The 12th Congressional District 12 debate stage turned into a combat zone Tuesday night, but not due to the presence of the two incumbent Congress Members Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, who have been thrown into the same district to fight for their political survival.
The third contestant, Suraj Patel, a 38-year-old lawyer who has unsuccessfully run against Maloney twice, went after both sitting legislators — primarily Maloney — by criticizing their approach to policy as out of touch and repeatedly suggesting that the current tumultuous reality for Democrats calls for fresh ideas and a younger perspective.
But in the duel between the aggressive insurgent and two congenial senior House Democrats, the most notable moment of the debate flipped the dynamic on its head.
When NY1 moderator Errol Louis asked the three candidates whether they thought President Biden should run for re-election in 2024, neither Maloney nor Nadler were willing to back the leader of the party, while Patel quickly asserted that he would support the 79-year-old executive.
Nadler demurred and said it was too early to make a decision.
“I don’t believe he’s running for re-election,” said Maloney.
The moment appeared to contrast Maloney’s previous remarks on the Biden presidency, in which she was resistant to criticizing the president. But the next morning, she issued a clarification tweet that she “would absolutely support President Biden, if he decides to run for re-election.”
The first televised debate, hosted by NY1 and WNYC, presented a chance for the three leading Democratic candidates running to represent the newly redistricted Manhattan congressional district to distinguish themselves ahead of the Aug. 23 primary.
On the defensive during the debate, the two long-term incumbents — Nadler and Maloney have been in their seats a combined 60 years and have been allies for their careers — appeared hesitant to attack one another, though they eventually did in a subdued manner.
“Seniority brings you clout. It brings you the ability to get things done. Some people use it more effectively than others, but I think both Carolyn and I have used that clout very effectively,” said Nadler before going on to haltingly point out that he had voted against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act and voted for the Iran Deal, while Maloney had been on the other side of those foreign policy issues.
Nadler and Maloney both touted various accomplishments from their respective three-decade tenure.
Nadler focused on his record of leading the Trump impeachment as a way of protecting democracy from the “insurrectionist Republican party” and focusing on his effort to oppose “a runaway Supreme court upending 50 years of precedent.”
Maloney tried to distinguish her record by focusing on in-district projects like the Second Avenue subway and the creation of two vaccine healthcare centers in underserved neighborhoods at Queensbridge Houses and Astoria Houses in Queens (both communities are now of the 12th District come next January).
In bringing up the subway line project, Maloney also turned her sights on Nadler when she argued that he had unfairly taken credit for it by citing his appropriation of funding for the projects as one of his accomplishments.
Patel took the topic of vaccine rollout to hammer into Maloney, attacking her for previously questioning the link between childhood vaccinations and autism – a theory that has been discredited among scientists.
Maloney shot back that her comments on vaccines were from 20 years ago, although the New York Post reported that she made comments raising the issue as recently as 2012. She stated her unmitigated support for vaccines and cited her record of bringing millions of dollars worth of the COVID vaccines into her district.
“Look at my record. What have you done? Achievements speak louder than words. It’s easy to attack people. It’s much harder to open up healthcare centers that actually help people,” she said.
Patel, for his part, introduced parts of the platform like a plan to reform the Food and Drug Administration, and policies aimed at reducing regulations around government construction projects to build more infrastructure and housing. Despite his antagonistic debate performance, he said he said he would continue to support his opponents if they were to win the primary.
“We are on this stage, star-crossed lovers. We are arguing right now, but the fact of the matter is we’re on the same team on the issue of abortion rights and everything else for this city,” he said.