Back in July, before the 2022 primary campaign season, which will end this Tuesday, Aug. 23, really started to kick into high gear, State Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick discussed the intriguing and unexpected race for the Democratic nomination in New York’s newly constituted 17th Congressional District — a showdown between high-ranking party leader Sean Patrick Maloney and progressive insurgent Alessandra Biaggi.
“It’s an unusual race… especially for us in Rockland,” said Reichlin-Melnick at the time, before he had endorsed either of the candidates. “None of the candidates have any connection to Rockland.”
Regardless of this unfortunate fact, Reichlen-Melnick said Democrats — who will most likely face well-funded Rockland Republican Mike Lawler in the fall — should play nice for the sake of the party’s chances in November.
“My main hope is that both of them conduct [the primary] in a way that is not going to damage the winner badly for the general election, which is, in my mind, clearly more important,” Reichlin-Melnick said.
That hope has faded.
As the summer weather and campaign season have heated up, so have the attacks on each other. Both candidates have seen their character questioned and reputations damaged.
Menacing attack ads have piled up alongside the cheery, hopeful ones in local mailboxes. Each candidate has made both subtle and blatant digs at each other via social media and in public.
Such is the nature of a surprisingly high-profile, high-stakes, last-minute primary like this one. Now involving polarizing national political figures like the Clintons and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , the NY-17 races could ultimately be a referendum on nothing less than the future of the Democratic party.
Battling a sense of ‘urgency’
Maloney is a powerful moderate Democrat who has represented neighboring NY-18, a Republican-leaning district north of Westchester, in Congress since 2012. He serves on several high-profile congressional committees, played a prominent role in both of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings and is the head of the national Democratic Campaign Committee.
Biaggi, an outspoken progressive from a famous (some might say “infamous”) political family, was first elected to the State Senate in 2018 along with a wave of younger candidates uprooting the more conservative Democratic incumbents that comprised the Independent Democratic Conference. She’s focused her time in Albany on progressive issues like ethics reform and protecting civil rights.
Maloney has embraced his role as a mainstream Democrat, doubling down on party loyalty and framing Biaggi’s tendency to criticize the party’s establishment as antithetical to passing Democratic legislation.
For example, after Biaggi celebrated the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act as an example of what Democrats could accomplish when acting with “urgency,” Maloney responded that because progressive rhetoric nearly killed the act, Biaggi shouldn’t be taking a victory lap. “Welcome to the party,” Maloney Tweeted. “You had nothing to do with it.”
Maloney is betting on a voter backlash against the progressive wing of the party, especially all “Squad”- adjacent politicians like Queens representative Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Biaggi.
In a Washington Post interview critical of progressives like AOC and Biaggi, Maloney said voters “don’t want a revolution and they don’t want ideological purity and they don’t want a bunch of people lecturing them on Twitter.”
Biaggi, for her part, embraces her progressive reputation and is betting that voters are still fed up enough with business-as-usual politics.
She connects her critiques of mainstream Democrats and party norms to the concept of “urgency” and the drive to get things done in office.
On the campaign trail, Biaggi criticizes Maloney’s moderate approach to politics, his decision to run in NY-17, his decisions as DCCC Chair, his voting record, and his character. From its inception, Biaggi’s campaign has been, fundamentally, a challenge against the congressman.
“I’m running against somebody who is literally beholden to his corporate donors, and has proven that through the ways that he has voted,” Biaggi says, linking Maloney’s support from fossil fuel interests and big banks as reasons he has voted in favor of the Keystone Pipeline and against financial regulation efforts. “You know, those are things that I would just never do.”
An awkward opening
Maloney announced his campaign for NY-17 on May 16 on Twitter, stating, “NY-17 includes my home and many of the Hudson Valley communities I currently represent.”
After new maps came out following a tumultuous redistricting process, The New York Times reported that Maloney and his aides wasted no time in calling Democratic leaders in the district to argue that Jones was too liberal to run in the new district in a year shaping up to favor Republicans, and to point out that Jones will not live within the new boundaries of NY-17.
Jones, NY-17’s current representative, said he received no heads-up from Maloney about his decision, saying, “I think that tells you everything you need [to] know about Sean Patrick Maloney.”
Maloney has been widely criticized by progressive Democrats for running in the district. Many have levied the critique that he chose NY-17 based on its better likelihood to swing Democrat.
Maloney says his rationale was far less calculated.
“The choice for me was not about an easier district or harder one,” Maloney said. “The choice for me was to represent a district where I lived or one where I didn’t.”
