David Stone
Suraj Patel Challenges Carolyn Maloney From the Left
Suraj Patel

The 12th Congressional District contains, within its borders, concentrated diversity, stretching from Manhattan's ritzy Upper East Side south through fast transitioning Williamsburg and the funky LES. Included is the home turf of Donald Trump. Suraj Patel, a millennial attorney, activist and businessman, brings energy, enthusiasm and a promise of change in an energetic challenge to the established, if ineffective Democratic order.

Incumbent Carolyn Maloney, with 25 years on the job plus years on the City Council before that, is the definition of a career politician. Patel's a striver who's never held public office. His family came to America from India in the 1970s, and born 10 years later, he helped them build their motel business on the way to a Stanford law degree and a masters in public policy from Cambridge where he studied on a scholarship.

"My parents hustled hard," Patel says, "earning my brother and me the unique experience of living through most income brackets.

"When we were little, we spent our summers stocking vending machines and screwing on doorknobs in the motels my family owned, operated, and lived in."

Today, the business Patel helped his family grow employs people in 14 states.

New York got a hold on him 12 years ago. He's here to stay and wants to put a progressive stamp on New York's 12th in the next Congress.

Hospitality is in his blood, says Patel, but politics, teaching and learning command his daily attention.

Patel currently teaches business ethics as an adjunct professor at NYU Stern and hosts a continuing education series Talks on Law. 

"In 2008, I dropped everything to work for Barack Obama’s campaign because I was inspired by a campaign focused on the future, rather than the past. Campaign days turned to inauguration days, which later led to planning and traveling with the previous White House staff throughout Obama’s two terms."

Patel envisions gathering momentum from New York's cultural strengths and using it to unsettle Washington's stalled dynamics. As much as he leans into the future, his success rests on differentiating himself from Maloney's politics of the past.

His campaign defines what it means to be progressive, laying out positions clearly and in detail while contrasting them with his opponent's known history. 

Maloney can't be separated from Congressional Democrats failure to seize the moment after Barrack Obama's energizing election - in which Patel played an active role. Progressives believe they missed a chance to move the nation forward out of the George W. Bush era.

A personal reflection: the morning after Obama won the Electoral College, I woke up to an email from an Italian friend. "The world rejoices," she wrote.

But the world was soon let down because, apart from delivering a hobbled health care plan, the incoming Congress failed to accomplish much else. Gridlock hardened, and the Senate as well as the House were eventually lost to Republicans.

Among Patel's goals are an end to voter suppression, a return to evidence-based policy making - as opposed to the polarizing politics of belief, immediate action on climate change and, locally, an overhaul of the MTA. He's also big on gender equality, and his commitment to more humane immigration policies brought him to JFK airport as a pro bono attorney to help during the chaos created by Trump's Muslin ban.

In contrast, Carolyn Maloney's record on a number of issues pales and, on some, aggravates Democrats determined to move the party in a definitive progressive direction.

A page that cannot be turned back for Maloney is her activist role in the dangerous anti-vaccine movement. For a decade, and as recently as last year, the Congresswoman battled science and health officials in a campaign built on discredited claims that vaccines cause autism. Facing a strong primary challenge, this year, she finally backed off this nonsense, but as the New York Post complained, she did not apologize for years of proselytizing that contributed to putting countless lives at risk.

In 2008, Maloney appeared at an anti-vaccine  rally in Washington, D.C., with actors Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey "to address concerns surrounding vaccine safety and the link between vaccines and autism." She advanced the cause on Capital Hill.

Her retraction was subdued enough that most of us never heard it.

Progressives remind voters that Maloney joined Republicans in supporting the Iraq war, an aggression built on false evidence by the Bush administration, although - as with the vaccine/autism claims - she later recanted.

More pertinent and contemporary is her joining Republicans in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Obama. Here, Maloney comes out on President Trump's side as he works to unravel an agreement supported by the most of the world.

Patel presents a distinct generational as well as political challenge to the 72 year old Maloney. Their styles are as different as their politics.

"I’m a fighter by default," Patel declares, reminding voters, "I’ve volunteered my time as an attorney to protect immigrants facing deportation and travelers stuck at JFK due to the President’s Muslim ban.

"I serve on the board of an immigrant youth-led organization here in New York called Atlas:DIY, supporting DREAMers," he reminds listeners.

To succeed, he will have to awaken an electorate that too often sleeps through primary elections, which normally bring a disgraceful less that 10% of those eligible to the polls.

"After our last Presidential election and a subsequent Olive Garden carb binge," Patel says, "I became a founding team member of The Arena, focused on recruiting a new generation of bold, progressive leaders to take the reins."

New Yorkers in the 12th Congressional District will find out how much progress as been made toward progressive reforms on June 26th when registered Democrats make a choice between Patel and Maloney.