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A West (and East) Side Story
The Rumble Across Central Park: The Special Master pits Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler - and Manhattan's East and West Side - against one another.
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On Monday, Jonathan Cervas, a court-appointed Special Master, released redrawn maps of New York’s Congressional and State Senate districts. For many politicos, the draft maps were akin to a hand-grenade, abruptly altering the landscape across the City and State.
The impending result, predictably, was chaos.
Longtime incumbents found themselves drawn out of their home congressional districts - often into another district shared by one of their House colleagues.
Manhattan’s East and West Side (from approximately 14th Street to East 97th / West 100th Street), long divided between Carolyn Maloney in the former and Jerry Nadler in the latter - were merged together for the first time in eighty years, in an all-Manhattan new 12th Congressional District.
The old NY10 represented by Nadler, wove down Manhattan’s West Side, from Morningside Heights to Battery Park City, before snaking into Brooklyn to encompass Hasidic-dominated Borough Park, as well as parts of New Utrecht, Midwood, and Bensonhurst. The district, nicknamed the Jerry-mander due to its awkward-looking gerrymandered contours, was designed to increase Jewish representation - uniting Upper West Side liberal Jews with Southern Brooklyn’s more conservative Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish population.
NY12, represented by Maloney since 1993, previously featured a tri-borough combination of Manhattan’s East Side (from Stuyvesant Town to East 97th Street), Western Queens (Long Island City and Astoria), and North Brooklyn (Greenpoint and the North Side of Williamsburg).
As Western Queens and North Brooklyn have gentrified, progressive resistance to Maloney has grown - resulting in brutal primary challenges the past two election cycles.
As the news broke, many observers (including this writer) believed Maloney had skirted the prospect of defeat once more. Shedding the entirety of Brooklyn and Queens, some of the most fertile ground for leftists in the entire City, had excavated the base of both her challengers, Rana Abdelhamid and Suraj Patel - a devastating blow. Both Abdelhamid (Astoria) and Patel (East Village) were drawn out of the district entirely.
In this saga of improbable twists and turns, Maloney appeared to have lucked out.
While Maloney would stay in NY12, where her home and Upper East Side electoral base remained, conventional wisdom indicated Nadler would run for the redrawn NY-10.
After all, the district still remained majority white, while retaining approximately 40.8% of the old NY10 - keeping Greenwich Village, Tribeca, the Financial District, and Borough Park. Many of the Brooklyn neighborhoods added to the district - like Caroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope and Winsdor Terrace - are home to a high concentrations of active liberal and progressive voters, many of whom are familiar with Nadler given his decades of public service, and would undoubtedly be amenable to his representation.
Simply put, the new district, despite a degree of unfamiliarity, remained favorable to the dean of New York City’s House delegation. Rather than an expensive and costly clash with Maloney in NY12, a run in NY10 would likely have been met with nominal opposition, especially on the Manhattan side. Most ambitious politicians, eagerly eyeing the prospect of an open seat, would realistically opt to wait out Nadler’s long rumored retirement - rather than risk burning bridges.
However, Nadler did not budge. His political base, and home - The Upper West Side - which he has represented at the State and Federal level since 1977 - was left behind in NY12.
In a statement that sent shockwaves across the Democratic establishment, Nadler, after assailing the new maps for a potential violation of the state constitution, concluded: “I look forward to running in and representing the people of the newly created 12th District of New York.”
This bombshell came without a phone call to Maloney, according to the NY Post.
“[Maloney] called Nadler to see if they could work together to try to get the House lines altered. Nadler, according to Maloney, said it was a waste of time and told her to run in another district.” (NY Post)
And just like that, the race is on.
It is difficult to understate the gravity and historical implications of this matchup. Both Maloney and Nadler were elected in 1992. They each chair powerful House Committees in Washington; Maloney with Oversight and Nadler with the Judiciary. By all accounts enjoy an amicable relationship as two of Manhattan’s longest serving Democrats.
Both Maloney and Nadler have become synonymous with their respective side of Central Park. Yet both neighborhoods, despite sharing similar demographic and class profiles, have not been drawn together in a Congressional district - in some meaningful form - since Republican Joseph Clark Baldwin held the seat in 1943.
Manhattan’s East Side-based district, colloquially referred to as the “silk stocking district”, was represented in Congress by liberal Republicans like Bill Green and John Lindsay for decades. In fact, it was the last Congressional district in Manhattan to be held by a member of the GOP.
