Sean Patrick Maloney pursues the mainstream lane in matchup against Biaggi

The Hudson Valley congressman criticized state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi for accepting the endorsements of pro-BDS officials

Facing a primary challenge from his left, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, is touting his “unwavering support for the Jewish community and for Israel” as he seeks reelection in a newly drawn Hudson Valley congressional district with a sizable and politically active Jewish voting bloc.

“I’m not going to ask for support from anybody who doesn’t support Israel, and I’m not going to play footsie with people who would support BDS or undermine the security of Israel,” Maloney said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting the Jewish state. “I never have. I never will.”

The implication was that his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, has engaged in such maneuvering, owing in part to her connections with left-leaning Democrats in Albany who have backed BDS. More recently, she has drawn support from some federal elected officials who have spoken out against Israel, most notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who endorsed Biaggi’s campaign last month.

For her part, Biaggi has sought to clarify that she disagrees with Ocasio-Cortez on Middle East policy, even if they are otherwise largely aligned on domestic issues. “I have consistently said, and I will consistently say here, too, that I support Israel,” the 36-year-old state senator said in an interview with JI in June. “I support it, not despite being a progressive, but because I am progressive.”

Still, with those reassurances yet to be tested at the congressional level, Maloney, who has held office since 2013, suggested that his progressive rival is building a coalition that could ultimately prove untenable if she is elected to the House. “You’re going to have to ask her how she’s going to balance owing them her election because of their strong support, and then disagreeing with them on so many issues that she says she feels differently about,” Maloney said. “I think there are tough questions for my opponent to answer.”

On the other hand, Maloney claimed, his own record requires no similar level of scrutiny as he competes for a sixth term in New York’s reconstituted 17th Congressional District, the voting population of which represents only about a quarter of his previous constituency. “People won’t have to worry about me,” he told JI.

Former Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), a pro-Israel stalwart who retired from the district last year after more than three decades in the House, backed up his assessment. In a statement to JI, she offered her enthusiastic endorsement of Maloney’s campaign, describing the five-term congressman as “an invaluable partner” who “has been a leader on issues of national security and an unwavering supporter of our allies, including Israel.”

The 55-year-old congressman “has been responsive on issues of concern to the Jewish community, including efforts to combat antisemitism in the Hudson Valley, across New York and around the world,” Lowey added. “Sean is a powerful representative for the Hudson Valley and New York State, and we should keep him in Congress.”

With just over a month remaining until the Aug. 23 primary, the hotly contested Democratic matchup has emerged as one of the latest fronts in an ongoing proxy battle between the party’s activist and establishment wings. But while several recent showdowns have featured sharp divisions over Israel, the Hudson Valley race is playing out along somewhat different lines.

On paper, at least, the two opponents both seem to share a mainstream Democratic lane on Israel, even if Maloney is the only candidate who has dealt directly with Middle East issues at the federal level. 

Each supports continued U.S. military aid to Israel as well as additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. They also back efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab nations. Both have opposed BDS. While Maloney has visited Israel a number of times as an elected official, Biaggi is now coordinating her first trip with a group of Jewish leaders in her state Senate district, though a spokesperson for her campaign could not confirm the exact date of the excursion, which has yet to be finalized. 

Speaking with JI, however, Maloney went further than his opponent on at least one policy point. Not to be outdone, it seemed, he advocated for increasing the $38 billion in U.S. aid to Israel that is guaranteed in a 10-year memorandum of understanding between the two countries signed during the Obama administration, offering a fairly unique policy position that he does not appear to have expressed publicly before. “I’m a member of the House Intelligence Committee,” Maloney explained, “and I am laser-focused on the very real threats to Israel from the Iranian nuclear program and from terrorist groups.”

Like most Democrats, Biaggi has said she will support continued security assistance to Israel, in contrast with some of her supporters in the House who have pressed for conditioning aid, such as Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY).

Even as Biaggi has endeavored to neutralize an awkward tension at the center of her Middle East policy platform, her affiliation with some activists who support policies that are critical of Israel has remained difficult to shake. Earlier this week, one of her closest allies in the state legislature, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, came out in favor of BDS in an interview with JI, prompting a New York lawmaker to revoke his endorsement. Niou is currently running for Congress in a redrawn district covering parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Notwithstanding such associations, Maloney alleged that his opponent has otherwise championed policies that are too extreme for the 17th District, which is rated “lean Democratic” by The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan elections forecaster. The first-time House candidate is “a strong, capable, professional politician” who “comes from a political dynasty,” Maloney said, alluding to her late grandfather, Mario, who was a longtime Bronx congressman. “She’s very good at this, but her policies are ultra-left.”

Past statements in which Biaggi has expressed support for defunding the police, a phrase the state senator says she has stopped using, will be “a tough sell,” Maloney argued, in what he described as a “conservative” district. “My overriding focus is on holding the House of Representatives,” he told JI. “As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I am working as hard as I know how to keep extreme and dangerous MAGA-style Republicans from controlling the House.”

