Heard Around Town

Zohran and Kal go to a coffee shop

Actor and former Obama staffer Kal Penn supports his good friend, Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, but he is highly critical of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani speaks with actor and former White House staffer Kal Penn at an Astoria coffee shop on March 7, 2024.

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani speaks with actor and former White House staffer Kal Penn at an Astoria coffee shop on March 7, 2024. Shah Miraz/Zohran for Assembly

On Thursday night, actor Kal Penn hosted a low-profile fundraiser for Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani at a Yemeni coffee shop in Astoria. The actor – who starred in the classic stoner comedies “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” before joining the Obama administration to lead youth outreach – has been friends with Mamdani for close to two decades. As around 100 attendees dined on beef and chicken puff pastries, pistachio cream puffs and mini cupcakes, Penn and Mamdani took turns answering audience-submitted questions.

Much of the crowd was Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian, and a few attendees wore keffiyehs to show support for Palestine. Mamdani is a member of the far left Democratic Socialists of America, and many members of the audience were also affiliated with the socialist organization. (Disclosure: I am a former member of DSA.)

Penn spoke fondly of his time in the Obama administration, recalling the ways that he tried to build coalitions between young people on the left and right. It was a notable contrast to Mamdani, who told attendees that his political awakening came when he realized in high school that it was more effective to organize people who already shared his worldview than to try to convince people who would never agree with him.

During the fundraiser, Mamdani spoke about a controversial anti-protest bill introduced in the Assembly. “It's extremely concerning that this is even legislation that's proposed,” Mamdani said. “At the same time, I don't see this legislation moving currently, because the implications of it extend even far beyond just Palestinian activism, in seeking to criminalize any kind of public dissent.”

Mamdani, who has been arrested at numerous demonstrations, noted that the bill would target the kind of protests that he has engaged in. “It would render me a ‘domestic terrorist,’ because I have proudly blocked streets, whether it's in the fight for debt relief for taxi drivers, or whether it's in the fight for human rights for Palestinians,” he said.

Penn told City & State that he shares Mamdani’s call for a ceasefire in Gaza. “I do hope for a permanent ceasefire,” he said. “We haven't seen hostages freed in any other way. The war and the carnage that we're funding, it hasn't yielded that result.”

But Penn had harsh words for DSA, Mamdani’s political home. He was particularly critical of the socialist organization’s conduct in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, when it tweeted about a controversial Palestinian solidarity rally in Manhattan. At that rally, one speaker (unaffiliated with DSA) spoke callously about the Israeli victims of the Hamas attacks, and an attendee was photographed holding a sign with a swastika on it.

“I called him – it must have been October 8 or whenever – the day DSA pushed out the awful Instagram post or tweet (about) the protest that was just vitriolically antisemitic and just made me sick to my stomach,” Penn said. “I called Zohran, I was like, ‘Bro, I know this is the party that you belong to, but there is no way that I could support this party as a party. I know that those are not your views, and I know that because I've known you since you were 14. So I don't think that that changes my support for you individually.’ But I haven't been able to certainly support the DSA since then. I think there is a lot that they have to work on.”

The DSA is technically not a political party, though it functions in many of the same ways when it comes to recruiting and supporting candidates for office. The candidates that it endorses, such as Mamdani, generally run on the Democratic ballot line.

Mamdani faces a Democratic primary challenge from Steven Beard, a local attorney who has criticized his position on Israel. (Beard has many more idiosyncratic policy positions as well, such as allowing cat cafes to serve food to patrons, all of which he laid out in a 3,944-word tweet announcing his candidacy.)

At the fundraiser, Mamdani was dismissive of Beard’s chances but told attendees that he was concerned about his well-funded opposition, citing an article in Hell Gate that identified him as one of the top targets of conservative billionaires Ronald Lauder and Thomas Tisch.

The Mamdani campaign will not officially report its fundraising until Monday, but the campaign told City & State that it has so far raised more than $165,000 from more than 2,200 unique donors so far this cycle, including more than $40,000 since the campaign’s last filing. 

The campaign has already qualified for the state’s matching funds program, having received over $6,000 in small donations from more than 125 donors who live in Mamdani’s Assembly district.

Mamdani appealed to guests at the fundraiser to donate so that the campaign could afford to send out mailers defending his record. “If we don't tell that story, that story is going to be told in a very different way, by people with a lot more money, on every single screen and billboard that they can find,” he warned.