The image of Marti Allen-Cummings featured on their campaign website shows a New York City Council candidate who clearly stands out from the standard pack of politicians — posing outside of the Stonewall Inn, mic in hand, and declaring, "[I'll] bring your voice to City Hall." For Allen-Cummings (who uses they/them pronouns) what you see is what you get: a working drag artist with moxie to spare.
The intersectionality of performance art and politics is nothing new. For Allen-Cummings it’s completely integrated in their campaign for the seat representing Manhattan’s 7th Council District covering Harlem, Hamilton Heights, and portions of Washington Heights.
"Drag has always been political, and has always been rooted in political action and activism,” Allen-Cummings said. “From Occupy Wall Street—which feels like a billion years ago—to now, drag has taught me about community organizing, and community building and working to help our vulnerable communities.”
As they've raised their profile, Allen-Cummings's campaign war chest and endorsements give them a viable shot at becoming the first out non-binary lawmaker in Council history. Current filings show Allen-Cummings raised $236,250 through small-dollar donations stretched by the city Campaign Finance Board’s 8 to 1 matching program, coming ahead of fellow candidate Shaun Abreu by several thousand dollars.
The fundraising success is coupled with several endorsements for Allen-Cummings, which include backing from state Senators Gustavo Rivera, Alessandra Biaggi, Julia Salazar, and Councilmembers Dromm and Van Bramer. Allen-Cummings also received an endorsement from the Victory Fund, the national organization that backs LGBTQIA candidates.
“I never thought I'd be somebody who would run for office, I never thought that was something I would do,” Allen-Cummings said. “To have people believe in the work that we're doing is exciting.”
Allen-Cummings announced a run for office in September 2019, becoming one of 14 candidates vying to succeed Mark Levine, who’s term-limited. They’re also looking to continue carrying out the work by the LGBTQ caucus comprised of Jimmy Van Bramer, Carlos Menchaca, and Speaker Corey Johnson, who are all term-limited, and whose departures could leave the Council without any guaranteed representation from the LGBTQIA community.
Born in Maryland, Allen-Cummings arrived in New York City in 2004 as a student working two jobs to make ends meet. It was during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement that Allen-Cummings found power in the protest movement, and they later shifted their experience in street politics to the community board, serving on Manhattan’s CB 9. They also started the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats Club.
Should Allen-Cummings win, it would mean that the district would go to another legislator that is not Black or Dominican, the district’s dominant demographic.
With a platform that includes scaling back police funding, bolstering the city’s affordable housing stock, desegregating the public school system, and advocating for a $20 minimum wage, Allen-Cummings has found their career path as a drag artist intertwined with activism. It carries a tradition that’s manifested for decades in New York City politics, dating back to the Stonewall uprising in 1969.
Before bars, restaurants, and nightclubs shuttered last March, Allen-Cummings worked as a drag entertainer at those venues. The demands of working while campaigning would often clash in pre-pandemic days, and in some instances, voters spotted them campaigning in drag, which they credited as a “great ice breaker to talk to people."
“The drag gig starts at 11 p.m., the community board or the campaign event is at 6 p.m. So I don't have time to get on my face,” Allen-Cummings recalled. “I'll roll up in my wig and outfit because it's an extension of who I am. And some of our materials have me in drag.”
Their pitch for underscoring New York City’s working poor community wrought by the pandemic appears to have struck a chord, with supporters that include actors, bartenders, and the unemployed fueling their campaign.
The primary is on June 22nd, coming nearly two years from the time Allen-Cummings announced a run. At one point, Allen-Cummings was asked whether “being a drag queen will hinder how people will view you as a candidate.”
“I said ‘no,’ because my job is a job. And I love my job. I love being a drag artist,” Allen-Cummings said. “I know what it's like to work in our small businesses, our bars and our restaurants who are struggling right now. I know what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck.”