In Washington, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler are two powerful committee chairs: Oversight and Judiciary. Back home in New York, they’re two politicians in their mid-70s trying to avoid much attention as they try not to be the one forced to leave Congress.
That has led to relationships fully breaking down between the longtime colleagues in the closing days of a campaign prompted by a newly redistricted congressional map, which combined their political fiefdoms on the Upper West and East sides of Manhattan and pitted them against each other.
Maloney has told people privately that Nadler is “half dead” and insinuated he won’t be healthy enough to finish another term if he wins, and people associated with her campaign have suggested that Nadler secretly briefly lost consciousness at a campaign stop last week. (His campaign has said that rather than losing consciousness, he tripped on a subway grate.)
She’s also urged voters to read a New York Post editorial that called Nadler “senile” and questioned his grip on reality. A Maloney spokesperson declined comment about her various remarks other than to argue she was just quoting the Post editorial rather than using the words herself.
Maloney has dodged questions about her comments and her aides have refused to give almost any information about her whereabouts in the closing days of the campaign, arguing that she changes her mind too much to keep track of her. When a CNN reporter tracked her down on Monday at a campaign stop on the Upper West Side to ask her about her comments, she began running down the sidewalk to a waiting car, while one of her daughters repeatedly positioned herself with her hands and legs out in an attempt to block any further questions.
When asked why she called Nadler “half dead,” Maloney closed the door of the car and waved goodbye. An hour earlier, finishing her only announced campaign stop of the day before the primary, she also closed the door when another reporter asked if she thinks Nadler is senile.
Nadler allies, meanwhile, have whispered reminders about Maloney’s long history of odd remarks and demeanor, which ranges from being called kooky to not entirely sober. A Maloney spokesperson did not respond to questions about those comments.
Nadler has not been seen much lately – he had one event on Monday and, since Saturday morning, had not announced a single public event, which is a remarkably sparse schedule for a dense urban district where standing on a street corner can mean meeting dozens of voters in just a few minutes. He’s developed some trouble walking over the years due to arthritis, and he’s been spotted appearing to fall asleep. Commentators noted his lethargic performance at one of the candidate debates.
On Monday, Nadler stood in suspenders in front of the famous Fairway supermarket, in the heart of the Upper West Side, handing out campaign flyers and somewhat sheepishly trying to get shoppers’ attention, saying, “Hi, I’m Congressman Nadler,” to each.
“It’s obviously not true that I’m half dead, it’s obviously not true that I’m senile,” Nadler told CNN in a phone interview. “But I’m not going to comment on other campaigns. Let them flail away.”
Asked about the race coming to this, Nadler said, “Of course it’s disappointing, but people do a lot of things in campaigns.”
There are policy differences between the candidates, but they’re minor, even for a Democratic primary. Still, no matter what happens on Tuesday – or whenever the notoriously challenged local board of elections finishes counting absentee ballots – the outcome will ripple through the future of the Democratic Party as it begins looking to new leadership across Congress, regardless of who wins the majority in November.
‘The time is different’
The two longtime lawmakers are not the only ones in the race.
A third candidate, Suraj Patel, features a “How I’m Different” section on his website with a smiling picture of his 38-year-old face, with wrinkle- and sag-accentuating photos of his opponents on either side. A lawyer who teaches business ethics at New York University and came within 2,700 votes of a shocker upset of Maloney in 2020, he says wants to be known as an “Obama Democrat,” rejecting the idea that he’s an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-style progressive just because he is also young and a person of color.
Patel, who says he’s a better fit with the district politically than either Maloney or Nadler, is the kind of candidate who uses the phrase “banger Twitter thread” to describe the closing argument for his campaign.
“The time is different. People feel like the status quo in Washington is broken. And what I’ve learned over the course of the race is people feel like the status quo in New York is broken,” Patel said Sunday afternoon, sipping a beer at a standing table in the Chelsea neighborhood between a full day of campaign stops. “It’s given us the license to both be the serious campaign with policy positions for the future, but also to be the light at the end of the tunnel.”
