Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney may not be New York’s only openly gay member of Congress for long. In fact, as of 2021, he may not even be the only openly gay member of Congress in the Hudson Valley. If the preliminary results from Tuesday’s Democratic primaries hold once absentee ballots are counted, then Mondaire Jones, representing Rockland County and much of neighboring Westchester County, and Ritchie Torres in the South Bronx could be the first openly gay Black members of Congress.
“I have drawn inspiration from the historic nature of (Maloney’s) status as an openly gay member of Congress in New York,” Jones told City & State after Election Day about the man he considers a mentor. “The fact that he was able to win in Westchester (County) is direct evidence of the fact that I too should have been able to win in Westchester.”
Yes, New York’s first openly gay congressional representative isn’t from Manhattan. Rather, he lives in Cold Spring, in rural Putnam County, and he represents a district that straddles the line between upstate and downstate.
Most remarkably, it’s a district that President Donald Trump won by 2 percentage points in 2016, and it’s a seat that Maloney, a Democrat, had to beat a Republican to win.
Maloney first ran for Congress in 2012. He had a strong résumé – an attorney, entrepreneur and one-time candidate for state attorney general in 2006. He was a former aide to President Bill Clinton, an adviser to Govs. Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson and a family man with three adopted kids. But he was gay in a state that had just legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, and he had just moved into the district the year before. Still, he managed to topple first-term Republican Rep. Nan Hayworth and he has held on to the “purple” seat, despite Republican challenges each cycle – and an unsuccessful run in the 2018 Democratic state attorney general primary just months before his most recent reelection to Congress.
He has done that by maintaining one of the more moderate, bipartisan voting records in the House, but also by working closely with Republicans in the district, including Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. “By any definition, we are friends and I appreciate his willingness to listen, especially when we disagree on issues,” Molinaro told City & State.
Registered Democrats do outnumber Republicans in the district 166,000 to 135,000, but neither make up a majority in the district of nearly 450,000 active voters.
Maloney has managed to be both relatively nonpartisan in his approach to governance and an advocate for gay rights, according to Tim Massie, a Maloney ally who lives in the district and works in government relations. “He’s not one to play that political game – ‘You’re not in my party, so I’m not going to help you.’” Massie doesn’t belong to a political party, but like Maloney, he’s part of the Hudson Valley’s sizeable LGBTQ community. And for Massie, that’s a huge plus. “I like the fact that I have an openly gay congressman fighting for basic human rights for my husband and me and every other member of the LGBTQ+ community,” Massie told City & State. “He’s a vociferous advocate, particularly in this time when, even in cases that we view are settled law, there are attempts to convolute those rulings and turn back the clock on LGBT+ rights.”
City & State interviewed Maloney, 53, during Pride Month, and just one day after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a landmark case that extended anti-discrimination protections to gay, lesbian and transgender employees in the workplace.
It was a week before the strong electoral showings by Torres and Jones, and Maloney was eager to see what would happen. He had endorsed Torres for the open South Bronx House seat, calling him a “talented, intelligent young LGBT candidate.” But Maloney stayed out of the race in the 17th Congressional District, even though the political arm of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, of which Maloney is a member, had endorsed Jones. The district neighbors his, and Maloney had relationships with a number of the candidates, he explained.
So progress for LGBTQ rights is happening in New York elections and in the federal courts, but Maloney warned that Congress still needs to legislate aggressively and oversee the Trump administration. After all, civil rights law is only as strong as the executive branch that enforces it. “It's great to have the Supreme Court on your side. But we have seen this administration engaged in all kinds of conduct that would be considered beyond the pale in lots of different areas,” he said. “So I think we need to watch him like a hawk.”
I need to talk about the breaking news – the June 15 U.S. Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ workplace protections. Do you think Congress needs to take any further action here? Or is the court's ruling enough that it's going to be settled law?
Yeah, of course we do. We need to pass the Equality Act. And here's why. The decision is historic. And personally, it moved me and surprised me and made me remember why we do this work. Millions of lives changed yesterday. Millions of people who, for the first time in their lives, could have some security in their workplace, where they finally can have recourse if they are fired unfairly or discriminated against. That's huge. And in this world where there's been so much bad news, it was just an awesome thing to behold. But the precedent is very important with respect to the statute it interprets, and I believe it blows out of the water things like the Trump administration’s anti-trans regulation they were pushing just (this month). And it will give us a powerful weapon to combat discrimination in lots of areas where, before, the Equality Act would have been our only weapon. But we shouldn't have to go around and fight a bunch of cases in court using the recent decision as precedent or as authority. There should be federal statute that makes explicit that discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited.
