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In Nadler-Maloney Matchup, Does Suraj Patel Stand a Chance?

Suraj Patel has few illusions about what he’s up against as he takes on two titans of New York politics, Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, in this summer’s blockbuster Democratic primary. But he does take hope from a theory about coffee shops.

“There’s a Starbucks there and a Starbucks there, and then there’s some brand-new hipster coffee shop here,” the candidate said one recent weekday morning, whirling around 180 degrees in Velcro Stan Smith sneakers. “If all the people going to Starbucks split themselves half and half, then the third spot gets about 40 percent of the foot traffic.”

“That,” he wagered a little optimistically, “is what we’re doing.”

No doubt the Aug. 23 contest has been dominated by the bitter head-to-head confrontation between Ms. Maloney and Mr. Nadler, two septuagenarian fixtures of Manhattan’s political power structure who have been drawn into a single seat after serving three decades side by side in Washington.

But in a summer when Democrats of all ages are reeling from stark losses on guns, abortion rights and the environment, Mr. Patel, 38, believes that discontent over the party’s aging leadership might just run deep enough for him to pull off a monumental upset.

A frenetic Indian American lawyer who was just 9 when his opponents took office, Mr. Patel has adopted a less-than-meek approach. Campaigning recently in the heart of Mr. Nadler’s West Side stronghold, he sought to tie himself to Barack Obama and, when chatting up a retired apartment worker and union member, paraphrased the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic: “Fear is the mother of all sin.”

“We’ve lost every major battle to Mitch McConnell and Republicans in the last decade, and the people who have been in office have no new answers,” Mr. Patel told him. “What we’re offering is a completely new set of arguments on inflation, on public safety, on economic growth and climate change.”

The pitch landed. “I’m similar: proactive, go-getter, and you make sense,” replied the union man, Mario Sanders, keeping cool in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. He walked off down 72nd Street with glossy Patel leaflets in one hand and his dog, Juicy, cradled in the other.

Flipping enough votes to actually win, though, will be vastly more difficult, as Mr. Patel learned in two previous attempts to defeat Ms. Maloney, 76.

He came closest in 2020, when he lost by less than four percentage points, winning diverse areas in Brooklyn and Queens that have since been removed from the district.

Because the courts shuffled the district lines this spring, he only has weeks to try to reintroduce himself to New Yorkers who, in some cases, have enthusiastically supported his opponents since the 1970s, and to push younger voters to show up.

With the party establishment shunning him, his most notable endorser is Andrew Yang, the former presidential and mayoral candidate who subsequently left the Democratic Party.

Nor is Mr. Patel drawing the sort of sharp ideological contrasts that have propelled challengers to victory in recent cycles. He shares his opponents’ support for left-leaning policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, though many on the left view him skeptically. “I respect the hell out of it,” he said of Mr. Nadler’s voting record.

“That’s a hard needle to thread,” said Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University. “Essentially, he’s saying, I will do the same thing they are doing, just minus 40 years’ experience.”

Ms. Greer added that Mr. Patel had a heavy lift “to convince people he’s not just another young Obama upstart who thinks they are entitled to cut ahead of the queue.”

Mr. Nadler and Ms. Maloney appear torn between trying to ignore and to eviscerate Mr. Patel. They have dismissed his approach as ageist and warned that the city would suffer if it replaces two senior members with someone they charge has spent more time running for Congress than accomplishing anything of substance.

“Most people do not go with that sort of ageism, most people look at people’s records,” Mr. Nadler, 75, said in May, not long after allies of both incumbents quietly tried to steer Mr. Patel to run in a neighboring district.

Ms. Maloney recently told The West Side Rag that there was too much at stake for “on-the-job training” and accused Mr. Patel of “bigotry and lack of experience in dealing with critical issues I have dealt with my entire career.”

In an interview over coffee (iced with Splenda, no milk) at an upscale cafe (Daily Provisions, neither Starbucks nor hipster), Mr. Patel insisted he was not worried about the institutional support lining up against him, nor his opponents’ critiques.

He accused Ms. Maloney of using her perch in Congress to give oxygen to anti-vaccine activists (she says she supports vaccination) and knocked Mr. Nadler for taking corporate campaign funds.

“Man, if you think people vote anymore on endorsements and other political leaders telling you who to vote for, then you’re missing the point,” he said.

He showed up to greet voters in Chelsea on a Citi Bike, whipped out his iPhone to show off the average of seven miles a day he traverses on foot, and discussed his plans to start bar crawl canvassing, complete with coasters with his face on it. (He drew blowback for using the dating app Tinder to contact potential supporters in 2018.)

His policy proposals skew technocratic, built around what Mr. Patel calls “the Abundant Society,” a plan for federal investments in education, child care, manufacturing and research.

The son of Indian immigrants, he lived above the family bodega in Bloomfield, N.J., where 13 people crammed in a one-bedroom apartment. The family moved to Indiana when he was 6 and bought its first motel.

Mr. Patel tends to say less about how the business grew into a multimillion-dollar development and hotel management operation that made the family rich, spawned labor complaints and helped him finance a pricey East Village apartment and, until recently, a house in the Hamptons.

In a city where politicians often rise through local office or activism, Mr. Patel dabbled in different lines of work: He helped the family business, including during the coronavirus pandemic; staffed Mr. Obama’s campaigns and White House travel; and taught business classes at N.Y.U.

Mr. Patel would be the first Indian American from New York in Congress, and his campaign has drawn support from South Asians across the country. Indian American Impact, a national group, said it would run a WhatsApp messaging program to try to drive up turnout among the district’s small slice of South Asians. (Another Indian American, Ashmi Sheth, is also running.)

“Democrats can’t just repackage the status quo and sell it back to voters as different when, in reality, people are looking for a clean break,” said Neil Makhija, the group’s leader.

Across the district, though, responses to Mr. Patel’s overtures were more mixed.

“Soon, when Nadler retires, then I’ll vote for you,” Roz Paaswell, 83, told him as he approached with a flier on the Upper West Side. “You’ve going to have a place in the city and in politics, but not in this seat.”

Later, Ms. Paaswell heaped praise on Mr. Nadler and said she had never missed a vote. “He has seniority. He has clout. I love him,” she said.

Vanessa Chen, 35, was equally blunt as she walked laps during her lunch break a few days later around Stuyvesant Town, one of the largest voting blocs in the district, just a stone’s throw from Mr. Patel’s apartment.

“We just need new blood,” said Ms. Chen, a software engineer. “The Boomers are going. They don’t know how the new world works.”

But does she plan to vote in August?

“Probably,” she laughed, adding that she had not been aware of the primary date until a reporter informed her.

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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