then she ran for Congress in an upstate purple district, losing narrowly to Republican Rep. John Faso. So in fact, Nixon's treasurer is a far better-qualified candidate than she herself is.
In her announcement video, Nixon points out several of the pressing issues of deep concern to residents of our state, including our obscene wealth gap. She proudly describes herself as a lifelong New Yorker and public school graduate, a person who loves the place she calls home. She never mentions the Democratic governor she's challenging, Andrew Cuomo, the underwhelming son of the late governor Mario Cuomo. Cuomo, on the other hand, wasn't shy about shading his challenger this week, saying, "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.”
I too shudder at condescending men who rode their fathers' coattails to their own career achievements. I too want to scream every time I ride the MTA. (Ask me about the two hours it took to get to Queens on Sunday! No, really: Ask me.) I have nothing but admiration for Nixon's track record as an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, reproductive health and public education. I believe in her desire to be of service.
But I'm also asking: Ms. Nixon, how, specifically, are you going to fix the trains? Saying it's "a top priority" isn't an answer. How are you going to create jobs? How are you going to strengthen the state's Excelsior scholarship program, launched by Cuomo, to make college affordable for every family? How are you going to protect every person in a state with the second-highest immigrant population in the nation? Show me a compelling reason to cast my vote — and for my teenage daughter to cast her first ever vote — in your direction. Because being female and riding the subway aren't sufficient grounds. And providing a list of the problems isn't the same as a concrete action plan of solutions.
Would I hold a different candidate as accountable, right out of the gate, as I expect Nixon to be? If she had no track record whatsoever, hell yes. As a point of comparison, Krishanti Vignarajah, the Democratic woman running for governor in Maryland, has worked for the State Department and is a former policy director for Michelle Obama. Stacey Abrams, a Democratic contender for governor in Georgia, has served in that state's House of Representatives.
Over the months to come, Nixon will have to unveil detailed descriptions of her proposals for improving the state. Having Teachout as her treasurer suggests she's surrounding herself with more politically experienced veterans. She's also reportedly recruited Rebecca Katz and Bill Hyers, who worked on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first campaign. Along the way, she may persuade voters like me that she can then get things done, from the Rockaways to Rochester. That she has an understanding of the process of governing. But right now, I'm stunned that so many of my fellow Democrats, people who have been so appalled at the rise of an inexperienced celebrity to political office, are throwing their support behind a candidate because she's sincere and appealing and is not the guy currently in office.
This week, a female friend approvingly declared that "we could do worse" than a person of Nixon's passion and integrity. That's not enough for me. That's not enough for my daughters. It sure as hell isn't enough for the nearly 20 percent of all New Yorkers who live in poverty, or the schools with graduation rates that still lag. The people of New York deserve more than well-intentioned enthusiasm. And that's why, until I see enough evidence that Cynthia Nixon can be an effective leader to change my mind, I'm not with her.