With a target on her back, Carolyn Maloney gets lift from new map

The 15-term congresswoman is facing several challengers in the newly drawn 12th District

Forced into a perennially defensive crouch in three consecutive primary cycles since 2018, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), the veteran New York City lawmaker who chairs the powerful House Oversight Committee, has found herself among the most high-profile targets of the insurgent left. 

Despite her long tenure in the House, Maloney has shown some signs of weakness, which progressives have been particularly eager to exploit after the surprising results of last cycle, when a former Obama staffer, Suraj Patel, came within just four points of claiming victory in the hotly contested multi-candidate primary battle for New York’s 12th Congressional District.

Until recently, it seemed that another candidate was relatively well-poised to overcome that narrow margin as Maloney seeks to extend her 15-term tenure in the June 28 primary. Rana Abdelhamid, a 28-year-old Google employee and progressive activist in Queens, launched her campaign to much fanfare last April, buoyed by a high-profile endorsement from the left-wing political group Justice Democrats, which has helped orchestrate several upset victories over long-standing House incumbents, with a proven track record in New York.

But even as Abdelhamid has claimed that voters are “ready for a new generation of leadership,” it now looks as if Maloney, who turns 76 later this month, has secured an advantage that is almost certain to give a boost to her reelection bid.

On Wednesday, the New York State legislature approved an updated House map that would expand Maloney’s district westward into Manhattan, where she is likely to pick up a cluster of new voters that will add to a traditional support base in her home neighborhood of the Upper East Side. Meanwhile, the new boundaries cut back on left-leaning enclaves in Brooklyn and Queens, where Maloney has performed poorly in recent elections. The congresswoman had reportedly proposed that the new map jettison voters in those neighborhoods, including Williamsburg and Astoria.

The map, which was designed by lawmakers in Albany, is highly favorable for Democrats across the state, and Maloney is no exception, according to Democratic strategists and other elections experts in New York. “The old lines were much less appealing,” said George Arzt, a political consultant who has worked for Maloney in previous elections but is not involved with her current campaign. The new district, he added, represents “the core of” Maloney’s “constituency.” Eli Valentin, a columnist who specializes in local politics, agreed. The boundaries, he said, will provide “some protection” against what he described as a “credible primary challenge” from the party’s progressive flank. “Her Christmas gift may have come early.”

Sophia Brown, a spokesperson for Maloney’s campaign, was even-handed in her assessment of the redistricting plan, which was unveiled on Sunday and is expected to be signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul as soon as this week. “We respect what the state legislature has put forward, and await the final verification on the lines,” she said in an emailed statement to Jewish Insider on Tuesday evening. The congresswoman “works hard to represent all parts of her district, and looks forward to running a strong campaign focused on her progressive record and rooted in the communities she is proud to represent.”

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney Joins Congressman Jerry Nadler, Senator Kristen Gillibrand, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and others to call on Congress to pass the 911 Responder and Survivor Health Funding Correction Act on September 10, 2021, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Abdelhamid, for her part, said she had expected the district would be redrawn for some time and, with five months until the primary, remained undaunted by the results. “We have planned for this,” she said in a statement on Monday, “and we are still on track to win.” 

In an interview with JI last week before the map was revealed, Maloney emphasized that she was taking the race seriously no matter what the outcome of the redistricting process, which had initially fallen to a bipartisan commission established in 2014 but was ultimately completed  by Democratic legislators, who hold majorities in both chambers, when the panel failed to arrive at a consensus. The map could see court challenges from Republicans, who have made allegations of partisan gerrymandering.

“I’m working very hard, both in my job in Washington and also in my reelection,” Maloney told JI in a phone conversation. “I am deeply engaged in all of the communities and have delivered significant results across my district from Brooklyn and Queens to Manhattan,” she said, reiterating a “progressive record” that has included “important infrastructure battles” such as the expansion of the Second Avenue subway line. “I’m just continuing to work hard, and that’s it.”

