It’s said that during his 1990 wedding to Kerry Kennedy, Andrew Cuomo insisted that there would be absolutely no toasts. He disliked irreverence and “didn’t want the risk of any off-color stories,” much to the dismay of the political dynasty he was marrying into. Nearly three decades later, I find myself thinking about that anecdote during this year’s governor’s race — because where Cuomo famously lacks a sense of humor, his opponent Cynthia Nixon has demonstrated that she can wield hers deftly.
Take Nixon’s recent appearance at the annual Legislative Correspondents Association dinner in Albany, where she proclaimed “vote for the homo, not for Cuomo.” (Nixon is bisexual and married to a woman.) It was a sly callback to the 1977 New York City mayoral election where Cuomo’s father, Mario, ran against and lost to Ed Koch. Koch was dogged by rumors that he was a closeted homosexual, hence the “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” posters that mysteriously appeared all over the city. In seven words, Nixon managed to both land a highly personal dig at her opponent and coin a catchy and subversive slogan.
That wasn’t the first time Nixon’s referenced her sexual orientation in the service of making a joke. After former city council speaker and one-time mayoral candidate Christine Quinn slammed her as an “unqualified lesbian,” Nixon swiftly and skillfully turned the insult back around by embracing it at her inaugural fundraiser and selling “unqualified lesbian” buttons as campaign merch.
Nixon’s position as an outsider candidate also gives her an advantage, in part because there’s more room to punch up. It also allows her to make jokes that come across as more authentic because she’s not entrenched in the Establishment. For instance, Nixon’s made marijuana legalization one of the main tenets in her campaign; part of this involved adding a $4.20 donation option to her site (for the weed number) and hosting a 4/20 fundraiser (once again, for the weed number) with the star of Weeds. While it may have been blatant pandering to millennial voters, it ultimately telegraphed as “fun weed mom.”
Part of Nixon’s ability to inject this race with a bit of levity comes, I suspect, from her acting background. Yes, she is also a seasoned activist, but the reality is that she’s been a professional actress since she was 12 years old. Her most famous role happened to be on one of the most popular comedy-dramas of all time. The flip side of what many thought would be a liability is that it’s hard to compete against celebrity charisma.
I also cannot stress enough how easy it is to appear to have any modicum of humor next to Andrew Cuomo. He’s notoriously thin-skinned, with a carefully constructed masculine persona that leaves little room for self-deprecation. Plus, the most notable time he attempted a joke during this race, it ended up being about how he thinks … Jews … are bad at dancing? Needless to say, it did not play well.
Sense of humor or not, Nixon’s still up against an incumbent governor with widespread party support and a $31 million war chest. But regardless of what happens, it’s made the race a hell of a lot more fun to watch.