Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Reshma Saujani and Me


I just don’t think she cares about people like me. I don’t know another way to put it. Well, actually, I do.

The first time I had any contact of any kind with Carolyn Maloney was before she earned the “Rep” before her name as a member of Congress, and it wasn’t with her directly. I lived in Manhattan in those days, the early-to-mid 1990s; the contact did not manifest as a meet-your-possible-representative phone call but something far sadder. I remember it clearly: either I possessed no command of English at the time or the caller, working on Maloney’s behalf, first invited me to a tony house party at which Maloney would speak, and then, after listening to me sputter about being so thrilled to go, asked if my campaign “contribution” would be this or that amount. Neither of which were feasible numbers.

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When one is a struggling writer-director-critic-journalist living with a roommate in the then-gentrifying Times Square theater district, temping and freelancing and working asinine hours and even scrounging to pay the rent and bills, the manner by which I was lured, jazzed and quickly reminded of my economic station was disheartening. I never forgot that phone call. It soured me on politics for a long time. Always about the money, you know. Rarely about the people.

Rep. Maloney’s Congressional district, the 14th of New York, did not actually cover the part of Manhattan in which I was living at the time of that call, so, honestly, at a loss to explain why I was called, who placed the call or what the circumstances behind it really were. Obviously I wasn’t thinking, 14 or 16 years ago, in terms of running an arts and politics blog. What I do remember thinking in that heady, fleeting moment before I had to decline the opportunity to ring Maloney’s cash register, however, was how wonderful it would be to ask her about the arts. I had this fantasy of access, even if brief, to a potential change agent with the power to substantially improve the lives of my cultural peeps.

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For the last seven years, meanwhile, I have, in fact, lived in Maloney’s Congressional district; it encompasses the Upper East Side and western Queens. I can’t recall ever seeing her on the street. I certainly don’t think about her about when I think about the arts.

This doesn’t mean that Rep. Maloney’s record is unimpressive — quite the contrary. She has stood strong for homeland security, for example. She has endorsed and shepherded fiscal “reforms” of various stripes from idea to proposal to law. She has manned the ramparts on consumer protection upgrades, and, no question, Maloney believes a great America deserves great medical care at a manageable cost. Ideally, Maloney’s current reelection campaign would advance a powerful and positive narrative outlining a long arc of progress. Maybe I’d find campaign literature in my mailbox not about what Maloney did or fought for in the 111th Congress but what she did, what she fought for, in the 110th and the 109th and the 108th, and so on.

After all, 18 years of service in the House of Representatives does not mean, and must never mean, that one’s seat in Congress is an entitlement. It’s a privilege. Woe, fie to the member of Congress who, chip buttoned to their shoulder, thinks otherwise. One of the bitter, acid lessons that will no doubt be learned by the end of this brutal 2010 midterm election cycle — and this goes for Democrats and Republicans alike — is that arrogance can be smelled easily by the electorate, particularly in a social and political climate as toxic, as prone to heat, as this one. Displays of genuine humility can go a long way toward reaping political rewards.

Who is Carolyn Maloney? What — and where — is her passion? For what, exactly, is she willing, day or night, asleep or awake, to fall on her sword for?

Watch this video:

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Not helpful. Not helpful at all.

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What the video really emphasizes is the fact that Maloney is on the defensive, her campaign under siege by a primary opponent named Reshma Saujani, a 34-year-old hedge fund lawyer who has turned Maloney into a polarizing figure. Alas, Saujani has turned herself into an equally polarizing figure in the process. While she has been endorsed by the New York Daily News and the New York Observer, these are contrarian voices from within the media establishment, which has queued up like hobos to join the Maloney choo-choo. Saujani has played wicked offense because it’s her best tactic: rarely does a political upstart profit by being nice. Still, just as Saujani’s decision to go deeply negative in this primary has revealed Maloney’s vulnerabilities, it has made the inspiring Saujani a target, too, whether its abrading a semi-hostile Chris Matthews or inviting a persnickety smack-down from Wayne Barrett of The Village Voice.

