When Cynthia Nixon first announced her candidacy for governor of New York, it was easy to get excited. It’s Miranda Hobbes! She ate cake out of the garbage! But Nixon has credentials not found on IMDb. While we watched Miranda, Cynthia was advocating for public education in New York City, defending marriage equality and Roe v. Wade, and fighting for LGBT and women’s rights. And if all that made her an “unqualified lesbian?” We’ll take one “unqualified lesbian” campaign button, please.
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Nixon has differentiated herself from incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo by running on a platform that represents marginalized communities: legalizing marijuana, reforming justice, and fixing inequality in housing and schooling. Nixon became politically active as her kids navigated New York City’s public school system, but she acknowledges that, because of her privilege, these issues affect her less than others. In this sense, Nixon’s campaign touches on a issue many liberals are currently grappling with: the question of when and how politicians can speak for communities they’re not a part of.
It’s a question that came to light again when we saw, on July 16, Jamilah Lemieux announced she was joining Nixon’s team as Communications and Engagement Advisor. A former editor and writer at Ebony and Cassius, Lemieux has long been a trusted voice on issues black women care about. Why does Lemieux feel Nixon represents her?
On a rainy Friday afternoon in the ELLE.com studio, we asked Lemieux and Nixon that and more in a wide-ranging conversation that covered privilege, representation, and, of course, politics. (Watch the video above for more of our conversation.)
Jamilah Lemieux came to Nixon’s campaign with no attachment to Nixon, the actor. The 34-year-old activist didn’t have premium channels growing up and wasn’t a close watcher of Sex and the City. She knew who Nixon was, but she says she didn’t come with the initial bias of many who first encounter her candidacy.
“I knew the advocacy work that [Nixon] had done around education,” she explains. “And of course when [she] came out in favor of marijuana legalization—that’s something that I’m very passionate about for a lot of reasons—I was like, ‘OK, alright. I’m paying attention.'”
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Then Lemieux saw her friend and colleague, L. Joy Williams, join Nixon’s campaign. Lemieux was already looking to stray away from media and editorial work, so when Williams reached out to see if she was interested in joining the team, she was intrigued.
“She brought me to the Working Families [Party] office, and that was the first time that I’d met [Nixon],” she said. “I heard [her] speak at length in an intimate setting to a room full of people who look like me, and I said, ‘I think she’s got something. I think this is more than just a good idea.'” Lemieux was excited about connecting Nixon to black, millennial voters. “I think it’s so important that any politician engages these groups appropriately and effectively… the things you want to do benefit us, but how to have those conversations and how to figure out what we need is something that you need to talk to us about.”
While Lemieux has worked in proximity to activism, she also felt taken for granted by the Democratic Party. In the last national election, black women turned out for Hillary Clinton in much higher numbers than white women, a phenomenon we’d seen happen four years before for Barack Obama. “It just felt like we don’t quite have a seat at the table,” she said. “Like you showed up for a dinner party, and you didn’t get an appetizer, a drink, or anything, but you got the bill.”
For this reason, Lemieux thinks some people might be skeptical when a black women takes a role like hers in Nixon’s campaign. As if she’s feeding candidates the “right” things to say without actually holding candidates accountable to black voters. But, to Lemieux, getting involved in the campaign is the most direct form of participation. It’s being heard and engaged. And she hopes more politicians start bringing in black women and actually listening to them.
“I think we’re in a moment of such leadership from black women,” Nixon added, “and when you look at how white women voted in the last presidential election, I mean. If white women had voted the way black women had voted, we would have Hillary in the White House, and it would be a whole different world.”
But how do we break that pattern? It’s something Lemieux worries about, and a question Nixon thinks she has an answer to. In our Trump-dominated world, Nixon says there’s one potential silver lining: our visceral compulsion to participate in politics. Since the day after the inauguration, also known to many as the inaugural Women’s March, people have thrown themselves into the democratic process. It’s a start, but as we gear up for elections, Nixon doesn’t want Democrats to simply rely on the fact that they aren’t Donald Trump. She needs people to feel better represented, and to do so, she wants to get big money out of politics. “We have to start giving people something to be excited about, to show up for,” she says. “We’re in such a crisis of inequality here in New York state and across this country. We’re done with incremental change. We’ve got to turn the system upside down.”
In Nixon’s New York, that would mean making sure schools are fully funded, that rent is affordable, and that the MTA works. She wants there to be one system of justice and not, as she puts it, one system for people like Harvey Weinstein and another for Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after being released from Rikers Island, where he sat in solitary for years, waiting for trial because he couldn’t post his $3,000 bail. Nixon wants to bolster reproductive rights and pass single-payer healthcare. And she wants us to rethink what we consider “working class jobs” by creating more human service jobs that are usually filled by women, immigrants, and people of color. “And we need to make sure that we have a living wage and that we have benefits. Because when you lift women up, you lift up entire families.”
It’s a vision that will go up against incumbent Cuomo’s on Sept. 13 when they both vie to be the Democratic candidate in November’s gubernatorial election. If Nixon wins, she’ll be the first openly queer, female governor of New York state. If she doesn’t, it seems like she’ll only keep fighting. After all, what would Miranda do?