Former Obama staffer Suraj Patel tries his luck again against Rep. Maloney

“Long before I ever contemplated running for office — in college — I was pro-Israel”

Suraj Patel considers himself a lucky man. Last month, Patel — who is mounting his second consecutive campaign to represent New York’s 12th congressional district — began to notice the onset of coronavirus symptoms. 

Patel’s brother, who is also his roommate, is an emergency room doctor. “Luckily, in my case, my doctor lives one bedroom away,” he said. The Patels got tested at home and sent the samples to a private lab. Days later, the results came in: Both brothers tested positive for the coronavirus. “I had a 102 degree fever and difficulty breathing,” Patel told Jewish Insider in a phone interview last week. “We were all sick for about five days.” 

Patel, 36, is running against incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) in the district’s June 23rd primary. In 2008, he joined Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as an organizer and then joined the White House advance team, later working on Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Patel has raised more than $480,000 for his congressional bid, according to the most recent FEC filings. Two other candidates — Lauren Ashcraft and Peter Harrison — are also challenging the 14-term congresswoman.

Maloney, one of the senior members of New York’s congressional delegation, is admired in her district and has longstanding ties to the Jewish community. She was the main sponsor of the Never Again Education Act, which bolsters and expands the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s educational programming, and directs the museum to dedicate an online repository of lesson plans to give teachers the resources and training to teach the Holocaust. 

A political unknown in 2018, Patel nevertheless received 40% of the vote in the primary that year, but fell short of defeating the longtime congresswoman. This year, Patel — the president of Sun Development & Management, a hotel management company founded by his father in 1989 — believes he can pull off an upset. 

Sitting on a stool at his campaign headquarters in the city’s East Village a few weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak hit New York, Patel told Jewish Insider that one lesson he learned from the 2018 campaign was the importance of reaching out to voters who don’t necessarily agree with his more progressive views, as well as seniors, members of the Jewish community and others who support Maloney. “I have learned you cannot only talk to the people that you agree with and hope to overcome the other side. You have to build a coalition,” he said. This time, he said, “we’re not going to leave any voter unspoken to.”

Patel criticized Maloney’s past comments on vaccinations, pointing to a 2012 congressional hearing in which she compared the vaccine industry to the tobacco industry. “We’ve got a coronavirus epidemic cross-country. Maybe if we didn’t have leaders in Congress who were spouting conspiracy theories for 15 years and instead advancing science, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “We are buying a lot of time for the government by isolating ourselves and shutting down our lives, but the question is what is the government going to do with the time we are buying them?” 

Patel told JI he believes the federal government’s delayed response to the coronavirus has only strengthened his case for new leadership in Washington. 

The rookie politician expressed confidence that by the time the primary is held, voters will be “questioning a lot about the status quo, about the complacency in Congress” and have doubts about the congresswoman’s ability to deal with her constituents’ problems. “If we don’t see by the end of this month widespread testing like Germany, South Korea and the other countries that got this under control, if we don’t see support for our small businesses and workers, at some point people are going to start seeing what we’ve been saying all along — we have got 20th-century policymakers and politicians dealing with 21st-century problems,” he explained. 

In Patel’s view, Maloney’s ascension in Congress is a reason to send her into retirement. In late 2019, Maloney became the chair of the House Oversight Committee following the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD). “The incumbent’s judgement, priorities and vision are even more in question today than they were two years ago,” Patel charged. 

Campaigning during the coronavirus outbreak has been a challenge for candidates seeking office. But Patel is counting on name recognition from the 2018 race and hoping his “digital-savvy” team will help him make up for time lost on the trail. “No doubt it’s frustrating for all of us to not be able to see people face to face and talk to them,” he said. “But we are just adapting.”

He added that the campaign has shifted its focus and is now providing constituent services during the pandemic. Because he has recovered from the virus, Patel said he is planning to go out and volunteer. 

Maloney is one of the first candidates to be endorsed by Democratic Majority for Israel, a political action committee established last year to support pro-Israel Democrats. In 2015, Maloney joined fellow New York legislators Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel in opposing the Iran nuclear deal. In 2017, she supported the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and also expressed support for U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, with the condition that the decision is backed by the Democratic House leadership.

Last year, Maloney co-sponsored Rep. Brad Schneider’s (D-IL) anti-BDS resolution (H.R. 246) and a resolution (H.R. 326) introduced by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) that reaffirmed U.S. support for a two-state solution and included amendments reaffirming the “ironclad” U.S. commitment to its 10-year Memorandum of Understanding with Israel and commitment to annual military assistance without new conditions. 

In the interview, Patel vowed to be a defender of the U.S.-Israel relationship “in the same way” Maloney is. “Our communities have a strong bond, as my parents are Hindu-Americans whose immigrant experience in this country very closely mirrors that of the Jews a couple of generations before us.” 

Patel pointed out that as a college student in 2003, he signed on to a letter published by members of the Stanford Israel Alliance affirming Israel’s right to exist as a democratic independent state in the Middle East and disavowed “what was the beginning” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “Long before I ever contemplated running for office — in college — I was pro-Israel,” he stressed. 

Explaining his opposition to BDS, Patel maintained that when it comes to fighting the delegitimization of Israel and increasing support for the Jewish state, the challenge that arises with a legislator like Maloney is that “they’re not speaking to the younger generation and they’re not advancing the ball forward.” 

“We oftentimes in this [campaign] office talk about how awful it is that two-thirds of millennials cannot name Auschwitz,” he explained. “We need young people in the Democratic Party who can speak to and be proud defenders of the state of Israel, its right to exist within secure borders, and be staunch defenders of the U.S.-Israel relationship as a social justice thing. And if we don’t do that, if we don’t elevate people like me with those types of positions, we only have ourselves to blame.” 

The case Patel makes to the pro-Israel community he seeks to represent is clear: “You will have a supporter of Israel, but at the same time you will have someone with the credibility to say the Palestinians deserve a state.” 

Last November, Patel traveled to Israel with his grandmother and a dozen other family members to celebrate Thanksgiving. His first trip to Israel was in 2008, after Obama’s election. “I went to Israel with four friends. We went to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv — fun city,” he remarked.

Days before Israel’s most recent election in early March, Patel weighed in on accusations by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was racist, but stopped shy of agreeing with the former presidential candidate. “I have a lot of choice words for Netanyahu,” Patel said. “I do think that Netanyahu has clearly been corrupt, clearly been ineffective at bringing about a peaceful change for decades, and it’s time for him to go.” 

Addressing the rise in antisemitism in New York, Patel noted that he himself has been the victim of hate crimes. On the day of the 2018 primary, swastikas were painted on his campaign signs. Patel said he was particularly touched by — and has made his staff watch — Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech about fighting antisemitism, which the actor and comedian delivered at last year’s Anti-Defamation League “Never Is Now” summit in New York. “Ours are similar experiences and stories,” he explained. “We are acutely aware as a minority and a religious minority what rising antisemitism and hate can bring. It behooves us as a partnership to have young people, people of color able to advocate for the safety and security of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and all minorities in America.”

This post was updated.

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