- The Indian American is banking on mail-in ballots to become Big Apple’s 1st South Asian Congressman.
Suraj Patel, 38, is hoping he can defeat long-serving New York Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, 74, when the mail-in ballots for New York’s 12th Congressional District are counted. If he does pull it off, it would be an extraordinary feat that will not only reverberate across the Democratic party establishment, but also the Capitol Hill itself. Much like what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had done two years ago.
Patel, an attorney, activist, and professor of business ethics at NYU, is almost tied with Maloney. A few hundred votes currently separate the two. And Patel is hopeful that after adding the mail-in ballot results, he can head to the November elections.
The New York Times data, after counting the June 23 in-person votes, reveals that Patel has 15,825 or 40.1 percent of the votes, while Maloney has 16,473 or 41.7 percent. District 12 includes the east side of Manhattan from the Upper East Side to the East Village, and from Astoria, Queens down to Green Point in Brooklyn. Maloney has been in Congress since 1993 representing the heavily Democratic district, one of the richest in the country.
If Patel wins the primary, it is believed that he is assured of victory in the November general elections as District 12 is heavily Democratic. Patel would then be the fifth member of the “Samosa Caucus” in the Congress, which currently includes Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, Ami Bera and Ro Khanna of California, and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state.
A former campaign staffer for Barack Obama, Patel was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and grew up in Indiana. He has lived in New York since attending New York University School of Law some 12 years ago. He earned a B.A. in political science from Stanford University in 2005. He then received a J.D. from the New York University School of Law in 2009. In 2014, Patel earned his master of philosophy from the University of Cambridge.
He is the president of Sun Group of Companies, a real estate and investment firm specializing in hospitality, and an adviser to political campaigns as well as technology startups.
Patel has served as the president of the Sun Group of Companies since 2011. He has been a founding team member of The Arena since 2016. He was also co-founder of Creative Caucus in 2016. Patel has also served as an adjunct professor of business ethics at the NYU Stern School of Business since 2015.
On his website, there are lot of references to Patel’s immigrant background. He mentions the early days of his parents immigrating to the U.S., building their hospitality business, how recession affected it and how they overcame it.
His campaign focused on progressive ideals such as the Green New Deal, affordable housing, Medicare-for-all, ending mass incarceration and legalizing marijuana.
In an interview with American Kahani a day before the counting for District 12 was slated to begin, Patel discussed his campaign and his platform, and why his constituents are ready for a change.
“I’m so grateful to our voters and supporters who have patiently stood by us as we await the results of the mail-in ballot count from the Board of Elections,” Patel said. His supporters have “voted for a new direction,” he said. “They voted for optimism and hope. They voted for change.” Patel said his campaign is “fighting to ensure every vote is counted, every voice is heard. And that NY-12 has the representation we deserve.”
He believes that although the competition is neck-to-neck, “it’s an emphatic defeat for the status quo.” He said Maloney, a 30-year incumbent “lost 60 percent of the vote.” She “outspent us by $2 million, funded mostly by corporate PACs, and threw in $300,000 of her own money in a last-ditch effort to save her seat.”
Patel ran against Maloney in 2018. At the time he had said that he was banking on the support of millennials in the June 26 primary and had claimed that the new generation is desperate to see change. Patel received about 17,000 votes in the primary, 8,000 less than Maloney.
In 2010, Maloney had faced a well-funded primary challenge from Indian American hedge fund lawyer Reshma Saujani. Saujani raised $1.3 million, but Maloney won the race with 81 percent of the votes to Saujani’s 19 percent.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: How do you feel about your election night performance? And your close margin with Rep. Maloney.
We are very excited that the ballots are being counted. It has been an historic turnout for the primaries. All previous voter records have been shattered. There’s been an unprecedented number of voters, sent in the mail-in ballots as well. And most of those voters have been under the age of 45, according to our data. We ran a sophisticated absentee ballot request program that netted remarkable results. More than 39,000 people voted in person, while there’s an estimated 61,000 mail-in ballots received. In the June 2016 primary, only 13.7 percent of voters were under the age of 45. This year, 51 percent of the outstanding 79,000 absentee ballots remaining to be counted were requested by people under the age of 45. We have reached remarkable levels this time.
