NEW YORK — Suraj Patel, a 34-year-old Barack Obama campaign veteran and hospitality company executive, has raised nearly $1.1 million to compete for one of New York City’s congressional seats. His campaign has 45 interns fanning across the 12th District, registering voters, spreading his message and planting his signs in bodega windows.
There’s just one wrinkle: Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) already represents the district, and she wants another term.
Democrats have lined up to endorse the 72-year-old incumbent, from Mayor Bill de Blasio to the most liberal members of the state’s congressional delegation. But Patel, like dozens of first-time 2018 candidates in deep blue districts, is arguing that safely Democratic seats should be represented by high-profile liberals. In his telling, Maloney is neither.
“I’m not running against her; I’m running against apathy,” Patel said in an interview at his Manhattan campaign office. “Something like 75 percent of young voters in this district voted for president in 2016, and something like 2 percent voted in the congressional primary. Why would you vote, if your only choice is a 25-year incumbent?”
Maloney’s campaign had watched Patel closely after the challenger raised more than $500,000 in his first quarter. In the second fundraising quarter, he did it again: He raised more than $525,000, while Maloney raised slightly less than $500,000.
Patel is not the first insurgent to go against Maloney. In 2010, a corporate attorney named Reshma Saujani, then 35, challenged Maloney as a change candidate. She lost by a 4-to-1 landslide, effectively slamming the door on primary challenges.
The new liberal energy in the era of President Trump has cracked that door open again, especially in districts where Democrats are prohibitively favored to win in November. Both Maloney and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) are facing challengers, as is Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) and several reliably liberal members of the party’s California delegation.
Insurgents lost three Democratic primary battles in Illinois last month, with Reps. Danny K. Davis, Mike Quigley and Daniel Lipinski surviving the tightest races of their careers. None had serious Republican opponents; in New York, no Republicans whatsoever are running against Maloney and Crowley.
For Maloney, the key was that they survived — and that she had voted reliably with her district. In the past two weeks, Maloney held two forums on gun-control legislation alongside students and movement leaders, walking them through what could be passed in Congress and thanking them for organizing while Republican politicians dithered.
“You don’t have to be a member of Congress to get things done,” Maloney said in an interview after one of the forums. “When someone runs for office, you can ask: Do they have a record of doing anything to help other people? Have they served on their block association? Have they come up with ideas to help their neighborhood? A lot of people are running for Congress, and they’ve never done anything.”
Maloney’s campaign has not been subtle about putting Patel in that category. The candidate, who teaches at New York University, had registered to vote in Indiana as recently as 2016. On Instagram, Patel had made an awkward joke about buying a “promise ring” for the gymnast McKayla Maroney; it wound up in the New York Post. (Patel laughed off the controversy, saying he wouldn’t be “cyberbullied” out of the campaign.)
Another Maloney attack had been a misfire. Last month, when dismissing the candidate’s fundraising numbers, Maloney joked that there were “a lot of Patels” in his FEC report. Patel got the best coverage of his campaign, telling BuzzFeed that “I didn’t realize Rep. Maloney hired Steve Bannon as her campaign strategist.”
Maloney dropped that line. She did not ignore Patel, either — she showed up at Democratic clubs to face him in Q&As and won endorsements that advertised her voting record.
“Carolyn Maloney is a leading progressive who gets results,” said Maloney spokesman Bob Liff. “She’s authored or co-authored over 70 measures that have been signed into law, including the James Zadrogra 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, and the Debbie Smith Act, and is a champion for women’s rights, LGBTQ equality, Medicare for All, and more. That’s why she’s being supported by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, NARAL, the AFL-CIO, and other progressive organizations.”
But in districts like the 12th, Democratic activists wonder whether they can have more than that. In Crowley’s race, challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has taken credit for the incumbent signing onto the House’s Medicare for All bill, and gotten national attention for calling for the end of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. (Crowley had not backed previous versions of HR696, the Medicare bill, but signed on this year before Ocasio-Cortez called for it.)
Patel has urged liberal voters to look deeper into Maloney’s record, starting with her vote to authorize the war in Iraq, continuing with her opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, an issue that could rise in importance before the Democratic primary in June.
“My position on Iran is the same as Barack Obama’s,” Patel said. “Hers is the same as Donald Trump’s.”
A spokesman for Maloney pointed out that in October, she had opposed the idea of revisiting or tearing up the Iran deal.