Although the coronavirus pandemic has become a major obstacle for those running for public office this year, candidates running in the Democratic primary to represent New York’s 12th Congressional District were able to share their messages with voters last week during a virtual forum.
The Upper East Side chapter of Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group, hosted the four candidates running for the seat that serves much of Manhattan’s East Side, as well as parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The candidates on the virtual forum conducted over Zoom included incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney and insurgent candidates Suraj Patel, Peter Harrison and Lauren Ashcraft.
During the 90-minute forum, candidates were each given 10 minutes to explain why they were running for Congress and talk about the issues that matter to them.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney
During her opening remarks, Congresswoman Maloney, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, spoke mostly about her involvement in crafting the recent stimulus package passed by Congress and how the Trump Administration has handled the outbreak. Maloney, who has served in Congress since 1993, highlighted that she held a hearing on March 11 that she dubbed a “turning point” in the crisis, during which she said she and her colleagues “examined the systemic failures of this administration to adequately protect the American people from this threat.”
Additionally, Maloney talked about a bill she has introduced to forgive the student loan debt for nurses, doctors and medical technicians who are currently serving or join in serving on the frontlines of hospitals to battle the coronavirus. She said she is trying to get it into the next stimulus packages, adding that it would bring much needed personnel into the system to help patients.
On voting rights, Maloney said she is working in Congress to move to create grants to help cities and states move to voting by mail for upcoming elections and to modernize the voting machines. She also defended her opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which her opponents characterized as pro-war. Maloney said rather she thought the deal hadn’t gone far enough to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran, and once it was in place she supported keeping it in place.
Harrison, who has lived in the district for 14 years, came into politics as a housing activist after experiencing issues as a tenant in Stuyvesant Town, where he has lived for 11 years.
“I actually had to fight to two bogus eviction notices myself down the housing court on my own, and that experience — for lack of a better word — radicalized me and changed the entire course of my life.”
He changed course and attended graduate school at Columbia University to study urban planning and alternative equity models in housing. He helped author housing plans for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders and parts of the Green New Deal.
Harrison said he is running for Congress now to fight the biggest problems he believes the country is facing: economic insecurity and inequality, racial injustice and climate disaster. He said Congress needs new ideas to conquer these issues and that his relationship to policy would help tackle them. Harrison said no one should have doubts about funding big, structural initiatives for the country, such as the Green New Deal, after COVID-19 since Congress “magically created” the money for the trillions of dollars in the stimulus package.
Ashcraft, a former project manager in the financial sector as well as a standup comedian, set herself a part from the other insurgent candidates as the most willing to go after Maloney in her statements. Ashcraft, who said she identifies as a democratic socialist, said that by electing her, voters have a chance to save people “because the status quo is killing people.” She characterized Maloney as a passive leader who thinks her job is to “sign onto things sometimes, when there is political pressure to do so.”
Ashcraft grounded many of her political beliefs and policy goals in the experiences of her family. She said her grandfather had been killed “from corporate greed” in a coal mining accident and that her grandmother had to care for her family using Social Security, which has made her a staunch advocate for the social safety net. Her grandfather on the other side of her family was a quadriplegic, but her family could not afford caretakers, which she said has made fighting for Medicare for All one of her most important crusades.
“I am fighting to prioritize people,” Ashcraft said. “Working people who have gone ignored and oppressed.”
Patel also told a personal story in explaining his candidacy for Congress. In the context of thinking about essential workers during the pandemic, he said he had family members who served the public. His father was an MTA engineer, his uncle was a security guard and his family owned a bodega that they lived above when he was growing up.
“I think about them too, because this city is run by folks who currently are sacrificing a lot to keep us moving and keep us alive,” said Patel, who himself had contracted coronavirus and has since recovered. He said while he was sick he had a lot of time to think about plans for universal testing for COVID-19, and released one through his campaign.
As more and more Americans file for unemployment as states remain on lockdown, Patel pointed to his own experience in helping run his family business during the 2009 financial crisis. He said his family did their best to do right by employees, and are having to make those decisions again. He said fresh perspectives and new ideas will be necessary to lead the country out of this new financial crisis.