The other day I interviewed Suraj Patel, who is running against incumbent Representative Carolyn Maloney in the Midterm Democratic primary election for Congress on June 26. When I walked into his campaign headquarters at 64 Cooper Square, a converted East Village bar flush with young people on laptops, he was sitting by the door talking to a young woman who seemed to want to help his campaign. His website has a ‘Meet Suraj‘ feature allowing anyone to book 20 minutes with him. That’s what I did.
Patel, 34, is less than half the age of the incumbent (she’s 72) and has been described as part of a movement of Millennial challengers or “progressive insurgents” inspired by the last national election, to push out old guard Democrats. In New York, this includes Rep. Ed Crowley’s Bronx/Queens challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Yvette Clarke’s Brooklyn challenger Adem Bunkeddeko.
Patel, an East Village resident, grew up in Indiana and moved to the city 12 years ago for law school, his website says. He’s president of his family’s hotel business and teaches business ethics at NYU. His LinkedIn includes Barack Obama and the White House’s advance teams between 2008 and 2016, the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and special assistant to the chief of staff of the Presidential Inaugural Committee in 2012-2013. In this campaign, he has raised more than $1 million in contributions, close to Maloney’s $1.3 million and has spent at least $460,000. He lost the endorsement vote of the Village Independent Democrats to Maloney 20 to 17.
I let his staffer know a few hours in advance that I write a neighborhood blog and asked to be able to record audio. I’m not sure if Patel was expecting a journalist but I explained when the session started. The first few minutes of audio didn’t record well so I tried to edit it into shape. After that it’s smooth sailing. There’s also a nearly full transcript below.
Corner: I was asking about the campaign, like when it started, when it got off the ground, now that I see it’s so organized I’m just curious.
Patel: (Laughs) You call this organized?
Corner: Well yeah.
Patel: It’s organized chaos that we create here. It’s great. Ugh. Let’s see. We launched – I filed for Congress around mid-October. We publically sort of came out in late November, simply with a two person team, me and Angelika who’s back there. And we were just raising funds and laying the groundwork and building our own Squarespace pages and she and I both made our own website and all those things. I’d say that more publically mid-January or so we began to telegraph some things and really end of January when we announced our fourth quarter fundraiser… that this became a publically relevant and viable campaign. So it has been a rapid whirlwind few months.
Corner: And do you think that you kind of impressed people, I mean because you raised a lot of money right away?
Patel: Yep. Look money is a means to an end here. It’s not an end unto itself. We raised money and then I raised another lot of money. Because we have a strong message. We have a very good… product-market fit. This is the time for new leadership.
Corner: But was it also about the way you were able to get the message out? Like I’m just curious how you were able to gather – I don’t even know if that’s normal, the amount of fundraising you did.
Patel: It’s not. (Laughs) It’s not, but we operate with like 30 hour days here, no… The message is resonating right now. We need new leadership we need stronger, more effective leaders and we just don’t have it. And this is so novel for New York City. If you give New York City something they hadn’t had in two and a half decades, a choice, a choice in a congressional, in their representation. Because in reality, for 25 years between Maloney and Nadler and Velazquez they’ve had zero progressive, viable progressive primary choices. And they have no November –
Corner: And until recently Rangel…
Patel: Yeah! And so of course there’s a thirst out there for a choice in… representation. Now, we married that with some pretty cutting edge digital and social tactics to get my name and get the word out, to get the message out. One of the advantages of coming into this with completely fresh perspective… fresh eyes – many of us have never… a campaign before – and coming into it with zero, literally zero Democratic support. We didn’t hire a consulting firm of any kind, the traditional ones here that run all the elections in the city in the exact same manner time and time again whether it’s Red Horse… or whatever. One of the advantages of coming at this from a different angle altogether is that you are a disruptive, that we are a completely into this without any assumptions, and really out there trying to say what is the best way to engage every single New Yorker on June 26th, every single New York-12er on June 26? And without any preconceived notions of how campaigns should work, without saying oh yeah here are the voters who vote, that’s who we go to because they vote every single time and convince them to vote for me. Only eight percent of this city votes in a congressional primary, which means that if you’re satisfied with that kind of eight percent or that kind of complacency… you leave 92 percent of the city out, then I don’t have time for you in this campaign. And what we’re doing here is starting from scratch and it works! People respond when you engage them.
