Third Time May Not Be Charm for Patel as Voters Reluctant to Embrace Generational Change
Rarely are there two incumbents in one race. The challenger in New York’s new 12th Congressional District says it’s time for new energy in the House. Even many older New Yorkers agree — but still aren’t ready to give up on the political power of seniority.
With 75-year-old Upper West Side institution Rep. Jerrold Nadler and 76-year-old Upper East Side institution Rep. Carolyn Maloney neck and neck as the two longtime members of Congress face off in the same newly redrawn district, their main challenger wants to make the race about age and new blood.
The Democratic primary for New York’s 12th Congressional District is just two weeks away. Potential voters in Manhattan told THE CITY that, while they’re open to the call for generational change, they just don’t know enough about third-time candidate Suraj Patel, 38, to make the leap.
When the candidates met in a debate last week, Patel ripped into both Maloney — who has been in Congress since 1993 and chairs the House Oversight Committee — and Nadler — who’s been in Congress since 1992 and chairs the House Judiciary Committee — arguing it’s time for new representation.
“Democrats lead best when we lead with new ideas, energy, and a new generation of leadership,” said Patel. Invoking the name of the Senate minority leader, he added, “1990s Democrats have lost almost every major battle to Mitch McConnell and the Republicans.”
Patel, a lawyer by training who worked on President Barack Obama’s campaigns, challenged Maloney in the 2018 and 2020 primaries, coming within three points of victory in 2020 — when the district also included a swath of western Queens from which he drew significant voter support.
But older voters in the solely Manhattan neighborhoods now encompassed by NY12, many of whom have been voting for either Nadler or Maloney for 30 years, told THE CITY they aren’t ready to turn the page. And younger voters were even less likely to know the status of the election.
Joyce Stillman, a longtime resident of the Upper East Side, said that while Patel makes a good point about the need for generational change, she also feels the two incumbents in the race “know the ropes,” and that experience is helpful in Congress. Stillman, 83, said she plans to vote for Maloney.
“I do appreciate the younger view. But I don’t know about him,” she said of Patel. “I don’t know what he stands for. I do know what Maloney stands for and what she’s done.”
Similarly, Sharon Mosse, who’s lived on the Upper East Side for over 30 years, underscored that people she’s talked to don’t know who Patel is or what he stands for. She even wondered if Patel had done any campaign marketing.
“Young blood and new blood is always a good thing, but I don’t know his policies at all,” Mosse said.
Winston Wright, 66, did believe it was time for at least one of the incumbents to step aside.
“I’m sorry to say it, but I agree that Nadler is old school. I do think it’s time for fresh thinking in Washington,” said Wright, who has lived on the Upper West Side for 15 years. But he also admitted he didn’t know much about Patel.
Laurie Scheck, 60, said she hadn’t been following the race closely but she’s tired of elected officials not delivering on promises.
“I heard Nadler and Maloney were on TV and Nadler couldn’t even remember what he was trying to say,” said Scheck. “I think they’re too old.”
Meanwhile, Upper East Sider Ronald Morenzi, 63, has supported Maloney before and wants her to stay.
“I think experience and longevity mean something,” he said. “She’s done a good job, otherwise she wouldn’t be there.”
While the primary contests in June for statewide races and Assembly districts saw extremely low turnout across the state, the Aug. 23 primary for House of Representatives and State Senate seats is expected to be even worse for several reasons: It was added at the last minute; there are no state-wide races on the ballot, and many New Yorkers are out of town in late summer.
Like most districts, the bulk of the old NY 12 population are residents under the age of 65, according to Census Bureau data based on the previous lines. Nadler’s old 10th Congressional District, which has mostly been incorporated into the new 12th, had similar stats.
Still, senior voters may sway the race. Older people typically show up at the polls in larger proportions, and several younger people THE CITY spoke to in the district and didn’t want to be quoted said they had not paid enough attention to the contest to comment on it and hadn’t planned to vote.
One youngish voter, 43-year-old Brian Van Nieuwenhoven, said he’s lived Maloney’s district for the last 13 years and sees the new-blood argument. Democrats would benefit from “boosting younger elected officials,” he said.
“The two incumbents are of retirement age. I do appreciate their energy for public service but, for a younger voter, something is lost in perspective when Congress is full of people 30 to 40 years your senior, ” said Nieuwenhoven.
But, he added, he believes the race will come down to Maloney and Nadler, so while he agrees with Patel’s call for generational change, Nieuwenhoven doesn’t see him as “right for the role.”
Seniority Is Power
Ester Fuchs, an urban politics professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, highlighted the idea that the congressional race is between the incumbents — referring to them as “two iconic figures in New York City politics.”
She believes a political upset — with Patel securing the Democratic nomination — is unlikely given that many of the progressive voters and supporters Patel had in Queens have been cut out. Fuchs said Patel doesn’t offer anything politically to District 12 voters that can’t be found in the two incumbents that have been representing them for decades.
“I don’t get the sense that being young is sufficient enough to get rid of one of two senior legislators when people understand that seniority in Congress actually gives you power,” said Fuchs.
Fuchs also pointed to another obstacle hindering Patel from securing the nomination in August: He doesn’t have key support from the progressive Working Families Party or the support of star New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens/The Bronx), which Fuchs said could bring young voters to the polls.
Other experts agree the likelihood of a Patel nomination in the primary is unlikely. Douglas Muzzio, professor of Political Science at Baruch College, said that if Democrats lose majority control of the House in November, keeping Nadler or Maloney in control will allow either to serve as ranking members of their respective committees.
“New York City clout will be minimized with the election of Patel,” said Muzzio. “He’s going to be a backbencher,” said Muzzio.
The Gourmet Deli at the intersection of 1st Avenue and East 90th Street had a “Suraj Patel for Congress” poster hanging in its storefront window — one of the few signs of him running in the district.
When asked about the sign, the workers told THE CITY they “had no idea who that guy is or how the poster got on the window.”
A fourth, long-shot candidate in the NY12 race, Ashmi Sheth, didn’t get to appear in last week’s debate because she didn’t meet fundraising benchmarks. At 28, she’s even younger than Patel.
“It is absolutely time for new representation in NY-12. 32 years in the same seat is not democracy,” Sheth told THE CITY on Tuesday.
She also believes it’s important to consider what the new representation will look like. “If it’s the same way of doing politics in a younger body, then we can’t achieve the structural changes that actually make politics more inclusive,” she said.
Maloney, Patel, and Nadler will meet once again on the debate stage at Hunter College Tuesday night at 8 p.m. The hour-long event will be hosted by City & State New York and broadcast on WPIX-11.