Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges

They helped knock off Joe Crowley in 2018; then they helped sack Eliot Engel in 2020. Now Justice Democrats, a far-left advocacy group, has its sights set on another powerful New York Democrat: Carolyn Maloney.

The group is backing Maloney’s 27-year-old primary challenger, Rana Abdelhamid, who heads a nonprofit designed to empower minority women, in a race that’s revived the prickly debate over the value of congressional experience; what it means to be a modern-day progressive; and whether the party’s campaign arm should provide blanket protection to incumbents.

Maloney, a 28-year veteran of Capitol Hill who now chairs the powerful Oversight and Reform Committee, is a liberal lawmaker representing a liberal district, leading her allies to question why the Justice Democrats are coming after her.

Some characterized the group’s endorsement of Abdelhamid as a simple power grab.

“If you look at her voting record, if you look at how she’s been very attentive to her constituents, if you look at the resources she’s brought into the district — it’s been spotless,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D), another veteran New Yorker who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee. “Going against her does not make sense to me at all. It raises questions as to what the real agenda is here.”

The real agenda, charged Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shahid, is that Maloney is too entrenched in Washington’s establishment, too eager to accept corporate money, and “voters in the district want change.” Pointing to several votes Maloney has taken over the years — including her support for the invasion of Iraq after 9/11 — he said the challenge from the left is wholly justified.

“It’s somewhat similar to Crowley, Engel, and others — if a multimillionaire who supported the crime bill, the Iraq War, and has taken millions of dollars from Wall Street and real estate PACs is the best Democrats can offer in one of the bluest districts in America, then we have a problem,” Shahid said Wednesday in an email.

Maloney, for her part, is confident she’ll prevail.

“I’ve never lost an election; I don’t intend to start now,” she said.

She’s pointing to her long track-record championing liberal policies, including successful efforts to launch a women’s museum on the National Mall; secure billions of dollars in health care benefits for the first responders of the 9/11 attacks; and a much earlier push, as a New York City Council member, to legalize gay marriage.

“Now it’s the law of the land, but I remember when I wrote it, I was on the City Council and they refused to print it,” she said. “Bills that I’m passing now in Congress, people were laughing at and saying, ‘What are you doing that for? You’ll never get it done.’ ” 

“I don’t know what they’re running on,” she added, referring to the Justice Democrats. “They say they’re for ‘Medicare for All’; so am I. They say they’re for the Green New Deal; so am I.

“I’ve always been a progressive.”

Maloney, 75, is used to fending off primary challenges, defeating attorney Suraj Patel in 2018 and 2020. She attracted 43 percent of the vote in last year’s crowded primary, winning by fewer than 4,000 votes.

The primary contest in New York’s 12th District, which encompasses parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, reflects a broader debate among Democrats about what the party stands for — and how far it should go to achieve those goals.

Democrats owe their House control to the so-called majority makers, the centrist lawmakers who flipped Republican seats in battleground districts in 2018. Yet liberal activists, taking a page from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have long argued that Democrats would have even greater success if they only embraced a far-left agenda that includes universal health care, an aggressive shift to green energies and the elimination of student debt, among other things.

In that mold, Justice Democrats had helped orchestrate the stunning victories of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who defeated Crowley in 2018, and Jamaal Bowman, who picked off Engel two years later.

The group was also involved in the 2020 primary losses of longtime Reps. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who fell to Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who was defeated by Marie Newman, an anti-bullying activist.

This year, aside from Maloney, Justice Democrats are also targeting Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a member of the moderate Blue Dogs in his 16th term on Capitol Hill.

In a brief interview on the steps of the Capitol, Ocasio-Cortez said she was caught off guard by the progressive group targeting Maloney.

“I wasn’t aware of this. I had no idea that this was going to happen,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Hill. “They don’t give us a heads up on their candidates.”

While her endorsement of Bowman helped boost his successful challenge against Engel last year, the liberal star wouldn’t say whether she would get involved in the primary against Maloney.

“She’s my chairwoman on Oversight. I’m thankful for the work we’ve been able to do together,” added Ocasio-Cortez, who was appointed to the Oversight panel as a first-term lawmaker in 2019.

Bowman, a former public school principal, said he too has not been involved in or privy to any of Justice Democrats’s 2022 decisionmaking. But he acknowledged that no incumbent is safe in this political environment where progressive insurgents with little name ID continue to knock off giants in the Democratic Party.

“I love the organization but in terms of how they make decisions about who runs against who and where, and all of that, I’m not part of any of that … We don’t huddle as JDs once a week,”  Bowman told The Hill. But he added, “just generally speaking, taking Carolyn Maloney out of it, we’re living in a different world, a different time.

“Who would have thought a middle-school principal would challenge Eliot Engel, chair of the Foreign Affair Committee who’s been in office 31 years? Who would have thought that guy had a chance of winning? You never know. The only thing we can do as members of Congress is work our asses off and do our jobs.”

The liberals supportive of churning new talent within the Democratic caucus won a big victory earlier in the year, when the party’s campaign arm, led by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), scrapped a controversial policy barring contracts to pollsters and consultants who also worked for primary challengers.

Critics of the primary challengers share a common lament with such contests: They force the party to spend money in safe districts that could have been used fighting to keep their majority in tougher races. 

“The overall goal and purpose should be to make sure that we maintain our majority and grow it,” said Meeks. “This takes away from that. This hurts that. It hurts a process of trying to make sure there’s strong progressive legislation that’s being passed.”

Sean Patrick Maloney seemed unfazed by the news Justice Democrats was targeting his fellow New Yorker, chalking it up to natural political ambition: “Birds are gonna fly and fish are gonna swim.”

Wasn’t he worried about her race? “Do I look worried?” he retorted before getting in a car.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Carolyn Maloney Eliot Engel Gregory Meeks Jim Cooper Joe Crowley justice democrats rana abdelhamid carolyn maloney primary challenges new york representative race Lacy Clay
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