In a little more than two weeks, if all goes as expected one of the two longtime liberal House lawmakers representing the neighborhoods to the east and west of Central Park will meet their political mortality.
It did not necessarily have to be this way. But after the districts of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents the Upper East Side, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents the Upper West Side, were smashed together in a chaotic court-ordered redrawing, neither politician would budge and run elsewhere.
Instead, the pair of New York political pillars find themselves locked in an awkward dance as the Aug. 23 primary approaches, working to convince voters to pick a side in what is expected to be a low-turnout race near the peak of vacation season.
As one joke goes, the candidates might be better off leafleting in the Hamptons and the Berkshires than within the redrawn 12th Congressional District, which stretches from Stuyvesant Town in the southeast to W. 114th St. in the northwest, covering some of the city’s most affluent areas.
Democratic voters in Midtown and upper Manhattan may see little reason to take a side. Maloney, 76, and Nadler, 75, have both served in Congress since 1992 and have strikingly similar records. GovTrack ranks Nadler as the 30th most liberal member of the House, and Maloney as the 33rd.
Nadler points to differences on the Iraq War (she supported; he opposed), the Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance powers after 9/11 (she supported; he opposed), and the Iran nuclear deal (he supported; she opposed).
“There are a million votes,” Nadler said. “Not every vote is equally important.”
But the exceptions underscore an overall tendency toward agreement. Both are powerful. Maloney chairs the House Oversight Committee; Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
The two candidates both say they voted for Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. (Warren endorsed Nadler.) Another candidate, Suraj Patel, a lawyer, is also running on a progressive platform in the deep-blue district, hoping to pull an upset with a fierce field game.
But where the race lacks in obvious partisan or policy implications, it overflows with interpersonal drama that has fascinated the city’s political circles, which are packed with acolytes of both incumbent lawmakers.
“It’s a fight to the political death,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic political consultant. “It’s the East Side political godmother and the West Side political godfather, and only one of them is going to emerge with a seat in Congress.”
Rumblings that Maloney and Nadler never got along personally, which both dispute, have grown louder. A New York magazine headline last week declared the two “really hate each other.” And while the pair stayed civil in a muted NY1 debate on Tuesday, saving some of their sharper barbs for Patel, mutual irritation never seems far from the surface.
In the TV debate, Maloney charged that Nadler had taken excess credit for funding of the Second Ave. Subway in her district. In an interview on Friday, she was still stewing, saying that “women will always choose getting things done” over receiving credit.
“In that particular case, Nadler claimed that he funded the Second Ave. Subway, which is absolutely, completely false,” she said. “I delivered the Second Ave. Subway to the East Side.”
“He’s also claimed credit for several of the other bills that I wrote, which is outrageous,” the North Carolina-raised Maloney added in her Southern drawl. “But I don’t care.”
The Brooklyn-born Nadler dismissed Maloney’s claim, saying that the “entire New York delegation” worked on the Second Ave. Subway. The first leg of the subway line opened five years ago.
“Everybody wanted the Second Ave. Subway,” Nadler said Friday afternoon, adding that he was in a unique position to secure funding for the train line because of his role on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Nadler said he views Maloney as a long-standing friend, and that he hopes their relationship will survive the race.
“During this primary, there’s a lot of tension, obviously,” he said wistfully. “It’s very difficult to deal with her on a personal basis during the primary. But I hope after the primary things will be better again.”
Maloney agreed they have long been friends, calling the contest “unfortunate.”
Meanwhile, Patel has taken aim at the two leading candidates over a segment in the TV debate in which they provided muted responses when asked whether President Biden, 79, should run for reelection in 2024.
Patel said, “yes,” Nadler said, “too early to say,” and Maloney drifted into a moment of apparently unplanned punditry, saying, “I don’t believe he’s running for reelection.”
On the debate stage, a shocked Patel jerked his head backward, his eyes wide.
The remark quickly drew headlines and was said to have enraged the White House. On Thursday, Maloney backtracked on CNN. “Mr. President, I apologize — I want you to run,” she told the network. “You are a great president.”
But Patel was unforgiving. “I find it appalling, frankly, that I was the only one on that stage who unequivocally said, ‘Yes, I support our president,’” said Patel, who unsuccessfully challenged Maloney twice before this year’s primary election.
“I’m the quote-unquote political newcomer here, and they’re the ones that are supplying Republicans with talking points,” Patel, 38, added.
He voted for Biden in the 2020 primary, according to his campaign. Perhaps ironically given the Biden brouhaha, Patel has staged his campaign as a generational challenge to Nadler and Maloney, saying it is time to retire the septuagenarians.
Patel, a son of Indian immigrants, said his campaign has made half a million phone calls, sent more than 100,000 text messages and reached the verge of “one of the greatest political upsets in U.S. history.”
An internal poll provided by his campaign showed Maloney and Nadler locked at 31% of the vote, while Patel trailed with 25%.
But an Emerson College survey published Friday showed Patel further behind. In that poll, he garnered 11% of the vote, while Maloney scored 31% and Nadler notched 40%.
The long-shot hopeful has faced an uphill funding battle. At the end of June, Nadler’s campaign war chest was more than double the size of Patel’s, according to campaign finance records. Maloney’s was more than triple.
Nadler said he does not view a Patel victory as a realistic possibility, and that he does not believe the candidate’s internal survey “at all.” Still, a Maloney victory would be preferable to a Patel win, he argued.
“With seniority comes clout and with a committee chairmanship comes clout,” Nadler said, suggesting that Patel would lack the ability to bring resources back to New York.
Stavisky said Patel’s campaign is “probably not a viable undertaking.” But the fate of the race remains foggy, and it is unclear how the TV debate and any late endorsements might influence the outcome.
Neal Kwatra, a Democratic political consultant, said mail-in ballot organizing efforts could offer a decisive advantage.
“The biggest challenge for the candidates,” he said, “is going to be helping those voters actually vote.”