PEEKSKILL, N.Y. – At a recent rally with union workers and other supporters in the downtown square of this small city on the banks of the Hudson River, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney tried to remind Democrats of everything he thinks the party has accomplished.
He touted the sweeping coronavirus relief legislation passed in early 2021, last fall's infrastructure deal, a plan to boost high-tech manufacturing, the toughest limits on guns in decades and, just recently, a climate and health care law that had been written off.
Democrats are “getting big stuff done,” Maloney said in an interview after the event.
He is betting that message will be enough to help him and his party navigate a treacherous political environment this year. As the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Maloney is responsible for helping the party defy historic trends and maintain — or even expand — its majority in the House. In the meantime, he's also fending off a challenge from the left in next week's primary in a district that could be competitive in the fall general election.
Facing a confluence of hurdles, Maloney insists on staying focused on the party's agenda.
“When things are working, it’s the best politics,” he said.
The 56-year-old Maloney was seen as a rising Democratic star when he was first elected to the House a decade ago. The first openly gay congressman from New York, he was at the vanguard of a new Democratic Party making inroads far beyond its urban base.
But he's facing a primary challenge next week from state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a 36-year-old progressive who has sought to portray Maloney as an out-of-touch operator of the establishment.
“I think he represents everything that is wrong with politics,” Biaggi said in an interview.
Maloney counters the establishment has delivered what voters want: pragmatism over activism. “We've had a real summer of success and if things continue like this, I think we're going to surprise a lot of people in November," Maloney said.
He’s also gotten the endorsement of The New York Times, which carries a lot of weight with the Democrats in the district’s suburbs and exurbs of New York City, along with the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton, whose Chappaqua home is in the area.
Maloney, who worked in the Clinton White House, is a “proven leader,” the former president said in his endorsement, which thus far has not been echoed by his wife, former New York senator and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She has stayed out of the race, though her support would carry far more weight: Biaggi worked for her presidential campaign and Clinton led Biaggi and her husband in their vows at their 2019 wedding.
The biggest name backing Biaggi, a lawyer in former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration and granddaughter of former Bronx Congressman Mario Biaggi, is progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Biaggi, like Ocasio-Cortez, has a history of taking on powerful, more moderate members of her party and espouses an activist, working-people credo.
In the same 2018 progressive wave that carried Ocasio-Cortez into office, Biaggi — despite being heavily outspent — ousted a longtime state senator known for leading a band of Democrats who collaborated with Republicans. She’s counting on a similar grassroots approach and desire for change as she aims to topple Maloney.
“I’m going to be on those doors, just like I’ve been every single weekend, knocking them down off the hinges, push through every single inch,” she said as she rallied a group of campaign volunteers in Sleepy Hollow for a weekend of door-knocking.
She’s also counting on the unusual circumstances of next week’s primary to help her chances. It’s the second primary election New Yorkers have had this summer, a delayed date to accommodate the redrawing of political maps after the first attempt at redistricting was thrown out in court.
There was a primary in June for the governors race and other statewide offices, but the primary for congressional races was delayed until Aug. 23 so new maps could be drawn.
New Yorkers aren’t used to voting in two primaries, especially one in late August, when many are on vacation, and the new maps may leave them unfamiliar with their new district lines and who is considered an incumbent — which could create an opening for someone like Biaggi with activist energy behind her.
While Maloney has represented parts of the newly-drawn 17th District, Biaggi currently represents none of it in her state Senate seat and moved about 15 miles north to become a resident.
Maloney also moved north from New York City when he first ran to represent the region 10 years ago, but he is quick to note that he and his husband already had a second home in the area at the time.
“She has every right to run, but people have a right to know that her district is 95% in the Bronx and I represent several hundred thousand people who are in this district,” he said of Biaggi in the interview.
He and his supporters have painted her politics as too far left for the district, pointing to her embrace of the “defund the police” messaging that liberals took up in 2020 amid a broader national reckoning over race and policing.
Biaggi has said in interviews that she’s no longer using the term because it doesn’t do a great job of conveying the need for policing reforms. Her campaign has armed its volunteers with talking points on her use of the phrase, pointing out that her grandfather was a decorated police officer and she used the phrase while reacting to the horrific video showing the killing of George Floyd.
“This was like, in the heat of a moment where she saw a pretty horrific incident and tweeted that — because we don’t need to shy away from that,” Cori Marquis, a Biaggi campaign aide, explained to volunteers in Sleepy Hollow as they prepared to knock doors and pitch voters. “She has been very clear in speech, in action, in policy, that she is really committed to working with all stakeholders to reform our criminal justice system.”
Biden won the areas in the new congressional district by 5 points in 2020, but northern stretches of it, which Maloney represents, heavily favor the GOP and Donald Trump won his district in 2016. Maloney won his current seat from a Republican a decade ago and has held on to the battleground ever since, which he said was “not a given for a gay guy with an interracial family.”
Voters there, he contends, want someone who can work across the aisle but also defeat Republicans.
Maloney’s work on matters across the aisle — and to defeat one Republican in particular — has drawn blowback from members of his own party, including harsh criticism from Biaggi.
The House Democrats’ campaign arm, which Maloney chairs, spent $425,000 on a campaign ad in Michigan that boosted the far-right opponent of Rep. U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
Meijer lost to a Trump-backed candidate, which Maloney said has only boosted the prospects for the Democratic nominee in December. But members of his own party warn it was a dangerous gamble.
“It makes people feel like the Democrats are playing a game and it’s not a game,” Biaggi said. “I think it represents everything that people hate about politics.”
Maloney said he understand people debating the tactic but defended the move.
“My job is to win seats. We are more likely to win that seat now than before the primary, and that is the bottom line. And that is my responsibility. Full stop," he said.