Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon to debate Governor Cuomo as New York primary heats up

Her first debate with Andrew Cuomo will prove a critical test for the former Sex and the City star and education activist, who is trailing in the polls.

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For months Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist who is running an insurgent campaign to become governor of New York, has been challenging the incumbent Andrew Cuomo to debate her before their primary election in September decides who gets the Democratic party nomination.

Tonight, the pair will finally face off. The debate, which will be broadcast on WCBS-TV at 7pm EST, will prove a vital test for Nixon, who is trailing in the polls but has launched a fierce attack on Cuomo from the left.

Cuomo, a Democrat who is running for a third term, is widely touted to be considering a presidential run in 2020. The Real Clear Politics aggregate poll suggests he has a more than thirty-point lead over Nixon. According to The Associated Press, he also has a considerable financial advantage, with over $20 million in his campaign account compared to Nixon’s $450,000.

But Nixon is hoping that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent victory in New York’s congressional primaries demonstrates the potential for political outsiders running on a progressive agenda to upset the Democratic establishment. The 28-year-old left-wing activist’s victory over Joe Crowley, the fourth highest ranking Democrat in Congress, took almost everyone by surprise. According to New York Times reporting, Nixon, like Ocasio-Cortez, is banking on inspiring traditionally disengaged voters to vote for the first time. The primary will be held on 13 September.

Cuomo has dismissed Nixon as a political novice, and he may be hoping that Donald Trump has made progressive voters suspicious of celebrities running for office. But Nixon, who is best known for playing Miranda, the least annoying character in the TV show Sex and the City, has long been involved in New York activism. Despite her estimated net worth of $60 million, she sent her three children to public schools and has long campaigned for better and more equitable funding for the city’s schools.

In 2001 she joined the Alliance for Quality Education, a parent group that fights to improve public schools. Her wife, Christine Marinoni, who she married in 2012, is a former director of the alliance. Nixon has also campaigned extensively for LGBT rights, co-founding in 2010 Fight Back New York, an effort to remove state senators opposed to same-sex marriage.

She is a vocal advocate of women’s rights and reproductive freedoms, and shared a stage at the 2017 women’s march with the actress Helen Mirren. There she gave a speech in which she warned the Trump administration that they’d “better think twice before messing with women, and they better think twice before messing with New Yorkers”.

In June I watched her speak to reporters and immigration activists at a press conference for Debora Barrios-Vasquez, a Guatemalan mother of two who has sought sanctuary in a Manhattan church to avoid being deported. Nixon wore a mint-green blouse, a sharp tailored suit and dark green stilettos and spoke with warmth and passion. “Debora is standing up and she is fighting back, which is what mothers do,” she told the audience. She made local headlines for labelling Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) a “terrorist organization” and calling for its abolition. Her acting career is undoubtedly an asset when she speaks in public, but her anger felt genuine and people were moved by it.

Nixon announced her candidacy in March with a video in which she underlined to voters that New York is the most unequal state in the country. She advocates for higher taxes on the rich to fund improved services for the poor, such as the expansion of low-cost rental housing, universal health care coverage that is free at the point of need, and improved funding for public schools. She is also in favour of legalizing marijuana and is an advocate for extensive criminal justice and immigration reform. She has attacked Cuomo for being too close to Trump and “governing like a Republican”.

That criticism may have stuck. Cuomo has already moved left on several key issues, a shift that Nixon’s supporters have described as the “Cynthia effect”. He has, for instance, changed his stance to favour the legalization of marijuana, and has declared a state of emergency at the city’s public-housing authority. That said, some of Cuomo’s landmark progressive policies predate Nixon. He is the governor who legalized same-sex marriage in New York and established paid parental leave and a $15 per hour minimum wage.

In the days before the debate, the two Democratic candidates engaged in a spat over, of all things, the temperature of the studio. According to the New York Times, Nixon’s team emailed WCBS-TV which is hosting the debate, asking that the studio be warmed to 76 degrees Fahrenheit (24.4 Celsius) and describing Cuomo’s preference for colder conditions as “notoriously sexist”. Regardless of where the thermostat is fixed, this debate is likely to be heated.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.