Two years ago, New York University lecturer and former hotel executive Suraj Patel attempted to unseat longtime incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney in District 12. He fell short by about 20 points. But he didn’t give up, once again running against her in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. Only this time, he’s only down by about 1.5 points and fewer than 1,000 votes. With as many as 109,500 absentee ballots outstanding in the district amid the coronavirus pandemic, the race is far from determined, and Patel could very well close the gap in the coming weeks as they’re counted. He spoke with City & State about the election, what was different this year and what he sees as his path to victory.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you feel about your election night performance? You’re slightly behind, but it’s very close.
I mean, we’re tied, right? There were 79,000 absentee ballots that were requested in our election (as of a week ago). And the margin currently separating me and the incumbent is less than 1,000 votes. 600 I think, 650 or so. That's statistically a tie at this point. Our number one priority is focusing on making sure every New Yorker’s voice is heard, every single ballot is open and counted fairly. I know that's not going to be an easy task with the machine and Maloney, but we are going to fight tooth and nail. And once that's done, we are very confident in our program and the demographics of the electorate that we will be victorious come July.
Historically, absentee ballots tend to reflect the election night results. This is obviously an unprecedented situation, but why do you think this time will be different?
We spent a significant amount of time and resources developing an absentee ballot request and chase program this cycle, long before anyone else did. My team made 1 million phone calls, and we sent 400,000 text messages. And that yielded results. Of the 79,000 people who requested absentee ballots – and I don't know what number returned them yet, obviously, because they’re still coming in – for the 79,000 people who requested ballots, 51% of them were under the age of 45. That’s a brand new electorate that we set out to build. And I know we do significantly better with younger voters.
So what changed between this year and 2018?
So much is different, but so little is different, too. Rep. Maloney continued taking millions in corporate PAC money. Rep. Maloney’s anti-vaccine history during a pandemic became much more important. Rep. Maloney’s abhorrent record on criminal justice reform and Black lives now became center stage in an era when we’re basically in another civil rights movement. All those things showed, clearly, by the way, resoundingly, that 60% of New Yorkers were looking for change. At the same time, you lose an election and it teaches you a lot of things. Humility obviously is one, but beyond that it teaches you how to get better, what to focus on, what's important, what's not. One thing I will admit is that I learned two years ago, you can’t win an election relying on one group of people. You’ve got to build coalitions. Clearly in this election, we made significant inroads in Maloney’s base on the Upper East Side. We made significant inroads into 45- to 65-year-old voters who are looking for new types of representation that wasn’t a career politician. We just took a step back and looked at exactly what coalitions we want to build on. And by and large, we ran that race.
A lot of progressive insurgents performed very well on election night, including many DSA-backed candidates. In your own race, DSA member Laruen Ashcraft molded herself as the true progressive of the race. How do you see yourself fitting into this new group of insurgents?
I'm a proud member of the progressive movement. I've been a progressive not since just last year. But clearly, I ran as progressive challenger in 2018. I've dedicated my life to progressive politics. I dropped everything in my life to work for Barack Obama in 2008 when he was a progressive candidate in a primary against Hillary Clinton. I worked for that man. I have been in progressive politics my whole life and I will go toe to toe with anyone on that record, including Lauren, but I guess it doesn't matter at this point. But I will admit, obviously, I don't have DSA backing. And I don't consider myself a DSA candidate, that's true. But I do support so many of the same policies with regards to racial justice, climate change and things like that. And that's why we were able to build a coalition with a lot of progressive voters.
How do you think digital campaigning helped this time around with the pandemic? Was there a shift to online methods like social media that young people were more likely to interact with?
We were able to rapidly shift to digital campaigning, in a way that relied a lot on phone calls, check-in calls for neighbors, delivering supplies and things. We did 100,000 check-in calls in April to neighbors. Not political calls, not asking them to vote for me, but simply to see if they're doing OK. We were able to deliver supplies at a moment's notice – mail, water, toilet paper – to people dozens of times. We also switched a lot to Zoom just like everybody else. And I'll tell you what, the number of Zoom house parties, Zoom town halls we had, I think well over 100, is face-to-face contact in its own way. In fact, it was easier to set up and low-cost compared to having in-person events. So we were able to adapt pretty quickly to those two things.
Correction: This post originally misstated the number of absentee ballots mailed in District 12. It also implied Patel is still active in the hotel industry, which is not the case.
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