It wasn’t even 8 a.m. when a direct message came in via Twitter from Suraj Patel. “Hey y’all, let’s sit down next week?,” suggested the youthful Congressional candidate and East 12th Street resident.
The 34-year-old hotel executive, NYU professor and former Obama campaign advance man is taking on U.S Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the June 26 Democratic Primary. We paid a recent visit to Patel’s campaign office at 64 Cooper Square, a short-lived cocktail lounge which donated its profits to anti-Trump causes. It now has the feel of a tech start-up, which is not surprising, because Patel is running his insurgent campaign like a Millennial entrepreneur.
Maloney, 72, has represented the Upper East Side and sections of the Lower East Side since 1993. New York’s 12th Congressional District is the nation’s wealthiest, one of the best educated and reliably liberal. This year, she faces a rare primary challenge from two candidates — Patel and Sander Hicks — both of whom are part of a national movement pushing establishment Democrats to the left.
Patel suggested we walk across the street to The Bean for coffee and a conversation about his bid to unseat a 25-year Congressional veteran. The candidate has lived in the East Village for the past 12 years, ever since he came to New York to attend law school at New York University. He’s an adjunct professor of business ethics at NYU.
Seated at a communal table in the packed coffee shop, Patel made his case for change. He noted that only 8% of registered Democrats in the 12th Congressional District vote in primary elections. Referring to the Democratic Party, Patel said, “We’re at the lowest level of political power since 1929. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result isn’t a good strategy.”
Running is easy with so many others running by your side. Shoutout to @vinnie_mils for leading our NY-12 @milehighrunclub class this afternoon, and for all the new friends who came out to meet our team, workout, and help me (literally) run for Congress! ♂️ Stay tuned for details on our next wellness series event soon!
“I try to keep saying I’m running against apathy,” said Patel, “not against Carolyn Maloney.” But in the next breath, he argued that Democratic office-holders, including Maloney, must take responsibility for squandering their Congressional majorities in 2009 and 2010 and, as he put it, failing to “deliver for the American people.”
“We didn’t lead progressively enough,” said Patel. “I don’t think, sadly, we are represented by someone who is an effective fighter… It was good enough two years ago (before the 2016 election). But in the post-Trump era, no one has room for complacency, no one should not be challenged.” Patel said his top priorities in office would be fighting voter suppression and ending gerrymandering. The district, he argued, should be a national leader in coming up with fresh, progressive ideas for the future.
Taking on a sitting member of Congress is a daunting task. In 2010, the last time Maloney faced a serious primary challenge, she trounced her Wall Street-backed opponent, Reshma Saujani, pulling in more than 80% of the vote. Patel has already demonstrated some fundraising prowess, leading the political press to focus more attention on the Manhattan race. In February, Politico reported that he brought in nearly $550,000, besting the incumbent by a wide margin.
Patel noted that the district, which has been redrawn since 2010, is now full of “young, aspirational voters,” in neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Astoria and the Lower East Side/East Village. His untraditional campaign is seeking to engage Millennials through happy hours (held each Friday at his campaign office), exercise classes, meditation sessions — wherever potential young voters can be found. The campaign’s social media accounts feature a video series dubbed, “Suraj on the Street.” In one installment, the candidate chases after people in Brooklyn, asking, “Do you know who your Congress person is?”
But the campaign, Patel said, is not simply focused on appealing to young voters. He is determined to reach out across the district to New Yorkers in every demographic who haven’t taken part in the political process. “What I want to do,” he explained, “is to empower people to feel like they have the agency to vote and to change their future.”
Patel believes he’s in a good position to talk with all types of potential voters. He’s a first generation American, the son of immigrants from India. Patel’s father worked as an engineer for the MTA while living in New Jersey. The family moved to Mississippi in the 1980s, where they ran a Mexican restaurant. When Patel was 5, they relocated to Indiana, where his dad cobbled together money to buy a small hotel. Today, the family business, Sun Development & Management Corp., operates many hotels across the country, and employs more than 2,000 people. Patel has worked in the business off-and-on over the years, having returned as president in 2011 to help restructure the company in the aftermath of the financial meltdown.
Maloney has the support of the party establishment, having secured endorsements from labor unions, other elected officials and local political clubs. They have praised her advocacy for Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11, support for gun control legislation and, especially, the congresswoman’s track record of standing up for women’s rights. She has been particularly outspoken as the #MeToo Movement took hold. Maloney recently made an appearance at the Lower East Side Girls Club, in an event titled, “The Future is Female: Making a Difference in Our Communities.”
Patel says he’s, “a 1000-percent supporter of the #MeToo movement.” However, he argued, there’s a bigger picture. “I completely acknowledge that we need more women in office,” said Patel. “But we also need more people of color in office. We also need more first generation Americans and immigrants in office. We need people who have shared our lived experiences in office. At the end of the day, the future is non-binary. What we are looking for more than anything, as marginalized communities, as people who don’t have the same access to boardrooms, all those things that white males have, is effectiveness.”
“I just don’t believe Carolyn Maloney is an effective Congress person,” Patel added. “Simply co-sponsoring a bunch of bills, or passing (legislation to create) a bunch of stamps and commemorative coins, is not our vision as a generation of activism.” Patel said he has substantive policy differences with Maloney. He pointed to her vote in favor of the Iraq war, and her vote against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. He also criticized Maloney for accepting money from Political Action Committees (Patel does not take PAC contributions).
In recent weeks, Maloney has begun to fire back. After the stories about Patel’s fundraising success, she said his filings contained a large number of people from out-of-state and, “a huge amount of the name Patel.” This prompted the Patel campaign to charge Maloney with racism [Patel is a very common Indian name.]
One of Maloney’s handlers, the longtime New York political operative George Arzt, told Politico, “(Patel) cannot depend on his wealthy Indiana family indefinitely and he will need a lot more than that to create an identity, record and reputation to sway the people… No one knows him and everyone knows Carolyn’s record for fighting for the district. You just can’t suddenly materialize and say, ‘Elect me.’ He should spend some time in the vineyards working for the people.”
The tabloids are starting to show interest in the race. Several weeks ago, the Post dug up social media entries from 2012 in which Patel joked about being “smitten” by a 16-year-old Olympic gymnast. Just today, the Daily News highlighted investments by Maloney in a Virginia real estate company with a record of evicting tenants.
Patel believes the city’s political establishment has an odd aversion to competition in local campaigns. “There are mixed messages,” he asserted. “They say, ‘We need more young people involved.’ And then you turn around and run, they go, ‘Whoa, what are you doing?! Why are you running?’ It’s funny. Only in politics do people view competition as a personal affront.”
“I think we are already making change in this election by simply showing up,” Patel continued, “and by saying we’re going to challenge somebody. People are engaged. I think campaigns should be looked at as a public service. We can educate, empower and inform the voters through this campaign.”
Patel has come across his share of naysayers. “People say it’s going to be so hard. Let me worry about that,” said Patel. “I’m the one who made the decision to run. All you have to do is vote.” While he did not promise victory in the primary, Patel made one prediction: “I guarantee you the turnout in this election won’t be 8%.”
While Carolyn Maloney represents sections of the Lower East Side, Rep. Nydia Velazquez’s 7th Congressional District covers other parts of the neighborhood. To look up your district, click here.