N.Y. challenger Saujani embraces Wall Street in bid to unseat Rep. Maloney

Reshma Saujani, who is challenging nine-term incumbent Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), talks to voters in Manhattan last week. "We need to extend a hand [to Wall Street] rather than a fist," she says.
Reshma Saujani, who is challenging nine-term incumbent Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), talks to voters in Manhattan last week. "We need to extend a hand [to Wall Street] rather than a fist," she says. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

NEW YORK -- It's cocktail hour on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and dozens of rich New Yorkers are gathered around a grand piano, sipping white wine in the living room of an elegant high-rise apartment. There is plenty of gossip to be heard, but this is not a social event. The city's moneyed elite have come to commiserate about their growing distaste for their longtime congresswoman, Carolyn B. Maloney -- and to open their wallets for the unlikely 34-year-old challenger they hope will defeat her.

They did not always feel this way about Maloney. The 64-year-old Democratic representative hasn't faced a serious challenge to her seat since she was first elected in 1992. For nearly two decades, they have viewed her as a solid, if unremarkable, member of Congress. But to the dismay of her ultra-rich constituents -- among them more than a few Wall Street billionaires -- Maloney has become one of the Capitol's leading advocates for tough new restrictions on the banking and credit card industries. The way the people at the cocktail party see it, Maloney betrayed them. And they want her fired.

Into this scene of despair steps Reshma Saujani, an Ivy League-educated lawyer with a compelling biography. She is the daughter of Indian parents who fled political persecution while living in Uganda and wound up in the United States. But that isn't the compelling part, at least not to this crowd. Rather, it's that Saujani is a Wall Street veteran. She has worked at three hedge funds. She speaks the arcane language of derivatives and basis points and mortgage-backed securities. Saujani has positioned herself as the anti-Maloney, the only candidate who understands how stressful and difficult the past few years have been for some of the wealthiest people in America.

Unknown just a few months ago, Saujani has gotten the attention of many of the city's boldface names, and her Democratic primary challenge to Maloney, who was long seen as unbeatable, has turned a sleeper contest into a closely watched curiosity.

"We need to extend a hand rather than a fist" to Wall Street, Saujani tells the guests at the apartment. "In New York, it's complicated because 35 percent of our revenue comes from the financial services industry. We need to have transparency and reform, but we also need to understand that . . . it's just as easy to go work in Singapore and London and Bangalore, and we can't make it so difficult to do business here that people will vote with their feet."

Only on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where a run-of-the-mill penthouse goes for $13 million (Rush Limbaugh's place on Fifth Avenue is available for about that much, FYI), would a politician find it a plus to run this year as the candidate of Wall Street.

Since she entered the race in November, Saujani has received more than $800,000 in campaign contributions, an impressive tally for an untested candidate. Many of those checks came from New York financiers and their spouses.

Former Morgan Stanley chief executive John Mack has given her money. So has Apollo Management founder Leon Black and the wife of J.P. Morgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon. Hedge fund mogul Marc Lasry hosted a fundraiser for her featuring singer John Legend that brought in $100,000.

Saujani has also attracted help from prominent New Yorkers. Maureen White, a major Democratic donor and wife of financier Steven Rattner, is introducing her to potential donors. Diana Taylor, a Republican former investment banker and the longtime companion of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), is advising her campaign.

"Reshma has a strong fundamental understanding about how the industry works," Taylor said. "You've got these people [in Congress] yelling and screaming who know nothing about what they're talking about -- nothing. And it just creates a huge problem."

Maloney isn't going out of her way to apologize. "I support any institution when I think they're correct, and I point out ways it can be improved if I feel it can be improved," she said. "I think that passing this financial regulatory reform bill will be good for the economy and therefore very good for Wall Street."

Maloney, who chairs the Joint Economic Committee, authored last year's credit card reform bill ("my credit card bill of rights," she called it). She added, "We had a bill signing in the Rose Garden, and [President Obama] gave me the pen and a kiss."

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