Maloney v. Nadler: Who would have thought?

Both are about to slug it out to decide who stays in Congress.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler have to battle it out to determine who gets to keep this Upper East Side vs. Upper West Side seat in Congress.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler have to battle it out to determine who gets to keep this Upper East Side vs. Upper West Side seat in Congress. Zohar Lazar

If you’ve spent any time in New York City, there are a few pieces of knowledge you pick up quickly: Steer clear of Times Square, jaywalking is a way of life and the East Side/West Side rivalry in Manhattan is as real as any sports beef. For the past hundred years, Manhattan has been split down the middle in Congress, with the two sides having their own representatives as residents debate the merits of Zabar’s and Eli’s Bread.

But that’s all about to change thanks to the redistricting expert who decided that it would make more sense to create a pan-Central Park 12th Congressional District spanning the entire island going all the way down through Midtown to Chelsea and Union Square. And it means that two titans in their respective sides of Manhattan will go head-to-head in August to determine who will stay in Congress – and who will see their long career probably end in defeat.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, an Upper West Side champion, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, representing the Upper East Side, find themselves at the heart of a longtime geographic rivalry that will play out on the campaign trail. Despite what they might say, Nadler and Maloney both have as much claim to the new district as the other, despite Maloney technically representing the 12th District right now. In redistricting, Nadler lost the lower Manhattan and Brooklyn portions of his district, while Maloney lost the portions of her district that were in Queens and Brooklyn. 

Both veteran lawmakers live in the new district and currently represent roughly half of its constituents. The campaign will likely come down to who can rally their base more ahead of the Aug. 23 primary. “Their voters have been dedicated supporters for a really long time, and I don’t see there being a ton of swing between those two bases,” The Parkside Group Vice President Tess McRae said. “We’re assuming that it’s going to be a low turnout primary, so it’s going to be about talking to the most number of voters possible.”

In interviews with City & State, Maloney and Nadler offered very similar campaign strategies on how they plan to reach out to voters outside their base: highlight their long records of progressive accomplishments from 30 years in Congress and emphasize where the other fell short. Both plan to speak about the enormous number of bills they have passed and the billions they have secured for their districts. And both currently chair powerful House committees – the Judiciary Committee for Nadler and the Oversight and Reform Committee for Maloney. Differentiating themselves sufficiently to the voters will likely require some finesse.

Maloney talked about her tireless work around benefits for 9/11 first responders and their families, and her history of championing women’s rights. The latter will likely be a boon for her campaign given the political zeitgeist around abortion rights that emerged following a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. “People always describe me as being persistent,” Maloney said, citing good-government groups that have ranked her among the most effective members of Congress. She also spoke about the importance of having women in leadership positions in government right now, something Nadler obviously wouldn’t provide. “I know firsthand from experience that the issues which are addressed and prioritized by our elected officials change when women have a seat at the table,” she said.

Nadler said he would run as a defender of democracy, pointing to his role in then-President Donald Trump’s two impeachments as chair of the Judiciary Committee, and he planned to highlight the tough votes he was willing to take over the years. For example, he voted against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, adding that Maloney voted for both. He said he will run in part on his identity as the last Jewish congressional member from New York City. “People will make what they want of that, but I think I’ve been highly effective as the chairman of the unofficial Jewish caucus in the House,” Nadler said.

Neither of them want to end their career as a loser. You want to go out on your own terms, and one of them won’t have the option to do that. – Doug Forand, Red Horse Strategies founding partner

Tensions between the two longtime colleagues have already emerged, with Maloney’s campaign announcement saying that she would not stand aside for the ego of a man. Though she didn’t mention Nadler, her implication was clear: He was only running for the seat because of his ego. Maloney told City & State that Nadler asked her to “step aside” and run in the newly drawn 10th Congressional District, despite the fact that he currently represents far more of that new district than she does. Still, she didn’t outright call Nadler egotistical. “I don’t see this as being about one man’s actions,” Maloney said. “I felt strongly that I had to say something, because this is about a system and a pattern that women face.”

Nadler painted a slightly different picture, saying that he spoke with Maloney on the floor of the House when he saw the original draft lines. He said he did suggest that she run in the 10th District when he told her of his intent to run in the 12th District, a prospect she “categorically rejected.” But then she asked him if he would run for the new district in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, which he rejected in turn. “So that was that,” Nadler said.

With so few political differences between them, the race may turn personal. “It certainly could get nasty, it wouldn’t surprise me,” Red Horse Strategies Founding Partner Doug Forand said. “Neither of them want to end their career as a loser. … You want to go out on your own terms, and one of them won’t have the option to do that.” However, Forand said that while he would understand the impulse, he wouldn’t advise either candidate to go negative if he worked for their campaigns.

Factors outside of the personalities or politics at play may wind up having a significant impact on this race. On the Upper West Side, a newly drawn open state Senate seat will likely feature a primary between state Sen. Brad Hoylman and former New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. While congressional races tend to help boost turnout for down-ballot races, a contentious primary for a new seat may have an opposite effect, potentially drawing more West Side voters to vote for state Senate as well.

As for Maloney, she will likely benefit from staving off strong primary challenges the past two election cycles from Suraj Patel, allowing her to build up her campaign apparatus in preparation for this year. Nadler, by comparison, has faced few serious challenges during his time in Congress, though he said that Lindsey Boylan was a strong challenger in 2020. Patel is running again for the 12th Congressional District this year, and while most political observers expect the primary to come down to the two sitting members, the degree to which he could cut into Maloney’s votes could be another potential wild card.

Despite the initial backlash to combining the East and West Sides of Manhattan, the new 12th District makes sense. Although the two neighborhoods were very different from each other at one point in time, they have since become more similar politically and demographically – both are white, affluent and progressive. “It’s not like you’re going to make a strong voting rights argument that you’re diminishing communities of color or something like that, you’re not,” Forand said. From a strictly political sense, he said, “It’s not an irrational district.” And while Maloney agreed that the East and West Sides have evolved over the decades to share many common interests, Nadler maintained that the district overhaul made little sense even if the communities are similar.

Ultimately, Nadler and Maloney have only state lawmakers from their own party to blame for their current predicament. The lines approved by the state Legislature drew near-universal criticism from across the political spectrum for being extremely gerrymandered. And if they want to go back even further, blame state lawmakers and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo for poorly rewriting the state constitution and establishing an independent redistricting commission that was doomed to fail. Still, the final lines came down to the work of just one man, and despite his extensive explanations for various districts, his reason to draw the 12th District the way he did largely remains a mystery. “It really is as though the special master wanted a primary,” McRae said. “And unfortunately, the loser is going to be all of New York. At the end of this, we’re going to lose at least one full committee chair.”