If he wins, he’d carry a unique distinction of beating two members of Congress at once, which his campaign has researched and says hasn’t happened since 1932.
Walking the streets of Chelsea, pulling on a strawberry vape as he went, Patel made a point of leaving flyers with convenience store owners he figured would be amenable. He checked an adult store to see if his poster was still up there. He talked up people stopped while waiting on their bikes.
Leslie Olsen, a 59-year-old woman who was walking her Morkie dog Lulu, told him she was going to vote for him.
“We need a change. We need something new, a new direction. We’ve got a lot of crime going on,” she said. “Career politicians talk a good game, but we just haven’t seen much change going on. So I thought I’d give him a try, see how it goes.”
Nadler only referred to Patel as an opponent when prompted in an interview. But he played down the importance of vision.
“When you’re talking about senior members, the way Congress works, with seniority comes clout. With clout comes the ability to get more legislation done, to bring more money back to the district,” Nadler said. “Any freshman, no matter how good,” he said, “won’t have the ability to bring back as much as a senior member.”
The member-on-member primary will mean New York will lose at least one committee chair. If they both lose to Patel, Nadler said, that would be “catastrophic.”
In other interviews, Maloney has dismissed Patel as inexperienced.
Records vs. vibes
The primary has left all three candidates seeking the support of big names.
Kenny Kramer, “real Kramer,” still riding the last of his Seinfeld glom-on fame, has endorsed Maloney, who has ads running in taxis using the audio of a call made on her behalf by feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Nadler has Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren narrating some of his ads.
Former President Donald Trump posted his own sarcastic trolly endorsements, going with Maloney, and not mentioning that he’s disliked Nadler so long that the then-assemblyman was one of only three politicians named in “The Art of the Deal” as people Trump hated. The scorn dates back to Nadler unsuccessfully fighting Trump’s real estate developments along the Hudson River.
But for all the support given, the candidates still needed to make their closing arguments.
On a Monday morning campaign stop, Maloney laid out what has become her closing argument in the race: she needs to be reelected to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified into the Constitution, which she says was her original mission when she first ran 30 years ago. (The amendment had a long process since the 1970s in working through the states, and is caught in an argument of whether too much time has elapsed since the process began.) She has tied that to the current Democratic energy around abortion rights following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, making the claim that the ERA would somehow be able to restore those rights into law.
“I went to Congress to fight for the ERA. I want to go back to put it over the finish line,” she said.
She said that was the last thing left on her to-do list, but pointed to the accomplishments on the rest, including getting funding for people who got sick from working at Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks. She held her event at a stop along the Second Avenue Subway line, a project on the Upper East Side that moved in fits and starts for decades, but which she oversaw the actual completion of.
Maloney gets things done, the congresswoman and her supporters like to say, calling her a workhorse. In other conversations, she’s compared her work on the Second Avenue Subway to Nadler’s on the Cross Harbor Tunnel. Nadler has been talking about the project, would create a new connection to Manhattan, since he was an assemblyman but it hasn’t happened yet.
“You elect me, I’ll build his damn tunnel,” she says.
Patel said that kind of bickering – and the idea that taking decades to build a subway line is something to brag about – is what he’s running against.
“By any standard of economics or timeliness, it’s not a success,” he said.
Nadler said he believes the race should be waged by pointing to what they’ve done.
“The past indicates the future. My record of principled progressivism shows that I’m going to continue as the principled progressive in whatever the issues are in the next year, or the year after,” he argued.
A whole generation and a half of up-and-coming politicians once seen as potential successors to both members of Congress have since left politics for careers in lobbying or elsewhere in the private sector.
The ones left in the high-stakes world of New York politics – which often runs like a clubhouse – tend to say things like Gale Brewer, who’s in her second stint on the New York city council from the Upper West Side, after 20 years as Manhattan borough president and the city council before that.
“For lots of reasons, I wish the upcoming Congressional primary weren’t happening. But it is,” Brewer says in a mailer for Nadler’s campaign, with lots of italics added. “Democrats are going to have to make a choice.”
This story has been updated.