Michael Lawler, a state assemblyman in Rockland County, is expected to win the Republican primary nomination and advance to the general election in November.

While Maloney said he did “not fully understand” Biaggi’s “motivations” for entering the race, he acknowledged that “she has every right to run, and I’m going to go out and make my case to the voters.”

Biaggi, who represents portions of the Bronx and Westchester County, has often made her reasons clear. The state senator had initially entered the race for a House seat that will soon be vacated by outgoing Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), until the finalization of New York’s congressional map drew her out of the 3rd District, which had mostly covered Long Island.

In mid-May, Biaggi announced that she would instead try to unseat Maloney, motivated by his controversial decision to run in a neighboring district that had been held by freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), who is now pursuing a second term in New York City. The maneuver, which had forced a potential primary battle with a fellow incumbent, drew intense backlash from a range of Democrats who believed that Maloney had ignored a higher mandate to protect his colleagues as the leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Maloney, who previously represented the 18th District, has defended the move, noting that his home in Cold Springs sits within the boundaries where he is vying for the nomination. “From my point of view,” he said in May, “I’m just running where I landed.”

But Biaggi has rejected that logic. The Bronx legislator has called Maloney a “self-serving” corporate Democrat, while accusing him not only of enabling Republicans during his time in the House but opposing the advancement of signature Democratic achievements like the Affordable Care Act.

In the interview with JI, Maloney dismissed the criticism as “desperate nonsense from a failing campaign.” Pointing to recent legislation in which he has advocated for lowering the cost of prescription drug prices and successfully banned oil barge anchorages on the Lower Hudson River, the congressman argued that he has frequently stood up for “practical progressive values in a very challenging political environment.”

“I’m the first openly gay person ever elected to Congress from New York,” he said. “I’m raising an interracial family in a Trump district. When I hear my opponent talking about standing up against entrenched forces and being bold, I feel like I’ve done that in my career. I don’t need a lecture.”

Ana Hall, Biaggi’s campaign manager, returned additional fire in a statement to JI. “Sean Patrick Maloney can pretend he didn’t vote repeatedly with Republicans to weaken the Affordable Care Act, or endorse far-right Republicans in the Hudson Valley, or recently help reelect the last remaining anti-choice Democrat in Congress,“ she said. “He can pretend he hasn’t taken millions of dollars from Wall Street, Big Pharma and the fossil fuel industry. The truth, however, is a matter of public record.”

“Here’s the choice: I’m a mainstream, practical guy who works with everybody to get things done,” Maloney countered. “What I can tell you is, I don’t want the support of people who are going to undermine Israel, who are anti-law enforcement or who are socialists,” he said. “That’s not my crowd.”

Both candidates are now actively courting support from a significant new contingent of Jewish voters. The district, which spans several counties in the Hudson Valley, takes in Rockland, which is home to the largest Jewish population per capita of any county in the U.S. Richard Levin, who chairs the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, said Maloney and Biaggi have each held separate meetings with the organization in recent weeks.

“Each of the candidates expressed strong support for the State of Israel, stated their opposition to the BDS movement and expressed a desire to fight hate and antisemitism,” said Levin, who was only present for the meeting with Biaggi. During the talk, he recalled, Biaggi “assured” those in attendance that “regardless of who may endorse her, she has always been and will always continue to be a strong supporter of Israel.”

Levin said he had no reason to doubt her. “She appeared to be genuine,” he told JI, “and we would hold her accountable as we would any other politician if they told us one thing and acted differently.”

Elliot Forchheimer, the chief executive officer of the Westchester Jewish Council, offered a somewhat more guarded assessment of his own meeting with Biaggi, which took place, he said, when the state senator was running in the 3rd District. “She was very engaging, but we don’t know her,” he told JI last week, adding that he had not reconnected with Biaggi since she launched her new campaign. “She has never served our catchment area.”

Biaggi, who assumed office after unseating a long-serving Democratic incumbent in 2018, has developed strong relationships with Jewish voters in her current legislative domain, which includes the heavily Jewish Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. The new 17th District, however, does not overlap with her current constituency. 

While Forchheimer emphasized that, like Levin, he is prohibited from making political endorsements as a nonprofit official, he acknowledged that he is more familiar with Maloney because the congressman has attended Westchester Jewish Council events and supported its projects over the years. “In our eyes, he’s done his job,” Forchheimer noted. “We’re very pleased with the relationship. I can certainly say that. He’s been very responsive to the Jewish community.”

Gedalye Szegedin, the village administrator of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave in Orange County that sat within Maloney’s old district, said the congressman had been a “powerful advocate and ally” throughout his tenure in the House. “He has prioritized and provided exemplary constituent services and consistently advocated for investment in community development and local priorities.”

