The Democratic primary race in New York’s 12th congressional district can be best characterized as Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short. The newly drawn district, finalized at the end of May, consolidated the east and west sides of Manhattan and pitted two longtime members of Congress against each other, as well as a progressive young upstart hoping a divided field can propel him to victory.
Representative Jerry Nadler is an avatar of the west side of Manhattan as much as Representative Carolyn Maloney is of the east side; both have served in Congress for three decades. (Their previous districts also included portions of Brooklyn and Queens.) Nadler is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee; Maloney the chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Nadler has emphasized his Jewish identity, while Maloney has argued the importance of female representation in Congress. Both have powerful allies: Nadler was endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer; Maloney has the support of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. But with the old district lines erased, the former friends have become potent enemies with an alarming quickness. This week, one will end their storied career in humbling defeat—though if Suraj Patel, that aforementioned upstart in the race, has anything to say about it, it will be both of these veterans of the House who are sent packing.
The race has been an acrimonious affair since May. Although Maloney currently represents more than half of the new district, Nadler resides in it as well and opted to run where he lives as opposed to jumping into the crowded race to represent the 10th congressional district, which covers much of lower Manhattan. “He said, ‘Step aside, I’m running.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m running too. I’m not leaving,’” Maloney told New York’s Ross Barkan. “He said, ‘I’m gonna win.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna win.’ We haven’t spoken since.”
In terms of policy, Nadler and Maloney have similar voting records. They’ve differed on rare occasions: According to a tally by Roll Call, Maloney supported the 1994 crime bill, Nadler did not; Maloney voted to authorize use of military force in Iraq, Nadler did not; Maloney voted for a 2007 bill prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation, Nadler did not. (On this latter bill, Nadler said in a statement at the time that the bill did not sufficiently protect transgender individuals.) Nadler also supported the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and Maloney did not.
The matchup between the two has divided longtime constituents. Carol Brown has lived on the east side, in the now contested district, for a decade. Once the redistricting happened, she was immediately torn. “I liked them both,” Brown said. “I didn’t know until I got to the poll which one I would end up voting for.” In an early ballot on Sunday, she chose Maloney, citing gender as an important, though not exclusionary, component. “That she’s a woman gives her a little bit of a leg up in my opinion,” she said. “But if she was a woman and I didn’t like what she had done, I wouldn’t vote for her. I wouldn’t vote for her just because she’s a woman.”
And then there is Patel, who challenged Maloney in 2018 and 2020 and came within striking distance in the latter election. The 38-year-old Patel is pitching himself as the generational change candidate, as well as a self-described Obama Democrat, shirtsleeves and all. Patel has largely avoided the ire of Nadler and Maloney, which he characterizes as a positive.
“The fact of the matter is that two campaigns in this race are bickering about the past. It’s getting increasingly nasty and divisive,” Patel told The New Republic. “And that is exactly what voters are rejecting across this district, across this country.”
Nadler was able to offer a zinger in a recent debate between the three candidates, when Patel pointed out that Nadler had endorsed Maloney in previous elections. “In a contest between you and her, I frankly thought she was the better candidate,” Nadler said. When Patel asked whether he thought so in this current race, Nadler replied: “I still think so.”
What Patel lacks in congressional experience, he has made up for by attempting to inject some cheer into the race. His Sunday lineup included shaking hands in Hell’s Kitchen bars and handing out ice cream on the east side. Once the Patel campaign heard that New York’s ice cream trucks were struggling in the face of rising inflation, it decided to enlist them to get out the vote. During the sunny afternoon, long lines waited for their cones and learned about the youngest candidate to the tune of “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande and “Break My Soul” by Beyoncé.
The fun is intentional. “We’re also the only campaign out here that are actually changing the vibes,” Patel said.
In line for ice cream was Sana, a mother of three whose aunt has been helping out on the campaign. Sana said she is ready to see some change in the district and plans to vote for Patel come Tuesday. It was refreshing, she said, to see someone in her age bracket, and as a first-generation Indian American, “it’s nice to actually see somebody who is of Indian background and heritage representing us in that capacity.”
Patel has also tried to position himself as the most Biden-supportive Democrat in the race. Maloney and Nadler stumbled over a question on whether they’d support Biden if he ran for reelection in 2024, while Patel simply said that he would. Maloney has dug the hole even deeper by confidently asserting that Biden will not run again.
“Off the record, he’s not running again,” Maloney said in an interview with the New York Times editorial board, which endorsed Nadler. “On the record? No, he should not run again.” Citing the Times’ and Schumer’s endorsement of Nadler, Maloney has pushed back against the “old boys club” that she says characterizes New York politics. She has also been put on the defensive by Patel for her previous vaccine-skeptical comments, although she has countered that she played a role in establishing coronavirus vaccine centers in public housing.
Maloney did earn the facetious endorsement of Donald Trump, who said in a sarcastic post on his social media site that “she will never let our Conservative Movement down!” The Oversight Committee under Maloney has investigated Trump’s handling of White House records, and Maloney recently indicated that it may probe Trump’s possible possession of classified documents. Trump also wrote that Nadler, who served as an impeachment manager for his first impeachment, was “high energy, sharp, quick-witted, and bright.”
“This is laughable and I reject any endorsement from Donald Trump,” Maloney tweeted in response. “He should be more concerned about the investigation I’m leading as Chair of the Oversight Committee into the storage of his classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll pass.”
This week, Patel picked up a quasi-endorsement from former longtime New York mayor and long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, who told a Patel staffer that the candidate had his vote after leaving the polling station. Patel was thrilled. “In this district, the man is as popular as Jesus. It’s an instant credibility giver,” he told The New Republic.
There has been limited polling in the race, but a recent PIX11/Emerson College Polling/The Hill poll found Nadler in the lead, with Maloney in second place and Patel in third. Another poll by an Indian American political group supportive of Patel showed Nadler very narrowly leading Maloney, with Patel in third place again. However, both polls showed that a significant percentage of voters are still undecided.
Regardless of the outcome, Tuesday’s election will change the face of the House, ending the storied tenure of at least one, and perhaps two, committee chairs. Closer to home, it will also show which side of Manhattan has more sway, or at the very least is more motivated: a contest that has long been subterranean but, like the 1 train passing the border of the newly drawn district to arrive at the 125th Street station, has risen to the surface.