On a Monday morning in May, a little more than six weeks before New Yorkers were scheduled to vote in their midterm primaries, a political earthquake tore through the state’s Democratic House delegation.
Already on edge as they awaited a new congressional map ordered up by the state’s high court after it tossed a heavily gerrymandered version concocted by Democratic lawmakers in Albany, the submission by a “special master” based in Pittsburgh drew old allies into contentious primary fights over suddenly overlapping turf – and rising stars, some already in Congress, were stuck with unenviable choices over where to stake their futures.
The ensuing struggle for survival in New York exposed and escalated the same roiling debates over ideology, identity, gender and the influence of money that have come to dominate Democratic Party politics across the country.
Now, on the eve of Tuesday’s vote, pushed back to late August from its originally scheduled June date, even the most seasoned campaigners and operatives are bracing for the aftershocks – and the formation of a new political landscape that seemed unimaginable as recently as this spring.
The question of home – what it means and whether an elected official can make a convincing claim to it – has also hovered over three of the marquee Democratic primary races: In the new 10th Congressional District, which includes Lower Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn; the new 17th, in the suburbs north of the city; and the new 12th, a Manhattan district that connects key pieces of the island’s east and west sides, where Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, who both chair powerful House committees, have held dominion for decades.
A progressive pile-up in Manhattan and Brooklyn
The award for most chaotic Democratic race in this ramshackle primary season, though, likely belongs to the 10th District.
It began with a flood of entrants, including former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would drop out after less than two months. Freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones, effectively pushed out of a suburban seat he won two years ago, decided to move into the city – and join the race, contributing to a progressive pile-up that includes state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who is backed by the Working Families Party, and New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera. In total, 13 candidates, including de Blasio, are on the Democratic ballot Tuesday.
When Dan Goldman, a moderate former federal prosecutor who served as Democrats’ lead counsel at former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, joined the fray on June 1, the news mostly passed without notice. But by this month, after pouring millions from his personal fortune into the race and appearing to move to the front of the pack, Goldman’s name had become inescapable – even his opponents were putting it on signs.
Placards reading “Anyone but Goldman” and “NYC is NOT for Sale” were held aloft by volunteers and aides at City Hall Park on Monday as Niou and Jones held a joint news conference to denounce Goldman’s spending; his stock portfolio that includes News Corp., the parent company of Fox News; and remarks that he “would not object” to a state law barring abortion at the point of fetal viability. (Goldman has said his holdings were managed in a blind trust and, at a recent debate, said he asked his broker to divest from stocks that “don’t align with my values.” He also said he “misspoke” in his abortion comments and “unequivocally” supports abortion rights.)
Goldman has also come under criticism for his decision, in March 2020, during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, to leave the city with his family to live for months in a second home in the Hamptons, on Long Island’s East End.
Niou, in an interview after her presser with Jones, described her experience during that same period, recounting the story of an elderly woman who suffered a stroke but, because her home care worker caught Covid-19, was stuck in her home for days without help. By the time Niou was alerted to the situation and able to get inside the apartment, with the help of building management, the woman was “sitting in her own urine and own feces.”
“This is the kind of situation that my district was in during the pandemic,” Niou said. “And if you weren’t here, you don’t know.”
Rivera, 38, a native of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, worked in the area as an advocate and community board member until she was elected in 2018 to the city council, where she quickly rose in stature.
She has been endorsed by US Rep. Nydia Velazquez, the borough presidents of Manhattan and Brooklyn, numerous labor unions and council colleagues. At a news conference on Friday, she received a stamp of approval, if not an outright endorsement, from a primary opponent, former US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, 81, who said Rivera “represents the future of the Democratic Party in this city.”
Rivera’s deep involvement in fraught local debates, such as a contentious, long-germinating plan to rebuild and climate-proof a major park on the East River by raising it above a floodplain, has underscored the complexity of seeking a seat in a district deeply engaged in both local and national politics.
During a recent debate, Rivera came under criticism from some opponents over the plan – a line of attack she rebutted by reminding voters that she, and not those taking potshots, “was in those buildings (affected by the flooding after Hurricane Sandy), on those stairways.”
Asked about the exchange last week, after a joint appearance with primary rivals denouncing the squalid conditions at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail, Rivera’s exasperation was clear.
“You can tell which candidates haven’t done their homework. They are late to class,” she said, adding with a grin, “They don’t even go here.”
Jones, though, has been the most willing to express frustration over the traffic in the race’s left lane creating an opening for Goldman.
“It’s clear that if this were a one-on-one between me and Dan Goldman, it wouldn’t even be close. I’d be running away with it,” he said after his news conference with Niou. “I was friends with some of (my competitors) and continue to be. I adore Yuh-Line. There are people who are not polling as well as me and Yuh-Line, who I think should do some soul searching.”
Goldman is also expected to benefit from an endorsement, as early voting began, from The New York Times editorial board, the most sought-after in the city, and, certainly as local operatives see it, a powerful tool to wave in front of indecisive voters. In an interview, he cited it as the endorsement that made him most proud, because the board “is a wide swath of this district and this city, with real understanding of the political landscape, the needs of the city, the needs of the country.”
Goldman’s message, consistently delivered – and almost unavoidable given his resources to advertise on television in what can be a prohibitively expensive media market – has focused more on national concerns.
“We have existential threats that we must address in the near term,” he said. “But we also must bring new strategies to Washington, to Congress, that I have used effectively before in order to deliver results, not only for this district, but for people around the country.”