Editor’s Note: Ed Koch held this seat for eight years before he was elected Mayor
While the area has been reliably blue at the federal level for nearly three decades, the red-leaning tint can still be seen upon closer examination.
Michael Bloomberg did quite well throughout the neighborhood during his three Mayoral campaigns. Ditto for Joe Lhota, who was crushed by Bill de Blasio citywide in 2013, but still managed to win the Upper East Side.
Overall, the neighborhood straddles between high-income Kathryn Garcia Democrats and Bloomberg Republicans between Park and Fifth Avenue - with a mix younger renters (oftentimes more progressive) and fixed income seniors farther East towards York Avenue (also known as Yorkville).
Carolyn Maloney, for the most part, lines up rather well with the neighborhood’s median voter - racially, economically, and ideologically.
The Upper West Side, on the other hand, has a steady history of representation from liberal Democrats - dating back to the likes Ted Weiss, Bella Abzug, and Albert Blumenthal. The neighborhood became an an epicenter of Jewish reformers in the 40s and 50s and 60s, who sought to usurp Tammany Hall’s grip over the Democratic Party.
Nadler’s political ascension came at the tail end of the reform movements.
Rising through the local ranks as a district leader, Nadler became a leading contender to replace a retiring neighborhood legend, State Assembly Member and Democratic Majority Leader Albert Blumenthal. In a race decided by twenty-three votes, Nadler barely edged Ruth Messinger, who went on to serve in the City Council, as Manhattan Borough President, and as the Democratic nominee for Mayor in 1997.
Despite serving comfortably in the Assembly for eight terms, coasting to re-election each time, higher office enticed Nadler, but such efforts did not bear fruit.
In a head-to-head matchup with fellow-Assembly Member David Dinkins in the 1985 Manhattan Borough Presidents race, he lost decisively - 65% to 35%. An even more disastrous run for City Comptroller four years later, where he gained less than four percent in a five person primary - appeared to signal Nadler’s electoral weakness.
However, Congressman Ted Weiss of the newly-redrawn 17th Congressional District passed away the day before the 1992 Democratic Primary - where he was facing scant opposition. In a twist as old as time, Nadler was easily nominated by the county committee to replace Weiss on the Democratic ballot.
Editor’s Note: Retiring Assembly Member and New York Health Act champion Dick Gottfried received over 5% of the county committee vote. Other names on the county committee ballot: City Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge (21%) and State Senator Franz Leichter (10%).
Just like that, Nadler was in Congress, representing a district that, for the most part, has remained relatively unchanged - including most of Manhattan’s West Side below 89th Street (in the past decade, the district’s northernmost boundary has been pushed up to West 122nd Street) and Brooklyn’s Borough Park - until now.
Since his fateful run for State Assembly in 1976, Nadler has never been in any election decided by fewer than twenty-nine percentage points.
This fact sharply contrasts with Carolyn Maloney, who has made a habit of winning close races throughout her career. Maloney began her life in politics challenging incumbent City Councilman Robert Rodriguez (whose son is now NY Secretary of State, and a former East Harlem Assembly Member) in an East Harlem / South Bronx based district. The New York Times, who labeled Rodriguez as “unimpressive”, backed Maloney over another challenger, Roberto Anazagasti, due to her staffing experience in Albany. In a nail-biter, she prevailed by sixty-nine votes.
Rodriguez, mired in defeat, proceeded to challenge Maloney in the November general election. In a higher turnout race, Maloney doubled up his margin - winning by 10,000 votes - 60% to 30%. Still, Rodriguez did not quit, challenging her again four years later, along with future City Councilmember Bill Perkins. While Maloney won relatively comfortably - it was only with a plurality - her 43% to Rodriguez’s 30% and Perkins 14%.
In four years, Maloney had already run in more close and competitive elections than Nadler had in his entire career.
After serving in the Council for a decade, Maloney set her sights on Republican Bill Green’s East Side Congressional seat. Green, who had narrowly defeated firebrand Bella Abzug by 1,161 votes in special election to fill Ed Koch’s Congressional seat, had won his last two races by over twenty points.
“Bill Green always seemed to be the quintessential representative for the old Silk Stocking district on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Patrician and polite, socially progressive without being strident, Mr. Green, a Republican, wooed and won Democratic voters in his Congressional district time and again, defeating such formidable opponents as Mark Green, Bella S. Abzug and Andrew J. Stein.”
