Representative Carolyn Maloney was one of a record number of women elected to federal office in 1992 in the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony. She has remained popular, and won every race for reelection to date, in spite of primary challenges.
Maloney was already up against three candidates in the 2020 primary: 32-year-old lawyer and advocate for sexual harassment survivors Erica Vladimer, 30-year-old JPMorgan Chase project manager and comedian Lauren Ashcraft, and 36-year-old housing activist and urban planner Peter Harrison. Then, former Obama campaign staffer and lawyer Suraj Patel, 35, who in 2018 mounted a strong challenge to Maloney, announced last week that he would run against her again in 2020.
The way the race for her seat has evolved reflects a broader shift in our politics—one that, aided by New York’s infamously anemic turnout in primary elections, could end Maloney’s career in 2020.
Ashcraft and Harrison belong to the Democratic Socialists of America (disclosure: So do I). And although Vladimer, who once worked for the conservative Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) for years, is not a member of DSA, she praised the organization for embodying “what it means to lift up grassroots activists and advocates into the electoral position” and said she would seek DSA’s endorsement. Asked why she’d worked for the IDC, Vladimer replied flatly, “I never wanted to work for the IDC.” She was, she said, placed there as part of a postgraduate fellowship, and she left after her then-boss, former state senator Jeff Klein, assaulted her: “It was becoming more uncomfortable to work for the IDC. I didn’t believe in what they stood for, how they went about their political negotiations and process.”
The clearest contrast between Maloney and these newcomers—all of whom (except Patel) are first-time candidates—is that the challengers have rejected corporate PAC money. Neither Vladimer nor Ashcraft has raised any money from PACs. Patel refused corporate PAC money in 2018. Harrison told me via Facebook messenger and in a phone conversation that his campaign isn’t accepting PAC or real estate money (“not that they’d give it to me!” he added cheerfully).
According to OpenSecrets.org, over 45 percent of the $712,723 Maloney has raised in the 2019–20 cycle came from PACs. Over 53 percent was from large individual contributions, and less than 2 percent came from small donors. She has accepted over $125,000 in PAC money from securities and investment firms, insurance companies, and the real estate industry.
Maloney is also one of Congress’s richest members, thanks in part to her late husband’s career as an investment banker. According to a spokesperson, the congresswoman does not take fossil fuel or tobacco money.
Maloney represented New York’s 14th congressional district from 1993–2013 and has represented the 12th district since 2013 (the district lines were redrawn in 2012 based on 2010 Census data; Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now represents the 14th). Maloney’s district now includes most of Manhattan’s East Side and Roosevelt Island, as well as parts of Brooklyn (Greenpoint) and Queens (Astoria, Long Island City, and parts of Woodside). By ordinary congressional standards, she is progressive: a member of Congress’s Medicare for All caucus with a solidly pro-choice voting record and 2018 endorsements from Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Emily’s List, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Maloney has a fairly liberal voting record, though she has been criticized for voting in favor of the Iraq War and the 1994 crime bill—two decisions she later said she regretted—as well as her 1999 vote to neuter Glass-Steagall, which many believe paved the way for the 2008 financial crisis, and her 2019 cosponsorship of House Resolution 246, which declares the US House of Representatives’ opposition to the BDS movement (Representative Rashida Tlaib called the resolution “unconstitutional”).
Yet for the most part, her challengers have run and are running for “new leadership” more than they are running against her record. Several have said or implied that they are better suited than the 73-year-old Maloney to represent a district with a median age of 35.7.
A popular argument for primary challengers like Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, and current New York congressional candidate Jamaal Bowman is that they would make better representatives of a diverse district than their white male opponents. But Bowman, Pressley, and Ocasio-Cortez all ran or are running in majority-nonwhite districts. Even after redistricting, Maloney’s district remains predominantly white.
As a woman, Maloney is a member of a group that is still massively underrepresented in Congress. But the presence of two other women in the race neutralizes the questionable idea that she is best suited to represent women’s interests. All of which is why this race is being framed as fresh new ideas (though democratic socialism is hardly new) versus the old guard—or, more reductively, young versus old. (Patel and Ashcraft both also emphasize that they are from immigrant families.)
