Working in politics has the potential to expose you to some dark truths, but few of those are as stunning as the one NYU Stern adjunct professor and current Democratic Congressional candidate, Suraj Patel, discovered after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.
“The next day my brother and I, at noon, went to the Olive Garden in Chelsea at 23rd and 6th and we were there for six or seven hours,” he said during a recent interview with The Oppy. “Our friends cycled through, and you know they charge you twice if you stay that long for all-you-can-eat pasta and breadsticks.
“They charge you twice for lunch and dinner even though it’s technically endless.”
Shocking as that revelation might have been, it was low on the scale for Patel that day. Donald Trump’s surprise victory the night before had laid bare economic and social fault lines across the country, shocking American liberals who widely expected an easy win for Hillary Clinton.
Count Patel among that group. The night of the election he was at the Javits Center on Manhattan’s west side to help organize the anticipated Clinton victory celebration. As a politically-active child of Indian immigrants, Patel acutely felt the pain of losing to a campaign that many on the left saw as playing on racial differences to divide the electorate.
“I kept muttering, ‘What do you do with a country that doesn’t want you,’ over and over and over,” Patel says. “It just had that feeling. It had that weird personalized feeling. It was devastating.”
There is little rest for the politically weary, however. Within a few days of the election, Patel says he was spurred by a friend to, in his words, “get off the mat,” sensing an opportunity to rebuild the Democratic Party in a more progressive vein. Patel had been involved in Democratic politics for a decade at this point, working on advance teams for Barack Obama and Joe Biden during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, among various other roles with Democratic organizations.
Patel, who lectures on business ethics at Stern, ultimately helped co-found The Arena, an organization geared toward cultivating the next generation of liberal political leaders. As a wave of young progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley ran for office in the 2018 midterm elections, Patel felt the call to office himself, mounting an unsuccessful bid to oust Representative Carolyn Maloney in the Democratic primary for New York’s 12th congressional district.
Two years later, Patel is at it again. He is not the only progressive challenging Maloney this spring, but he hopes to expand his base of support beyond the millenial turnout that powered a relatively strong performance in 2018.
The 12th district is arguably the country’s most dynamic and diverse. With a footprint covering much of Manhattan’s east side, Long Island City, Roosevelt Island and Greenpoint, the district is populated by a wide range of ethnicities, age ranges and socioeconomic groups, with neighborhoods that have had rapidly-changing demographics over the past two decades. Patel lost with 40.4 percent of the primary vote two years ago, according to Ballotpedia. In 2016, Maloney, who is running for her 15th term in the House this fall, defeated Pete Lindner in the primary with 91.1 percent of the vote before coasting to reelection that November.
This year’s congressional primary will be held on June 23.
“We are in the most unequal district in America,” Patel says. “In fact, we lead in almost every facet of American life — media, entertainment, culture, technology, finance, you name it — and inequality. And in politics, not at all.
“We have to get Donald Trump out of the White House. I completely believe that is an existential threat to democracy type question. But if you want change in November, you have to lead with change in June. You can’t keep sending the same types of people to Washington, who have created and exemplify some of the worst parts about the system that we’ve come to detest, that created Donald Trump, and expect change. You can’t do that.”
One of Patel’s major strategies is to associate Maloney with the President. That is a tall task considering she is a senior member of the Democratic caucus. She chaired the House Oversight Committee during Trump’s Impeachment trial earlier this year and she remains very popular with her base on Manhattan’s east side. To do this, Patel draws a direct line from Trump’s biggest initiatives to Maloney’s own past policy stances, noting she supported a border wall in 2006 and opposed the JCPOA, more-commonly known as the Iran Deal.
He is also quick to point out that Maloney has not returned past campaign donations from Trump — Trump Tower is in the 12th district — while pointing out she attended a cocktail party in 2017 that included Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump among its attendees.
“Time and again we’ve seen poor judgment, so I don’t think we can risk another term,” Patel says. “We’re going to want to know what kind of Democrats we want to rebuild this country and it’s institutions.”