And you know who says that? (Supreme Court Justice) Brett Kavanaugh in his dissent. And Brett Kavanaugh, in the midst of voting against LGBT equality, made sure that we all know he thinks it's a great thing. And he thinks that Congress ought to do it, not the court. So heads up, (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell, your boy Brett Kavanaugh thinks you should pass the Equality Act, which already passed in the House. And Mitch McConnell should get off his ass and do it.
I’ve been watching “Mrs. America,” the TV show about the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. But that was unsuccessful. Now you have the Equality Act, which passed the House, but now it’s waiting for the Senate – and that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
I don’t know that. This decision caught us all by surprise. And it reminds us that, in the area of LGBTQ equality, everything is possible. And we have already achieved things that were thought to be impossible. And I think it's getting very hard in this country for Republicans to continue to justify discriminating against LGBTQ people. So I'd like to see a vote in the Senate. I'd like them to stand up and be counted. We did that in the House. I think that's important. The law is important. And we should keep pressing it. We will pass it into law in the first month of the next administration. And so why not keep pushing as hard as possible?
Are you still concerned about what Trump could do in the next six months, or does this court ruling moot that?
It makes it a lot harder for them to be as hateful as they're trying to be. So it makes me feel better, but we're not going to take our eye off the ball. The Trump administration started out as hateful and incompetent. And they've remained hateful, but they've gotten better at using the federal government in clever ways to do great damage – in the area of immigration, for example. And I am still concerned about the ability of a president using the federal machinery to go after LGBTQ people. They were doing it last week. They’re going to do it as long as they're in power.
What have you done to make life better for the LGBTQ community during your time in Congress?
We've worked on a number of pieces of legislation, particularly to make sure that the transgender community is not invisible and not defenseless. We have fought to include LGBTQ people in the census. If you look at things like the amendments to the defense authorization bill that have come up – first in the form of the Russell Amendment that would have gone after LGBTQ people in the military, and continuing with the Hartzler Amendment a couple years later. It's been my office that has been on the front lines stopping that process. We passed something called the Maloney Amendment, which simply protected Obama-era executive orders that prevented discrimination in federal contracting. The Republicans wanted to repeal those executive orders by those amendments to the defense bill. We stopped it.
And so I would say we played a lot of defense in the Trump era. Trying to protect transgender service members, trying to protect people's health care, trying to make sure that people aren't ignored when it comes to things like the census. And, of course, the Equality Act. I had the honor of sitting in the speaker's chair and presiding over the historic passage of that vote out of the House, which would be the most important piece of federal legislation ever enacted to protect our community. But I’m looking forward to being on offense instead of being on defense. The fact is, the most important work has happened at the Supreme Court level. When I went to Congress, my family couldn't have health insurance through my job. The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down in court. It would be nice if Congress was part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
You've done all this in a district where President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton 49% to 47%. Do you feel like you've ever had to downplay that part of your identity to win the district?
Well, I had a big gay wedding in the middle of my first reelection campaign that I won by less than 2 points, so you tell me. If I'm downplaying it, I've done a crap job of it. I have a husband and three children I'm very proud of. I don't intend to run away from that.
I think that when you run in a district like mine, you are mindful of the fact that LGBTQ issues are not top of mind for a lot of my constituents. And so you have to address the priorities of your constituents, not just your own priorities. And that balancing act is how people do this job well. So I focus a lot on veterans issues and issues affecting my farmers, and transportation and infrastructure issues, and earn my keep with a lot of voters by understanding their priorities. And then, by building that relationship, I have the capacity to lead them on issues they are less familiar with, like LGBTQ equality. And I think it's working pretty well.
Have things changed in your district in the past four years? Do you expect the 18th Congressional District to go for Trump again in 2020?
I don't know the answer to that question. I think it will be very competitive. I don't kid myself about his enduring popularity among large numbers of voters, even in New York. I think that comes as a shock to people who live in New York City. But I'm telling you, he won Orange County, New York, by 7 points last time. He won Putnam County, where I live, by 20 points. He has real popularity among a certain group of voters. And that hasn't changed.
You’re running for reelection this year against Republican Chele Farley, who just last week posted a video endorsement from Donald Trump Jr. You’re dominating her in fundraising right now, but do you expect the race will get more national attention?
I don’t think there’s one voter in my district who gives a shit what Donald Trump Jr. thinks about who should represent them in Congress.