Corner: So what have you been seeing? Like are you seeing people getting excited at places you go, what does it look like?
Patel: The single best way I can describe our momentive is to know that we’re getting insane amounts of engagement on social and digital from people.
Corner: Are they from the district?
Patel: Yeah! Yeah, and I guess, what I was going to say, to finish, on a daily basis we can tell you anecdotally that day after day after day the number of people coming through this office randomly to register, to hear more about it and to say oh we got your mail or we heard about you here or we saw… article or whatever –
Corner: So they’re coming in.
Patel: – is dramatically increasing. I don’t know why no one thought of opening an office as a fucking bar in the first place but –
Corner: Where are they coming, are they coming from the East Village or like they’re coming up from Brooklyn…?
Patel: I mean we go out to Brooklyn a lot, we go out to Queens a lot, we don’t want to neglect any part of this district the way the incumbent does. But, for here, generally speaking it’s a lot of people from the East Village because they’re just walking by.
Corner: Right. Oh so they’re seeing it.
Patel: Yeah. Or stopping in. And then there’s also the very simple proof point that we have 16 full time employees, many of which have quit lucrative careers to run this campaign, two or three of which have moved from the other coast to run this campaign and we have 49 interns. Nothing more energizing than watching a bunch of dedicated young people working on something for, you know, not for the glory since the entire establishment hates us, certainly not for the pay because it’s a campaign…
Patel: …and yet we are happily in here on a day to day basis with the energy that we have because there is a belief that we are building something lasting and important.
Corner: So probably… a lot of that eight percent who does vote is probably older people… people who are voting for their congress members um, are you mainly connecting with Millennials or are you actually reaching like the Maloney supporters…
Patel: We’re reaching the Maloney supporters. We leave no stone unturned. We are persuading them that they’ve only been voting for Maloney because they’ve not had another choice and that this is a significantly better choice for them and it’s working. We’ve been going to senior centers. We’ve been going to endorsement meetings, where even if we don’t get the endorsement from a Democratic Club for example –
Corner: What do they say? Are they connecting to you with like oh we didn’t support the Iraq War either or like what are those people saying?
Patel: No, much more generalized message. In fact I’ll show you a button we stole the thing we hear on a day to day basis. I hear this anecdotally over and over. New blood.
Corner: What does that mean?
Patel: It just means that people… recognize that we need a new generation of leadership… the congressional leadership and the representatives we have are very misrepresentative of the America people. And in fact, everyone… recognizes with technology, with the future of work, with all these things, you’ve got to have people who at least understand those problems and understand technology in order to regulate it. If nothing else a very telling thing was last week’s Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg hearing. When you saw a bunch of people up there being like well when I send an email on my Whatsapp it’s like, are you crazy?
Corner: So is there a real meaningful piece to having younger representation, like generational or is it more ideological than that?
Patel: Uh –
Corner: Like Maloney is part of like an old guard Democrat kind of thing –
Patel: Are you asking where the support is coming from?
Corner: No I’m just talking about your campaign.
Patel: Yeah, I mean, so there are several things. I am more progressive than Carolyn Maloney, throughout.
Corner: But that’s like kind of regardless of –
Corner: Yeah of age…
Patel: So what I was trying to tell you… the more traditional Democratic voter is not saying oh yeah we want a more progressive choice. What I’m finding is that the more traditional Democratic voter is saying maybe it’s time after two and a half decades for someone else, especially because the congresswoman has not passed a substantive piece of legislation since 2009.
Corner: What did she pass in 2009?
