A Progressive Upstart Is Trying To Unseat House Democrats’ Campaign Chair

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi is running against Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in the New York City suburbs. She is up against big money and general-election fears.
New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (left) is the underdog in her bid against Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney for the Democratic nomination in New York's 17th Congressional District.
New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (left) is the underdog in her bid against Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney for the Democratic nomination in New York's 17th Congressional District.
Associated Press

John Gromada, a theatrical sound designer and union member from Nyack, New York, is exactly the kind of voter that progressive congressional candidate and New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi needs on her side.

Gromada backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for president in 2020 and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for the Democratic nomination four years earlier. He was an active part of the effort to oust members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of breakaway Democrats in the state Senate who aligned with Republicans, and an early supporter of progressive now-Rep. Mondaire Jones’ candidacy in the 2020 election cycle. In March, Gromada won a prolonged battle to chair the Rockland County Democratic Party, against the wishes of an entrenched party machine.

But in the Democratic primary for New York’s 17th Congressional District on Tuesday, Gromada is supporting Biaggi’s opponent, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a business-friendly moderate and controversial chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

He believes Maloney is better equipped to hold the seat against a Republican in November. “We need to build a bridge to the center to be able to win,” Gromada told HuffPost.

Maloney, an attorney and former corporate executive who accepts corporate political action committee money, is one of the Democratic Party’s leading fundraisers. His cash advantage alone would have made him the favorite against Biaggi.

And while Gromada’s support for Maloney is not necessarily representative of other hardcore progressives in New York City’s northern suburbs, his plain political calculation helps explain why Biaggi, a rare talent who rocketed to political stardom in 2018, is the underdog on Tuesday. In late July, Biaggi’s own internal poll had her trailing Maloney by 13 percentage points. And that was before an array of super PAC spending came in against her.

“There is going to be a hard-fought general election, potentially against a candidate that will attract national investment from Republicans,” said Evan Stavisky, a Rockland County resident and prominent Democratic lobbyist.

“The question for Democrats in the district is who is best able to hold the district for Democrats and make a small contribution to try to keep the Republicans out of power in Washington,” added Stavisky, who would not say for whom he voted. “I don’t think I’m alone in approaching it that way.”

Maloney touts the environmental benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act in Cold Spring, New York, on Wednesday. The law has added to his momentum in the primary.
Maloney touts the environmental benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act in Cold Spring, New York, on Wednesday. The law has added to his momentum in the primary.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

A ‘Corporate’ Democrat Confronts Redistricting

With former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo out of office, there are few New York Democrats who inspire more contempt on the left than Maloney. His run for New York attorney general in 2018 is widely blamed for undermining the candidacy of Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and anti-corruption crusader. Maloney’s candidacy, the thinking goes, split the vote of New Yorkers who wanted an alternative to Letitia James, then Cuomo’s pick for the top law enforcement spot.

“His acceptance of tens of thousands of dollars from real estate interests casts a shadow over his appealing résumé and solid government experience,” the New York Times’ editorial board wrote in its endorsement of Teachout.

Indeed, Maloney’s coziness with Wall Street has elicited particular suspicion on the left. He was one of 33 House Democrats to vote for legislation rolling back provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law in 2018. Maloney claims that the bill aimed to provide relief to community banks, including those serving communities of color, that were struggling to comply with regulations designed to keep the biggest banks in check.

“We gave the little guys a break, and we kept the leash on the big guys,” he told HuffPost in an interview in Cold Spring on Wednesday.

In fact, the new legislation raised the criteria for a bank to be subject to stricter oversight from the Federal Reserve from $50 billion in assets to $250 billion. The bill enabled 25 of the 38 largest banks in the country to escape tougher regulation, according to the Center for American Progress, a mainstream Democratic think tank.

Replacing Maloney with a Democrat who is less chummy with corporate America is the core of Biaggi’s pitch to voters.

Maloney’s defeat would mean there would be “one less corporate Democrat that was part of watering down important legislation” and “one more Democrat that is a champion for working people,” Biaggi told HuffPost in an interview in Bedford on Wednesday.

Following the court-ordered redrawing of New York’s congressional district lines in May, Maloney inspired additional progressive anger. Critics fault him for deciding to run in New York’s 17th, where his home is, rather than staying in New York’s 18th where most of his current constituents are. Rep. Jones, the incumbent in New York’s 17th, responded by running in a new New York City seat. He is now one of three viable candidates crowding the progressive lane in a race in which moderate Dan Goldman is poised to triumph.

Maloney’s detractors note that he, an openly gay white man, sprung his decision on Jones, one of Congress’ first two openly gay Black men.

“You would have had two front-line districts any way you slice it.”

- Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.)

“Moderates and progressives alike felt like [Jones] was a shining representative of Rockland [County],” said Meredith Wisner, a university librarian and chair of the Rockland Working Families Party, which is supporting Biaggi. “We worked very hard to get him elected and feel very much that he was pushed out by Maloney.”

