NEW YORK - A Democratic New York political institution, who defeated a Republican congressman in an upscale Manhattan district 30 years ago and went on to secure health benefits for 9/11 responders, is facing an existential crisis.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney's (D-N.Y.) chances at reelection are diminishing, as her strongest opponent surges on a pair of coveted endorsements and an evergreen challenger half her age peppers her with attacks - all in the final days before her Tuesday primary.
In the Democratic contest for the newly drawn 12th Congressional District, Maloney is in the unenviable position of going up against Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) - himself a Democratic establishment who in recent days snagged endorsements from the New York Times editorial board and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Complicating matters for Maloney, who exhibited much more energy than Nadler in a recent debate on news station NY1, is a spirited challenge from three-time candidate Suraj Patel - a 38-year-old attorney who is taking on both septuagenarians but aiming most of his fire at his longtime rival, whom he has been unsuccessfully trying to oust since 2018.
After a fractious redistricting process, Maloney found herself in an odd-couple matchup against crosstown colleague Nadler, whose leading role in Donald Trump's impeachment cemented his stature with voters.
Amid rising pressure, the prospect of her long political career ending has both animated and frustrated the Upper East Side Congress member.
"He's like a broken record," Maloney said about Patel during a recent debate hosted by the New York Jewish Agenda, clearly peeved by tag-team attacks from both opponents on her record of sympathizing with vaccine skeptics.
"I have a record. He's a broken record attacking me on the same thing over and over and over again. How many vaccine centers have you put up, Mr. Patel?" Maloney said to him, as the moderator tried to cut her off. She was referring to her role in establishing Covid-19 vaccine centers in public housing complexes in her district.
The following day, she was in her element: Hosting a roundtable on gender-equity issues at Manhattan's storied Roosevelt House with civically active women who support her candidacy, including National Organization of Women New York President Sonia Ossorio.
"I went to Congress with a list of 10 things I wanted to do, including building the Second Avenue Subway. I've done all of them, save one - ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. I'd like to go back and make that happen," Maloney said after the event.
As Nadler has made his Jewish identity a central component of his campaign, and Patel has emphasized his relative youth and bootstraps upbringing, Maloney has leaned into gender as she seeks support from other women concerned about the curtailment of abortion protections.
But, at times, she's acknowledged it may not be enough.
"For much of my career, I've been the only woman in the room. And though we have made so much progress, the old boys club remains strong," Maloney said in a statement.
Nevertheless, she emphasized her get-it-done attitude while her voting record - particularly her support of the Iraq War and opposition to the Iran nuclear deal - comes under attack from her challengers. (Nadler opposed the war and voted for the Iran agreement.)
"Many legislators may vote the 'right way,' but when the doors are closed and the cameras are off, who fights like hell to protect women's rights? Women do," Maloney added. "We need strong, experienced women leaders in Congress now more than ever, and I am the only candidate in this race with the experience, energy and drive to take on the fights ahead."
Her campaign manager, Sophia Brown, echoed that sentiment when dismissing the Schumer and the New York Times' endorsements.
The Times "have hurt their credibility with voters" by endorsing men over qualified women and people of color, Brown said, referencing the broader slate of candidates the paper has thrown its support behind. "And with Schumer, it's clear the old boys network sticks together and will do whatever it takes to push out a qualified woman."
By Tuesday night, a week before the primary, Maloney, 76, was peddling rumors on TV that Nadler, who is one year her junior but appears less vibrant, will not finish out his term if elected.
"If, for some reason, someone will not serve their term - and there are tons of rumors out there - then there should be an election, not an appointment," Maloney told NY1. "I think the voters should have [a] chance [to] make that selection, not the old boys' club."
When NY1 pressed her about those rumors, she declined to elaborate.
While talking to voters in a park on Wednesday evening, she said reporters have assured her that Nadler will, in fact, serve out the two-year term if he is elected.
Despite a tough NY1 debate performance where he stumbled over his opening statement and sat while his energetic opponents stood, Nadler has found his footing in recent weeks.
In addition to receiving recent backing from Schumer and the Times editorial board, Nadler's supporters were out in full force Monday in the famed Zabar's grocery store on Broadway.
"It was hard, but in my gut I went for him because he has fought against Trump his whole career and I'm all for that," said 55-year-old Rebecca James, an Upper West Side Nadler supporter. "This is superficial, but I just get a charge out of him, and he is hysterical. … He's a real old-school politician."
