Maloney and Patel spar in debate as primary vote looms

Suraj Patel is challenging longtime incumbent Carolyn Maloney in this month’s Democratic primary election for the 12th Congressional District.

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Updated, Thurs., June 14, 2:30 p.m.: Congressmember Carolyn Maloney criticized her opponent Suraj Patel over his lack of ties to the 12th District during their first and only televised debate on NY1 Tuesday evening.

The 13-term incumbent is seeking another term in the 12th District, which covers much of Manhattan’s East Side, as well as Roosevelt Island, Astoria and Greenpoint.

Earlier this year, the race also included two other candidates — Sander Hicks and Peter Lindner — who were eventually knocked off the ballot.

Tuesday’s debate covered a myriad of other issues, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), marijuana legalization, Maloney’s record on a 1994 crime bill, and even the candidates’ positions on the oversaturation of bars in the Lower East Side. (Both Maloney and Patel said the local community board and the larger community, in general, should decide.)

With less than two weeks ahead of the Tues., June 26, primary, both candidates believed they did well in the debate.

“I actually thought the debate went really well for myself,” Patel said shortly after the debate aired at his debate-watch party at Mary O’s bar, on Avenue A at E. Third St. The 34-year-old N.Y.U. professor and president of a hotel company has raised more than $1 million for his campaign. But he has also been under fire for claiming tax deductions in Indiana, voting in that state as recently as 2016, and funding his campaign from out-of-state donations.

“The congresswoman thought it was a great debate,” Bob Liff, her spokesperson, said in a statement. “She had the opportunity to highlight her progressive record on a whole range of issues and to point out the utter lack of any record on the part of her challenger, who seems unable to make up his mind on whether he is a voter in Indianapolis, the Hamptons or New York City.”

Just hours ahead of Tuesday’s debate, Our Town published a report further highlighting Patel’s voter-registration flip-flop between Indiana and New York. Patel has suggested in old tweets that he was a constituent of Congressmember Lee Zeldin, the Republican repesentative from the First District in Suffolk County, where Patel owns an East Hampton vacation home. The candidate also previously suggested mounting a run for office against Zeldin, tweeting he needed help to “knock out” Zeldin from his seat, OurTown reported.

However, shortly after the debate aired on NY1, Patel downplayed his Twitter history to The Villager, saying he tweeted extensively about the government and at local politicians in the early part of last year.

“My only answer over and over is going to simply be, I’ve been a resident of the East Village for 12 years and moved here when I was 22 years old,” he said, adding he lived in four Craigslist apartments before buying a home on E. 12th St. in 2011.

Maloney teed off on Patel for having claimed a homestead tax exemption for a home in Indiana.

“How do you reconcile teaching ethics and what you say in your ethics class and what you do in your personal life?” she asked him.

Another report by the New York Daily News cited dozens of labor complaints against hotels that Patel’s company, Sun Development & Management Corp., operates or at least partially owns.

“We are very proud of the family company we built,” Patel said. He explained that the labor issues were at the property-management level, and that his family’s company provided health insurance long before former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was passed.

But beyond doubts about Patel’s ethics and connections to the district, the host of “Inside City Hall” on NY1 News, Errol Louis, who moderated the brief, roughly 20-minute debate, covered ground on numerous issues.

During the protests at J.F.K. Airport last year in response to President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, Patel said he worked as a pro-bono lawyer for those detained at the airport. Patel also argued that the government should entirely defund ICE — the federal agency that recently detained and threatened to deport a pizza deliveryman, Pablo Villavicencio Calderon, at the Fort Hamilton Army Base, in Brooklyn.

“ICE has been operating with impunity and above the rule of law for years under multiple presidents,” Patel said during the debate. “We made it many years, 200-plus years in this country, without ICE. We can make it another 200 years without them.”

Maloney agreed ICE is “out of control,” but said some type of border patrol is necessary.

“ICE has definitely lost its way,” Maloney said, explaining that the Women’s Caucus in the House has a bill to reorganize and redirect ICE to help rather than deport people. 

Yet Maloney contended that ICE is critical for combating sex trafficking, guns and drugs at the border. Immigration laws should include a path to citizenship and protect Dreamers — the group of immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, legislation — she said.

Both candidates support marijuana legalization. But Patel added that he supports retroactively releasing people who have been incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana crimes. Patel targeted Maloney for supporting former President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.

“Many Democrats voted for it,” she countered, adding that Clinton himself admits he regrets certain decisions in the bill. “I think we have evolved as a nation and seen that it hasn’t worked,” she said.

Patel blasted Maloney for testimony she gave in 2001 on the House floor, in which she wore a burqa — the garment that many Muslim women wear to cover their hair and face. Maloney defended wearing the burqa, explaining she was not originally planning to wear it. Once she was on the House floor, she said the idea came to her to don the burqa during her testimony against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“You couldn’t hardly breathe,” Maloney said during the debate. “We were very concerned over the fact that the Taliban was not allowing women to go to school and were literally killing them, if they did. If someone wants to wear a burqa, that’s up to them. I’m up for freedom of speech, freedom of action.”

But, she added, after wearing one of the garments on the House floor, she could not imagine why any woman would choose to wear one.

“I thought it was terrible to say,” Patel accused. “Don’t think you should wear somebody else’s culture’s outfit like that and accessorize with it. … There are women who choose to do this. Women choose to wear a burqa. They choose to exercise their religion. So I was disappointed in that answer — very disappointed in that answer.”

The Villager and one of its sister papers, Manhattan Express, last month invited Maloney and Patel to participate in a debate that the papers’ editors would have moderated, and which would have been aired on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the borough’s free, public-access cable TV network. Patel accepted, but Maloney declined. Her camp said she had already participated in a number of campaign forums, and that she now wanted to focus on the NY1 debate.

This article has been updated to further clarify the candidates’ positions on ICE after a previous version of the article misquoted information said during Tuesday evening’s debate. 

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