Friday, August 19, 2022

In New York, Democrats clash over identity in bitter primary season

After a Democratic plan to redraw the congressional map backfired, fierce infighting erupted, including in a Manhattan race pitting two titans of the House against each other

House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) arrives during a campaign stop at Zabar’s in New York on Aug. 6.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) arrives during a campaign stop at Zabar’s in New York on Aug. 6. (Jeenah Moon/For The Washington Post)


NEW YORK — Standing in a suit and tie under the blazing midmorning sun one recent Saturday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler spent an hour greeting voters. A political fixture of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Nadler, 75, is fighting to prove his decades of on-the-job experience and ties to the neighborhood’s Jewish community make him the best choice to meet this political moment.

The next morning, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, 76, wove through two sidewalk farmers markets carrying a binder with 50 typed pages of her accomplishments and endorsements to give a reporter. She bought a bouquet of sunflowers that she tucked in her purse, she bent to pet dogs and she waved to shoppers, insistent she not interrupt anyone’s buying. For much of her career, she’s been the only woman in a room full of men — and that perspective, she says, is needed more than ever.

Whizzing by on a bike, Suraj Patel, the 38-year-old underdog trying to beat them both, stopped at the same farmers markets to meet would-be voters. The day before he canvassed the vast Sheep Meadow lawn in Central Park, sprinting between blankets of 20-something sun bathers and picnickers, downing a can of mango White Claw from one group and tossing a football with another. “Generational change is on the ballot,” he kept repeating in his pitch.

The three Democrats are competing in a bitter primary culminating Tuesday that has pit two titans of the House Democratic Caucus against each other, ensuring that in the end at least one will lose their job. Nadler and Maloney, who both arrived in Congress in the early 1990s and have represented adjoining districts for three decades, are trying to fend off Patel, who is waging an insurgent campaign to unseat them both. The winner will be heavily favored in November in this left-leaning stretch of the nation’s most populous city.

The battle is in part the result of an aggressive attempt by Democrats in the state legislature to draw a favorable map in the decennial redistricting process that ultimately backfired, setting off messy Democratic infighting across the state and highlighting divisions along generational, racial, gender and ideological lines.

“No matter who wins, the loser is the people of New York,” said Evan Stavisky, a New York-based Democratic campaign consultant. If Democrats defy the odds and keep their House majority, he said, New York is going to lose one full committee chair and “that’s a loss of influence.”

The campaign has become as much about the candidates’ different identities as their policies, which largely align. Nadler, who could be the only Jewish member of the New York’s U.S. House delegation after this year, hopes that matters in a city with the largest Jewish population in the United States. Maloney, who has broken gender barriers, is emphasizing that she is a woman, and hopes the passions around abortion rights and women’s rights drives voters to her side. And Patel, a millennial and son of Indian immigrants, hopes voters frustrated with the status quo will choose diversity and change.

Recently, the race has turned in Nadler’s favor. He won the coveted endorsement of the New York Times editorial board and later, the support of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — who took a side at the last minute while the rest of the New York Democrats in Congress have stayed neutral.

Elsewhere in the state, in the wake of the scrambled congressional lines, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, responsible for protecting the party’s House seats as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, found himself forced to choose between running in a swing district or moving to a slightly bluer district that encompassed large swaths of freshman Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones’s constituents. Maloney chose the safer, yet still competitive, seat forcing Jones to look elsewhere to avoid a primary against the powerful chairman, and pitting Maloney against state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a challenger backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) who is running to his left.

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Jones, a rising liberal star and one of the first two openly gay, Black members of Congress, is fighting for his political life in a crowded nine-person primary against better-known local politicians in a district far flung from his previous one.

The redistricting chaos stems from a 2014 constitutional amendment voters approved to set up a separate advisory commission outside the state legislature to control redistricting that was intended to take the raw political ambitions out of the process. But the independent entity was plagued by partisan gridlock and Democrats in the state legislature took over the process, drawing a map that could have helped them gain seats and improve their standing in the battle for the House. After Republicans filed a lawsuit, the map was struck down on procedural grounds and a court-appointed “special master” was tasked to draw a new one.

Here in Manhattan, Nadler and Maloney’s fight has become one of the most extraordinary member-versus-member showdowns in recent history. After working side-by-side for 30 years, climbing the rungs of seniority until they both secured powerful leadership roles, him as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and her as the chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, their career now depends on taking the other one down and fending off Patel, who is pushing a Barack Obama-style call for change.

For decades, an invisible line cut through the length of the Manhattan, where Nadler held the west side and Maloney the east. The new map instead sliced the island north and south, chopping off Lower Manhattan and merging the rest of the island into one district, effectively combining Nadler’s and Maloney’s seats.

“I think Nadler and Maloney are furious at the entire process that led them into this mess, which for one or both of them will be a career ender,” said Jon Reinish, a New York Democratic operative. “This is not how they wanted to go. They wanted to go out on their own terms when they were ready.”