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Earlier this summer, I met with Saujani one-on-one for an off-the-record coffee. Being off-the-record, I’m not going to report on the content of our chat. But frankly — and notwithstanding the shockingly negative primary campaign, about which more momentarily — she began to earn my vote from the moment I received a phone call about her campaign and, after mentioning the Clyde Fitch Report, received a follow-up phone call from a senior staffer that resulted in the meeting. It was more than an hour out of Saujani’s schedule and it was simply the antithesis of rushed. At the time, I indicated that I wanted to put together an event in my neighborhood on Saujani’s behalf — a meet and greet for vast community of creatives living in western Queens. To my embarrassment, I was bedeviled by twin issues: the need for income and the need to obtain employment, not necessarily in that order. I also encountered reluctance on the part of two restaurant owners to hold such an event. Or at least I perceived such reluctance. With the primary set for Sept. 14, however, I still want to weigh in.

In fact, let me depart from the prepared script here. Again, I cannot disclose the specifics of my chat with Saujani, but I can emphasize the obvious: this was one coffee more than I’ve ever had with Carolyn Maloney. It’s not as if I’ve never tried to develop a relationship with her, by the way. In late 2008, as I was seriously began weighing the possibility of applying to become some sort of a low-rung political staffer, three separate entreaties to Maloney’s office(s) all went unanswered. I’m her constituent, in other words, and I couldn’t even land an informational interview with anyone. All these years later: I just don’t think Maloney cares about people like me.

However untested, however open to criticism, however much responsibility she may hold for the primary campaign’s descent into hoary mudslinging, Saujani nevertheless went out of her way to convince me, a mere single voter, that she does care about people like me. Given her professional background and personal story, it actually gets better: Saujani knows people like me. Saujani associates with people like me. Query her in detail about the creative economy — and I don’t mean just her approach to direct arts appropriations, such as funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, but her approach to arts-friendly tax incentives and real estate solutions, on affordable housing for artists, on specific ways to build innovative, enduring partnerships with the business and philanthropic communities — and her response is telling. She asks questions and clarifies facts before she speaks. She’ll offer views, not dogma; it’s about pragmatism. She’ll debate up a storm if you’re into it — all the better to ensure that she understands what you’re thinking. She’s keen to advance her own intellectual and personal development more than her pocketbook. She probes for information. She rejects having the air of one with answers for all questions, solutions for all problems. She believes constituents aren’t lackadaisical lemmings to be lined up to pull levers every other year but indispensable links to a solid democratic (and Democratic) life. Her critics — and with the primary reaching its crescendo, there are many — may assail Saujani for her questionable stints on Wall Street all they want. Here we have a Democrat who talks the free-market talk with regard to how it applies, how it serves, the creative economy of the city, the state and the nation. You know what I recall about Carolyn Maloney? That I couldn’t meet her unless I gave her money.

Now let me turn to how negative the primary has become. No doubt it’s the mentality of nothing-to-lose, the political establishment siding with Maloney, that sparked Saujani to rain rhetorical bullets upon Maloney’s motorcade. Much as I like Saujani, I do wish she’d opted for another tone — a less coarse course, if you will. Even by the knuckle-sandwich standards of Gotham politics, the attacks, the smoldering in the gutter, has been unfortunate. Equally unfortunate is the fact that as soon as Saujani turned negative, Maloney had to outdo her on that score, too. Maloney has raised the mudslinging, the vitriol, the venom, to a whole new level. Saujani’s attacks can at least be explained, if not justified, by the need for her to make a name, to capture people’s attention, to assert her outsider status so that the argument for her candidacy could be articulated. Again, surely there are more civil ways to do this. But for Maloney to writhe in the dirt — her anti-Saujani smears are redolent of nothing less than a portly, secretly scared, fat bully in a playground.

Rather than continue to speak in generalities, let me describe the pieces of mail I have received in the last three days:

From the Saujani campaign: “Pay to Play: Carolyn Maloney and the Culture of Corruption,” a top-folded color rant that accuses Maloney of “rewarding her special interest donors at New Yorkers’ expense,” and outlining, by my math, nearly $1.8 million in contributions and how Maloney was corrupted by them. It’s annotated, of course, and somewhat in the general area of the truth, but no, Maloney isn’t a thief or for sale. (Maloney is one of the richest members of Congress.)

