the city politic

Only a Couple of New York Neighbors Can Fight This Nasty

Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney face each other and extinction.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

This past November, Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler threw on reflective safety vests to visit the construction site of the latest Second Avenue subway extension. As colleagues and casual friends, they were used to appearing at events together over their past three decades in Congress representing Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Upper West Side, respectively. Maloney donned a hardhat and joined Governor Hochul and other officials in the tunnels leading to 125th Street, where the line will eventually terminate. Nadler decided to stay aboveground. Both, though, were happy to be photographed together with Hochul to tout the federal cash flowing into the city.

Nine months later, there are no more peppy stunts for the press. The two liberal stalwarts are colliding in an August 23 primary, locked in a war for political survival. Almost nothing is off limits now, including the subway. “She’ll deny it, but I was instrumental in getting the Second Avenue subway running,” Nadler tells me on a recent sweltering Saturday at Old John’s Diner, one of his regular Upper West Side haunts. “Carolyn came to me and asked me to get the funding, and I got it.”

Maloney is furious that Nadler, a longtime transportation Committee member, would boast about securing funds for the subway line that runs through the heart of her old Upper East Side district. “I do not know of one project he has brought into the West Side. That’s what his constituents tell me,” she says over oatmeal and berries at her own neighborhood mainstay, the Mansion on York Avenue. “He was not at the groundbreaking, he was not at the ribbon-cutting, he was not at any of the meetings I had with the MTA. We had hearings on it in the city, and he never came to any of them. He’s lying.”

Not since Bella Abzug, the proto-AOC, launched a primary challenge against a popular liberal congressman a half-century ago have two Manhattan Democrats clashed in such a way. The primary has riven political clubs, paralyzed unions, and forced the many affluent, well-wired Democrats of the city to decide, once and for all, whom they really prefer. “It’s terrible,” says Allen Roskoff, the president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, which narrowly endorsed Nadler. “I can’t think of a race that has been as contentious.”

The race has not only pitted two prestigious lawmakers against each other but also rammed together two distinct, if gentrifying and homogenizing, cultures: Daniel against Zabar’s, Carl Schurz against Riverside, Gossip Girl against Seinfeld. Staunchly liberal, the Upper West Side has, over time, shed some of its distinctly Jewish and socialist character, though it’s still easy enough to corner a red-diaper alte kaker on Broadway. The East Side, traditionally patrician enough to have its old congressional seat nicknamed the Silk Stocking District, has grown much more Democratic over time. Even the celebrities — those who pay attention to politics, at least — have taken notice. “It’s what I call bagels versus croissants. Whether it’s real or not, it’s important to make that notation,” says Alec Baldwin. “There’s still a perceived culture gap between the two spots.” The district also composes what Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight founder, calls “no-man’s-land.” That’s where he lives, a few blocks south of Penn Station. “What kind of people live in midtown essentially? Probably people who prioritize convenience, probably people who have a job in finance, almost for sure someone with a decent income that does not have kids. You have a lot of people who work in high-income jobs, and they’re progressive up to a point, not the type of anti–Wall Street Democrats.”

The West Side and East Side neighborhoods still seem comically alien to the incumbents seeking to represent them for the very first time in the House. Nadler could not tell me his favorite Upper East Side restaurant (“I can’t think of a particular one”) and deemed the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a global icon, his preferred neighborhood destination. Maloney, after bungling the name of Barney Greengrass in a Times interview, arrived more prepared, speaking of her fondness for the West Side community gardens.

The Democratic primary, which includes a viable two-time contender in Suraj Patel, came about after the state’s highest court shot down Democratic-drawn districts that would have preserved the East Side–West Side divide. A court- appointed special master drew new maps that, in one day, radically reordered the New York political universe. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, two entirely new districts emerged, the 10th and the 12th. Both Nadler and Maloney live in the new 12th, a fattened rectangle running from the top of Greenwich Village to West 113th Street, from the East River to the Hudson.

Nadler takes a selfie with a voter during a campaign stop in June. Photo: Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post via Getty Images

About 60 percent of Maloney’s old district is in the new one, but it was Nadler who announced his campaign first and outright refused to run in the 10th, which included the downtown turf that he has represented for decades. He said he wasn’t willing to be the congressman for a district he didn’t live in — though he was more than willing, according to Maloney, to tell her to move downtown. She refused. “He said, ‘Step aside, I’m running.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m running too. I’m not leaving,’” Maloney says. “He said, ‘I’m gonna win.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna win.’ We haven’t spoken since.”

