By Daniel Krieger
Earlier this year, in response to rampant Republican gerrymandering, New York Democrats decided to try their hand at that dark art to increase their chances of holding onto the House in the 2022 midterm elections.
But the plan backfired spectacularly and led to a heated primary contest for the seat representing the newly drawn, Manhattan-only 12th Congressional District, pitting longtime Democratic allies, Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, against each other and Suraj Patel, a young challenger.
But when the smoke clears after that bruising brawl, there will be one additional candidate left standing – a Republican who will challenge the victor in the November general election. That candidate is Michael K. Zumbluskas, or ‘Mike Z,’ as his campaign literature identifies him. He says he is running because he believes he has an outside chance of winning.
Sure, a Republican taking the 12th District might defy demographics, probability, logic and physics, but Mike Z. is undeterred. In fact, he is barreling ahead in his sixth — and most ambitious — campaign for public office. (He ran for State Senate three times and New York Assembly twice, without success.) He offers what he calls “a better path” than the current leadership. “I’m scared of the direction we’re heading,” he says during a recent early morning Zoom interview, “and I want to help. I just don’t think what’s happening in this country is healthy.”
The son of an Air Force master sergeant, Mike Z. was born in Hempstead, NY, started elementary school in Okinawa, Japan, and graduated from high school in Aviano, Italy, with multiple stops in between; he served in the Army; he has lived on the Upper East Side for over 30 years; he has been steeped in politics since the 1992 Ross Perot presidential campaign, as a consultant and a candidate, working for Republicans and Democrats, local and national. A self-described “policy wonk,” his first political debate was at age 8 with his Aunt Thelma who supported Richard Nixon, while he backed Hubert Humphrey.
Mike Z., who is 62, is a resource management analyst at the New York City Department of Transportation where he has worked for 15 years. But 20 years ago, he was earning $8.25 an hour as a security guard at Stevenson Commons in the Bronx and struggling to pay rent. “That gives me a good perspective that a lot of people don’t have,” he says.
When it comes to the issues, Mike Z.’s platform does not read like the typical partisan Republican you may love or hate. He is against gerrymandering. He believes in clean energy alternatives. And he wants to reduce homelessness, expand affordable housing and repair democracy after the January 6th attack by “the morons who rioted that day.”
“My policies are not coming from ideology,” he says. “I call myself a ‘practicalist’ because I look at what will work.”
But on some hot-button issues, he does join his Republican brethren. On the 2020 election he says: “Anyone who says that Biden is an illegitimate president is wrong because Congress certified him. But whether the election was stolen or not, I don’t know, because we need to do more research.” And he would not have voted to impeach Trump on either occasion.
On abortion, he is pro-choice “until the second trimester” but also agrees with the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, believing states should decide. On guns, he is “a defender of the second amendment,” favors arming teachers, and approves of the recent Supreme Court decision that requires New York City to allow concealed carry of handguns. “New York was way too restrictive,” he says. “We need to open up.”
He would vote against the Inflation Reduction Act that is blazing its way toward law. “Government spending has always increased inflation,” he insists, starting with ancient Rome to the present day. (As a history buff with a degree in history, he sees things through a historical lens.) “You have an elite that’s out of touch with the majority of the population. They don’t understand what’s going on in small-town America or poor neighborhoods in the city.”
And he doesn’t solely blame Democrats but also Republicans for what’s gone wrong, though certainly and especially Democrats, such as Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, whom he critiques for being too partisan, for promoting policies that have worsened inflation, for insufficient oversight of government spending, for letting American manufacturing decline on their watch and being too focused on gun crime while giving short shrift to non-gun crime, which was one of his takeaways from a recent live debate between the three Democrats on WPIX11.
Mike Z. would prefer to run against Suraj Patel, which he calculates could be a toss-up. His hope is that with the timing of the August 23rd primary, Nadler and Maloney supporters might go on vacation without sending in their absentee ballots. In his view, his most formidable foe would be Maloney since the Upper East Side has been his political stomping ground where he is most known.
For most of his political career, Mike Z. has been affiliated with the Independence Party of New York, which no longer qualifies to field candidates. The problem with being a Republican in New York City, he says, is that the party doesn’t provide enough support here. “They are backing me up to a point,” he says. They do provide a small amount of money, not to mention retweets and personnel for events. Mike Z. estimates he has spent about $10,000 so far and has $3,000 in the bank. At upcoming fundraisers his aim is to raise at least $50,000 to make it till November. That will be enough, he says, because “I know how to stretch a dollar.” In contrast, Nadler and Maloney each have north of $1 million on hand.
“I’m not the greatest fundraiser in the world,” he admits, “but I’m starting to raise more funds now. And when I’m out on the street, when I’m talking to people, I win a lot of people over. The problem is a lot of Republicans don’t come out. They’re so used to being beat up so they don’t show up.”
That’s why his strategy is to court Democrats, who vastly outnumber Republicans in the area. He believes that he has a lot of crossover Democratic support, and received endorsements from Democrats such as Carmen Quiñones, a leader at the Douglass Houses on the Upper West Side, Bilal Malik, a county committee member in Brooklyn and Angela Di Gangi, a former Upper East Side State committee member, with more to come after the primaries. He also feels buoyed by the political headwinds this season that seem to strongly favor Republicans, and can imagine an upset like that of Republican newcomer Edward Durr, a truck driver with a shoestring budget who beat the Democratic State Senator Steve Sweeney last year in New Jersey.
“I have a lot of people telling me that they’re not voting Democrat this year,” he says. “And these are lifelong Democrats! They’re upset with what’s going on.”