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From the Maloney campaign: “Reshma Saujani told the New York Times she left before the crimes,” which refers to the hedge fund stints on Saujani’s resume, including one in which she served as “Chief Operating Officer for an investment fund she helped start with her friend Hassan Nemazee, a felon recently sentenced to 12 years in prison.” The pamphlet grows purple with Maloney rage: “The crime? Stealing $292 million in a massive ponzi scheme that the judge called ‘breathtaking in its brazenness and its scope’.” This campaign literature, in the form of a giant postcard, is annotated as well and also in the general area of the truth. But to accuse Saujani of running “a dishonest campaign to hide her own record” is reckless and wrong.

From the Saujani campaign: “Members of Congress under ethics investigations…Is Carolyn Maloney next?,” complete with a doctored photograph of the House of Representatives under a fire-red sky, implying our Congress in flames. On the flip side of the document: “Carolyn Maloney under fire on ethics” and these sentences: “The pay-to-play political culture in Washington is beginning to boil over. Numerous members of Congress are not under ethics investigations. Our own Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney, may be next.” Following that are some details, some of which trade on implication, some on insinuation, some on fact. That sound you hear is of the truth being stretched.

From the Maloney campaign: On the front of a left-fold flyer is the following quote from the Queens Gazette: “Reshma Saujani is engaging in a negative and dishonest campaign in an effort to hide the truth about her own record”; the 11 words in the middle are highlighted in help-help-warning-sign yellow. Inside the pamphlet appears a dizzying blizzard of anti-Saujani quotes plus a photo of the candidate that is, to be kind, unflattering — clearly a response to the Saujani campaign’s use of an equally unflattering pic of Maloney. On the rear of the flyer: “Here’s what more and more independent news organizations and watchdog groups are saying about Reshma Saujani’s negative campaign and her false, desperate attacks,” with the last nine words in scary yellow and more propaganda below. Survey says: feh.

From the Saujani campaign: a blue-background flyer with “Integrity Courage New Ideas” in huge type, each word or phrase on a new line, followed by, also in caps, “THAT’S WHAT IT TAKES TO PUT NEW YORK FIRST.” Inside, a handy chart promoting Saujani’s platform on the left (“Rejects all special interest cash…,” “Made a public ethics pledge…,” Offered detailed jobs plan…,” “Written Congress-ready legislation…,” etc.) and a six-item broadside against Maloney on the right (“Raised $2.5 million from special interests…,” “Lied about unethical fundraising…,” “Hasn’t passed a single jobs bill…,” “Give Charlie Rangel a $2,500 contribution,” etc.). Oh, the last item — reminding voters that Maloney sided with George W. Bush on the Patriot Act — that’s smart. The rest is smeary.

From the Maloney campaign: a photocopy of Barrett’s sanctimonious screed in the Village Voice, with lots of scary yellow highlighting and a semi-smear quote on the front and back.

From the Maloney campaign: a huge postcard highlighting her New York Times endorsement on the front, plus a swell photo and a quote from the endorsement on the back.

From the Maloney campaign: a folded flyer with a photo of a cardboard box containing…well, I’m not quite sure, but there’s a quote at the bottom, in white, that reads, “She said she’d open the kindergarten in her own home. And just put away the breakables…” Open the flyer and at last, something positive: at left, a six-point enumeration of Maloney’s education achievements (“creating five new schools in Queens and Manhattan…,” “Co-chaired the task force on [school] overcrowding…,” “supported President Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’…,” “fought to restore Medicaid reimbursement which means hundreds of millions in aid to New York and saved over 6,000 teaching jobs…,”); at right, a testimonial from a PTA co-president on all the good Maloney has done for education. There’s even a lovely photo of the PTA president’s family — and the little boy in the pic looks wonderfully prideful.

But still — one positive flyer out of how many?

I will vote for Saujani in the primary because her energy outweighs her lack of seasoning, her ability to give a personal touch is counterbalanced by her willingness to cultivate the public’s trust and the public’s engagement. Maloney has been an advocate, a leader, and I will not take that away from her. But she has not led meaningfully, in my view, when it comes to my constituency. Indeed, Maloney has had years to demonstrate that my vote matters to her. Only now that her job is threatened is my phone ringing — twice now, that is, asking how I’ll vote.

Maybe if I donated money to Maloney, she would tell me in person. Yes, these are unlikely times.