Veteran New York Dems face upstart challengers

Veteran New York Dems face upstart challengers
© Greg Nash

Two long-serving New York Democrats are facing upstart primary challenges from liberal millennials who say the state needs fresher faces in Congress.

Rep. Joseph Crowley is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and seen as a potential future Speaker. This year, though, he is being tested by a 28-year-old organizer for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersManchin meets with Sanders, Jayapal amid spending stalemate America can end poverty among its elderly citizens Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair MORE’s (I-Vt.) campaign.

Meanwhile his colleague, Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyTrump company in late-stage talks to sell DC hotel: report Trump Hotel lost more than M during presidency, say documents Overnight Health Care — Presented by Altria — Dip in COVID-19 cases offer possible sign of hope MORE, a 25-year incumbent, is facing her first contested primary since 2010. Maloney’s challenger is a 34-year-old hotel executive and professor who has been outraising her.


So far, 2018 has been a more favorable year for insurgents but few incumbents have actually lost primaries in safe party seats. In New York, it will similarly be a David vs. Goliath fight to oust the veteran lawmakers.

“I think that in this day and age there’s a new resurgence in activism, in people who are demanding new blood, but the big question is do they turn out? What is the alternative that is being pressed?” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish, a veteran of New York politics.

“The power of incumbency, the power of long relationships, really matters here,” he added, noting Crowley’s and Maloney’s long roots in their districts.

Strategists say they expect both incumbents to prevail in next Tuesday’s primary, but the veteran lawmakers are taking the challenges seriously.

Political watchers say Maloney, 72, faces the tougher test. She’s been in Congress for 13 terms and represents one of the most affluent districts in the country, covering Manhattan’s East Side and parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

Her challenger, first-time candidate Suraj Patel, is a hotel executive and business professor at New York University.

But he’s no stranger to politics, having worked on both presidential campaigns for former President Obama. And he’s bringing a well-funded and formidable organization to the fight. His digital-driven campaign employs 25 full-time staffers and a network of 69 interns and 200 volunteers.

Patel said his campaign has thrown out the “traditional” playbook to connect with voters. He has coffee carts scattered throughout immigrant communities in the district, so voters can register — and grab a coffee with his face and logo on the cup.

Patel outpaced Maloney for two consecutive fundraising quarters. He raised nearly $1.1 million from October to March, while Maloney raised roughly half as much — $618,000 — during that time. Maloney outraised him in the final two months of the race but was heavily outspent.

Maloney’s last tough primary challenge was in 2010, but that year her opponent ran to the right of her. It was one of the most expensive primaries that cycle, with Maloney eventually romping to victory by 62 points.

Last Tuesday, cable news channel NY1 held the only televised debate in the race, which quickly got heated.

Patel hammered Maloney’s record, highlighting votes for the 1994 crime bill, support for the Iraq War and opposition to the Iran deal. 

Maloney has said she regrets her crime bill vote. 

“We have evolved as a nation in seeing that it hasn’t worked,” she has said.

On Iran, a Maloney spokesman told The Washington Post she doesn’t support ripping up the deal.

Maloney has also hit back, challenging Patel’s residency. A New York Daily News story from April reported that he cast his 2016 vote in Indiana and claimed a homestead tax exemption there.

“What have you done to help people? Besides talk?” Maloney asked at the debate.

Patel said he’s lived in New York’s East Village for 12 years and called the tax exemption a mistake that he paid back. He said he decided to vote absentee in Indiana because his family lives there.

“I told her at the end of the debate, I’ve done everything but be an elected official,” Patel told The Hill. “There are too many career politicians in Congress. It can use one less.”

Meanwhile, the 56-year-old Crowley is facing his first primary challenge in 14 years. 

The fourth highest-ranking official in Democratic House leadership is running for his 11th term. He’s also the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party and a formidable fundraiser.

Crowley’s seat, however, is markedly different from Maloney’s. The 14th District is one of the most diverse districts in the country, with Hispanics making up half of the population. The district encompasses northwest Queens and the eastern Bronx.

His challenger, Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, is a first-time candidate, with a mother born in Puerto Rico and a father from the Bronx.

Ocasio-Cortez is backed by progressive groups such as Justice Democrats, the Sanders-aligned Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America. She’s running on a progressive platform that includes abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and instituting tuition-free public college.

Crowley, too, has built up a more progressive résumé over the years as a potential successor to House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden to take part in CNN town hall in Baltimore Manchin on finishing agenda by Halloween: 'I don't know how that would happen' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Build Back Better items on chopping block MORE (D-Calif.).

He’s been a prominent voice for immigration reform and attended a rally last week to protest the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which separates immigrant parents and children at the border.

Both candidates support “Medicare for all” legislation. Crowley is one of the only House Democratic leaders to back it, co-sponsoring the bill last year.

Ocasio-Cortez, however, has been a much weaker fundraiser. She raised just $312,000 over the past year. Meanwhile, Crowley brought in more than $3.3 million.

Political strategists say Ocasio-Cortez has been able to generate attention because she’s taking on a “big fish.”

“For her it’s not just the money, it’s an uphill battle to get your message out to people who might vote for you in these kinds of elections where there’s low interest and low turnout,” said Ester Fuchs, a political science professor at Columbia University. “It’s still an interesting election because she’s trying to push him to the left, and he has to hear it.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign got traction through a viral video in May.

“This race is about people versus money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money,” she said in the clip, which has been viewed more than 450,000 times.

During Friday’s primary debate, Ocasio-Cortez attacked Crowley for his leadership of the local Democratic Party and slammed him for having a family home outside Washington, D.C.

But Crowley defended his work in leadership, arguing that he has helped minority candidates win elections and is focused on retaking the House.

Crowley has also been showcasing support from his congressional colleagues. One lawmaker endorsement, though, sparked uproar in progressive circles.

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaParis Hilton to visit Capitol Hill to advocate for bill on children's treatment centers Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases Congress needs to step up on crypto, or Biden might crush it MORE (D-Calif.), a progressive lawmaker who won his own primary challenge against an incumbent in 2016, initially backed Crowley. But after pressure from progressives, Khanna walked it back and issued a dual endorsement.

Khanna claimed he didn’t do much research on the race when he backed Crowley but noted the two had worked on legislation together. He said Ocasio-Cortez has run a “remarkable race.”

The incident highlighted how primary challenges and the party’s divides are putting lawmakers in a difficult spot this season.

For now, Ocasio-Cortez and Patel are generating buzz and putting heat on two veteran lawmakers. But that may not be enough to take down two Democratic veterans.

 “Again, the biggest question is do a couple of stories turn into votes?” said Reinish.