A Meeting with NY-12 Congressional Candidate Suraj Patel
April 12th, 2020
It was around 4:15pm on a Thursday in late February when Suraj Patel, a Democratic candidate for New York’s 12th Congressional District, walked into Coffeed at the Factory in Long Island City. He exuded confidence and political astuteness. His suit made it seem like he was at a meeting with important local political players, not at a student-candidate café meet-up organized by BHSEC Queens’ South Asian Student Association. Even though none of the fifteen students nor three school staff members there would be able to vote in the primary in which he was running, he still spoke with us as if we were powerful political players with whom he would need to keep close in contact during his campaign.
He began our discussion by talking about his upbringing and personal background, something that, as he continued to talk about, seemed to inform the progressive politics he subscribes to. He spoke about his immigrant roots, and how, if he were to win his primary and general races, he would be the first South Asian member of New York’s House of Representative Delegation. He talked about the incredible contributions blue collar workers and immigrants have made to the nation and the District. His father worked for the MTA, repairing the subway’s rails, rails which, he quipped, “are still in use.” He discussed his entry into politics, how he volunteered and helped coordinate events for Barack Obama in 2008. It was “exhilarating” being part of the successful campaign of the first black president, he said, and it inspired him to enter politics himself. Then, anger filled his eyes when he mentioned Donald Trump’s bigoted and reactionary campaign and presidency; most of it in response to Obama’s racially inclusive and generally progressive politics. He teared up as he discussed the spike in hate crimes and hateful politics directed towards people of color and LGBTQ folks, inspired primarily by the election of a bigot. Being South Asian, Suraj was not immune to this hate and divisive politics.
Suraj, however, is not blind to the long history of racism, sexism, and wealth inequality in this country. He turned to the chronic problems that Americans have faced and will continue to face unless they are confronted: mass incarceration, climate change, racial inequality and division, and a dramatic lack of healthcare coverage. He declared that “we are only as healthy as the least healthy person in the country,” a mantra which rings especially profound as COVID-19 afflicts increasing numbers of people in our region and country.
After he finished his stump speech, he moved onto the issues. At the beginning of his presentation, he asked students and staff members to write about issues relevant to their lives on post-it notes––I had written asking how he would improve New York’s public transportation system. He addressed it acutely, speaking about the need to reform the MTA to lower construction costs so that more subway and bus lines could be built. To help connect residents living in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, he endorsed the construction of the Triboro, a proposed rail line that would run on existing tracks. He advocated for the Fair Fares program, which lowers subway fares for NYC residents living below the poverty line. And he spoke of his belief in reducing fare evasion enforcement, which he said wastes money and needlessly criminalizes poverty.
He laid out more of his agenda as he addressed other students’ post-it notes: he is firm in his advocacy for integrating the NYC public school system and making it more equitable. On housing, he embraces the construction of housing of “all kinds”––public, private, affordable, and market-rate––and thinks solely building homeless shelters is akin to putting band-aid on a much more severe wound. Finally, he supports the broadly progressive goal of establishing a universal healthcare system, but is open to more paths than one.
Suraj fits quite well into the young urban professional candidate profile. He has no prior experience in political office; and describes himself as “an attorney, activist, business leader, and lecturer on business ethics at New York University” on his website. He is a political outsider in the best kind of way; he has devoted himself to assisting and advocating for others rather than coming from a background of business. He is running against the unaccountable and unrepresentative nature of politics right now, rather than the idea of government itself (as many self-described political outsiders say they are). He says he is running against Carolyn Maloney primarily because she has not really “delivered results” despite her long tenure, which spans 27 years.
In that way and many others, Suraj seems rather pragmatic compared to his competitors. His other two primary competitors, Lauren Ashcraft and Peter Harrison, are both card-carrying members of the Democratic Socialists of America, whereas Suraj is not. Both Ashcraft and Harrison have endorsed a Homes Guarantee, which would mean massive public investment into the construction of a home for every resident of the country. They are also squarely behind Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All proposal, of which Suraj Patel only supports as one of many paths that can take us to healthcare becoming universal in this country.
All of this is not to say that Suraj is secretly running on Wall Street’s behalf, or whatever else the leftist purists might throw at him. However, it is important to note that Suraj and his candidacy are emblematic of a different approach to reform than both his incumbent competitor and non-incumbent competitors represent. Carolyn Maloney is the Democratic machine candidate; she is willing and able to work with the establishment, especially if it means she can help her own district. As a result, she has secured billions of federal dollars in funding for the MTA and the Second Avenue Subway project, and she and many of her supporters in this race point to that as a reason to re-elect her once more. She is unafraid to take a stand for undeniably progressive policies like Medicare-for-All, but she herself has not and likely will not write a bill for an unabashedly social democratic policy like that.
Juxtapose that approach with those of Lauren Ashcraft and Peter Harrison: they would like to turn the office of the district for which they are currently running into a powerhouse for progressive policies. They want to write the bills that fulfill the promise of a Homes Guarantee, and they claim that they will take bold positions on national issues. They embrace the ‘democratic socialist’ label and they firmly reject any corrupting forces or money in politics, and are themselves insurgents, running to govern without the permission of the establishment.
Then comes Suraj. From his political personality I got to know that Thursday afternoon, Suraj seems to want to skirt the conflicts of labels or firm politics. He is willing to work with the establishment, but only when it helps his constituents and he is willing to take the bold stances, but only when they agree with the opinions of his district’s electorate, like Maloney. In contrast with Maloney and like Ashcraft and Harriosn, he will definitely write the firmly progressive bills the country needs, but never at the expense of losing political power he could later use for his constituents. Will this approach or anything else I’ve mentioned about Suraj make him a good representative? Well, we live in a democracy, and if you live in New York’s 12th Congressional District and are eligible to vote in the Democratic Primary, that’s for you to decide for yourself.
A special thanks goes to Suraj Patel and his team for giving us the privilege of being able to meet him and his campaign staff, and for listening to our concerns. Also, a special thanks goes to the South Asian Student Association and its co-presidents Zubeda and Nafiah and advisor Sara Aboobakar for organizing this meet-up (and for the yummy food you guys provided). Finally, thank you for all of the students who came and got engaged in critical local politics. Remember, if you're 17 or 18 right now, you can register or pre-register to vote so you can make your voice heard.