While Abdelhamid is viewed as the most formidable challenger to have entered the race, Maloney is also facing two other primary opponents, including local community activists Maya Contreras and Jesse Cerrotti. Patel, who had also challenged Maloney in 2018, losing by a significantly wider margin than he did the following cycle, said last spring that he intended to run again. He has yet to enter the race, but an online poll distributed last week asking respondents about how they voted in the 2020 primary, which a source familiar with the survey said was commissioned by Patel, indicates that he is still considering another bid. Patel declined to comment on the record when reached by JI this week.

Despite Abdelhamid characterizing Maloney as out of touch with the district, the two opponents are aligned on such marquee progressive agenda items as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. They part ways, however, on foreign policy issues concerning the Middle East. 

Abdelhamid, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is skeptical of America’s longstanding relationship with Israel, and supports conditioning U.S. military aid that is guaranteed in a 10-year memorandum of understanding between the two countries. Maloney, on the other hand, is opposed to such measures. Last April, she was among 330 House members who signed on to a bipartisan letter, led by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), expressing support for continued security assistance to Israel.

Carolyn Maloney and Tish James attend the “Hometown Heroes” tickertape parade on July 07, 2021 in New York, New York. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

During last May’s conflict between Israel and Hamas, Abdelhamid was critical of Maloney’s public statements on the escalating violence in the region, including an affirmation of Israel’s “right to defend itself” that the congresswoman had posted to social media. “Unlike Representative Maloney,” Abdelhamid shot back on Twitter, “I don’t believe that Israel — or any country — should receive a blank check funded by American taxpayers to use in a way that violates our values and basic human rights.”

Such disagreements have been relatively common in recent primary races where far-left challengers have taken on establishment Democrats who hold a more favorable view of Israel. But in the matchup between Abdelhamid and Maloney, a somewhat rarer contrast has emerged over differing approaches to the Iran nuclear deal. While Abdelhamid supports reentering the agreement, a view that is widely shared among Democrats, Maloney publicly opposed the deal when it was brokered by the Obama administration in 2015. At the time, Maloney had expressed concern that “even if Iran complies with the restraints spelled out throughout the life of the agreement,” she wrote in a statement, “the deal does not block Iran from eventually acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Speaking with JI, Maloney acknowledged that she had objected to the agreement but had nevertheless committed to upholding the terms of the accord when it was finalized. “I supported the agreement because that was the only thing we had,” she explained. Maloney said she would “continue to trust” the Biden administration as it engages in renewed negotiations with Iran after former President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, but clarified that she “will remain vigilant and speak up against any agreement that instead speeds Iran’s path toward a nuclear weapon.”

“I still do not trust the regime in Tehran to negotiate in good faith,” Maloney said incredulously. “In fact, if you remember, right after we had the agreement in 2015, they had a celebration. I’ll never forget it. They had signs saying ‘Death to Israel,’ ‘Death to America.’ So I don’t trust the regime to negotiate in good faith, especially while they’re still breaking the enrichment and monitoring provisions. They haven’t lived up to their side of the deal.”

Maloney has long been regarded as a staunch pro-Israel advocate thanks in part to her criticism of the Iran deal, which was broadly opposed by the organized Jewish community, as well her views on a range of other Middle East foreign policy matters.

Though foreign policy is unlikely to emerge as a major issue in the race, differences over Israel could play a role in motivating how some voters cast their ballots this summer, according to Jake Dilemani, a managing director in the New York office of Mercury Public Affairs, who consulted on Maloney’s 2018 campaign but is uninvolved in the current primary.

“There is a segment of the electorate for whom it will be a or the top issue,” said Dilemani, who lives in Maloney’s district, where he is a Democratic Party leader. “In this district, there’s probably more pro-Israel voters, particularly with Brooklyn and Queens slimmed down,” he added. “That could be enough to determine the outcome.”

The heavily Democratic 12th District, as it now stands, is home to a sizable Jewish population of approximately 115,000, according to a survey conducted in 2014 by the Berman Jewish DataBank, a project of The Jewish Federations of North America.

