Incumbents have it made in New York City, a land where you tend to hold your federal or state seat until you die, retire, go to jail or become a judge. The most feared political obstacle might be that your district gets redistricted out from under you, as happened to nine-term Brooklyn incumbent Stephen Solarz in 1992. He was defeated by young upstart Nydia Velazquez, who is still serving.
But the federal primary on Tuesday features multiple unusually stiff challenges to incumbent members of Congress, with Democratic newcomers looking to ride a wave of frustration with establishment politics as usual.
Take 34-year-old challenger Suraj Patel, a former hospitality executive who worked on President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and likes to use words like “iterate” and “innovate.” He’s taking on Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens and is running for her 14th term.
Some of their contest boils down to your typical upstart-takes-on-savvy-political-veteran narrative. Patel is a fresh face, the son of immigrants who runs his campaign office out of an old bar in the East Village where the campaign hosts happy hours. Maloney and her supporters ask how committed he is to the district, given that he voted elsewhere in 2016 and has fundraised from out-of-state donors. (Patel says he has lived in the East Village for 12 years.) The candidates’ differences on major policy issues tend to be of degree: defund U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Patel) vs. revamp it (Maloney).
But Patel is taking advantage of Maloney’s long career in office to highlight a number of past positions that haven’t aged well. Maloney, for example, voted for the Iraq War and the infamous 1994 crime bill that became a major issue of the 2016 presidential primary and dogged Hillary Clinton, who was not in office at the time but loudly supported the legislation.
Maloney has argued that she regrets these positions and wasn’t alone among Democrats in holding them, but they might make for eyebrow-raising fare in some parts of the district when brought up by a door-knocker or campaign ad. “This is who we’ve been re-electing all along?” newly engaged voters may ask.
Other young Democrats are exploiting similar vulnerabilities across the city. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former organizer for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is taking on powerful Rep. Joseph Crowley in Queens and the Bronx, slamming Crowley for his support from real estate interests that have long semi-quietly powered New York politics. Organizer and community board member Adem Bunkeddeko is giving Rep. Yvette Clarke a run for her money in Central Brooklyn, pointing to Clarke’s relatively thin legislative record.
These Democrats are dismissive of the kind of party machinery that protects officials like Crowley, or the political lineage that has long boosted someone like Clarke, whose mother was a Brooklyn politician as well.
They have proven themselves adept on social media and with campaign videos, as well as fundraising (Patel has raised more than a million dollars). They have lined up some serious endorsements, with Bunkeddeko charming The New York Times editorial board and Ocasio-Cortez getting the nod from progressive group MoveOn, for example.
Given the sometimes small distance between establishment and leftist Democrats, NY’s abysmal primary voter turnout, and the myriad advantages of incumbency, their impressive runs could be all they get come Tuesday. But imagine if even one of them knocks off an incumbent. That would be a major victory for the under-the-radar, grassroots wing of the Democratic Party that seems to be growing in energy if not elected strength nationwide. In fact, it would be a validation of that movement, indicating that new voters and new candidates would be harder to ignore.