Will the Suraj insurgency surge?

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A well-funded political neophyte mounting a generational challenge to topple a long-serving congresswoman fires up would-be supporters at an UES town hall


  • Suraj Patel, who is trying to unseat Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in a Democratic primary challenge on the East Side, mingles with voters over wine and cheese at a town hall meeting in the Church of the Holy Trinity on East 88th Street last Thursday. Photo: Douglas Feiden

  • Suraj Patel, who is trying to unseat Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in a Democratic primary challenge on the East Side, mingles with voters over wine and cheese at a town hall meeting in the Church of the Holy Trinity on East 88th Street last Thursday. Photo: Douglas Feiden

  • Suraj Patel at a food cart with his "New Blood" slogan. Photo: Courtesy of Suraj Patel campaign

  • Suraj Patel's "New Blood" slogan on a food cart. Photo: Courtesy of Suraj Patel campaign

“I’m not here to mail it in.”

Suraj Patel, Democratic candidate in the 12th Congressional District

Can a Mississippi-born, Indiana-raised, Indian-American lawyer, hotelier, ethics professor and child of immigrants — who has never before vied for elected office — oust a popular incumbent who’s served for a quarter-century to claim a hugely visible seat in the U.S. Congress?

It won’t be easy. The political establishment is sure to resist. But it can be done. At least that was the crux of the message that 34-year-old Suraj Patel sought to broadcast last week during an animated town hall meeting at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side.

And it all boiled down to this: “NEW BLOOD.” That was the two-word, all-caps, red-ink slogan plastered on the campaign literature, buttons, posters — and $25 tote bags and $50 limited-edition tee-shirts — arrayed before 75 voters in the East 88th Street church parish house on May 24.

As mantras go, it wasn’t very subtle. Patel is running to take down 72-year-old Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney — first elected to the City Council in 1982, the year before he was born — and he is quick to disparage “our 25-year incumbent” in his call for a “new generation of leadership.”

After feting voters with decent wine and Camembert, the upstart challenger, a 12-year resident of the East Village, got down to business in a meeting room in the landmark 1897 church. And he brought down the house with a stump speech that scored high marks for originality.

“Every New Yorker who takes the subway knows you are asked a very existential decision whenever you go to the MetroCard machine,” he began. “Do you want to add value or do you want to add time?”

The punch line? “Your incumbent congressperson has decided to add time,” Patel said. “Time and time again, she has chosen to add time ... But you deserve to have an incumbent who chooses to add value.”

At stake in the Democratic primary on June 26 is the 12th Congressional District, a prize that takes in the UES, Sutton Place, Midtown, including Trump Tower, Gramercy, Flatiron, Union Square, Roosevelt Island, and the East Village, plus Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn and Astoria and Long Island in Queens.

How do you wrest it away from a congressional legend and senior member of the House Financial Services Committee who has authored and passed 70-plus bills — including landmark laws like the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1988, the James Zadroga 9/11 Compensation Act of 2011 and the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights in 2009?

Patel says you first dispel apathy in a district where a paltry seven percent of registered Democrats cast ballots in primary elections. How? Mint bolder candidates. Seek and energize a youthful, more female, well-educated and ethnically and racially diverse voter base.

He points to his own expansive campaign team of 28 staffers, 59 interns and 100 volunteers — “so young, so energetic” — as one of the secrets to capturing the oddly proportioned three-borough district flanking the East River.

“What we’re doing here can become a true model for the nation to engage young people in the largest numbers in American history,” Patel told the crowd.

“We can change the underlying demographics of the electorate that shows up, in this district, in this country, to make it a little younger, a little more representative, a little more progressive,” he added. “This will be our moment.”


Not so fast: “Before you tell me what you want to do, tell me what you have done,” said Bob Liff, a Maloney campaign spokesman.

“Carolyn Maloney has delivered for her district, her city and her country in ways few other members can match, including getting the critical funding needed to finally build the Second Avenue Subway, after 100 years of trying,” he added.

“Whether it is the Zadroga 9/11 health bill to care for and honor our first responders, the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights that is saving credit cardholders $12 billion a year, the Debbie Smith Act to fund testing of old rape kits, or the day-to-day work of fighting for her constituents, Carolyn Maloney is always there for New Yorkers and getting results.”

Unfailingly, her fundraising machinery is well-oiled: Between January 2017 and March 31 this year, she amassed $1.36 million, with a hefty $913,000 in the bank, Federal Election Commission filings show.

But the real surprise was that Patel, untested and a first-time political aspirant who started his fundraising considerably later, was able to garner $1.1 million between October 2017 and March 31, outraising the incumbent over the past two quarters. He’s sitting on a $601,000 stockpile.

“I’m not here to mail it in,” he said.

The candidates will face off for a one-on-one NY1 debate that will air on June 12 at 7 p.m.

A big chunk of Patel’s war chest tracks to family and friends from Indiana and elsewhere. Other members of the Indian-American community, galvanized by the underdog campaign, have also opened their checkbooks. The Asian press has paid close attention to the race.

So who is this insurgent who came out of the political ether to mount a credible challenge?

“I was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, of all places,” he told his audience, the child of entrepreneurial parents who emigrated from India in the 1970s.

“They bought a burned-down seafood restaurant, and they didn’t open an Indian restaurant because no one would eat Indian food back then,” he said. “Instead, they opened a Tex-Mex restaurant. The spices were similar!”

So began a classic immigrant success story. His family purchased a small motel in Indiana, relocated to the Hoosier State, bought additional hotel properties, and eventually, built a profitable hospitality empire.

“My family lived through every income bracket there is in America,” he recalled.

As a child, Patel stocked motel vending machines. Years later, he became president of the family business, expanding its holdings to 20 hotels in 14 states.

Along the way, he graduated Stanford University, studied public policy at Cambridge University, came to New York in 2006 to attend NYU Law School, earned his law degree, taught business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business and bought a home on 12th Street and Avenue A.

Meanwhile, in 2008 and 2012, Patel did advance work for both Obama presidential campaigns — and in 2015, his family saga came full circle when he helped organize a presidential trip to Asia.

“Fifty years after my parents left India, their son was flying back with Barack Obama on Air Force One,” he said at the town hall.

The prospect of such outcomes for multitudes of others is one reason he’s running for Congress: “That is, after all, the American Dream,” Patel said.


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