Nadler, 75, is short, squat, and cerebral, the studious and somewhat imperious shtarker liberal of the Jewish Upper West Side. The 76-year-old Maloney, who still speaks with the southern lilt of her North Carolina upbringing, is the feisty feminist of the Waspish Upper East Side, taking constituent calls from the very wealthiest men and women in the world. Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee and was heavily involved in the first impeachment of Donald Trump; Maloney chairs the House Oversight Committee, the House’s main investigative body. They have been allies, if not always close, steadily accumulating seniority in D.C. and fronting numerous causes, like delivering health-care benefits to 9/11 survivors and first responders.

The two now blast each other over their records. Nadler reminds voters and reporters whenever he can that Maloney was one of the Democrats — along with Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, which he is not as likely to note — on the wrong side of history, voting for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. Nadler also backed Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Maloney and many Israel hawks opposed. “She has been wrong on very major issues,” he says. “The Iraq vote showed poor judgment. She believed the Bush administration, and I thought the Bush-administration evidence was just not there. The Patriot Act, that was a cowardly vote … it was cowardly on Carolyn’s part.”

On most policy matters, the two are aligned, and the national implications for the race are limited with Republican voters barely extant in the new district. In the place of national import comes identity. Nadler, the sole Jewish person left in a city House delegation that once boasted as many as eight in the early 1990s, has begun to talk up the importance of his faith. A proud Zionist who nevertheless didn’t have to tout his Jewishness all that much — it was not unique in the five boroughs, after all — his campaign is making an enthusiastic pitch that is, at least to some community members, a bit much. “Give me a break — this guy has been in there 30 years, and all of a sudden he’s the super-Jew? I think that’s bullshit,” says a prominent Upper East Sider heavily involved in pro-Israel causes.

Among donors and activists, the primary itself is a source of frustration. Why do we have to spend so much time on a clash between two Democratic institutions, they wonder, when the whole Democratic majority may fall in November? And then there’s the Hamptons effect: Many, many voters in the glittering high-rises and prewar co-ops have second homes and prefer to inhabit them in late August. All the campaigns agree that’s about the worst time imaginable to have to run a primary in Manhattan. Signs in the district warn residents to get back in town to vote or remember to fill out absentee ballots in time.

Hanging over it all is the endorsement decision from the New York Times editorial board. There is no district in America where the Paper of Record’s sign-off is more crucial, particularly to those on the West Side who treat the Times as a totem. With his votes against Iraq and for the Iran deal, Nadler is thought to have the edge with the board’s liberals, though Maloney, as a woman and fierce advocate for abortion rights in a post-Roe world, is not out of the hunt. Patel, even when running the most policy-centric campaign, is a long shot, though the board likes to throw curveballs, such as last year, when it picked Kathryn Garcia, Bill de Blasio’s Sanitation commissioner, for mayor and she instantly shot up in the polls, buoyed by the wealthy white liberals of Manhattan.

Nadler’s advantage is the West Side, where the rate of voting is incredibly high and the area’s elected officials are entirely behind him. His image as a wonk with a strong political compass has served him well in the neighborhood, where he is revered by older voters. “I’m a West Sider, bottom line. Jerry Nadler has been supportive on every single issue,” says Gale Brewer, the area’s longtime city councilwoman. “His staff and I have worked together since he was in the Assembly.”

The State Assembly days, for Nadler, ended in the early 1990s, and his time in office stretches back far longer, to the late 1970s. And it’s here, in his career of policymaking and courageous tussles with local toughs like Donald Trump — who strained in the 1980s to build a massive skyscraper flanked by TV stations in Nadler’s district — where some of his weaknesses might lie. Nadler has rarely, if ever, won competitive elections. He was crushed in primaries for Manhattan borough president and city comptroller. The House seat he holds today was gifted to him when the incumbent, Ted Weiss, died days before the primary and Nadler won a vote of party insiders to replace Weiss. Primary challengers have come for Nadler since, but they have typically not been credible.

Maloney’s East Side base is not so vote rich, and the elected officials there are not all backing her bid, but she is battle-tested. Patel ran well-funded challenges against her in 2018 and 2020 and could not break through, though he came close, winning over younger Manhattanites and progressives in Brooklyn and Queens who do not reside in the new district. Maloney also knocked off an incumbent to claim a City Council seat and became the Democrat, in 1992, to finally defeat Bill Green, who had swatted away a roster of rising stars throughout the 1970s and 1980s before Maloney came along. “Someone told me the streets of Manhattan are covered with the blood of people who didn’t take Carolyn seriously,” says a city labor leader.