Instead of taking on Maloney in his own district, Jones chose to jump into the already-crowded race for NY-10, which includes lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn — a surprising choice to many.
John Gromada, Chair of the Rockland County Democratic Committee, said it worked out for the best, as “internal polling was showing [Jones] tied with a generic Republican opponent, so it was going to be an uphill battle for him here.”
Maloney acknowledged some regret about how it all went down.
“I think I could have handled it much better,” Maloney said. “I understand that people have concerns about the process and how messy it was, and I’m responsible for some of that, and I take responsibility for that. But I thought there was a way it could work out, and we could avoid a member-on-member primary, both between me and Mondaire Jones, or between Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman. And we did that… I think it came out in a place where everyone can continue to make their contribution.”
After Maloney announced his candidacy for NY-17, Biaggi says, “One of the first things that I did was I called Mondaire, I told him that he should absolutely run, and that if he did, I would be behind him one hundred percent.”
Once it was clear Jones was leaving the district, Biaggi took the opportunity to challenge Maloney.
This was a bold decision, given Maloney’s position as a party leader with a $2 million war chest to his name. Biaggi reportedly started off with $200,000 for her campaign. But such a dynamic is not new to her. In Biaggi’s successful run for State Senate, her opponent outspent her 10 to 1.
Biaggi criticized Maloney’s initial move to run against Jones as “the worst of politics” and a “reprehensible” decision.
“As the chair of the DCCC, his job is to maximize the number of seats that we have in Congress,” Biaggi says, adding later, “And I think that would have meant that he ran in District 18 and allowed for Mondaire to have as much support as he needed in District 17.”
Comparing records and endorsements
Maloney highlighted that he’s lived in Putnam County for years and enjoys widespread political support in the Hudson Valley, including endorsements from dozens of elected officials, party leaders and activists, as well as most of the state’s biggest labor unions.
The case he makes to voters, Maloney says, rests on a track record of results “on protecting women’s reproductive freedom, on standing up to the gun companies, standing up to the big oil companies, and delivering for constituents.”
Indeed, Maloney led the effort to pass legislation permanently banning oil barge anchorages on the Hudson River and he’s supported many legislative efforts targeted at helping veterans and farmers, as well as improving infrastructure.
Biaggi tries to contrast herself from Maloney by emphasizing her role as a “fighter for working people,” explaining there is a lack of politicians in office who “actually want to use their power with urgency and also want to use it to its fullest extent.”
As evidence of her own urgent level of productivity, Biaggi says in her short time in Albany she helped revamp a nearly-dormant ethics committee, pushed for comprehensive anti-sexual harrasment laws, and worked (with other progressives) to codify abortion rights in New York, anticipating the possibility of a Roe overturn. Recently, she’s introduced a bill that would make New York the first state to hold large fashion companies accountable for their environmental impact.
While they have stark differences in the wording of their relationship to police reform, both Maloney and Biaggi support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. They differ slightly on healthcare; Maloney has voted alongside Republicans in the past when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, supporting measures that would slow its implementation, though he says he supports the Act overall.
(For a deeper dive on how either candidate would approach this seat, it’s worth reading their interviews with The New York Times side by side. They’re asked nearly the exact same set of tough questions and come out with very distinct sets of answers.)
Most Democratic politicians living in the district have endorsed Maloney, including former President Bill Clinton, former NY-17 Congresswoman Nita Lowey, State Senators Elijah Reichlin-Melnick and Pete Harckham, and Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski. Nyack Mayor Don Hammond is also on board, though he seems to stand out against the proliferation of Biaggi lawn signs planted in front of houses around the villages.
Biaggi, however, won the United Auto Workers Union’s support, and racked up endorsements from advocacy groups operating state-wide or nationally, such as the Working Families Party, the Sunrise Movement, Empire State Indivisible, and more. Local activist groups like Hudson Valley Stonewall Democrats and Rockland United back her as well.
Gromada (as an individual – the Rockland Democrats as an organization haven’t endorsed a candidate) is among Maloney’s supporters, saying, “Sean has done such a great job in a difficult district [NY-18], in a red district” and gives Democrats “the best chance to win this district.” Gromada added, “and he lives here.”
Gromada cited the district’s new competitiveness and moderate-ness as a reason to support Maloney, noting, “we have some pretty conservative Democrats, even in Rockland County, not just in Putnam.” He added, “If you talk to people in Haverstraw, or Ramapo’s religious community, you know, it’s a pretty big tent.”
Biaggi says those electability criticisms are “meant to scare people as opposed to looking at the strengths that I bring.”
