Maloney has first ever East-side challenger


BY Paul Schindler and John Bayles

New York’s 14th Congressional District, which straddles the East River,  includes America’s wealthiest voters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side as well as some of the most troubled public housing projects in Queens. The District representative, who plays a major role in terms of the rebirth of Lower Manhattan and the rebuilding of Ground Zero, will experience a rare a Democratic primary challenge next week to its nine-term representative.

Carolyn Maloney — the 64-year-old incumbent best known recently for leading the charge on the new credit card consumer protection law lauded by reform advocates while setting the financial service industry on edge — ousted longtime Republican Congressman Bill Green in 1992, leading a political transformation that has since ended the East Side Silk Stocking District’s longtime position as a Republican redoubt. 

Now, Reshma Saujani, Ivy League-educated, Wall Street-experienced, and 30 years Maloney’s junior, has launched an effort to transform the 14th District — one she describes as generational, ethnic, and based on, as much as anything, “leadership style.” Making the case for a distinction centered on political style is critical to Saujani’s challenge — in an interview with the Downtown Express, she acknowledged she and the incumbent probably agree on most of the issues.  

They also agree on the issue and debate surrounding the proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic Cultural Center and prayer space, Park 51, which has lit a fire under right and left wing pundits alike. It has become the latest wedge-issue to divide Americans as they head to the polls for a mid-term election.

Saujani said she certainly supports Park51. She also said Governor Paterson’s proposal to offer state funded land should Cordoba choose to move the sight, was a “bad decision” and that in terms of the overall debate on the issue he has been “unhelpful.”

“His offer of land was not helpful,” said Sajunai. “It still relegates Muslims to second class citizens.”

When asked the same question, Maloney said she was “adamantly for the project, strongly for it.”

“I’d go down and help build it myself,” she said.

But if her aim to shake up Washington, not to mention politics here in New York, is central to her campaign narrative — and Maloney is no slouch at pushing back on that score — much of the buzz about this race has instead focused on how the two candidates have funded their campaigns and how close each is to Wall Street. Saujani has repeatedly charged that Maloney has raised “$2.5 million in special interest corporate PAC money, with huge sums from Wall Street” — a claim that earned a rebuke from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s factcheck.org at the University of Pennsylvania, which noted that those funds were raised over ten separate political campaigns. In her interview with Gay City, Saujani and a top aide warned that two fundraisers Maloney held while serving on the special conference committee appointed to finalize this year’s financial regulation law — one at the Washington home of Robert Raben, a financial services industry lobbyist — could in time land the congresswoman in front of the same sort of ethics investigation currently plaguing Charlie Rangel, a suggestion Maloney vehemently rejected.

Maloney’s volley back is similarly unambiguous. “Wall Street is financing her,” the incumbent told Gay City News. “Some of the biggest names on Wall Street are financing her.” Saujani’s résumé provides no small measure of ammunition on that point. She worked for Carret Asset Management, whose co-owner, Hassan Nemazee, the Village Voice’s Wayne Barrett pointed out last week, pled guilty to ripping banks off to the tune of nearly $300 million, and for Blue Wave Partners, which paid a $20 million fine after Attorney General Andrew Cuomo went after it for state pension fraud. Saujani most recently served as deputy general counsel for Fortress Investment Group, which, Maloney charged, played a role in the Stuyvesant Town purchase financing plan that was dependent on large-scale tenant evictions for its success.

The squabble is nasty and raises the kinds of doubts that could sour voters on both candidates, but Saujani seems to have gotten the worst of it. Story after story, in outlets from the Voice to the New York Times and Politico.com, have termed her Wall Street’s candidate, repeating a quote from the Washington Post, in which she told a wealthy Upper East Side crowd, “We need to extend a hand rather than a fist” to Wall Street.

Saujani now explains that her concern about the health of the banking industry has to do with the availability of credit, which she said is vital to the prospects for small business owners in Queens to survive.