“I feel very fortunate and proud to have the opportunity to represent such a diverse district as the 12th District, and it includes a very vibrant and active Jewish population,” Maloney said. “There are many organizations that are headquartered in the district that I am privileged to represent that are active not only in the religious community but in the civic life of our city.”

“She’s been a fantastic leader for the Jewish community,” said Rami Sigal, a Jewish community activist in his late teens who lives on the Upper East Side and is supporting Maloney in the primary. 

On Monday, Democratic Majority for Israel’s political arm included Maloney in its first round of congressional endorsements in the midterms. The congresswoman “has been a stalwart supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship and a champion for advancing the Democratic agenda,” Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for DMFI PAC, told JI. “She’s facing an opponent who has made her anti-Israel views a central part of her campaign.”

Maloney was also among the first candidates endorsed by the bipartisan advocacy group Pro-Israel America this cycle. In a statement at the time of the announcement last May, shortly after Abdelhamid had entered the race, Jonathan Missner, PIA’s chairman, commended Maloney’s support for “foreign security aid to Israel” while adding his appreciation for her continued efforts “at the forefront of combating antisemitism in New York City and around the world.”

“Given the fact that she is not Jewish herself, I think she is an example for other legislators,” said Janice Weinman, the former CEO of Hadassah, who worked with Maloney to pass a Holocaust education bill that authorized $10 million over five years to bolster resources at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “There are really no words I can say that would do justice to her commitment, her perseverance, her energy to getting this bill passed,” Weinman said of the Never Again Education Act, which was signed into law in 2020. “She was always present on this matter.”

As a former teacher, “I see the answers to many issues as education,” Maloney said. “I would say that young people are not taught to hate. They don’t have hate in their hearts or ‘anti’ thoughts about anything. It’s taught to them.”

The congresswoman expressed alarm, particularly amid rising incidents of antisemitism in New York and across the country, over some polls showing that younger generations are unaware of or misinformed about even the most basic facts regarding the Holocaust. “It shows how fragile democracy can be,” she said, “and how you have to really fight any form of hatred.”

Amanda Berman, the founder and executive director of Zioness, said Maloney was the first member of Congress to stand with the group a week after it had launched, in January 2019, at a “teach-in” confronting allegations of antisemitism within the Women’s March.

“She has been resolute and consistent in that fight, even marching with us at the Women’s March two days later,” said Berman, who clarified that, because of the group’s nonprofit status, she is forbidden from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. “She’s been unequivocal that antisemitism — including anti-Zionism — is intolerable, and that it is ultimately both harmful to the Jewish community and destructive to the feminist and progressive movements.”

Even without the favorable new House map, Maloney would likely have been well situated for the primary. Her campaign has received support from progressive groups, including an endorsement from the political arm of the House Progressive Caucus, as well as influential state legislators like Alessandra Biaggi and Dan Quart. In addition, Maloney has pulled in more than $1.8 million since last January, and she entered the new year with more than $1 million in the bank. 

“I’m proud of my people-powered, grassroots campaign,” Maloney said, “which is rooted in our communities and neighborhoods.”

Abdelhamid has raised just under $800,000, with $380,000 in cash on hand as of late December. She has also notched endorsements from influential progressive leaders in the city, including the actor Cynthia Nixon, City Comptroller Brad Lander and City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán.

But while most political experts said that Maloney seems to have an edge in the primary, Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist in New York, was somewhat less certain of her prospects. The new lines “should be sufficient to protect her this time,” he said. “But anything can happen.”

Either way, he predicted that Maloney will “continue to be a target” in future elections as progressive insurgents in New York City seek to build on previous upsets. “Every year it’s going to be tougher for her to win because there are going to be more people looking to get rid of her,” Sheinkopf told JI. “They’re going to keep running.”

Maloney, for her part,  suggested that she would do the same. “I’ve never lost an election in my entire life, even in high school,” she said. “I don’t intend to start now.”

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