Although Maloney has apologized for mishandling his communication with Jones, he defended his decision to run in the new seat to HuffPost. He noted that both New York’s new 17th and New York’s new 18th are swing seats; Joe Biden would have carried the new 18th by just 2 points less than the new 17th.

But HuffPost pressed Maloney on whether he hadn’t made the party’s hold on the 18th more tenuous by depriving it of an incumbent, when the 17th already had an incumbent in Jones.

“You would have had two frontline districts any way you slice it,” responded Maloney, using the DCCC’s term for Democratic-held seats vulnerable to a Republican takeover. (Maloney noted that if he is the nominee, New York’s 17th will not technically receive the “frontline” designation, because the district where the DCCC chair is running is ineligible for that status.)

If Biaggi manages to pull off an upset, it will be thanks in large part to some Democrats’ belief that Maloney puts himself above the interests of the Democratic Party. In a late August election — thanks to redistricting, the second primary election since June — turnout is hard to predict. Biaggi’s enthusiastic base of support could prove decisive.

But Jones’ decision to run elsewhere rather than take on Maloney has made it harder for Biaggi’s supporters to prosecute the case against Maloney. After initially lashing out at Maloney for not consulting him, Jones has declined to criticize him.

That’s because Jones, an outspoken progressive attorney, made the calculation that his chances of staying in Congress were greater in a more liberal district. The redrawn 17th, which gained all of conservative Putnam County and lost the Democratic hub of White Plains, where Jones lived, would have been a much harder seat for Jones to hold in a general election.

“Part of me wishes that he had stayed and fought,” conceded Wisner, who lives in South Nyack. “He made the choice that was best for his own candidacy and that is part of the game too.”

Mondaire Jones (left) celebrates his congressional victory in November 2020 with Biaggi. Maloney's decision to run in Jones' district — and Jones' departure for another district — inspired Biaggi to take on Maloney.
Mondaire Jones (left) celebrates his congressional victory in November 2020 with Biaggi. Maloney's decision to run in Jones' district — and Jones' departure for another district — inspired Biaggi to take on Maloney.
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

A New, More ‘Moderate’ District

There is no denying the outsize role that Maloney’s cash advantage has played in the race. As of Aug. 3, he had spent nearly $2.6 million and had $2.4 million left to spend.

Biaggi, by contrast, had spent over $530,000 and had less than $270,000 left as of that same date. And prior to the court-ordered redistricting, a chunk of the money she raised had gone toward a short-lived campaign in New York’s 3rd Congressional District.

To make matters worse, four super PACs have supplemented the money that Maloney raised directly with a barrage of spending — either for Maloney or against Biaggi — in the final weeks of the race. The realtor-backed Our Hudson PAC has spent almost $160,000, the National Association of Realtors has chipped in another $45,000, and the Democratic Majority for Israel has invested $53,000 in support of Maloney’s bid.

Most significantly, the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, or NYC PBA — a union representing New York City police officers that has not endorsed Maloney — has spent nearly $500,000 hammering Biaggi on television, by mail and via a digital sign truck. Biaggi, by contrast, has benefited only from the outside financial support of the Working Families Party, which has spent $110,000 on digital ads backing her.

Conversations with voters at a retirement community in Yorktown suggested that the spending gap has prevented Biaggi, who has not advertised on television, from reaching as many voters as she needed to remain competitive.

Sandra Dolman, a retired customer service representative who wants Democrats to provide greater financial security to seniors, is voting for Maloney. “He seems genuine — for now,” she said.

Dolman had only heard about Biaggi from the police union ads, which left a bad impression.

At the same time, it’s not clear that Biaggi’s brand of take-no-prisoners progressivism would have gained traction in the district, even if she had equal financial firepower.

The district is home to liberal redoubts like Nyack, which are concentrated along the banks of the Hudson River. More common, though, are towns like Chappaqua dominated by wealthy, socially liberal Democrats. During the 2016 presidential primary, Hillary Clinton easily defeated Sanders in Westchester and Rockland counties.

Although Biaggi worked on the former secretary of state’s 2016 campaign, Clinton, a Chappaqua resident, has not made an endorsement in the race. But her husband, former President Bill Clinton, announced his plans to vote for Maloney earlier this month.

“It’s still a moderate district,” Stavisky said.

“Alessandra Biaggi slayed a giant and as a result attracted a lot of attention.”

- Evan Stavisky, Democratic lobbyist

That analysis was clearly a factor in the New York Times editorial board’s decision to endorse Maloney, despite its criticism of one of Maloney’s key decisions as chair of the DCCC.

“She has only just moved into the district, and her politics are more progressive than those of many of its residents,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote.

In addition, Rockland County is home to one of the country’s largest concentrations of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who lean conservative and tend to vote as a bloc. That community is supporting Maloney thanks to his long-standing ties with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in his current district, according to someone familiar with the Rockland County ultra-Orthodox Jewish community’s thinking.