Patel: Some credit card bill that was probably watered down… credit card bill. …(Laughs) I’m really getting dismissive here…
Corner: No that’s true, it does seem like she focuses on minor things that she can do…
Patel: Stamps, coins, post office namings.
Corner: …for whatever reason. But then you have people… so like in the New York area you have Jose Serrano, who identifies as a socialist, I don’t know if he’s like Bernie Sanders per se but I don’t hear of him doing anything substantial or major either so where does the difference come in where you would be able to do something substantial?
Patel: I don’t tiptoe around the idea that in order to pass substantive and substantial legislation that we need to be in the majority. But I don’t think that the pathway to the majority is to elect more Carolyn Maloneys.
Corner: So it’s got to be a movement?
Corner: Like you, Ocasio-Cortez –
Patel: No, no, it’s not that. I think it’s that we do need to flip 24 House seats in order to take the gavel back but I think we’re not taking the gavel back, not pushing the ball forward and taking the gavel back in November by electing Carolyn Maloney on June 26th.
Corner: And by Carolyn Maloney do you mean like a figurative, like her and –
Patel: No I literally mean… in this race I think that you should be electing somebody, who in a Democratic, in a highly progressive, highly educated, highly visible district you ought to have leaders out there who can speak for a whole new generation. The pathway for the majority of Democrats is going to be young voters. They’ve lost all but everything else. And it’s not going to be someone, from districts like this that we have, the opportunity to really lead the country intellectually and progressively. And it’s going to take more people, in safe districts like this to provide a vision for what the Democratic party of the future can be and can look like in order to win across the country with young voters energized.
Corner: Actually I mentioned Ocasio-Cortez, I think she was talking to the Wall Street Journal or something or Politico I don’t remember, and she made a reference to the way the Tea Party came in.
Corner: So I’m wondering if this is a moment like that, like a new more progressive Democratic wave comes in, will that just mean, like, polarization, like more of that issue.
Patel: No. I don’t think so. I think our movement is born out of the desire to solve major problems, not to create bigger divisions. That the last 30 years of increasingly narrow ideological battles that have created a stalemate are what we need to move past. That whether it’s a Republican on the other side that wants to solve the problem of climate change or more Democrats, we are going to fucking solve climate change in this decade with the new generation of leaders. Right? Because we all know that we have a planet that we need to live with. One problem that I always say in politics is that the future, long term issues have very little agency because people who have vested interest in the future do not vote and are not represented. And so Ocasio-Cortez represents another set of frustrations with a party that does not include newcomes, that likes to silence challenges and voices and therefore doesn’t sharpen. And… point of Tea Party thing, one thing I’ll say… the Democratic party… the Republican Party significantly got better at its messaging, at its turnout, at its core because of the challenges for the last two, four, six years within their party, which has made them sharp.
Corner: (I thought he was talking about the Democratic Party but still makes sense I guess.) You mean the dialogue that happened within the election.
Patel: Yeah, I think just generally like they challenge each other for three cycles, the Democrats missed out on. So they re-tested and iterated and iterated until they got really goddamn good at turning out voters and we didn’t because we don’t even accept it.
Corner: So you think this moment where they’re (Democrats) so power-less, they kidn of like have to experiment…
Patel: They ought to… that’s why we’re stepping in to fill that void.