Q: Why did you choose to run again? Do you think you were better prepared this time? What do you think changed between this year and 2018?
There is so much that has changed, and at the same time, there’s so little that has changed as well. We had New Yorkers who were dissatisfied with their representation. she “outspent us by $2 million, funded mostly by corporate PACs, and threw in $300,000 of her own money in a last-ditch effort to save her seat.”
On our end, we continued to listen to people, our constituents, and we also got more people involved. We have been representing the diversity of our district, because you cannot win an election by only appealing to one group of people. So to win this race, we had to be inclusive, we had to add, not subtract our people. We had to appeal to the younger crowd, the Upper East Side moms as well as the older progressives. In return, we built a coalition that was very diverse.
Actually, we built a movement by expanding the electorate and by changing the hearts and minds of people who do traditionally participate. We set out to build a new electorate and we did it.
But it takes more than money and a machine to beat a movement powered by passionate, empathetic and hopeful supporters, volunteers, friends, and family: Our team made one million calls during this campaign including 100,000 check-in calls to see if our elderly neighbors needed anything since COVID began. We sent 400,000 text messages, wrote 10,000 hand-written letters delivered under neighbor doors, held over 100 zoom town halls without screening questions, spent thousands of hours at farmers markets, and in parks talking to our neighbors. My team and I delivered thousands of meals after my recovery from COVID. I averaged over 10 miles per day walking the district in the last weeks to meet thousands of voters one on one.
We wrote an unprecedented amount of unique and bold policy for a Congressional Primary. Rather than just recycle old ideas, we proposed new ones like our Family Opportunity Guarantee, Discovery Project, Universal Testing, a Progressive Response to COVID, Combating Domestic Violence, and others in addition to supporting stalwart ideas like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
Q: What kind of support are you getting or expecting from the Indian American/South Asian American community?
The Indian American and the South Asian community in general has been very supportive. I have tremendous support from the Gujarati community. There has been no South Asian representative from this district, which is a bit of an embarrassment. So there’s been a lot of momentum for my campaign.
Q: Rep. Maloney has a deep record with Indian-Americans in the greater New York area, having been closely involved with the campaign to bring out the Diwali stamp, and being a familiar figure in all community celebrations. She also introduced a resolution to posthumously award a Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award, to Mahatma Gandhi for his work in “inspiring peaceable movements for civil rights around the world.”
It is real grassroots-level work that makes a difference in the lives of voters, not stamp-releasing activism. What is important for Indian Americans in the time of today’s anti-immigration rhetoric is a way to increase green card backlogs and streamline H-1B and H4 and H4-EAD visas. We want real change – in the H-1B visas and small business reform. We see it as an universal issue, not black or white or Indian American.
One also has to remember that there is an age divide between Maloney and me. My polices and platform resonate with younger people of color; I have their support.
Q: How do you think the close relationship with Trump and Modi play among Indian Americans in the 2020 elections? Data suggests that most Indian Americans vote Democrats. Do you feel that the allegiance will shift?
As you know a majority of Indian Americans are Democrats, over 50 percent. In 2016, more than 60 percent of them voted for Hillary Clinton. And 16 percent voted for Trump. I don’t see this changing much. And if Indian Americans are indeed supporting Trump, because of his perceived close relationship with Modi, I don’t think it’s a voice move. I personally haven’t heard anyone say this, but I am aware of the discussions around this. To me, it’s all noise. What has transpired between Trump and Modi, is at best a show, a lot of noise and a few photo-ops. People shouldn’t mistake this for anything more.
What has transpired between Trump and Modi, is at best a show, a lot of noise and a few photo-ops. People shouldn’t mistake this for anything more.
What is important for Indian Americans in the time of today’s anti-immigration rhetoric is a way to increase green card backlogs and streamline H-1B and H4 and H4-EAD visas.