Maloney said when the new lines were announced, she called Nadler to see if they could work together to try to change it. She said he told her to do whatever she wanted, and about 30 minutes later publicly announced he was running in the 12th District and would win. Later, he approached her on the House floor and suggested she step aside, allow him to run in the 12th and instead run in the 10th District — the crowded new one that Jones had been forced to run in, she said. She didn’t even consider it. “People have been telling me to step aside my whole life,” she said.

A Nadler spokesman declined to comment, but pointed to an article that suggested they both urged the other to give up the 12th and run in the 10th.

David Imamura, the Democratic chairman of the redistricting advisory commission, said Manhattan voters during public hearings argued that the west and east sides of the city were distinct places and should continue to be represented by two lawmakers in Congress. Nadler’s old district combined the heavily Jewish upper west side with Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, making it the most Jewish district in the country. It made sense to keep those communities together, Imamura said.

In recent months, Nadler has emphasized his Jewish heritage, noting when he first came to the House there were eight Jewish members representing New York City. “It would be very unfortunate if there was no Jewish representation from New York,” Nadler told The Washington Post earlier this year.

On a Saturday morning this month, Nadler remarked several times how unusual it was for there to be such little foot traffic outside Zabar’s, where tourists and locals come for its bagels and smoked fish and other traditional Jewish fare.

Several elderly people, some who have voted for Nadler since he ran for the state assembly in the late-1970s, stopped to say hello. An older man walking into the store blew him a kiss. Some told him they’d already voted for him. One declined the campaign literature, telling him, “don’t need it, I’m supporting you 100 percent.”

“I voted for you,” said one elderly woman. Nadler responded: “Tell your friends.” He said the race was “looking good if everyone gets out to vote.”

One woman asked Nadler about the Green New Deal, which he at first told her was impossible. Seeing this wasn’t the answer she wanted, he said, if “we get more Democrats in the Senate,” it could possibly be accomplished.

At a debate this month, Nadler portrayed himself as a bulwark against conservative priorities and attempts to overturn the 2020 election. “I am leading the fight to stop this,” he said, before mistakenly saying he “impeached Bush twice,” a reference to his leading role in Donald Trump’s impeachments.

In his 30-year congressional career, Nadler has never faced a reelection fight like this. Maloney, on the other hand, knew she’d be facing Patel, who ran against her twice before, losing by just 3,700 votes in 2020 and refusing to concede for six weeks after that primary. But against Nadler, Maloney’s experience and clout does not set her apart the way it did against Patel. What does is that she’s a woman who has worked on women’s rights issues her whole career.

“Of all the things I’ve worked on, it’s hardest to move things forward for women,” Maloney said. The Supreme Court, she told one voter, “bulldozed our rights into the ground.”

Jodi Bialick, a teacher, was sitting on a bench with her mother and assured Maloney that the congresswoman would win. Maloney sat down beside her. “Why do you think so?” she asked. “You stand up for the right things,” Bialick said.

Maloney said her biggest regret during her time in Congress is not seeing the Equal Rights Amendment ratified — she has introduced nearly a dozen variations of a bill to do so since 1997.

“That’s why I want to go back,” she told a voter. A man walked by and said she had his vote. “Oh! You’re going to vote for me? Let me shake your hand. I am so grateful,” she said. When a passersby offered her good luck, she’d respond, “You are my luck.”

When one voter said she was intrigued by Patel’s candidacy. “Then you’ll have someone with no experience,” Maloney said.

But Patel, during his campaign swing through Central Park, has tried to make his opponents’ experience a negative. They never codified Roe v. Wade, he said. He also mocked Maloney’s first debate performance, where, when asked if President Biden should run for a second term, said, “I don’t believe he’s running for reelection.”

Patel, who worked on Barack Obama’s campaigns, said the party errs when it distances from its leaders. “I’m wearing aviators in honor of my man, Joe, getting passed the biggest climate change bill in recent history,” Patel told a group of picnickers, referring to Biden’s signature eyewear and the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes provisions to combat global warming.

Outside the park on Saturday afternoon, Patel greeted his small army of Gen Z volunteers with high-fives. Some were wearing the campaign’s new swag — a shirt with Patel’s face surrounded by flowers and vines that said, “Change the vibes.”

“He has really good ads of what he’s doing, how he’s up to date, like how he mentioned the old Democrats what they’ve been doing and how he wants to change it and make it like more for us,” said Paulina Rivero, 31, who assured Patel he had her vote.

Former New York Democratic congressman Joseph Crowley, who lost his seat to Ocasio-Cortez in a stunning upset in 2018, said while the loss of seniority for New York Democrats resulting from the race is unfortunate, the reality is “no one owns their seat.”

“It’s a city that’s in constant change,” Crowley said, “the politics are not void of that change. That’s something special about New York.”

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