By Alex Maroño Porto
The generational strife at the heart of the Democratic primary race for New York’s 12th district congressional seat (which includes the Upper West Side) resonated throughout Tuesday night’s candidate debate.
On the one hand, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, both elected to Congress in 1992 and reelected every two years since, tried to defend their records and praise the benefits of congressional seniority. On the other hand, challenger Suraj Patel, a 38-year-old with no previous legislative experience, called for a renewal of leadership.
“It’s 2022. It’s time to turn the page on 1992,” Patel said in his opening statement, echoing the issue he’s made the heart of his campaign.
During the 90-minute debate, each of the three Democratic candidates tried to convince voters in the newly-created district, the first in more than fifty years to combine Manhattan’s Upper West and the Upper East sides, to support their platform in the August 23 primary. Issues ranged from how to deal with rising inflation, to bail reform, to the efficacy of vaccines.
As he has throughout the campaign, Patel depicted Maloney as “committedly anti-vaxxer,” citing her co-sponsorship of a 2015 Republican-led bill to study the risk of autism between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated population.
“I support vaccines,” Maloney shot back when challenged again by Patel. “I support the science behind vaccines,” Maloney said, citing a variety of actions she said she had taken to promote vaccines.
The continuous exchange of arguments between Patel and Maloney, who repeatedly spoke longer than her allotted time, overshadowed a quiet Nadler who, on multiple occasions, seemed to struggle with his answers. At one point, though, Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, directed some harsh criticism at his fellow House colleague.
Though he and Maloney were often political allies in the House, until redistricting threw them into competition for the newly-drawn district, “There are some differences,” Nadler said. “We have different voting records. I voted against the Iraq war, and she voted for it. I voted against the Patriot Act even though 9/11 occurred in my district, and she voted for it. And I voted for the Iran deal; she voted against it.” (According to ProPublica, out of the 914 votes that took place in the previous Congress, Nadler and Maloney disagreed on only six.)
In comparing herself with Nadler, Maloney looked beyond voting records and emphasized what she said was her ability to work with Republicans to pass legislation. “I have a record to run on with concrete examples of what my work has done,” she said. “I’m a proven progressive leader with a record of delivering results to the city of New York.”
With no legislative record to run on, Patel, who was interviewed by the Rag in June, cited a variety of proposals he supports to deal with city and national crises, from building affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods to returning the New York harbor to a living shoreline.
“This is a perfect encapsulation of what outside-the-box, fresh thinking and new generational leadership looks like,” he said.
The right to abortion, one of the topics where the three politicians were completely aligned, drew a passionate response from Maloney. “There is no democracy if women cannot determine the health care for their own bodies,” she said. The congresswoman, one of the 17 Democrats detained at a pro-choice protest last July, has been endorsed by several feminist activists in her campaign for the 12th district Democratic nomination, as she recently told the Rag. “You cannot send a man to do a woman’s job,” she says in a campaign ad targeting Nadler.
Nadler, who has also been supported by Planned Parenthood and several feminist organizations, defended his record on reproductive issues and said that, in order to codify abortion rights in law, Democrats need to expand their razor-thin Senate majority. “Elections have consequences,” he said.
In three weeks, voters will choose between seniority or generational change, in a contest that will end the career of one —or two— New York political warhorses. In a poll released last week by Patel’s campaign, veterans Maloney and Nadler were tied at 31%, closely followed by Patel, at 25%.
“We’re, on this stage, star-crossed lovers. We’re arguing right now,” said Patel. But in the end, he added, “we’re on the same team.”