In fiscal year 2018, for every tax dollar sent from New York to the federal government, the state only got 90 cents back in federal spending. According to state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, that’s about $26.6 billion that New York could have used.
Candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives Suraj Patel has plans for that tax money New York is losing. “Our mass transit, our New York City public housing, our schools, our infrastructure,” the self-described Obama democrat said — the list goes on. And yet, the image of New Yorkers as coastal elites, combined with features of the electoral college, prevents supporting New York from being politically expedient.
Even so, Patel, a 36-year-old businessman and New York University lecturer who has never held political office, is hopeful about the prospect of change. Of New York’s 27 representatives in the House, Patel said, “You need people to utilize their geographic power, not just their partisan power, to say, we won’t pass these things anymore unless you give New Yorkers their fair share… Just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
In an interview with The Envoy in early March in the candidate’s East Village campaign office, an exposed brick wall and some brightly colored posters reminiscent of Obama hope posters gave the impression of a groovy young candidate. Patel had recently hosted an event at Hunter in which a panel of public health experts said there was no need to fret over the coronavirus. Since then, the Alphabet City resident got the disease and recovered in time to protest in the streets for Black Lives Matter. Patel also released a COVID-19 fiscal response and a Black Lives Matter policy response to add to the many policy proposals he’s published on Medium during his campaign. “To address the continued trauma that Black Americans face every day, we must support and actively push for the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement,” the post reads, “including ending over-policing, mass incarceration, police brutality, violence against Black people, and decriminalizing poverty.”
In many ways, Patel’s angle is one of generational change. He mentioned several times over the course of the interview that his opponent in the 12th congressional district, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, has been in office a very long time — 27 years in the House and 10 in the New York City Council. Two years ago, when a diverse array of young candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset longtime establishment democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, Patel failed in his bid to unseat Maloney, losing the election by 17.6 percentage points but winning the section of the district that’s in Brooklyn. The sometimes awkward relics of that campaign still exist on the internet, and Maloney has not been shy about leveraging them in political advertisements. But Patel, who said he’s learned a lot since the last election and appears to be expanding his target audience, still thinks the district can benefit from a change in leadership.
“I’m more qualified than the incumbent… because I don’t think simply holding a job entitles you to keep it,” Patel said of Maloney. “But as an attorney and as a lecturer at NYU and as a person who’s had to run a business with 2000 employees, I think Congress could use that type of perspective much more so than somebody who’s been in office for 26 years” — it’s actually 27 — “and shown very little for it at this point.” Somebody who’s been in office as long as she has, Patel said, “can’t possibly understand the economy and the future of work and what we’re going through because you’ve just been in Washington too long.”
A son of Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late sixties, Patel also believes he knows something about “the promise of America and the promise of New York” that Maloney doesn’t. “I remember growing up, working in my family’s motels, filling vending machines, sweeping floors, doing all those things, until I got to go to college, became an attorney in New York City, and worked for the greatest president of our lifetimes, Barack Obama,” Patel said. “And all in one generation, I get to be running for Congress.”
But he recognizes that the promise of New York is fractured by extreme wealth inequality, and he wants to implement progressive policies to restore it, though unlike other primary challengers to Maloney Peter Harrison and Lauren Ashcraft, he is not a democratic socialist. “I think we should reinforce antitrust laws, I think we need to build a stronger safety net, expand Medicare, all those things,” he said. “But I don’t think burning down a system that has created an enormous amount of prosperity and reduced poverty is the right answer.” While the candidate believes in federal tax reform and a Green New Deal to combat climate change, he also said he’d be willing to compromise with republicans in Congress in order to get things done.
If there were ever a metaphor for economic mobility and a lack thereof, it might just be the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The long-suffering MTA gets its funding from tax revenues and fares, both of which have gone down as a result of the pandemic. In 1975, when the city was at the brink of bankruptcy, the federal government notoriously refused to bail it out. 45 years later, as coronavirus-related financial strain puts New York’s institutions in jeopardy, the federal government seems unlikely to be any more sympathetic than it was then.
But Patel has a case to make. “This is the most dynamic economic region in the country, and if this city were to shut down due to a mass transit problem, then the entire country would” suffer financially for it, he said. And he doesn’t just want funding for the MTA; he wants oversight. The funding “should come with federal audits and monitoring, and I think having more eyeballs on this outside of the sort of New York City captured interest pool is really beneficial for good governance,” he said, demonstrating the perspective he would bring to Congress as a businessman. Referring to Maloney, who helped secure funding for the Kosciuszko Bridge and to expand subway access on the Upper East Side, Patel said, “I think we need people who are actually focused on this kind of stuff instead of symbolic things to actually bring money back to New York.”
Despite Maloney’s achievements in transportation infrastructure and more, Patel still thinks it’s time for a new generation of leadership. He remembers how, when he was a child, his dad worked the night shift fixing subway tracks. “We joke today, actually, that two things remained the same in the last thirty years: the condition of those tracks, and our congressional representative.” The primary election is on June 23, and early voting ends on June 21.