Maloney campaigning on the Upper East Side in June. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Shutterstock

Nadler, in his view at least, made Representative Maloney possible in 1992. “I called up Denny Farrell, a colleague of mine who at the time was the county Democratic leader, and I said, ‘Denny, are you looking at the congressional lines?’ And he said ‘yes.’ He looked at it, and I remember his exact quote. He said: ‘Holy shit, what the fuck is that?’” It was, Nadler proclaimed at the time, enough Democrats to flip the East Side House seat. Farrell, according to Nadler, asked for candidate recommendations. “I said the councilwoman on the East Side, Carolyn Maloney.” An aide to Nadler politely points out it was the West 90s, not West 100s, that were plunked into the district. Either way, Maloney would go on to win. “Bill Clinton carried the district very, very heavily,” Nadler notes dismissively. (Maloney bluntly replies that Nadler played no role in her ascent.)

Maloney is a year older than Nadler but is more visibly energetic. In their first television debate on Tuesday, she was less likely to stumble over lines or misspeak. “To be frank, in my district, there’s never an issue that goes by in Stuy Town or on the Upper East Side that doesn’t get an immediate phone call from her,” says Keith Powers, a city councilman backing Maloney. In their interviews, Maloney is, by far, the more voluble one, eagerly listing off accomplishments, like a bill that provides grants to localities to analyze DNA samples collected from victims of crimes and criminal offenders, and offering detailed explanations of particular votes. Maloney may have more to prove: Her career has been peppered with oddities, like her obsession with bringing pandas to New York, her decision to wear a burka on the House floor to support America’s invasion of Afghanistan, and her flirtations with the pre-COVID anti-vaccine movement.

On that issue, Patel has already cut a TV ad lashing Maloney for past comments she made about the debunked link between vaccines and autism, as well as her introduction of legislation in 2006 to direct the federal government to further study concerns about vaccines. Cynthia Nixon, the Sex and the City actress, clashed with Maloney at a recent Manhattan club meeting over her history with vaccines. “It concerns me. She’s a Democrat of great long standing in Congress, so she has a lot of authority,” says Nixon, who has endorsed against Maloney in the past. “Most people who are putting forth theories linking autism and vaccines are not Democrats. They’re fringe Republicans.”

Maloney insists she is not anti-vaxx and her opponents are taking her bills and comments out of context, including remarks about mercury in vaccines. “I support vaccines. I’m vaccinated, my family’s vaccinated. I support vaccines and the science behind them,” she says. “The Centers for Disease Control has taken mercury out of children’s vaccines. I asked a question on vaccines, and what is the lesson there — don’t ask a question? I would say there is no issue that is so controversial that it cannot be questioned or debated.”

In this clash of political titans, is there room for the 38-year-old Patel? A business professor, attorney, and scion of a lucrative immigrant-run development and hotel-management operation, Patel is a former Obama aide who looks the part. He recalls, with fondness, dodging horse manure as an advance man for a Joe Biden event in Florida. In a four-way race two years ago, Patel won 39 percent to Maloney’s 43 percent, and he’s the only candidate excited to run in the new district, even though he’s shed supporters in Brooklyn and Queens. When he first ran against Maloney, in 2018, he was billed as an AOC-style progressive, but he’s positioned himself differently since, speaking more like the upwardly mobile, technocratic liberal who could appeal to a 44-year-old financier in Hudson Yards. He wears a crisp white button-down and Birkenstocks.

“This isn’t about stunts and press releases in terms of showing that you care. And it’s not about moving further left. It’s not an ideological primary. It’s about urgency,” Patel tells me, speaking from his sparse campaign headquarters in the Flatiron District. “It’s about showing which of these three candidates have the urgency and speed and understanding of the 2022 media and economic system to actually make a difference.” Having banked around $500,000, Patel is more than a third wheel: There is a chance, albeit a small one, he can thread a path to victory, though his most notable endorsement, as of now, is Andrew Yang.

Both Nadler and Maloney have dismissed Patel as a risk the voters can’t take because all the seniority the district could enjoy would be gone. But Patel is betting there’s a large cohort of younger voters who simply won’t care. Given the relative paralysis of Congress, neither Nadler nor Maloney are capable, in the short term, of delivering big spending for the city. With the overturning of Roe, Patel is hoping enough voters are sick of longtime Democrats who couldn’t prevent such a catastrophe.

Even if Patel, as expected, loses, neither Maloney nor Nadler will have a hold on Manhattan indefinitely. Each, though, has a pitch for sticking around a while longer. Maloney wants to find a way to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Nadler wants to fight to expand the Supreme Court and diminish right-wing power there. Realistically, none of these goals will be reached when either of them retires. And neither, still, can imagine life beyond the crush of politics. I ask Nadler, as he’s nibbling his French toast at Old John’s, if he knows what life after Congress, when it comes, will look like. He breathes in. “I have no idea,” he says.

Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney Really Hate Each Other