Neither of the senior House Democrats running against each other in Manhattan’s 12th Congressional District were willing to back President Joe Biden’s re-election in 2024 when given the chance Tuesday night.
Manhattan Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, both of whom were first elected in 1992, squared off alongside challenger Suraj Patel in a lively debate, which was co-sponsored by WNYC and Spectrum News NY1.
About halfway in, co-moderator Errol Louis asked the three candidates a direct question: “Should President Biden run again in 2024?”
Patel, who worked on President Barack Obama’s advance team and is pushing himself as a candidate with fresh ideas, answered first with an unequivocal “yes.” But pointedly, neither Nadler nor Maloney were willing to follow suit.
“It’s too early to say,” Nadler said. “It doesn't serve the purposes of the Democratic Party to deal with that until after the midterms.”
Maloney was more direct: “I don’t believe he’s running for re-election.”
The 90-minute debate was held at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan, which is within the newly drawn 12th district that runs from the East River to the Hudson, and stretches as low as 12th Street and as high as 113th Street.
It marked the first debate between the three leading candidates for the district ahead of the August 23rd primary, with Maloney and Nadler touting their experience and largely remaining complementary of one another while Patel repeatedly tossed criticism their way.
Moderators Louis and Brigid Bergin, WNYC’s senior politics reporter, peppered the candidates with a wide array of questions that touched on everything from foreign relations to vaccine efficacy to the value of seniority – a topic that separates Nadler and Maloney from their upstart challenger, Patel.
“With seniority comes clout and the ability to get things done,” Nadler said. “That’s the way Congress works.”
Patel retorted: “Seniority and tenure does not inure effectiveness. … Seniority didn’t stop the record storefront vacancies on Columbus Avenue or Second Avenue.”
For decades, Maloney and Nadler represented different parts of Manhattan, with Maloney’s political base on the Upper East Side and Nadler’s on the Upper West Side.
Then came redistricting – the once-a-decade process for redrawing congressional district lines. After courts threw out a set of Democratic-drawn maps earlier this year, an independent expert selected by a state judge drew Maloney and Nadler into the same district, leaving the state’s longest-tenured congressman (Nadler) running against the person tied for second longest tenure (Maloney).
Maloney made clear: She doesn’t want to be running against Nadler.
“We have been friends and allies for years,” she said. “Unfortunately, we were drawn into the same district. I would have much preferred to have the old district that I had.”
But she also attempted to differentiate herself from her colleague of nearly 30 years, suggesting that their voting records are similar but that she’s been more effective at getting things done in the district – pointing to the Second Avenue subway as an example.
“We’re pretty close,” Maloney said. “After you get past our voting record, and then it’s what have you done. And I think when you compare our records of accomplishment, my record speaks for itself.”
Nadler, who also took credit for securing funding for the Second Avenue subway, pointed to three specific votes that he said differentiate him from Maloney.
There was the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, which Nadler voted against and Maloney voted for. And there was the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which Nadler supported and Maloney opposed.
Patel, meanwhile, made Maloney a frequent target of his criticism, particularly after Bergin asked the congresswoman about her prior stances on childhood vaccinations and autism – a purported link that has been debunked by the scientific community.
Maloney pushed back, saying that some of the comments she has been criticized were from “20 years ago.” She touted her unequivocal support for the COVID vaccine and her push to bring it to her district, saying “actions speak louder” than words.
“What have you done?” she said to Patel. “Achievements speak louder than words. It’s easy to attack people. It’s much harder to open up health care centers that actually help people.”
Maloney said a 2015 bill she sponsored that would have required the federal government to study any link between vaccines and autism was just that – a study.
“I regret that I ever asked a question about vaccines or supported a study on whether or not they’re effective or not,” she said. “There was a bill that I went on that studied vaccines. If we are a country that can’t study things anymore …”
Patel, meanwhile, pushed Nadler on the issue as well, asking him why he endorsed Maloney – whom Patel ran against in 2020 and 2018 – despite her record on vaccinations.
“I endorsed Carolyn despite her unfortunate record on vaccines because in the contest between you and her, I frankly thought she was a better candidate,” Nadler said.
The debate featured a somewhat unusual setup, with all candidates given the option to sit or stand. Nadler stayed seated behind his lectern, while Maloney stood for most of the debate and Patel chose to stand throughout.
In their opening statements, Maloney touted herself as a mother and former educator, while highlighting her work fighting for 9/11 survivors.
Nadler, meanwhile, referred to recent Supreme Court decisions and the Jan. 6 insurrection to highlight his work as the head of the House Judiciary Committee, which twice led the impeachment of President Donald Trump. But when he made the point, Nadler mistakenly referred to a different Republican president.
“I have passed two impeachments,” Nadler said. “I have impeached Bush twice.”
Patel used his opening statement to highlight his work on Obama’s campaigns and advance team.
“I'm a lawyer, a professor and an Obama Democrat from whom I learned the Democrats can lead best when we lead with new ideas, energy and a new generation of leadership,” he said.
A fourth person on the ballot, Ashmi Sheth, didn’t meet the minimum requirements to participate in Tuesday’s debate. The debate was open to current and former officeholders or those who raised at least $500,000 by the Federal Election Commission’s June 30th filing date.
Early voting for the August 23rd primary begins August 13th.