Voters are “tired of politicians who really only care about themselves and their corporate donors,” Biaggi says. “To me, the fact that this is true across the political spectrum is one of the reasons why I can make the strongest case against Republicans. My opponent cannot, because he embodies everything that voters across the political spectrum are frustrated with.”
Money favors Maloney
As of publication, the FEC reports that Maloney’s campaign has spent a total $2,472,948.51, while Biaggi’s spent $537,372.61. Meanwhile, Maloney’s raised approximately $4 million and Biaggi just over $800,000.
Most of that, $410,000, came from the PBA, which endorsed former President Trump for re-election in 2020.
One of PBA’s ads came in the form of a truck sporting the claim “Alessandra Biaggi voted to release criminals without bail,” along with a picture of her face, and shadowy figures roaming the streets, on each side of it.
Our Hudson PAC, which disclosed major contributions from the (previously mentioned) National Association of Realtors, and from Sucro Sourcing, a sugar refiner and distributor company based in Florida, produced mailing slamming Biaggi for her since-deleted tweets from 2020 criticizing police. Capital letters spell out “Alessandra Biaggi thinks All Cops are Soulless” accompanied by pictures of police officers smiling and standing next to children.
Maloney has declined requests from news outlets and advocacy groups like Rockland United to issue a statement on the ads.
Notes from the campaign trail
At a rally with the Working Families party on August 5, Biaggi wanted to clarify her public safety position, saying she does not stand by the wording of her past statements about law enforcement.
She explained that while she still has strong convictions about police reform, she now believes that terms like “defund” tend to “scramble people’s brains” and are not productive in the conversation.
The rally at Congers Lake, one of many Biaggi’s campaign has held in Rockland, included a turnout of about 70 supporters.
After the crowd settled in with some food catered by Nyack’s El Cuñao, Biaggi spent hours answering questions from the crowd about issues like immigration, water safety, housing developments, racism, and more.
At one point, she highlighted Maloney’s controversial decision to join Nancy Pelosi in endorsing anti-choice Democrat Henry Cuellar, the incumbent representative for Texas’s 28th district, rather than progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. Biaggi argued that Cisneros could have won had she been supported by her party.
Barry Knittle, from Mount Kisco, explained his support for Biaggi. “To me it boils down to getting money out of politics,” Knittle said. “Getting corporate PACs out of politics. That is the main reason why [progressive legislation] stalls.”
“People just need to listen to Alessandra talk,” Knittle said. “Just once. And they’ll understand what it is, the energy she brings.”
Norma Lapp of New City counts herself as a Biaggi supporter because “so many of the issues today involve women, and I think it’s nice to have a woman [representative].”
Christine Daly said her support for Biaggi grew out of anger over how Maloney treated Jones. “My anger about that is really what drove me here,” Daly said. “I feel like the Democratic party is trying to push progressives out.”
Others see Maloney as the most pragmatic choice.
One Nyack local, Sue Smith, believes Maloney “offers the best balance between progress and pragmatic solutions.”
Smith added, “While I know many fine folks supporting Biaggi, I just don’t think she will have the same standing in DC to deliver for the Hudson Valley in a way that Maloney has already demonstrated he can.”
One New City resident, Steve Brehl, said he is planning to vote for Maloney mostly because he thinks attack ad coming from a candidate is worse than attack ad coming from outside PACs.
“When I see that it comes directly from their campaign,” Brehl said. “I don’t want to vote for them.”
Paula Smith, who lives in Nyack, preferred not to speak about specific candidates, but had a philosophy to share about elections like this one.
She values “not allowing people’s voice – regardless of their beliefs, and values, and whatever – not allowing it to be stifled,” Smith said. “Because if we engage in stifling things, what good is our Constitution?”
Editor’s Note: A total of five candidates have entered the Republican primary for NY-17: Charles J. Falciglia, Michael V. Lawler, Jack W. Schrepel, Shoshana M. David, and William G. Faulkner. Lawler, an assemblyman representing NY-97, which contains Orangetown, and parts of Nyack, is widely expected to win. For a full list of Republican candidates in the NY-17 and where they stand on the issues, click here and type in your address.
The primary will take place on Tuesday, August 23. All polling sites will be open until 9 pm. Find your nearest polling place here. (Early voting started on Saturday August 13, and ended Sunday, Aug. 21.)
The deadline to request absentee ballots online or by mail was August 8, but they can be requested in person at our local County Board of Elections (11 New Hempstead Road, New City, NY 10956) before August 23. August 23 is the last day to postmark your absentee ballot or deliver it in person to any poll site or the County Board of Elections. For information about absentee voting, visit this website.