National News

For Democrats Challenging Party Incumbents, Insurgency Has Its Limits

Posted June 21, 2018 11:43 p.m. EDT

For Suraj Patel, running for Congress against an entrenched incumbent has led to some awkward and unexpected moments.

Elected officials have asked him to delete their pictures from his campaign’s Facebook page. When he has tried to set up meetings with key New York City leaders, some refused — simply because they do not dare to be seen with him in public. Many did not answer at all.

“You’ll never eat lunch in this town again if you challenge Carolyn Maloney,” Patel recalled one political consultant warning about his race against a 13-term New York Democrat.

For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, challenging Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., has meant watching local Democratic officials bolt the other way from her at parades, wary of appearing too close to her. Some have agreed to meetings, but behind closed doors — no cellphones allowed.

Patel, 34, and Ocasio-Cortez, 28, are among a group of energetic Democratic insurgents across the country, many of them young or female or people of color, who are seeking to knock off some of Congress’ most tenured Democrats.

They have not succeeded so far: No congressional Democrat in America has lost a primary in 2018.

The establishment’s winning streak will be tested again on Tuesday in New York City, where primary contests feature four Democratic challengers in one of the densest concentrations of intraparty battles in the nation.

While national Democrats have celebrated the President Donald Trump-inspired surge of activist energy coursing through the party in their efforts to take control of the House, many of those same leaders have moved to tame that energy, from Colorado to Massachusetts to New York, when it has turned against them.

Beyond Crowley and Maloney, Reps. Eliot L. Engel and Yvette D. Clarke, both of New York, also face unusually spirited rivals. All four are Democrats in safely Democratic districts, and all four are heavily favored.

“Any time there’s an infusion of new people it’s a good thing,” said Engel, who was first elected in 1988 and faces his most serious primary challenge in more than a decade. “It doesn’t mean you should automatically elect the people.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, in particular, has become a cause célèbre for some on the left who seem set to put a scare into Crowley, the head of the Queens Democratic Party, one of the last and most powerful political machines remaining in New York. and Our Revolution, an outgrowth of the Sanders campaign, both endorsed her, and the news site The Intercept has generated a drumbeat of negative stories on Crowley.

Earlier this week, she showed up to debate Crowley, the potential future leader of House Democrats in Washington — only to discover he was a no-show, a Latina surrogate sent in his place. (Crowley had debated her earlier this month.)

“We have a political culture of intimidation, of favoring, of patronage and of fear and that is no way for a community to be governed,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Lauren French, a spokeswoman for Crowley, predicted victory next week because the congressman “is unapologetically fighting for the people of Queens and the Bronx — communities that need health care, affordable housing, gun safety laws, immigration reform and better jobs with higher wages.”

Patel has waged the most millennial of campaigns. On a recent Thursday evening, he was sitting in a former bar in the East Village that he uses as his campaign headquarters. His campaign manager handed him one of three phones that was logged into the dating app Tinder, and Patel began furiously swiping right.

All around the bar — adorned with blue-velvet booths and a sound system that was playing Kanye West — campaign volunteers, logged onto Tinder, Grindr or Bumble, were doing the same thing. Patel calls it Tinder banking: Participants set up an account with a picture of an attractive person, usually not themselves, and begin seeking matches. Patel uses a picture of his brother.

He compared it to the practice of creating a fake online persona to lure someone into a relationship. “It’s kinda like catfishing,” he admitted, “but you are telling people who you are.”

When someone responds, Patel replies with a political pickup line: “Hi Sarah. Are you into civic engagement?” He soon reveals who he really is.

Patel, a hotel executive, made a splash by amassing $1.2 million in a few short months — rivaling Maloney’s haul. Hesaid he is not interested in kowtowing to the traditional Democratic machine or methods; he has been canvassing for votes at yoga studios and printing campaign materials on coffee sleeves and drink coasters across this mostly affluent district that covers much of the east side of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

“No bar ever says no to free coasters,” he noted.

Maloney did not directly address Patel’s challenge, but in a phone interview, she acknowledged “a lot of energy on the Democratic side.”

“That’s a good thing for the country and the party,” she said.

In Brooklyn, Adem Bunkeddeko, the 30-year-old son of Ugandan immigrants who went on to attend Harvard Business School, is among those who were told to wait their turn. He ignored that advice and is challenging Clarke, part of a local dynasty, the daughter of the former longtime New York City Councilwoman Una S.T. Clarke.

“The mom was a city councilwoman and she went ahead and inherited her mom’s seat. When it came time for the congressional, the mom helped push her in,” Bunkeddeko said.

He has criticized Yvette Clarke sharply — “No one can credibly say this community has been represented well,” he said in an interview — and not surprisingly, their recent debate on NY1 was intense.

“I understand that Ms. Clarke is upset by the fact that she has a competitive primary,” Bunkeddeko said at one point.

“Upset?” Clarke interrupted. “I’m laughing.”

In an interview, Clarke said she was annoyed at Bunkeddeko for misrepresenting her record; his age was not an issue. “My office is full of millennials,” Clarke said.

Clarke called Bunkeddeko a “shiny new thing” who wasn’t part of the “bench of young people committed to their community and public service.”

“He’s a brilliant young man and I take nothing away from him, but I’ve brought value to my district and the nation,” Clarke said. Among those who counseled Bunkeddeko against running was Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, also of Brooklyn. He recalled telling Bunkeddeko that his future had two divergent paths: one was to be like Shirley Chisholm, Barack Obama or Charles Rangel; the other option was characterized by various obscure figures who had run for Congress and lost. The difference, Jeffries said, is that Chisholm, Obama and Rangel ran for lower office before Congress.

“If it’s good enough for them,” Jeffries, who served as a state assemblyman for six years, recalled telling Bunkeddeko, “it should be good enough for anyone.”

In the Bronx and Westchester County, Engel faces a challenge from Jonathan Lewis, 56, who co-founded a money management firm and has put roughly $650,000 of his own money into the contest and is airing three different ads on cable.

Lewis, who lives in Scarsdale, New York, said he is running in part because of “the energy of the post-Trump era.”

“My diagnosis is many of us naively presumed our party would take care of the issues but our party was taking care of itself,” he said in an interview. He has taken particular aim at Engel’s raising money with groups with business before Congress.

Engel pushed back that Lewis “apparently thinks only wealthy people should run for office.” Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, recently made an appearance with Engel in his district and praised him profusely. “We couldn’t be better served than by Eliot Engel,” she said.

In recent months, Engel has paid for multiple negative mailers, including one linking Lewis to the CIA — an unusual tactic for the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who would become chairman should Democrats take the House in November.

The mailer features a large seal of the CIA, and says Lewis’ record “does include an award from the CIA!”

In the interview, Engel initially said he was “frankly not aware that we did that,” but then defended it. “I don’t believe we were implying what you think we were implying,” Engel said.

Ocasio-Cortez said there is “camaraderie” among congressional challengers, and that she’s spoken with Bunkeddeko and Patel to “share best practices in dismantling this calcified machine.”

Among the common themes have been criticizing where Congress members get their money and embracing unconventional tactics.

“What if Tinder banking works so well that we get 1,000 extra votes? Shouldn’t the party be like: ‘Cool, let’s start doing this,'” said Patel, who added that Democrats risk becoming a tired “legacy corporation” without further innovation. “The primary is a phenomenal opportunity for us to test new ideas, new energy. I find the lack of creativity in politics appalling.”