Second Time Around for Suraj Patel

The 2018 challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney is gearing up for the 2020 ballot

12 Feb 2020 | 08:27
This story was updated February 12th, 2020

Suraj Patel – son of immigrants, trilingual NYU professor, Stanford-educated lawyer, Obama campaign alum and family hotel exec, East Village New Yorker who takes the M14A bus because the L train is a “debacle,” and 2020 candidate for Congress – is “a crazy energetic person.”

That’s according to Utkarsh Yadav, a former 2018 campaign intern who’s in charge of branding and engagement this time around. Patel says he’s always been that way. “Even in school I did every single activity and sport and everything possible,” he says.

This is Patel’s second run for Congress against incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney in New York’s 12th District. With a platform focused on climate change and rebuilding New York City’s infrastructure, (also including progressive policies such as debt-free college, Medicare for All and getting money out of politics), Patel is gearing up again – this time in a race with additional hurdles.

For one, Maloney, a favorite of the Democratic establishment, recently became the first female chair of the House Oversight Committee. But Patel isn’t worried. “We now have an oversight chair who rakes in more corporate PAC money than Mitt Romney,” he says.

But this won’t be a straight Patel-Maloney rematch: New York’s June primary ballot will also include two other challengers. And, as NYC tabloid readers may recall, Patel has some leftover stigma from a 2018 campaign faux pas to overcome.

The candidate says he’s not too worried about the memory of his “Tinderbanking” deception, where campaign staffers created fake accounts on various dating apps and tried to “catfish” constituents into voting for him. Patel claims his team tried this tactic one time for two hours, “the tabloid coverage was out of proportion” and says it hasn’t dissuaded him from trying more unconventional strategies this year. In 2018 those efforts included spinning alongside constituents at FlyWheel classes to talk policy.

Maloney’s district may not be an easy win, but Patel hopes his multifaceted identity will help him align with voters across the spectrum. New York’s 12th is one of the wealthiest congressional districts in the country, but also one of the most economically disparate – home to both Trump Tower and the Queensbridge Houses.

"New York Story"

The son of immigrants from India, Patel grew up helping out his family’s businesses, a motel in Indiana and a bodega in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He moved to Indiana from New Jersey at the age of five, and remembers his father working as an MTA engineer before the move.

Patel believes his is the “New York story,” even if he didn’t move back to the city until 2006 to attend NYU Law (he also has degrees from Stanford and Cambridge). He is currently an adjunct professor of business ethics at NYU.

As a trained attorney, Patel is “used to working 14 hour days,” and his energy knows nearly no bounds – he says he can be “hyper even.” It makes sense, then, that he describes campaigning – a truly extroverted pursuit – as “one of the most fun experiences of your life.”

In 2018 Patel garnered just over 40% of the vote against Maloney, who has served in Congress since 1993. That was the year of insurgency from the left; the year fledgling grassroots electoral groups staged their first test run for a progressive power grab after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential upset; the year of the “Blue Wave.” But it wasn’t quite the year for Patel, who couldn’t ride the wave far enough. And so he’s at it again in 2020.

For her part, the incumbent recently launched her own reelection bid, but hasn’t commented on Patel’s candidacy. The campaign declined an interview on the record, but prepared a statement from Rep. Maloney: "Debate and discussion are vital to the democratic process, and the energy they generate will help our party hold the House, take back the Senate and win the Presidency in 2020.” According to the Federal Election Commission, as of Dec. 31, 2019, Patel had $345,266 in "cash on hand" compared to Maloney's $324,349.

"Fun Part" of the Campaign

But what will Patel do differently this time around – besides nixing the catfishing? Well, hit the pavement a lot harder above 59th Street, for one thing – and explain to wealthy Upper East Siders who may have more to lose by changing the system that, “change is coming to America,” and they might as well get on the train before it pulls out of the Q-train station without them.

Two years ago Patel told BuzzFeed News that he “dropped the ball” with older voters. Now he admits he not so much dropped the ball as didn’t play ball up there at all – focusing too much on younger, newer voters and not spending enough time convincing Maloney’s loyal base to cast their ballots instead for the 36-year-old.

His number one policy issue this year is climate change, a force which he believes affects us all. Patel says the earth’s changing temperature is not just “some sort of global phenomenon” but a local concern, citing problems like subway tunnels that remain unfixed six years after Hurricane Sandy, and making promises like a sustainable renovation of NYCHA, New York’s infamously underfunded public housing authority.

For now, though, Patel is gearing up for what he describes as the “fun part” of the campaign – the on-the-ground part where he’ll zip from Saturday farmers markets to coffee shops and even chat up voters while running the Brooklyn Half Marathon in May. He’s “building the apparatus” again with many repeat staffers from 2018 like Yadav, who hopes that the name recognition they built up two years ago will serve his “youngest-feeling, energetic friend,” better this time around, in this much-more-crowded, presidential-election-year bid to take all that energy to Washington.