Corner: So I’ll just say this. I worry a little bit about certain language, like ‘new blood,’ ‘shake things up,’ these things that to me like I don’t know what they mean. So I’m just wondering, like, what your, when you talk to people in the district, what’s your key piece? Is it about campaign contributions or something else, or is it, Carolyn Maloney doesn’t do much? What is the main thing to motivate people to really consider getting rid of Maloney June 6th or –
Patel: Twenty Sixth. Yeah, I think I mentioned it already but I’ll say it again… (Some stuff I didn’t understand.) We don’t have an effective representative in Washington… the federal share of NYCHA funding has declined for two decades, the federal share of MTA funding has declined for two decades, 80 cents on the dollar is what New York State gets back that we send to Washington D.C., so we don’t have any effective representation, let alone the fact that our representation is not progressive enough. You cannot have a congressperson who voted for the Iraq War and against the Iran deal, which puts her on the side of Donald Trump. In a district this progressive and this educated you cannot vote for somebody who passed the 1994 crime bill that created mandatory minimums, that created a system that puts one out of every six black males in prison by the time they’re 30. You cannot vote somebody who created fast-track deportation in the 1996 immigration bill because that era of triangulation in the Democratic Party is what we have to end. And we are running because her representation is not representative of the American People. And to fix that we have to end gerrymandering, end voter suppression and end the corrosive influence of money in politics. I can’t believe that a congressperson from a district like this would take money from corporations and corporate PACs and then turn around and say she’s against Citizens United and wants to overturn it. And so that’s hypocritical as hell to me too. But until we get that fixed, until we get our representation to be significantly younger, more diverse, more representative of the American People, we’re not going to be able to fix climate change, mass incarceration, women’s issues and all those things. So that’s why I think the tent pole issue in this campaign is the structure of our democracy. And you’ve got a 25 year congressperson who has not once had an iota of motivation to do something about reforming the structure of our democracy. New York is 40-somethingth in turnout year after year after year, it’s one of the most voter-suppressive states in the country with some anemic-ass turnouts because there is little incentive for these people to make their jobs harder for reelection. And so we have to change the system, you’re not going to get change in the system from people within the system.
Corner: So I noticed that Maloney took Estée Lauder contributions and also that company just moved into Long Island City where I live, so would you actually say no to contributions like that?
Patel: I would never take a dime for the rest of my life from a corporation or a corporate PAC. Write that down.
Corner: It’s interesting, people will look at your background, it’s a bunch of things but you have kind of like a family business thing. So… they might think that you’re from the business community.
Patel: I am a business person. But I don’t think business has any business contributing to politicians. We do take contributions from humans, individual human beings as it ought to be done…
Patel: I don’t mind taking money from… I have lots of my friends… in tons of industries. This district has a lot of people that work in finance, in insurance, in whatever, and they all deserve to have they’re, you know, voices heard and be able to contribute to campaigns as they please. But Goldman Sachs itself ought not to be able to contribute to a campaign. That seems like crazy to me.
Corner: The way the Wall Street Journal described you… I think kind of generalized you as part of like a patchwork movement of people.. I was wondering if you agree with that characterization that you’re part of, like as if you’re on this Bernie Sanders wave of like kind of, in reaction to Trump.
Patel: Yeah, the reaction to Trump part is correct. Would I be running for congress right now if Donald Trump hadn’t been elected. The answer is no. The feeling of helplessness after that election moved into galvanizing me into action. That action says that even in districts like this where we have Democrats we can’t settle any longer for complacency, with the status quo, we, it’s not good enough to take good votes on bad bills and consistently lose them decade after decade. And I think we’ve got to change – the Democratic Party has to look at itself in the mirror and realize it cannot just be accidents or… they’ve got us to the lowest level of political power since 1929 as a party nationally. If we think that we’ve just been handed bad luck over and over, then that’s just crazy. So I think we might have to do something different and if they’re not willing to do it themselves, then we’ll do it for them. So in that regard I’m as characterized by the Wall Street Journal as an insurgent campaign. I like words like renegade.
Corner: What about, did you vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary?
Patel: In the primary, I, by the time we were here in New York, I voted for Hillary Clinton… I just wanted to move on and win this… Because I was terrified with Donald Trump.
Corner: Do you in your politics, do you identify with one or the other?
Patel: I don’t even like talking about that goddamn election.
Corner: Me neither. Well, sometimes.
Patel: No, nobody does. I like to think forward. But look, I do believe in Medicare for all. I do believe in debt-free college. I think that we have to provide an economic security for every single American regardless of income, background and access to political power. So in those regards yeah, I identify with those things. But I am a small business owner, I’ve been teaching ethics at NYU’s business school. I’m not one that just like, wants to… for business at all. For some punitive purpose or whatever. I understand the market is a fantastic way to allocate resources and it also needs to be guided towards better public outcomes and towards social justice.
