KINGSTON, N.Y. — Former "Law and Order" actress Diane Neal is seeking a new role as representative of a sprawling congressional district in upstate New York, saying her long recuperation from a devastating car accident made her rethink her direction in life.
The 42-year-old Neal, who portrayed Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak on "Law and Order: SVU," said Wednesday she's launching her active campaign for the 19th Congressional District. She moved there several years ago after a back injury put her acting career on hold, and announced her independent candidacy in February.
"I've always been fascinated by governance and democracy," Neal said in an interview at a diner near her home in the rural town of Hurley. "I really enjoy talking to people about ideas and policies, and what's important. I thought I'm in a really neat position where I can do something that makes a difference. I'd be remiss if I passed it up."
The district north of the New York City metro region is a key battleground in the November midterm elections. First-term incumbent Rep. John Faso is one of six Republican House members targeted in New York by the Democratic Party, and the Republican National Committee is determined to defend his seat.
Seven candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination, but Neal is running as an independent. She has gotten flak for that, with some saying she'll siphon off Democratic votes and help Faso win.
"I thought running without a party affiliation was the best way to make a statement, and also the best way to win," Neal said. "I'm not going to have access to all these things that the party machine has, but at the same time I don't have to be beholden to anyone but the people in my district."
The district includes much of the Hudson Valley, the Catskills and surrounding rural counties and is about evenly split between registered Democrats and Republicans. The district supported President Barack Obama in 2012 but favored Donald Trump in 2016, when Faso won his first term.
While about $6 million has been funneled to Democratic candidates so far, Neal said she won't start taking donations until she's officially on the ballot. For that, she needs to get 3,500 signatures on petitions in the 35 days following June 19.
Neal said she'll participate in a candidate forum this weekend, but for the most part she's campaigning by talking to people. It's something she obviously loves to do, having a propensity to talk at length on subjects ranging from the ancient Greeks to home fix-it projects and digressing into anecdotes punctuated by snorts of laughter.
She's not one for concise talking points or detailed position statements, but Neal does say she supports universal single-payer health care.
"I'm worried about my own health care. I'm worried about my own taxes. I'm worried about all the stuff people who live here care about," said Neal.
Neal wouldn't be the first entertainer to represent the 19th Congressional District. Musician John Hall, founder of the rock band Orleans and a longtime environmental and community activist, served from 2007 to 2011.
She's one of several celebrity candidates in New York this year. Former "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon is waging an aggressive challenge to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former CNBC and MSNBC news anchor Daryl Ratigan is among a crowded field of Democrats seeking the nomination to run against Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik in northern New York.