Patel has campaigned on a number of progressive issues, such as defunding ICE and reforming student loan repayment with a proposal modeled after the income-based system used in Australia. More recently, he has laid out plans to provide citizens with easier access to post-high school education and a policy he calls “UBI for Kids,” which would provide all families in the United States with $350-500 per child per month.
Ask Patel a simple question like, “Why are you running?” and it does not take long for him to get into the weeds of his proposals. Patel, who at times shared an apartment with more than 11 family members during his upbringing in the New York area and Indianapolis, has degrees from Stanford, NYU Law and Cambridge. Such achievement out of modest circumstances does not come lackadaisically, and Patel’s intensity is obvious from the start of a conversation. As he runs through his arguments against reelecting the more moderate Maloney, words seem to leave his mouth as if they’re playing catch-up with his brain.
In order to defeat Maloney and his fellow progressive challengers, Patel admits he will need to make inroads with older voters, which tend to be a dependable voting bloc and with whom he struggled to find support in 2018. At the same time, he performed very well with both younger constituents and minorities in the outer boroughs. Patel’s campaign took to a number of grass roots initiatives such as fitness classes and offering voters the opportunity to schedule one-on-one coffee time with him, a tactic that is also a part of his 2020 bid. He is quick to note that he increased millennial turnout for the primary by nearly 800%.
While any chance of an upset will likely depend on siphoning some of Maloney’s support in Manhattan, Patel is again banking on his appeal to millennial progressives and immigrants hoping to replicate his family’s success.
“I want to do something in politics full time because Donald Trump is out there attacking my very existence.” Patel says. “A week after the inauguration, I was at JFK as a volunteer attorney for the ACLU fighting the Muslim ban. I’m not Muslim, but the fact that there was a religious test placed on people coming into this country directly attacks my right to be in this country. Stories like mine wouldn’t be possible under the preferred immigration regime of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.”
Throughout Patel’s childhood, his parents took on a number of ventures to achieve the economic stability that lured them to the U.S. Those included running a Cuco’s Tex-Mex restaurant in Mississippi and a bodega in Bloomfield, N.J., before finally gaining success managing a number of mid-range hotels in the midwest.
Running the hotels was a group effort for the family. Patel and his brothers did odd jobs like laundry and refilling vending machines. Their allowance was keeping half of the money from those machines, though we “skimmed from the top on that,” he admits.
“Most immigrants aren’t coming to the United States of America for our freedom of press, or our freedom to assemble, or our freedom to worship,” says Patel. “Most people are coming here for the freedom of commerce. For opportunity. To make money. Because frankly, building generational wealth in a place where they were in a dead end on a teeny tiny farm in India, that’s not happening, right?”
Being party to an immigrant success story and the ensuing challenges his family faced following the financial crash have informed many of Patel’s positions as he pursues office again. His progressive leanings are somewhat tempered by his experiences living in Indiana. He considers the painting of white midwestern voters who delivered the presidency to Trump with one brush to be reductive, a point he made during our interview without prompting.
“People are pretty empathetic everywhere you look at the ground level,” he says. “You don’t go to an American mall and see half the people just screaming and fighting the other half of the people. They tend to pretty much just hang out.”
Those voters may prove decisive in whether or not Patel spends the day after the election sitting in Olive Garden again, but they are likely not the ones who will determine his personal fate in June. Some of his opinions could prove controversial in New York. When asked which Manning brother he would start a football team with, Patel did not hesitate (“You have to choose Peyton because he’s the greatest quarterback in history. I don’t care what anybody says about Tom Brady,” he says). But in the issues that will affect New Yorkers and minorities directly, he has been aggressive about staking out the progressive ground.
As primary day approaches, he continues to unveil progressive proposals, but much of his case rests on whether or not this is the time for New York to send fresh blood to the House. Patel is betting it is, and he’s willing to go through the rigors of another campaign to prove it.
He’s already shown he’s willing to pay the price for something twice.