“Mr. Green is a Republican on the left edge of his party, in the tradition of Jacob K. Javits and former Mayor John V. Lindsay, and in Congress has consistently voted against the Republican leadership on issues like the environment and abortion. At the Republican National Convention this year, he led a demonstration in support of abortion rights.” (The New York Times)
Yet, as part of 1992’s dicentennial redistricting, the once solely-Manhattan NY-14 was given a tri-borough amendment, now including Ditmars-Steinway in Western Queens and Greenpoint and the North Side of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
“Ms. Maloney was able to chip away at Mr. Green's record, running ads that sought to portray him as just another Reagan-Bush Republican. But in the end much of her appeal came from her own high profile -- her Council district is completely within the Congressional district -- and from her campaign style.”
The altered district lines, Maloney’s energetic campaign style - which The Times contrasted with Green’s “benign distance” - coupled with a strong performance by Bill Clinton at the top of the ticket, played an instrumental role in Maloney’s toppling of the incumbent, who outspent her $600,000 to $220,000.
In the end, Green narrowly bested Maloney in the Manhattan portion of the district - 88,482 votes (50.53%) to 86,627 votes (49.47%) - by a margin of 1,855 votes. However, Maloney crushed Green in Queens (9,307 votes to 5,017 votes) and Brooklyn (5,718 votes to 3,716 votes) - an outer borough margin of 6,292 votes - which, when combined with her close loss in Manhattan, was enough to make up the difference - a triumph of 4,437 votes.
When asked, Green attributed his demise to redistricting, telling The New York Times:
“With the district's new boundaries not decided until midsummer, he said, ‘it really would have taken longer than four months to get to the point where I could persuade people I hadn't represented before to vote for me.’”
For the next twenty-six years, Maloney cruised by with heavy margins, rarely facing primaries, and winning convincingly when she did. Yet that all changed in 2018.
Her district, renumbered to NY12, had gone through an additional two redistricting cycles, now holding more stock in Western Queens and North Brooklyn - two areas emerging as a hotbed for leftist. Suraj Patel, an attorney, gave Maloney a spirited challenge, tapping into progressive and anti-establishment energy across the East River.
It worked, to a degree. While Maloney prevailed, winning 57% of the vote - with the heaviest margins on the Manhattan side - she bled support substantially in Queens and Brooklyn.
Out of the three incumbent NYC Congressional members who drew competitive primaries that summer, Maloney faired the best - as Joe Crowley was vanquished and Yvette Clarke escaped by a margin of only 4% - a silver lining for the incumbent amidst a changing district.
After the Progressive wave of 2018 led to the ascension of megastar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maloney made a concerted effort to tact to the left and shore herself up with left voters. She co-sponsored the Green New Deal and Medicare for All in addition to other progressive bills to cancel student debt and expand the Supreme Court.
Yet, Patel returned again, along with two more leftist challengers, Lauren Ashcraft and Peter Harrison.
This time, Patel increased his margins across the board, especially in Manhattan, besting Maloney in several election districts in Yorkville, Koreatown and Murray Hill, while winning the East Village outright.
Across the river, Maloney’s struggles were even more pronounced. In Brooklyn (20.6%) and Queens (32%), Maloney was almost entirely shut out - save for public housing residents.
Ironically, Brooklyn and Queens helped push Maloney into Congress in 1992, but in the last two cycles - they have done just the opposite - evidence that much has changed in the past thirty years.
In spite of this, Maloney still prevailed, as her Upper East Side base remained loyal to her, winning with a plurality of the vote - 43.72% to Patel’s 39.28%.
As this next cycle approached, with Justice Democrat Rana Abdelhamid’s entrance into the race, a similarly close and contentious campaign seemed on the horizon NY12 - pending the new district lines.
When the Special Master released his draft maps on Monday, the amended NY12 looked like the perfect district for someone of Maloney’s profile, while also appearing to disarm her progressive challengers.
However, that calculus did not include a heavyweight matchup with Nadler, which has turned the election upside down.
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Let’s talk about the race itself.
According to Greg Giroux, a Bloomberg Government reporter, 60.7% of the new NY12 was located in Carolyn Maloney’s old district, while 39.6% was located in Nadler’s old NY10. Indeed, Maloney’s old district stretched West to include Midtown Manhattan, so this discrepancy makes sense. Advantage Maloney.
