Rep. Nita Lowey, an influential New York Democrat, announced on Thursday that she will not seek reelection next year after 16 terms in Congress.
Her retirement creates a power vacuum in one of the Empire State’s safe blue seats that could benefit progressive lawyer Mondaire Jones. Jones, who is 32, African American and gay, had already launched a primary challenge against the 82-year-old Lowey in July.
There were some signs earlier that Lowey was trying to cover her left flank. She endorsed an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in late July, three weeks after Jones, an impeachment proponent, entered the race. (Lowey cited special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress as the factor that pushed her to embrace another investigation.)
For his part, Jones had blasted Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, for backing a February spending bill that granted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency $1.4 billion in new funding. He also faulted the congresswoman for past votes in support of the Iraq War and a 1996 law that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, as well as her opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.
But on Thursday, Jones was gracious.
“As a trailblazer for women and minorities such as myself, Congresswoman Lowey set an example and has made it easier for people like me to run for office,” he said in a statement.
Jones, the son of a struggling single mother in Rockland County, New York, rose from a childhood on public assistance to earn degrees from Stanford and Harvard Law.
He quit his job as an attorney in the Westchester County Law Department to run for Congress, where he hopes to focus on the unmet challenges of middle- and working-class families in the increasingly diverse suburbs north of New York City. He told the regional news outlet City & State that he’s now one of the millions of Americans without health insurance, which adds a personal element to his support for a single-payer health care program like “Medicare for All.”
“We need bold, progressive leadership in Congress: guaranteed health care, a Green New Deal, student debt forgiveness, and a full restoration of the State and Local Tax Deductions (SALT) for families in Westchester and Rockland,” Jones said in his Thursday statement. “There’s never been an openly gay, black member of Congress — because people like me don’t usually get anywhere close. But we’re about to make history.”
Jones, who has rejected corporate PAC donations, raised over $218,000 in the third quarter of 2019. That’s over $100,000 more than middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who launched a primary challenge to Rep. Eliot Engel (D) in June in a neighboring district. And nearly two-thirds of Jones’ haul came in increments of less than $200.
Although it is generally easier for a newcomer to prevail in a contest for an open congressional seat, Jones is likely to face a more competitive field in Lowey’s absence. The district includes Chappaqua, the wealthy Westchester suburb where Bill and Hillary Clinton live, prompting immediate speculation that Chelsea Clinton, their daughter, might jump into the race.
New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins represents parts of Westchester County as well. Her backing could give a contender an instant leg up in the Democratic primary.
On its face, New York’s 17th Congressional District looks like challenging terrain for any progressive Democrat. It is home to some of the country’s wealthiest suburbs, as well as its most insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclaves.
Jones, a churchgoing Baptist, has taken steps to portray himself as less radical than some other primary challengers to Democratic incumbents. He is not endorsed by Justice Democrats, the upstart group whose support helped propel Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to an upset win in the June 2018 primary. A spokesperson for Justice Democrats didn’t respond to a question as to whether Jones had sought their endorsement.
In addition, Jones’ focus on restoring the state and local tax deduction is a nod to the more affluent suburban voters of New York who lost out in the 2017 Trump tax cuts.
Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky, chairwoman of the Rockland County Democratic Party, called Lowey one of the “real female trailblazers” in Congress. The veteran lawmaker played an outsize role in helping Democrats retake the House in last year’s election, Stavisky said. (Lowey contributed $410,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from her own war chest in the 2018 election cycle, according to official election filings.)
Stavisky said she has no plans to endorse a candidate in the party’s primary, although she described Jones as “extremely impressive.”
Jones’ progressive beliefs and status as an openly gay person of color, she added, “are all Democratic values that we hold dear.”
New York’s congressional primary is due to take place on June 23, 2020, nearly two months after the state’s voters cast ballots in the presidential primary.
The story has been updated to note Lowey’s endorsement of an impeachment inquiry and to include Stavisky’s comments.