By Sabina Mollot
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who’s easily held her seat for 25 years, will be facing two challengers in the June primary. One of them is Suraj Patel, an East Village resident and entrepreneur, who insists that it’s not the incumbent he’s challenging, but the status quo.
“People say competition is great for democracy, but technically it’s required for it to have any meaning,” he told Town & Village this week. “A lot of people ask, ‘Why are you challenging an incumbent?’ I’m challenging a party. I couldn’t wait my turn anymore.”
Patel, who’s also an attorney (though he doesn’t practice much), has some experience in politics, having worked as an advance associate for former President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. These days, he’s an assistant adjunct professor of business ethics at New York University’s Stern Business School and also hosts a lecture series on voting rights called “Talks on Law.” He also owns, with his family, Sun Group, a company that owns motel franchises around the country. At this time, he said there are 12 motels operated by the hospitality group, some of them with partners, though none are in New York City.
His business background seems to have helped his campaign. He’s already raised over $550,000 and he has a staff of 12, including Lis Smith, formerly a communications employee for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign, as well as volunteers. On Wednesday, the campaign officially opened its headquarters, a storefront south of Astor Place that was last home to Coup, a political resistance-themed bar.
A couple of days before the opening, Patel spoke with Town & Village about his campaign, which was mainly motivated by the current administration’s treatments of immigrants. He’s a first-generation American whose parents moved to this country from India 10 years before he was born. Last year when a travel ban left people stranded at JFK, Patel was one of the pro bono attorneys who’d showed up to help them.
“It was intense,” he recalled of that experience, adding that much of the work was compounded by the fact that border patrol wouldn’t release the names of people being detained. To try and figure out who to help, attorneys wandered around, searching for people who appeared to be waiting for someone. “We were looking at people who looked nervous,” he said.
He also considers his work for Obama’s campaign advance and scheduling office, to be another career highlight, in particular when he got to travel to India in 2015 in preparation for a visit there from the president.
While none of Maloney’s challengers have ever come close to unseating her, a campaign strategy for Patel has been to try to reach out to people who don’t necessarily usually vote. For him, this has meant traveling to heavily immigrant communities like a Sikh enclave in Astoria and he has gotten support from the Indian business community, in particular hospitality professionals like himself, in the district and out.
“People with the last name Patel who are not related to me own 60 percent of the motels in America,” he said.
He’s also been showing up at places like local yoga and boxing classes whose operators don’t mind him talking politics. Additionally, the fact that the campaign office is housed in a former bar isn’t an accident. He plans to allow anyone who wants to bring a laptop and work there to be able to do so, although he warned, “We’ll be annoyingly full (with staff) soon.”
Additionally, he hasn’t shunned the traditional campaigning methods like speaking at political clubs and door knocking in his own neighborhood.
He is also hoping, like many Democrats, to ride the wave of anti-Trump sentiment, believing this could boost the usually dismal number of people who show up for primary elections.
“Twenty-six percent of America voted for Trump,” he said, while seated at a booth at his office, which looks out at the Cooper Union. “Fifty percent of America didn’t vote at all. We can’t blame the customers for not buying a s***ty product. We need to change our outreach program. If we are doing things right, we’ll get more votes.”
While he acknowledges his similarities to Maloney, such as making gun control a priority, Patel on his website has said he wants more from a house representative than voting the right way “most of the time.”
“We need someone who is a bold progressive,” he said.
If elected, along with banning assault weapons and requiring background checks for handguns, another priority for Patel would be to de-fund ICE. He also wants to see more funding for NYCHA as well as the MTA, while at the same time, keeping a sharper eye on the books of the latter.
“When we’re spending $1.6 billion a kilometer in the subway, we need to audit these agencies to find out where this is going,” he said. “It’s so goddamn expensive, because we’re not minding the store.”
He also said he intends to roll out a plan for “debt free” college that involves matching grants, although he doesn’t yet have details on how it will work.
Locally, a concern is the fate of small businesses.
“I am concerned about the character of New York,” he said. He said the federal government could help by increasing small business lending and also increasing “human capital” by issuing more visas to immigrants.
On healthcare, he wants to see Medicare for all, regardless of age, and more transparency for consumers.
“With anything else in life, you get to see the price before you buy,” he said. “But it’s only in healthcare that six weeks later you get a massive bill for $60,000. What if I could shop ahead of time? Why don’t we have price transparency in healthcare? Probably because of the corrosive power of money on politics.”
On affordable housing, he wants to see more of it built, as well as more market rate housing. “More housing of all kinds,” he said, while also making sure neighborhoods are kept up in terms of having enough transit hubs and schools.
The 34-year-old candidate, who was born in Mississippi and grew up in Indiana, has lived in the southern end of the district since his law school days at NYU, most recently on East 12th Street. He joked that he’s moved every couple of years, going east each time until seven years ago when he finally purchased his last home.
“From 2011 to now it’s a completely different neighborhood than it was,” he said.
For one thing, he noted how the shifting landscape of the 12th Congressional District, which now includes parts of Brooklyn as well as Queens, is more wealthy.
“The uniqueness of the district is it’s the wealthiest district in America. It has an obligation to lead,” he said. “We’re still in a district that’s extremely progressive, extremely educated, that can have outsized influence if we take it.”
Along with Patel and Maloney, another Democrat in the race is activist and business owner Sander Hicks.