That leaves the district’s smaller but disproportionately active contingent of progressive voters as a potential wellspring of support. Biaggi’s defeat of then-state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, the former leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, in 2018, made a big impression on progressives in Rockland County. Those same progressives tried and failed to oust David Carlucci, their own state senator who had also belonged to the IDC.

“Alessandra Biaggi slayed a giant and as a result attracted a lot of attention,” Stavisky said. “She’s a known commodity and some of the activist left in the district is with her.”

It’s unclear, though, how many of the district’s left-leaning voters share Gromada’s concerns about holding on to the seat. Biden won in the previous 17th District by 20 percentage points, but would have prevailed in the new one by just 10 points. And the likely Republican nominee — state Assembly member Mike Lawler, a former GOP political consultant — already represents a portion of Rockland County.

Gromada also fretted about how a loss for Maloney could affect his ability to lead House Democrats to victory as chair of the DCCC.

Wisner blamed Maloney for the predicament. “That’s a risk that he himself created,” she said.

Biaggi (left) talks to volunteers at a canvass launch in Sleepy Hollow, New York, on Aug. 13. With fewer funds, her campaign has relied on a strong ground game.
Biaggi (left) talks to volunteers at a canvass launch in Sleepy Hollow, New York, on Aug. 13. With fewer funds, her campaign has relied on a strong ground game.
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Toxic Police Tweets

Speaking to Biaggi, it’s clear that empathy with struggling workers, renters and victims of discrimination is what drives her.

She grew animated discussing her hopes to fight for additional federal money for Section 8 housing subsidies — and ideally turn the assistance program for low-income renters into a means-tested “entitlement” akin to food stamps or Medicaid.

Biaggi also endorsed the view of the “yes in my backyard” — or YIMBY — movement that zoning regulations that limit housing density are a drag on home affordability.

“When we make cities like New York, which have some of the best job opportunities, inaccessible to low- and moderate-income individuals, we then make it really hard for them to come out of poverty,” she said.

Although Biaggi has served in a state Senate where Democrats enjoy a super-majority, she said she welcomes opportunities to work with Republicans when possible. She worked with a Republican state senator, for example, to pass a bipartisan bill prohibiting the sale or manufacture of cosmetic products tested on animals.

“That was a real learning experience for me,” she said. “It’s important to find common ground and to just charge. We can do more of that.”

But two tweets Biaggi posted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in 2020 have overshadowed that record, hampering her ability to cast herself as a pragmatic figure capable of beating a Republican in a swing seat.

Biaggi appeared to endorse the call to “defund the police” in a June 2020 tweet. And in reaction to an October 2020 video of Philadelphia cops beating a mother in front of her toddler, Biaggi declared, “The police in this country are soulless.”

Biaggi’s vote for a 2019 law restricting cash bail likely would have earned her the enmity of the NYC PBA regardless of her tweets. But the comments gave the union — and the super PACs supporting Maloney — unusually rich fodder with which to attack her in ads.

“Biaggi voted to release violent criminals without bail back onto our streets, while calling to defund the police who keep us safe,” the narrator says in the NYC PBA’s ominous-sounding TV attack ad.

“My role has been to catapult us forward.”

- New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D)

Wisner, the local Working Families Party leader, said voters at the doors have not found the ad blitz convincing.

But Democrats like Gromada fear a preview of a general-election race where Republicans relentlessly hit her using her own words. That could prove especially potent, he predicted, in Rockland County, which leans slightly Democratic in national elections, but consistently elects Ed Day, a Republican and former New York City Police Department officer, as county executive.

“We have a lot of NYPD members and firemen living here,” he said. “That stuff is just difficult.”

In her interview with HuffPost, Biaggi, whose grandfather was a decorated NYPD veteran, conceded that she could have limited her criticism of police officers’ moral character to those captured on camera that day in Philadelphia. “If I amended the tweet it would be, ‘These police are acting soulless,’” she said.

Biaggi also re-affirmed that while she does not regret saying “defund the police” as an “act of solidarity” against police misconduct, she now believes that the slogan “actually prevents us from making the change” by unnecessarily alienating people.

HuffPost pressed Biaggi on the underlying policy, asking her if she believes that police funding must decline in order to tackle the root causes of violent crime. “It depends,” Biaggi replied.

She did not rule out a scenario where she would think it is appropriate, such as if it were necessary to fund crime prevention programs like summer jobs for underprivileged young people.

“Every situation is nuanced,” she said.

Biaggi sounded resigned to the fact that her unapologetic progressive views and rhetoric might have short-term political costs. She considers it the price of social advancement.

“My role has been to catapult us forward,” Biaggi said. “And that sometimes feels really disruptive — because it is.”

The Democratic Party “literally was part of the civil rights movement. We’re literally the party of FDR. That’s incredible,” she added. “So let’s continue that philosophy. People lost their lives for those views and beliefs — that’s how important they were — and that is not lost on me.”

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