After decades of working together as House colleagues and ultimately ascending to powerful committee leadership posts, Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney took the stage on Tuesday night as reluctant foes in a three-way Democratic debate.
If fireworks were expected, then the debate was something of a washout: The two longtime Democrats stood and sat side by side, each collegially allowing the other to recite decades of accomplishments and showing an unusual degree of deference.
It fell to the third candidate, Suraj Patel, a lawyer who has never held elected office, to play the energetic aggressor, criticizing the records of the New York political fixtures and suggesting that voters would be better served by a younger representative, and perhaps House term limits, too.
The debate, hosted by NY1 and WNYC, offered the broadest opportunity for the three leading Democratic candidates seeking to represent New York’s newly drawn 12th Congressional District to distinguish themselves ahead of the Aug. 23 primary. (A fourth candidate, Ashmi Sheth, will appear on the ballot but did not meet the fund-raising requirement to appear onstage.)
In a debate with few standout moments, the most notable exchange had little to do with the primary contest itself.
Errol Louis, one of the moderators, asked the three candidates whether they believed President Biden should run for re-election in 2024.
Mr. Patel, who is running on the importance of generational change, was the only candidate to respond in the affirmative. Mr. Nadler and Ms. Maloney, who are running on the argument that seniority brings clout and expertise, both dodged the question.
“Too early to say,” Mr. Nadler said.
“I don’t believe he’s running for re-election,” Ms. Maloney said.
It seemed like a rare break from Democratic solidarity for Mr. Nadler, 75, and Ms. Maloney, 76, who were elected to office in 1992 and have often worked together as they climbed the ranks of Congress.
About halfway through the 90-minute debate, Mr. Nadler was asked to expound on the differences between himself and Ms. Maloney. “Carolyn and I have worked together on a lot of things,” he said, stumbling a bit. “We’ve worked together on many, many different things.”
New York’s 2022 Elections
As prominent Democratic officials seek to defend their records, Republicans see opportunities to make inroads in general election races.
“There are some differences,” he added, stumbling a bit more before going on to name three votes in particular.
But even as the two essentially made cases for their political survival, Mr. Nadler and Ms. Maloney largely refrained from attacking each other or offering strong reasons for voters to choose one of them over the other. When given the opportunity to cross-examine an opponent, both chose to question Mr. Patel.
Ms. Maloney even admitted she “didn’t want to run” against Mr. Nadler, her “good friend” and ally.
Mr. Nadler pointed to three key votes that set him apart from Ms. Maloney — he opposed the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance powers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while she voted for them; he supported the Iran nuclear deal, which she opposed. But he refrained from criticizing her votes outright. Mr. Patel was more forceful, at one point calling Ms. Maloney’s vote on Iraq his “single biggest issue with her voting record.”
Mr. Patel, 38, who has twice unsuccessfully attempted to defeat Ms. Maloney, at times tried to use their amity to his advantage. At one point, Mr. Patel questioned why Mr. Nadler had previously endorsed Ms. Maloney despite her past support for legislation that would have mandated that the government study a discredited link between vaccines and autism.
“In the contest between you and her, I thought she was the better candidate,” Mr. Nadler said.
“What about now?” Mr. Patel shot back.
“I still think so,” Mr. Nadler responded.
With three weeks until the primary contest and no clear front-runner, Mr. Patel sought to draw a sharp contrast with his two opponents. He pointed to their corporate donors and their adherence to party orthodoxy and tried to liken himself to younger, rising party stars like Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“It’s 2022,” he said in his opening statement. “It is time to turn the page on 1992.”
Mr. Patel’s performance seemed energetic, in starkest contrast to that of Mr. Nadler, who gave a halting opening statement in which he misspoke and said that he had “impeached Bush twice” when he meant to refer to former President Donald J. Trump.
“I thought Suraj performed well,” said Chris Coffey, a Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated in the race. “I thought Carolyn did fine. And I thought Nadler struggled at times.”
It was only toward the end of Tuesday’s debate that Ms. Maloney seemed to set her sights on Mr. Nadler. In a conversation about infrastructure, she argued that he had wrongfully taken credit for helping fund the Second Avenue Subway, a long-sought project in her district.
Ms. Maloney said that she had advanced the project, while Mr. Nadler had yet to secure funds for a proposed freight tunnel that would run beneath New York Harbor, a project that he has championed for years.
“It’s still not built,” Ms. Maloney pointed out.
The exchange drove home the end of decades of political harmony predicated on a dividing line between the two elected officials’ districts: Ms. Maloney represented most of Manhattan’s East Side, while Mr. Nadler served constituents on the West Side. Over their time in office, their reach grew to neighborhoods in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, after changes made in the state’s redistricting process. Both had endorsed each other’s previous re-election bids, supporting their respective journeys to becoming New York City political icons.
But the alliance fractured in May, when a state court tasked with reviewing New York’s congressional map approved a redistricting plan that threw the two powerful allies into the same district, one that combined Manhattan’s East and West Sides above 14th Street into a single district for the first time since World War II.
Mr. Nadler and Ms. Maloney ultimately chose to run against each other rather than seeking a neighboring seat — a decision that guaranteed that at least one of the two will lose their position, robbing New York’s congressional delegation of at least one high-ranking member with political influence.
Ms. Maloney leads the House’s Oversight and Reform Committee, a key investigative committee. Mr. Nadler chairs the Judiciary Committee, a role that vaulted him into the national spotlight during both of Mr. Trump’s impeachment trials.
For months, the two have engaged in a crosstown battle for their political survival that has riveted the Democratic establishment. Both Mr. Nadler and Ms. Maloney have drawn on political ties to try to pressure old allies and wealthy donors they once shared to back one of them.
All three of the candidates at Tuesday’s debate and political analysts alike have acknowledged that the race’s outcome may largely depend on who casts ballots. Even as they tried to appeal to voters, Ms. Maloney, Mr. Nadler and Mr. Patel acknowledged they largely share political viewpoints on key issues like abortion and gun control.
“We are, on this stage, star-crossed lovers,” Mr. Patel said. “We are arguing right now, but the fact of the matter is, we’re on the same team.”
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.