The tabloid media had camped outside the five-story prewar building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mystery woman who had stolen the heart of Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” star.
From inside Ms. Nixon’s building, Christine Marinoni saw the paparazzi, braced herself — and walked right past.
“They were looking for some blonde bombshell, or who knows what,” Ms. Marinoni said in an interview.
Ms. Marinoni now laughs as she recalls the frenzied hunt for her identity in 2004, the bewildered reporters who did not know what to make of her — an unostentatious, redheaded community organizer, who preferred plaid shirts to evening gowns, and who before meeting Ms. Nixon had never subscribed to cable TV. The hubbub over Ms. Nixon leaving her male partner and dating a woman seems faraway, the product of a different time.
But Ms. Marinoni, who often uses “shy” as one of the first words to describe herself, never grew entirely comfortable with them. During her pregnancy, she hid her stomach with a bulky coat, surprising not just the paparazzi but even neighbors when she gave birth. “They were like, ‘Where did the baby come from?’” she recounted.
Yet with Ms. Nixon running against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in next week’s Democratic primary, Ms. Marinoni has once again found herself in the spotlight, albeit of a different sort.
If elected, Ms. Nixon would be the state’s first governor to identify openly as queer, the word she and her wife prefer to describe their sexuality. Ms. Marinoni would be the state’s first queer first lady.
The couple’s personal lives have been closely intertwined with Ms. Nixon’s plunge into politics. Ms. Nixon says she was inspired to run for office because of her passion for education advocacy, the same advocacy that introduced her to Ms. Marinoni. The couple announced their engagement at a rally for same-sex marriage and traveled to Albany to lobby lawmakers on the issue.
Ms. Marinoni has proved as wary of the political press as of the celebrity, and in a rare interview, she downplayed her involvement in the campaign. As first lady, she said, she would remain in the background too, anchoring the family while Ms. Nixon governed.
“She’s been approached by folks repeatedly — not me, it was never my idea — who were excited about the prospects,” Ms. Marinoni, who has no official role in the campaign, said of Ms. Nixon’s decision to enter the race.
As the wife of a celebrity, she said she had perfected the art of dodging attention. “I now know how to step in or out of the spotlight, and I choose generally to stay out.”
But spotlight or not, people who have been involved with the campaign described Ms. Marinoni as an essential force in it: corralling support, shaping strategy, even serving as a proxy of sorts for her wife during policy or tactical discussions when Ms. Nixon is on the trail.
“Cynthia’s the candidate, and she’s kind of the embodiment of what we’re all trying to move on a state level,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change, which asked Ms. Nixon to run. “But the actual putting it together — I mean, Christine has been irreplaceable.”
Ms. Marinoni is a frequent presence at campaign events, marching alongside Ms. Nixon in the New York City Pride parade or collecting signatures to secure her spot on the ballot. After Ms. Nixon’s debate with Mr. Cuomo, Ms. Marinoni strode through the press room to make sure reporters got the story right: “She kicked ass! Clearly won. Clearly won.”
Ms. Marinoni was introduced to activism early. She grew up on Bainbridge Island, about 10 miles west of Seattle, where her father was a professor and her mother the off-and-on president of her teacher’s union.
After moving to New York in the early 1990s, Ms. Marinoni did a stint as a neighborhood organizer in the Bronx, then studied economic development at Columbia University, thinking she might work in international affairs.
She turned instead to education organizing, leading a coalition of parents that became the statewide Alliance for Quality Education. That was where she met Ms. Nixon, who became a spokeswoman for the group after learning of cuts to her oldest child’s school; their relationship became public in 2004, and they married in 2012.
Fighting for funding for low-income school districts appealed to Ms. Marinoni for a simple reason: “It spoke fundamentally about shifting power.”
The next two decades of Ms. Marinoni’s career can be read as a continued effort to shift power — even as she herself also moved closer to the centers of them. After leaving the Alliance for Quality Education, she organized security officers with Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, a 160,000-member labor heavyweight. In 2014, Ms. Marinoni joined the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose 2013 campaign she and Ms. Nixon had bolstered.
Driving the moves was a desire, even an impatience, for results. “I wanted to work within an infrastructure where they had just the power and the muscle and the ability to really fully fund a campaign — to get things done,” Ms. Marinoni said of her switch to union organizing.
But her marriage to Ms. Nixon has also led her to step away from advocacy.
For seven years before joining City Hall, she stayed home to care for Ms. Nixon’s two children from her previous relationship, and to have their own child.
The experience was grueling. Ms. Marinoni miscarried several times. During one pregnancy, in her fourth month, the doctors said the child would not be viable. She chose to have an abortion.
Her sixth pregnancy succeeded, and their son, Max, was born in 2011.
As she spoke of her family, Ms. Marinoni grew emotional, at one point choking up suddenly. She did not come out until she was 26, she said, and never envisioned that she might one day be happily married with kids.
“I always just pictured myself like a little worker bee my entire life,” she said. “But it’s like this amazing gift.”
Perhaps in part for that reason, Ms. Marinoni’s descriptions of her role in the campaign centered far more around her role as a wife and mother than as a strategist. She insisted that she had little to do with Ms. Nixon’s decision to run (“I tried to play the supportive-of-what-you-decide bystander”) and emphasized the gap between her brand of traditional organizing and the digital outreach that the Nixon campaign has touted as key to victory.
Still, people involved with the campaign said Ms. Marinoni was omnipresent. When New York Communities for Change was wooing Ms. Nixon, Mr. Westin spoke with Ms. Marinoni about the urgency of a progressive bid during the Trump presidency.
Bill Lipton, the state director of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Ms. Nixon, said Ms. Marinoni was often the liaison who helped rally the party’s support.
The day-to-day work of the campaign draws upon Ms. Marinoni’s expertise, too. Campaign staff often meet at the couple’s home, where Ms. Marinoni, while watching Max, frequently weighs in on strategy. Advisers draw upon Ms. Marinoni’s familiarity with the couple’s networks to identify potential donors.
“She knows Cynthia in a way that none of us do,” Elana Leopold, who leads the campaign’s fund-raising efforts, said. “That’s helpful in figuring out fund-raising and figuring out tactics that might work.”
There may be a strategic reason for Ms. Marinoni’s reticence about her role. Early critics of the campaign suggested that Ms. Nixon’s decision to enter the race was not her own, or that she personally did not have enough political know-how.
But Ms. Marinoni’s reserve also aligns with her personality. People who have worked with her described a determined but understated advocate, one who preferred to grind in the background but would make a statement at the right moment.
“She’s not somebody who comes into a room and tries to dominate every conversation,” said Richard Buery, a former deputy mayor who supervised Ms. Marinoni while she worked in City Hall. “She’s somebody who speaks when she has something to say.”
Ms. Marinoni acknowledged that her wife’s candidacy would — and had — thrust her into a more public role, a fact to which she seemed somewhat resigned.
“The press is never particularly nice to me,” she said with a laugh. When she and Ms. Nixon first confirmed their relationship, an online contest asked if she more resembled the actor Danny Bonaduce or Prince Harry. “All of which I found quite entertaining,” she added.
And she conceded that, if Ms. Nixon won, she might need to retreat again from her own work. (She resigned from City Hall in March, a month before Ms. Nixon declared her candidacy.)
Still, her advocacy background would not be entirely absent from the governor’s mansion.
“I’ll always dip my toe into some organizing here or there,” she said. “I keep myself busy.”
Follow Vivian Wang on Twitter: @vwang3