Even for a primary in the dearth of August, both the the Upper West and Upper East Side’s have a track record of high voter turnout. Additionally, given flexible early voting schedules and absentee ballot options for those out of town, I don’t anticipate turnout being disastrously low. In spite of this, the 67th Assembly District on the West Side is a voting juggernaut, go and check here, they have some of the highest voter turnout in the entire City. On August 23rd, I know those folks will be at the polls. Slight advantage Nadler.
Maloney has been fighting for her political life the past two primary cycles. You can disregard the races 30-40 years ago if you choose, but she is used to the idea of campaigning hard to keep her job. She has already been actively running a race this year - granted in a district that was just evaporated - but the larger point stands. Her electoral infrastructure, campaign staff, and fundraising are already there - it just needs to be redirected. Nadler, even through an optimistic lens, is out of practice. While she is not an electoral titan like Chuck Schumer, Maloney is undefeated in her career. No matter who you are, those streaks are difficult to beat. Advantage Maloney.
Controversies. During her series of primaries the past four years, Maloney has faced scrutiny for making questionable comments about vaccines during a 2012 Congressional hearing on autism, in addition to a 2001 incident where she wore a burqa on the House floor to protest the Taliban. These episodes stick in voter’s minds and have become recurring talking points for her opponents. As far as I can recall, Nadler has had no such incidents that have evoked near-universal condemnation. Advantage Nadler.
Maloney has long prided herself as a champion of women’s issue. Given the draft leak of the Supreme Court’s intention to strike down Roe v. Wade, I predict Maloney will lean on her history of advocacy for reproductive rights. In a race with few discernible differences from the outside, this could be a compelling case to voters. Slight advantage Maloney.
Given that the new district slightly favors Maloney, coupled with the current political moment and her greater experience running in close races, one might think she is the favorite.
Well, nothing is quite that simple.
Overall, Maloney and Nadler have relatively similar politics. Both are liberal in the scheme of the nationwide Democratic Party, co-sponsoring landmark progressive legislation like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and tuition free college. Yet, both take Corporate PAC money and consistently affirm their support for Israel. They don’t shout down progressives, but are not the first in line to support them either. This extends to their voting record. At least on Domestic issues.
Yet on foreign policy - except with respect to Israel - the two have occasionally split from their Democratic colleagues, and one another. For instance, Nadler voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2020 while Maloney did not. Similarly with the Iran Deal, Nadler voted Yea, Maloney voted Nay.
While consequential, those two House votes are unlikely to swing a Manhattan Congressional election.
However, I ask you, what foreign policy vote could swing this election?
The Iraq War.
Arguably the most infamous and litigated vote in the history of the House of Representatives:
Nadler voted against it.
Maloney voted for it.
This vote, in a campaign run amongst a voting cohort of educated, white liberals - is exactly the type of issue that could help decide a race - especially one run on a short timeline with few discernible contrasts between candidates - twenty years later.
This campaign could remain perfectly amicable, as both could primarily focus on their record in Congress, look to tap into their base, and rest easy knowing that retirement is coming soon, either by defeat this cycle, or a walk off into the sunset in a few years. Or, with immense personal pride at stake, this could become a classic case of a redistricting food fight, with two longtime colleagues at each other’s throats. Time will tell.
The winner could also play an outsized role in choosing the district’s next representative following their own inevitable departure. Both undoubtedly have preferred successors in mind.
There are other questions that come to mind. Who will endorse? How much money will be spent?
Will other New York City Congressional members stay on the sidelines, facing a potential lose-lose scenario?
Will this just merely be a proxy war between the East and West Side - where all the local electeds and organizations from the East Side back Maloney, and the opposite for Nadler? Will anyone defect and endorse crosstown?
Will Governor Kathy Hochul, a former roommate of Maloney during her time in D.C., or Mayor Eric Adams take the plunge and endorse?
Most importantly, will anyone blink? Undoubtedly, the donor class and the D.C. establishment is furious that this race has come to fruition. In the next few weeks, there will be mounting pressure for one of them to drop out. However, I believe this matchup will stay intact.
But even if it doesn’t, this moment - the chaos and uncertainty caused by the Special Master’s draft maps, pitting two thirty-year incumbents against one another, while blowtorching the State’s entire congressional map, and potentially shifting the balance of power in the House of Representatives - deserves to be remembered.
For better, or for worse.
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