Uptown frenemies face call for ‘generational change’
The 10th District contest, with its deep and varied roster of candidates, is rare in another way: the four front-runners are all, by congressional standards, quite young. Goldman, at 46, is the oldest. Jones, Niou and Rivera are all under 40. For a party that often laments a thin bench of future stars, talk there about generational change has been at a minimum.
Uptown in the new 12th District, the story is different.
Leading contenders Maloney, 76, and Nadler, 75, were both elected to the House in 1992 and hold committee gavels earned through seniority. But their power has, by definition, invited questions about age and the party’s future.
A third candidate in the primary, Suraj Patel, 38, has sought to make the contrast, treading carefully in a district with a traditionally older electorate. Maloney and Nadler, by the simple fact of their combined six decades in the House, are removed from the “urgency” of the moment, Patel said.
“These two have been in office since 1992. Prior to that, I think, in some form of elected office since the 1980s,” he said, sipping chicken soup in an Upper West Side diner after some streetside politicking late Wednesday. “That’s a lot of time to be surrounded by staff.”
Patel, who has twice lost primary challenges to Maloney, said it is his opponents who talk more about age.
“The only people who mention age in this race are Carolyn and Jerry Nadler, who consistently say things like ‘no time for a rookie’ or ‘training wheels’ or ‘on the job training,’” he said.
“We don’t need rookies who don’t know what they’re doing in Congress,” Maloney said in a phone interview earlier that day. “We need our most experienced, strong, effective, accomplished, I would say, women, who know how to fight and how to overturn the attack on (Roe v. Wade) and on our rights.”
With little to separate them ideologically, Maloney and Nadler have turned back the clock, touting their shinier accomplishments – and highlighting the other’s lowlights. Maloney has also pointed out that, should she lose, Manhattan would be without a woman representing any of its congressional districts – assuming a woman does not win in the 10th District. Nadler has noted that, if he were to fall, the city’s delegation in Capitol Hill would lose its only Jewish member – a remarkable fact, given the vibrancy, population and political power of its Jewish community. (Goldman and Holtzman, among others running in the 10th District, are also Jewish.) Patel, though he has been less keen to discuss it, would be the first Indian American to represent New York in Congress if he scored an upset victory.
Nadler appears to have gotten a leg up in the final week, notching endorsements from the Times editorial board and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Maloney, without naming names, said, “The whole boy’s network has come out against me, including powerful men that don’t even live in the district.” Schumer’s residence is in Brooklyn. The fact, though, is that no matter who prevails, the design of the new map guarantees that a significant constituency will come away disillusioned.
“One of us is going to lose – hopefully Carolyn – but one of us is going to lose,” Nadler said. “That’s very unfortunate for New York. Two of us losing would be catastrophic for New York.” (For all their recent quarreling, Nadler added that he would still prefer Maloney to Patel.)
In the suburbs, all politics are national
The interwoven questions dominating the two most ballyhooed city races are also on display just north in another redrawn district, the 17th, which includes Rockland and Putnam counties, along with parts of Westchester and Dutchess counties.
But the clash there, where progressive state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, 36, is running against five-term Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, 56, the chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, has broken down along more familiar ideological lines – a division exacerbated by the politically charged scramble that followed redistricting.
Both candidates made decisions to change districts after the new map emerged. Biaggi had earlier been running for a gerrymandered seat that linked parts of Long Island, Queens, the Bronx and Westchester County. But Maloney drew heat, especially from the left, for choosing to leave the majority of his current constituents, who are now in the new 18th, to run in redrawn 17th, where he lives. That decision, critics said, gave him a leg up at the expense of Jones, who represents the current 17th District, though his home was drawn out of the new seat. (Jones, after considering his options, decided to move to the city. Biaggi, who lived outside the district, relocated to it this summer.)
In an interview on Thursday, Maloney, who also won the Times editorial board’s endorsement, defended his choice of district, arguing that he picked the best of a tough lot and would have faced a tough race in November no matter where he ran. But, he added, “I could have handled it better.”
“I could have slowed down, spoken to people more (about the decision), and communicated the importance of running where I live and the fact that no one else lived there,” said Maloney, who announced he was moving districts on the same day the new map dropped.
Biaggi, while acknowledging Maloney’s argument about living in the district, called his move “very self-serving” – largely because he would have been such a strong candidate in the neighboring 18th, where he is more familiar to many voters. And that, as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “his job is really to maximize the number of seats we’ve got in Congress.”
The infighting over map-driven maneuvering, though, flows from a deeper divide between the pair.
Biaggi, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and is the granddaughter of the late New York Rep. Mario Biaggi, rose to prominence in 2018 when she unseated the leader of a group of Democrats in the state Senate that had joined ranks with Republicans as part of a power grab blessed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (While Hillary Clinton has not taken sides in the race, former President Bill Clinton endorsed Maloney, who worked on his presidential campaigns and later in his White House.)
Biaggi’s popularity on the left grew during her time in Albany, where she championed a slate of progressive causes and emerged as one of Cuomo’s fiercest critics. She has also been critical of the Democratic Party’s initial reaction to the US Supreme Court ruling that eliminated the federal right to an abortion.
“It felt like a game when Roe was overturned,” Biaggi said. “To send out fundraising emails, and that was the only thing that was planned in response to Roe, feels so absolutely offensive.”
Biaggi, though, faces a more immediate political challenge: her party’s more recent success in enacting its historic health care, climate and tax law.
“It knocks the legs out of the argument that Democrats aren’t getting it done,” Maloney said.
This story has been updated.