National News

Is Re-election to the House a Consolation Prize? Maloney Says No

Posted September 23, 2018 4:31 p.m. EDT

BREWSTER, N.Y. — Voters could be excused for feeling some unrequited love from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney.

After all, Maloney, a three-term Democrat, has just come off an unsuccessful run for state attorney general in New York, only to resume his suspended campaign for re-election to the House of Representatives.

But Democratic voters here in the 18th District, which covers the heart of the Hudson Valley, are apparently a forgiving lot, especially in a year when they are eager to wrest control of Congress from Republicans.

“It’s not ideal,” said Robert Wilbarg, who works in information technology, referring to Maloney’s bid for attorney general, his second attempt in a dozen years. “But if he’s the best candidate against Republicans, and he’ll represent Democratic values, then I’m voting for him — no matter what.”

Maloney, 52, would seem to be well positioned to defeat his Republican opponent, James O’Donnell, an Orange County legislator who was chief of police for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority during the 2001 terror attacks.

The 18th District, which borders Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is solidly Democratic, with registered Republicans outnumbered by more than 20,000. Organizations that handicap political races have listed the district as safely Democratic, and Maloney has raised $2.3 million to O’Donnell’s $267,000.

Still, in 2016, President Donald Trump narrowly carried the district. If O’Donnell is to win, Republicans must swing enough voters, and they are trying to do so by portraying Maloney as a political opportunist whose heart is elsewhere. “This was just a steppingstone,” said Anthony Scannapieco Jr., chairman of the Putnam County Republican Committee. “He clearly wants to be attorney general.”

That narrative has no doubt put Maloney, who is New York’s first openly gay member of Congress, on the defensive.

In a statement, he explained his desire to run for attorney general, saying that with Trump in the White House, “New Yorkers have been under constant assault, and the New York attorney general is best equipped to take him on — and win.”

Like a suitor trying to woo back his beloved after a momentary estrangement, Maloney asserts that the House of Representatives would continue to have his undivided attention.

“It’s been the honor of my life to serve the people of the Hudson Valley, one I don’t take lightly,” he said.

For now, Democratic voters seem to be buying his argument. Indeed, some looked to their own professional life for analogies.

“How many of us have ever applied for a job we didn’t get?” asked Ed Page, who owns a door and window manufacturing business in Brewster. “That doesn’t mean that we are not perfectly qualified to do the job we currently hold.”

O’Donnell, however, has framed much of his campaign around the idea that Maloney is an absentee representative. In fact, he said it is what motivated him to run for Congress in the first place.

“I started looking at this race a year ago and thought it was winnable, mainly because I felt we have been underrepresented here in the Hudson Valley,” O’Donnell, 68, said in a phone interview. “That proved true. He has always had his eye on a state run.”

He faulted Maloney for not pushing harder to include rail transportation in the new Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, saying it would have shortened commutes, improved the environment and spurred economic development.

And O’Donnell said that Maloney did not fight to save the full state and local tax deduction, which was capped at $10,000 under Trump’s signature Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

“He has done very little over the last five years,” he said.

Maloney takes issue with that assertion, of course. His campaign highlights a laundry list of achievements, from implementing rail safety measures such as positive train control to killing an unpopular proposal that would have created 10 new anchorage sites along the Hudson River. He also helped secure more than $6 million for the Newburgh Fire Department.

Another area of vulnerability for Maloney could be his use of congressional campaign funds in his race for attorney general. In August, he transferred $1.4 million into his attorney general account, a move he says was legal. But one of his opponents in the state race, Zephyr Teachout, sued Maloney, arguing that the transfer violated the donation limit.

Despite the fact that both candidates lost the primary to Letitia James, New York City public advocate, a court date is pending. Maloney’s campaign declined to discuss the transfer or to disclose the amount of cash he has on hand for his re-election bid. But at the end of June, according to the most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission, he had more than $3 million available. Whether voters are focused on policy issues or district needs remains to be seen. As in many places, Trump seems to be the elephant in the Hudson Valley. Both Democrats and Republicans are eager to have the midterm elections advance their agendas.

O’Donnell said he can see the blue wave on the horizon. So when he is not talking about the importance of immigration reform, border security and tax breaks, he is exhorting Republicans to vote.

He cautions his party about the threefold increase in the Democratic turnout in New York between the 2014 state primary and the one this month. “If that’s not a message to Republicans to get out to vote,” he said, “nothing is.”

And what do Democratic voters think of Maloney’s performance in the House of Representatives? “I think he’s done fine,” sighed Page, before ducking into a supermarket here for groceries. “In this day and age, just the fact they haven’t done something that’s despicable can be quite a feather in a politician’s cap.”