New York State

Sean Patrick Maloney goes on the offensive

Sean Patrick Maloney is going on the offensive in the attorney general's race.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney Mark J. Terrill/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Almost half of Democrats still haven’t decided who they’ll vote for in the state attorney general primary – the sprint of a race that’s only happening because former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned in disgrace in May. So Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney plans to spend the next six weeks convincing voters that he’s the most experienced candidate with the right skill set for the job. But if that doesn’t work, he’s got a backup plan, since he’s still on the ballot to defend his Hudson Valley congressional seat in November – a fact that’s gotten him sued by opponents who say you can’t run for two offices at once.

Maloney talked to City & State’s Jeff Coltin about why he’s confident his campaigns are legal, whether he considers himself the moderate choice and why a bell rings every time fellow candidate Letitia James gets an endorsement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You turned 52 on Monday. Did you take the day off?

I did what everyone does on their birthday, I made a bunch of fundraising calls and met with ultra-Orthodox Satmar (Jewish) leaders in Brooklyn. This is a sprint. It’s an anaerobic exercise, so we’re going to stay focused through Sept. 13.

How are you going to define yourself? Zephyr Teachout is running far to the left, Letitia James is running as a progressive as well. Do you consider yourself more of the moderate choice for attorney general?

No, I wouldn’t put it that way. I think what people are looking for is something different, and somebody who can get this job done at a critical time when you need somebody with public and private sector experience, particularly the experience of standing up to Donald Trump in Washington who understands the federal issues. Who understands the Russia investigation. Who has real experience running investigations. That’s the skill set that is needed in this office at this moment.

I’ve seen you use the line a lot that you’re the only person in this race who has taken on Trump and won. Are you referencing a specific instance, or just generally as a congressman?

For starters, I’m the only one in this race who’s actually beat Republicans. It’s one thing to win races when you run against other Democrats in New York City. I beat a Republican in three congressional races in a row, in some of the toughest campaigns in the country. I won in a Trump district as a gay guy with an interracial family. So we’re proud of that and we think it demonstrates an ability to win tough fights.

But in addition to that, for six years in Congress first with the tea party and now with Donald Trump, we have been on the front lines, winning really important fights like preserving the Affordable Care Act when it was really under the gun. Like protecting the rights of transgender service members when I got 24 Republicans to vote with me to stop (Republican Missouri Rep.) Vicky Hartzler’s amendment that would have taken health care away from transgender soldiers just last year. Like stopping the Russell Amendment – (Rep.) Steve Russell of Oklahoma tried to roll back two critical executive orders of Barack Obama that extended workplace protections to LGBT employees at all federal contractors, protecting millions of people nationwide.

You voted in line with Trump 35 percent of the time according to FiveThirtyEight, more than any other congressional Democrat in New York –

What a bullshit metric that is. I take seriously my obligation to get things done. And when you pass 30 bills into law in a Republican-controlled Congress, you’re going to have a bipartisanship rating that’s a little higher. That is a feature, not a bug. The point is, that on the bad stuff, on the terrible stuff, on things like the Muslim ban, or Trumpcare, or this terrible tax cut, or what he wants to do to the LGBT community, I have been in the fight, hammer and tongs, and winning against this administration. But I also take seriously my responsibility to make trains safer. To get farmers better crop insurance. To fight Lyme disease and the opioid epidemic, and to help our veterans. And that’s why you see that bipartisanship rating. I’m actually very proud of that. And shame on anybody who looks at that record of results and tries to score political points. That’s doing my job.

You’re also the only House Democrat in New York that represents a plurality Republican district. Are you worried that if you win the attorney general race that your House seat would go to a Republican?

Nobody cares about keeping this district blue more than I do, I can assure you. It has been the focus of my life for six years. We turned it blue, we kept it blue and we’ve done such a good job at that, they couldn’t find anybody to run against me. So I’ve got the weakest opponent I’ve ever had (Republican Orange County Legislator James O'Donnell), and for that reason, we are in very good shape in this district one way or the other.

It’s also very good to know that we are in the best environment for Democrats in at least 12 years in the House. So everyone from (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi on down feels comfortable that in this cycle, with the work we’ve done over the last six years, with this terrible opponent, we can hold the House seat.

But more broadly, it’s very important that Democrats win more than one race at a time, and it’s very important that we elect a great attorney general and take control of the House. I don’t believe Democrats have been doing enough. I think the Democratic Party has been failing miserably, and it’s about time we got our backbone back. And it’s about time we did at least as much winning as whining. The Democratic Party has been playing defense, and some of us have been playing it pretty well in Washington, but it’s time to go on offense and it’s time to start winning again. And we’re going to have to do that in more than one race.

You’re actually trying to win more than one race at the same time, running for Congress and attorney general, and you’re being sued for that –

No man, that’s ridiculous. You’re better than that. It’s a cute thing to say, but the fact is, the state divided the (statewide) primary (from the federal primary). We didn’t. And there’s no way to run for attorney general when you already have a congressional nomination except to win it and then decline the congressional nomination. And that’s what the law provides for.

There will not be a procedural obstacle to running the attorney general’s race. That is my prediction to you. I think that is a fever dream of the Republicans who hope to keep me out and my Democratic opponents who wish I wasn’t in the race. But I’m sorry they’ll all be disappointed. This is going to be left to the voters.

You have around $1 million in your attorney general campaign account, but you also have about $3 million in your congressional campaign account. Do you intend to use that in your attorney general race? Is that legal?

I think that there’s absolutely no restriction on using certain federal funds in a state race, the law is pretty clear about that. I think you’ll hear our opponents howl about it, because obviously it’s a problem for them. But we’ll make decisions about campaign strategy and resources outside of a newspaper article.

On Thursday, Letitia James is announcing a number of endorsements from elected officials in Westchester County – an area that part of your district overlaps –

I hope she does more of that. I hope she keeps running a campaign that is propped up by insiders and the political machine. That’s her race. My race is not to rely on the governor’s fundraising or the endorsements of Albany insiders or political bosses.

I think that is a losing strategy, and it is a terrible message right now when the Democratic Party voters I talk to want the Democratic Party blown up and rebuilt. The Democrats I talk to want change. They want something new and different. They want people who speak from the heart. They don’t want somebody phoning it in. They don’t want somebody picked because of somebody else’s political agenda or some inside deal.

Every time I watch Tish James get some political endorsement from the insiders, I secretly rejoice. That’s like every time you hear a bell ring, an angel gets its wings. Every time I see her trot out some Assembly person or party hack or city councilman, I think we’re going to win this race. But I’ll let her run her own campaign, and see where we end up on Sept. 13.

You’re a big Andrew Cuomo supporter, and you encouraged Cynthia Nixon not to run against him. Isn’t that contradictory to what you said about running against the machine?

No! I think he’s a good governor. But I don’t think he should pick the attorney general. Let me ask you this: How is an attorney general going to look at the Buffalo Billion if you’re in Andrew Cuomo’s back pocket? So I think what this state deserves is someone with real independence and an independent ability to get elected and do the job.

You live in Cold Spring, a town on the Hudson River famous for its hiking trails. What’s your favorite hike?

You’ve got to say Breakneck.

Whoo, you can handle it?

Oh come on, it’s beautiful. It’s not that bad. It’s pretty short when you get right down to it.