Among his priorities, Maloney said, has been addressing what he characterized as a concerning rise in antisemitic incidents in the Hudson Valley. “I really want to work closely with the community on those issues,” he said. “There are things we need to be doing in terms of security assistance and intelligence gathering and the kind of social media monitoring and proactive steps that will prevent violence.”

Emphasizing that anti-Jewish prejudice “exists in the extremes of both parties,” the congressman took particular aim at BDS, which he pinned as a “dangerous antisemitic movement” that typically emanates from the hard left. “We need to take it seriously.”

Maloney said he planned to “compete hard” for support from the Jewish community, which could prove meaningful in a competitive late-summer primary where turnout is expected to be lower than usual.

Early polling from the Maloney campaign, conducted between May 26 and June 1, showed the congressman with a 30-point lead over his opponent. Biaggi came in at 15% among 385 likely Democratic primary voters. The congressman’s support rose to 51%, with Biaggi trailing by 28 points, after voters “heard introductory paragraphs” about each candidate’s “messaging,” according to a polling memo provided by his campaign. About a fifth of respondents said they were undecided.

There is no other publicly available polling on the race, whose dynamics have shifted since the beginning of June. Biaggi, for example, has since notched a major endorsement from the progressive Working Families Party, which consequently pulled its support for Maloney. The group’s backing could lend a pivotal boost to Biaggi’s on-the-ground outreach efforts.

Last weekend, Maloney hosted a campaign kickoff rally, where he was joined by several Democratic committee leaders and local elected officials. On Monday, he announced an $850,000 fundraising haul in the last three months, with approximately $2.5 million on hand going into the final stretch of the race. He released his first ad the following day.

Biaggi’s campaign declined to share updated fundraising totals ahead of Friday’s filing deadline. The upstart legislator, who told JI last month that she had seen a significant grassroots fundraising bump shortly after Ocasio-Cortez endorsed her candidacy, had nearly $326,000 in the bank as of March 31, according to the latest numbers from the Federal Election Commission.

Maloney had already consolidated a decent level of support from pro-Israel groups before he jumped districts. In March, he gained backing from the Jewish Democratic Council of America as well as a political action committee affiliated with the lobbying group AIPAC. 

Alan Solomont, who chairs the national board of J Street and was the U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra from 2010 to 2013, also gave his “full support” to Maloney’s campaign in a statement to JI. 

“As a former ambassador and long-time advocate for the Jewish community, I can say with complete confidence that Rep. Maloney is the kind of leader we need more of in Congress,” said Solomont, who currently serves as dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. “He is an unabashed advocate for democracy, national security and U.S. interests abroad. Through his role in congressional leadership, he has been a consistent and important voice for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

In the interview with JI, Maloney said “the immediacy of the Iranian threat” has fueled his conviction that U.S. military assistance to Israel “should be increased and modernized.” The Iranian nuclear program “has moved forward and is now far more dangerous than it was just a couple of years ago, and so the situation on the ground is changing, and not for the better,” he explained. “Israel needs to, with our help, be able to defend herself and maintain a qualitative advantage relative to those threats.”

He alluded specifically to some “military capabilities that the Israelis still lack,” including “types of radiological and biological capabilities” as well as “attack aircraft” that can “go against facilities deep underground.” Israel, Maloney said, “should be able to prepare for that with our help.”

While Maloney supported the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, he believes the “likelihood” of reentering an agreement is “very low at this moment,” even as he insisted that “we have to stay at the table” because diplomacy is “always” the best option. “But you’ve got to be clear-eyed about it, and we aren’t where we were a few years ago,” Maloney observed. “These other issues we’ve been talking about to bolster and guarantee Israel’s security become more urgent,” he added. “It’s a dangerous time.”

The Abraham Accords, Maloney argued, are a major component of such efforts, which he characterized as multi-tiered in a detailed assessment of the geopolitical dynamics in the region. Bolstering ties between Israel and the Sunni Gulf kingdoms, he said, will help ensure that a “shared concern about the Iranian threat can produce a better strategic and economic relationship.”

Moreover, “it’s very important that we continue to focus on the Palestinian issue,” at risk of limiting Israel’s ability to pursue diplomacy throughout the Middle East, he continued. “The long-term success of Israel depends on a strong security relationship with the West Bank and Gaza and a strong political system in each of those places with good partners and a growing economy,” Maloney insisted. “That’s a project that will take decades, but it’s one we must continue to work on.”

Maloney, who is now entering his second decade in the House, said his commitment to such issues is rooted in a “strong and passionate view” that America’s long-standing relationship with Israel is a “critical” one, “and we should not be undermining it.”

“I do not believe in this false moral equivalence that paints Israel as an evil country,” he told JI. “It’s not. It’s a strong ally that shares our values, and we should be strongly supporting Israel. That’s who I’ve been in Congress, that’s who I’m going to be in Congress, and you don’t have to wonder about that.”

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