Comparing herself to Patel in 2018, Maloney said, “I actually get things done, I actually pass meaningful legislation. I’ve passed over 70 bills.” But the politics of the AOC era have made her reliance on corporate cash a serious liability. Nor are her challengers cowed by her record. As Vladimer told me in a recent interview, what long-time incumbents like Maloney say they support is less important than how they intend to get it done. After all, Maloney’s “supporting something for 20-plus years has not resulted in us getting something like Medicare for All.”
Ashcraft was equally blunt in a phone conversation. She acknowledged that Maloney supports single payer, but said the congresswoman has expressed a willingness to compromise. “I’m not willing to compromise,” Ashcraft said, “because single payer is what we need…. If you go to the ER without insurance, you will be paying it back for the rest of your life.”
In 2010, then 34-year-old hedge fund lawyer Reshma Saujani, the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress and subject of a recent New York Times puff piece, antagonized a number of prominent New York feminists by challenging Maloney. Saujani ran a tone-deaf, pro–Wall Street campaign. Scolding Maloney for bashing banks and “browbeating” Wall Street, Saujani said at the time, “If you go to Texas, you’ll never hear a congressional member speak poorly of the oil industry. In Michigan, you’ll never hear a congressional member speak poorly of the auto industry. [The financial industry] is our bread and butter.” It was a losing strategy; Saujani won only 6,231 votes to Maloney’s 26,303.
Eight years later, Patel did substantially better by running to Maloney’s left. He slammed her for her vote on the 1994 crime bill. He called to defund ICE. He advocated for the repeal of SESTA/FOSTA, a law ostensibly intended to combat sex trafficking that many sex workers oppose (most members of Congress, including Bernie Sanders, voted for it). And he earned nearly three times as many votes as Saujani did (16,995 votes to Maloney’s 24,223).
With three other young progressives already in the race, Patel is walking a finer line this time. He’s still casting himself as a fresh-faced member “of the progressive movement,” but one who is not “lockstep with everything.” Progressives, he said, need to learn to make a case “to people who have…more to lose by changing the current system than not.” His last race taught him that he needs to clarify to older (and presumably more conservative) voters what he means by “change.” Judging by his 2020 campaign launch video, what he means is “fairer” taxes and “debt-free” college, not free college or taxing the hell out of the rich. Asked to compare himself to Ashcraft, Harrison, and Vladimer, Patel emailed this comment: “I can just say that the number and diversity of challengers shows exactly how much dissatisfaction there is with Maloney’s representation.”
When it comes to Saujani, it was her audacity, not her Wall Street cheerleading, that most offended Democratic leaders in 2010. As former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro said at the time, “You don’t, if you’re a Democrat, challenge an incumbent Democrat who has a position of power to get things done just because you feel like this is something you want to do.” That was true for many years. But today, incumbents like Maloney are newly vulnerable to primary challenges because groups like Justice Democrats and candidates like Ocasio-Cortez have shown it’s possible to break that rule and win—inspiring a new wave of candidates in the process. (Maloney, for her part, finds it “deeply encouraging to see the explosion of interest in public service since 2016.”)
As Harrison told Town & Village, “There was a tweet from [Ocasio-Cortez] that housing is a human right…. I never heard somebody running for any office anywhere ever say that…. she really changed my mindset about just what’s possible politically.” Ashcraft, too, cited Ocasio-Cortez as an inspiration. Vladimer praised the “critical mass of bold progressive leadership that we’re seeing from a new generation of women,” and stressed the importance of expanding it. “And we can’t wait,” she added. “The idea of ‘waiting our turn’ is over.”
Although each thinks they are the best candidate for the job, Harrison said, “the goal is to have somebody from the left emerge as the best contender and get that person to win.” Ashcraft concurred: Hopefully by the time of the primary, she said, she and the other challengers can “make sure we are furthering this progressive movement” rather than impeding it.
“Everyone brings something valuable and different and should be running,” she continued, “and may the best person win.” Vladimer recently made similar remarks, noting that “there is strategy that goes into winning for a cause versus ourselves.”
For some, that cause is greater than defeating President Trump in 2020.
“You have to look at the whole picture,” Vladimer said. “Supporting one progressive piece for a number of years does not mean that you are wholeheartedly a progressive. There’s a new agenda that new progressives are embodying.”