Judy Nierenberg, a 77th Street resident who would not reveal her age other than to describe herself as "elderly," cited Maloney's East Side roots in explaining her reasons for favoring Nadler. "He did a good job with the impeachment," she added, in reference to Nadler's role chairing the House Judiciary Committee.
The Upper East Side is home to New York's rich and famous, a place where Mike Bloomberg resides in a five-story townhouse just blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perfectly manicured, tree-lined streets are dotted with upscale French bistros and elegant clothing shops.
A few blocks west, residents openly embrace their secular Jewish identity, strolling the streets in Birkenstocks while shopping for bagels and babka at Zabar's with reusable tote bags, religiously tuning into public radio and assiduously reading The New Yorker.
Among Nadler's supporters outside the famed grocer on Monday was an Indonesian immigrant and street vendor who also helmed the candidate's booth.
Khairy Guirgis described his feelings for Nadler as he readied to distribute campaign fliers to passers-by.
About 25 years ago, he was trying to bring his two children to the United States from Indonesia while waiting for their mother's visa to kick in. It was Nadler who rushed to his aide when other U.S. representatives ignored him, he said.
"I will support Jerry 'til the day I die," he added.
"These people vote," City Council Member and former Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said in an interview, referring to Upper West Side residents. She recalled a group of her constituents once rushing to her office in a panic upon discovering their polling site was closed on Election Day, only to yell at her when she informed them there was nothing to vote on because she was running uncontested.
"When I'm walking around, even on the East Side, I'm surprised at the support for Nadler," Brewer added. She has endorsed the 30-year Congress member over Maloney and Patel.
Consultant Chris Coffey, who describes Maloney as a friend, had a somewhat different take.
"I think Carolyn is running a really enthusiastic, nonstop race. She's working all the time," he said in a recent interview. "And the same is true of Suraj Patel: He seems to be all over the place. You haven't seen that enthusiasm for Jerry, but he has loyal support on the Upper West Side, and he's gotten some endorsements. We'll see how much kind of nonstop campaigning matters in this race."
"If people are hardened in their views and they've voted for Jerry Nadler for 100 years, it doesn't really matter how hard he's campaigning," Coffey added, criticizing Nadler's NY1 debate appearance. "But How many people are watching the NY1 debate in August?"
Nadler declined to be interviewed or provide a statement.
For his part, Patel hopes to eat away at support in both incumbents' home bases and rise to a surprising upset.
A high-energy candidate who rattles off policy ideas at rapid pace, Patel has positioned himself as a fresh face to the seniority Nadler and Maloney - both committee chairs - possess.
"We need generational change, energetic change, and I'm the only candidate on this race, this ballot, that is making that pitch for the future of New York," Patel said in an interview Monday afternoon, as he glad-handed passersby on the corner of 23rd Street and 8th Avenue.
Patel said he's confident his campaign is mobilizing a "new type of electorate" composed of younger voters, working-class residents and voters of color - but he added that he has also "played offense" with the older, more attuned voters who might typically flock to Nadler or Maloney.
Elizabeth Brown, a 49-year-old resident of the Chelsea neighborhood, said she's supporting Patel because "the only way forward is to change." She described electing the Obama campaign veteran as "the only way we're going to get out of repeating the past."
Patel, who nearly defeated Maloney in 2020 after she routed him two years earlier, has changed his tune this race, as he acclimates to a newly drawn district that excludes young progressives.
Where he once fashioned himself as an upstart progressive in an effort to appeal to those newly engaged voters, Patel has now presented himself as a more politically moderate candidate focused on policy. He has squarely defended Israel - an unpopular position among many on the far left - and was the only of the three candidates in a debate to decisively support President Joe Biden for reelection.
He described the shift in a recent podcast, saying he was simply responding to the political energy of the moment by "running against institutional corruption, corporate PAC money," which, he said, "weren't actually my core issues."
"The type of vibe we gave off - you're trying to run as this institutional sort of progressive. And you're not," Patel added, referring to himself.
Democratic political consultant Jon Paul Lupo, who is not working for any of the candidates, said Patel has maximized his potential but may fall short in a district where incumbency and familiarity are rewarded.
"The status quo forces in the district are much bigger than the insurgent forces," Lupo said. "These are areas of Manhattan where people are generally happy with their lives. These are not neighborhoods that rage against the machine."