The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Heated New York Democratic House primary has echoes of past fissures

Tuesday’s contest between Reps. Maloney and Nadler calls to mind a political battle of the sexes 50 years ago

Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and attorney Suraj Patel, right, attend a debate Aug. 13. (Mary Altaffer/Pool via AP)
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On Tuesday, a crosstown “clash of the titans” is taking place in New York City politics when two longtime liberal giants, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of Manhattan’s East Side and Rep. Jerrold “Jerry” Nadler of the West Side, square off in the Democratic primary for a newly created U.S. House seat.

Maloney and Nadler first were elected to the House in 1992 and have served in their respective districts ever since. But court-ordered redistricting combined portions of their home districts into the new 12th Congressional District — turning two longtime allies into political opponents. As one newspaper headline framed it: “New York must pick a side. East or West.”

Maloney and Nadler’s forced run against each other has divided political clubs, donors, families and friends, calling to mind another local clash of national consequence in 1972 — when a similar redistricting effort pitted Reps. Bella Abzug and William Fitts Ryan, both left-leaning Democrats from Manhattan’s West Side, against each other. Ryan had the advantage of more years in Congress, and to offset this clout, Abzug, like Nadler today, played the part of an ethnic pol going for the district’s sizable Jewish vote. As Maloney is doing, Abzug also sought votes by arguing for the decriminalization of abortion and positioning herself as a champion of women.

The primary contest in 1972 spared few feelings and left lingering bad will in Democratic circles across the city for years to come — just as Tuesday’s contest between Maloney and Nadler threatens to do. Much like today, the contest often devolved into him vs. her, as two former allies closely aligned on the issues were suddenly thrust into the media spotlight as fierce competitors. But in the end, the power of incumbency that still affords male candidates an edge over female contenders helped Ryan win.

Before their faceoff, Abzug and Ryan were congenial collaborators in the New York delegation. Ryan first came to Congress in 1961 as a change-maker who helped found the Riverside Democratic Reform Club. Before her time on the Hill, Abzug would drop by his office to lobby on behalf of Women Strike for Peace, a disarmament and antiwar group that saw Ryan as one of the good “doves.” A decade later in 1970, Abzug ran for the House by positioning herself as a reformer, as Ryan had. She promised to represent the Democratic Party’s “new politics” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This new Democratic politics intersected with the rising feminist movement, and Abzug’s winning campaign slogan in 1970 reflected that ethos: “A Woman’s Place is in the House, the House of Representatives.” As a first-time candidate, she took party leaders to task for backing male incumbents as a smokescreen to dissuade women like her from joining the political fray.

Abzug’s efforts paid off, but just six months into her term, she learned that the once-a-decade redistricting process was eliminating her House district. She fought back by launching a “one woman, one vote” campaign to highlight how sexism was at work in gerrymandering. In her view, gender bias — much like race — shaped largely male state legislators’ thinking as they rewrote district maps to gain both identity-based and partisan advantage.

Abzug’s decision to run against Ryan was a matter of practical politics. Living in a reliably Democratic part of New York City, she had to take on an incumbent in her own party if she hoped to stay in the House. After weighing her options, she decided that among the Democratic incumbents in the area, Ryan would be easier to beat than others like Al Lowenstein and Ed Koch.

Ryan was livid that Abzug, whom he saw as an ally, was challenging him. If you “want to run, find another CD” he jotted down in his private notes before he met with Abzug to try to persuade her to look elsewhere. Undeterred, she took his discouragement as an expression of sexism.

Both candidates played the hands they were dealt. Seeking to blunt Ryan’s edge as the incumbent in the district, Abzug promoted her feminist credentials in an effort to motivate left-leaning women to flood the polls for her. Ryan countered by offering concrete examples of his long-standing support for feminist policy proposals, such as legal abortion.

Abzug and Ryan also tried to shift political discourse away from gender by attempting to outdo each other as the better liberal. They raced to be the first in the House to call for President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment when the U.S. military escalated its bombing of North Vietnam. And they made sure to remind voters of the 100 percent rating they each received from the liberal political organization Americans for Democratic Action. Running as an activist, Abzug argued that her commitment to the most pressing issues of the moment was truer than that of her more senior opponent.

In the end, however, Abzug could not translate her national notoriety as a feminist leader into a local win. As a founder of the newly formed National Women’s Political Caucus, she had helped negotiate a threefold boost in women delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention that nominated the left-leaning George McGovern to take on Nixon. But by the time the convention took place in Miami, she had already lost the primary.

Abzug could not convince New York voters that her fighting edge was what they needed in Washington. She lost by a 2-to-1 margin and did not even carry her own neighborhood of Greenwich Village.

The 1972 Democratic House primary ended with a clear win for Ryan, but a hard-fought one that some think cost him his life (Ryan had been struggling with throat cancer off and on, ultimately dying that September as the general election ramped up). This development allowed Abzug to remain in the House. After Ryan’s death, Abzug convinced party leaders that she could deliver his solidly liberal district that November. She did — though not before an unexpected tussle with Ryan’s grieving widow, Priscilla, who entered the race on a third-party ticket.

The major question today is whether, 50 years after the Abzug-Ryan matchup, American voters have moved past the him vs. her comparison that shaped this historic primary.

Since the Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, gender has increased as a factor in the midterm elections, and many women voters correlate female representation with advocacy for women’s rights. Channeling Abzug’s tactics from 1972, Maloney has argued that she is the far better advocate for abortion rights. Decrying sexism, she also told reporters that Nadler had urged her to step aside when redistricted. On both accounts, Nadler will have to convince voters of his long-standing support for feminist concerns.

At the same time, the Maloney-Nadler race raises a matter that was not part of the equation in 1972. In this earlier time, 15 women served in the House and Senate combined. Women were rarely incumbents and occupied even fewer leadership positions. As a result, women were largely unable to test what would happen when two leaders in Congress of nearly identical standing but opposite sexes ran against each other.

Today, women still have not reached gender parity in American politics, but they now constitute a full quarter of Congress — including several key leadership roles, from House speaker on down. What seemed unthinkable 50 years ago is now a worthy test.

More and more, we are witnessing the possibility that women can be incumbents as valuable as men. The contest between Maloney and Nadler can be an opportunity for voters to choose among equals.