Have you joined any protests against police brutality in the past few weeks?
Yes, I have. A couple. And I have to say, I've never seen anything like it. We're talking about hundreds of people in central Orange County, including police officers and police chiefs who made their own signs, who have been kneeling with the protesters. You see a broad coalition across lines of difference – age groups, races – coming together around this issue. And it makes you believe in your country again. It’s really great to see.
“I don’t think there’s one voter in my district who gives a shit what Donald Trump Jr. thinks about who should represent them in Congress.”
You bring an interesting perspective. You’re white, but you have two Black daughters and a Latino son. Have you given them “the talk” about how to act around the police?
Yes, I've spoken to my son about that issue. They're all old enough to drive. And when they get in the car by themselves or with their friends, and they drive out of my driveway, they aren't the children of a congressman. They are young people of color in a vehicle. And I worry about that. Just as a parent, I worry about that. And when I see these images on TV of young African Americans who have been hurt or killed? Yes, I think of my own children. That is not to say I understand the struggle that African American families go through. I don't think any white person really understands the pain that African American families experience. A lot of us want to be allies, and if having children of color, who I love, motivates me to be a better ally, and to work for real change, then I'm glad about that. But I also just worry as a dad. And it's as simple as that.
Your district has a heavy military presence, with West Point, and the district voted for Trump. Has it become a part of the culture war to even acknowledge that racism and police brutality are a problem?
First of all, I don't think people give the United States military enough credit. The superintendent of West Point is an African American man. They marry gay cadets in the chapel at West Point. The military is among the most successfully integrated institutions in our country. And not just West Point, but the larger U.S. military. So no, I don't worry about being a gay man supporting progressive issues in a district that is 25% military families. In some ways, we should look to the military for how we get it right when we treat people more equally. That hasn't always been true. But the military has made enormous progress in many areas, even with all of its challenges.
But if your point is I represent a conservative part of the world, I don't need any reminders of that. But what I believe is that, in this moment where our challenge is to take progressive issues and create real policy change, you need to know how to build coalitions. You need to know how to get laws passed and signed into meaningful legislation with the force of law. So I think that being in a Trump district, as a gay man with an interracial family, focuses me on building relationships and coalitions so that I can have more capacity than I would by myself. And that allows me to win elections. That allows me to get things done.
That is how the LGBTQ community has made so much progress. We've built successful coalitions with lots of straight allies. We welcomed in lots of former adversaries into the movement and treated them with love. And by building out a coalition, we have succeeded in achieving lasting change and progress. I think there's lessons there for people working on immigration reform or people working for climate change legislation or people working now for criminal justice reform and policing reform. You need to build a coalition to get things done. … I think that's how community happens. And I think that's where lasting change gets done.
“Protesters … have a different role to play than I do. Their job is to demand change. To be always pressing for more, never satisfied. The job of legislating is to take that energy and to get something done.”
As a moderate Democrat, do you feel pressure sometimes from the more radical side of the LGBTQ community, from (activists like the late) Larry Kramer?
No, I have enormous respect for people like Larry Kramer. And I would reject the moderate label. I would call myself a progressive who can work across lines of difference and get things done. And a progressive who knows how to beat Republicans. All due respect to my friends who are good at winning arguments and beating Democrats, we also need to beat Republicans if we want to increase our capacity to bring the change we all support. And in addition to being able to beat Republicans, you need to be able to work with people who aren't your natural allies or voters and build the kind of coalitions that can get real change accomplished.
Here’s the way I look at it: We all have a role to play, but we're all on the same team. I think that protesters and preachers and people who work outside the system have a different role to play than I do. Their job is to demand change, to not get caught up in nuance, to be always pressing for more, never satisfied. That's the nature of activism and protest, or even preaching, when you think about it. The job of legislating is to take that energy and to get something done. But I am strengthened by the energy of the progressive movement and the activists in the streets. And people like Larry Kramer provided this space for people like me to succeed. Guys like me stand on the shoulders of people like Larry Kramer, even though his politics and mine might be considered slightly different. I owe him a great debt. We all do.
It’s Pride Month in the time of the coronavirus. Are you able to celebrate in any way?
No. (Laughs.) For me personally, this won’t be a year where there are parades or parties. But the Supreme Court decision, that’s the gift I wanted under the tree this year. That’s made it a very happy Pride Month for millions of Americans who don’t have to worry about getting fired anymore.
NEXT STORY: This week’s biggest Winners & Losers