Corner: What about, where were you on breaking up the banks, that whole thing?
Patel: I believe that Glass Steigel should be reinstated. I do believe that there should not be Too Big To Fail, absolutely in support of that. Like I said, I’m pro-business but I’m not pro big-business. I actually think that anti-trust is one of the other big flaws that we’ve left out for a long time… We have not enforced anti-trust in this country for so long at the expense of workers and expense of consumers at the expense of innovation.
Corner: So, if you win.
Patel: When I win.
Corner: Okay when you win (sorry) what will that first term look like? Because it will be during, probably, well I don’t know, but if you’re in congress while Trump is still there, what would you be able to do and focus on?
Patel: I mean, we would stop the slow, the rapid dismantling of our democratic norms and institutions, the first thing I would do. I would go to congress and vigilantly guard what’s left of our institutions and democratic norms.
Corner: Would you be at conflict with a lot of party…
Patel: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think so. I think at that point I don’t know if we’ll be in the majority or in the minority, if we’re passing laws or if we’re holding back this dismantling, if we’re, you know?
Corner: I’m just wondering how you’re feeling about the campaign right now… are you stressed out?
Patel: Pretty bullish. I feel pretty damn good about the campaign right now. I feel like I would rather be in my position than hers. I think many people would say that.
Corner: So if you’re there, and the opposite question, if you wind up being there for a long time, so if you’re there for a long time, we’re not going to think of you as someone who’s just sort of there floating around?
Patel: No, some people want to do the job and some people want to be the job. I have no intention of being in the job for 25 and accomplishing next to nothing in the last decade of it. There’s no doubt that Congresswoman Maloney was very effective at some point.
Corner: You think you would try to move forward into the senate?
Patel: I don’t know… I’m not sure. But for now I’m focused on this election and to do the job.
Corner: So some people have asked you about why aren’t you doing local politics. Do you have any interest in the local…
Patel: This is the race I’m running for, you know what I mean? Again, I think that like, there was never supposed to be some sort of career politician ladder, that you have to do this, then this, then this. Right? And frankly, I’m running. And I’ve now moved past answering to folks like why not run for this race or why not do this. I’m here. Let’s let the voters decide what they want to see in their congressional representative. That’s what the democracy’s all about. Competition fuels democracy.
Corner: Do you have issues that are, like city issues that are close to you, like that are like every day New York…?
Patel: Yeah. I mean from a federal representative standpoint, we’re talking about more federal money but more oversight, more auditing and better results in our subways, in our infrastructure, better investment in those things, in NYCHA we’re looking at some NYCHA reform proposals…
Corner: Well, you’d probably have to get rid of, uh, Carson, or something. He just seems like he doesn’t want to give money to NYCHA unless they write him letters pleading.
Patel: Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. We have those issues but that’s different from I know that’s different from individual developments and…
Corner: You would have the largest public housing – you would have a ton of public housing in your district.
Patel: Absolutely. And it’s been neglected by this congressional representative for so long.
Corner: Well it seems like too much of the country is just not interested in investing in New York City, the MTA…
Patel: Yeah… You have to have better, more vocal advocates for this…
Corner: …I should just ask, do you have anyone on your staff from Queens…?
Patel: Yeah. Absolutely.
Corner: You do?
Patel: Yeah… We have three organizers in Queens. Two in Brooklyn.
Corner: They’re organizing in Queens or they’re from Queens?
Patel: Both. Both. We have people from all of the boroughs except Staten Island… I was just in Queens all morning today, organizing in Queens.
Patel: I had a couple newspaper interviews, community centers.. senior centers.
When I was leaving, he told me to make note that most of his signatures (to get him on the ballot) came from Queens. I found that slightly remarkable and emailed his staffer later to confirm. She said of 6,268 signatures a substantial amount were from Queens.