Still, the media seems eager to sniff out hypocrisy in Saujani’s claim that while she rejects all political action committee money, Maloney is cozy with Wall Street lobbyists. Salon.com noted that just under half of the challenger’s second quarter fundraising came from donors affiliated with the financial services industry. Factcheck.org noted that research done by the Center for Responsive Politics pegged Saujani’s haul from the industry at $220,000 versus $125,000 for Maloney. Arguing that the press has uniformly ignored an inspiring immigrant story that began when her African-born Indian parents were forced to flee Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda in 1973, Saujani complained that a Times profile last week was headlined with a reference to her $300 Kate Spade wedge heels. 

But it is not just her inspiring personal story that is being missed, Saujani insisted; it is also her passionate commitment to bringing change to Washington, a crucial point for her to establish if she is to lure LGBT support away from an incumbent with one of the strongest gay-friendly records in Congress. Dating back at least a decade (as long as data is still available), Maloney has scored a perfect 100 percent with the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, the community’s chief lobbying group on Capitol Hill. Back in 1986, while on the City Council, she introduced one of the nation’s first domestic partnership laws, a measure she said Council staff initially refused to draft, questioning its constitutionality. 

In the interim, she fought President George W. Bush’s efforts to enact a federal constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, endorsed equal marriage rights, advocated for an end to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and the Defense of Marriage Act, and most recently introduced legislation to broaden the federal Family Medical Leave Act to cover same-sex couples. 

Asked why, with that record, the community should fire Carolyn Maloney, Saujani hit hard on her theme of leadership style — and played off widespread frustration among LGBT voters with the slow pace of change two years into the Obama presidency and after four years of Democratic control of Congress.

“I don’t see her going toe to toe with Nancy Pelosi and saying, ‘You know what? We’re not going to wait another day,’” Saujani responded. Her passion for not waiting, she explained, is “generational,” an example of her willingness to emphasize her age difference with Maloney. She would challenge the House speaker in the same way that she took on the organizers of the August 15 India Day Parade, whom, she said, she threatened to “call out” prior to their agreeing to allow the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) to march openly.

Yet, when detailing just how she would bring greater urgency to the fight for LGBT rights, Saujani offered an argument that could be taken seriously only in a symbolic sense.

“If I were in Congress, I would be holding hearings on the steps of the Capitol every single day,” she said. “It’s not enough to hold meetings behind closed doors and say, ‘President Obama really gets it.’ No, I want to see you publicly reprimand him if it’s not getting done. Period,” said Saujani.

Maloney countered.

“I believe that the way to get the president to work with us is what I call the drum beat,” the incumbent said, pointing to her work on the credit card law and pending legislation providing 9/11-related health care benefits. “When I’m working on a bill, every single day I work on it and try to pass it.” 

But “reprimand” is not a word Maloney would use in talking about the president. Asked about the widespread perception that Obama was pulled reluctantly into the defense authorization bill compromise that laid out a path, though no certain timeline, for ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, perhaps as early as the first half of 2011, the incumbent said what was most important was the fact that the commander in chief and his defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff chair have all said the policy must go forth.

Emphasizing the wisdom of such a posture when dealing with the head of her party, Maloney noted that the Obama administration, through executive action carried out by the Department of Labor, had put in place the same-sex couple reforms to the Family Medical Leave Act her legislation proposed. “I am absolutely thrilled that through executive order, he has passed my bill,” she said, adding that in order to make certain the new rules are not undone by a future president, her measure must still be enacted.

One unmistakable lesson already learned from the 14th District primary race is the daunting odds facing any Democrat who mounts a primary challenge to an incumbent in this Democratic town. In addition to Obama himself, Maloney enjoys the support of both US senators, nine New York City members of the House, the Manhattan and Queens borough presidents, and the state senators, assemblymembers, and city councilmembers representing her district, including Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Saujani did not hesitate to tell the Downtown Express she has no endorsements to speak of, saying she really never expected any. True to her insurgent form, she turned that lemon into lemonade, noting, “Membership has its privileges.”

However, the Daily News on Monday gave Saujani her first endorsement. The Daily News wrote that the newcomer, “has highlighted how badly the city’s Washington delegation needs fresh ideas and energy…[she] is taking on an 18-year office holder Rep. Maloney with the theme that longevity alone is not good enough.”