Skip to contents

For A Democratic Leader, A Blue District Is Anything But Safe

By switching to a safer district, Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney angered the left. Now the Democratic leader is facing a challenger he didn’t expect.

Congressional candidate and New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (second from right) talks to constituents at a Rockland Pride event.
Timmy Facciola
  • Credibility:

The Congressman in charge of fundraising for Democratic midterms this year may not have to worry about his own campaign if New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi has her way in the Democratic primary this August. 

As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Sean Patrick Maloney has been at war this midterm season, but not with Republicans. Maloney’s foes at the moment are young outsider Democrats primarying establishment incumbents all over the country, and Maloney has thrown his institutional weight behind the old guard, who have proven track records of winning campaigns without offending corporate donors or questioning the wisdom of party leadership. Now, the 10-year Congressman is fighting off a progressive challenger of his own. 

Drafts of New York’s congressional district maps were released on the morning of May 16th, and hinted at a possible loss of a Democratic seat if they were finalized without being changed. At noon that day, Maloney announced on Twitter that if they were finalized, he would run in the newly redrawn 17th district, despite currently serving in the expiring 18th district. Maloney’s home of Cold Spring is in the new 17th, which he says informed his decision to run, but there’s no New York State law requiring representatives to live in the districts they represent.

Maloney announced his candidacy in the newly-drawn 17th district without giving so much as a heads-up to Democratic freshman Congressman Mondaire Jones of the current 17th district. Instead, Maloney gave Jones an ultimatum: Run against me in a primary, run against progressive Congressman Jamaal Bowman in a primary for the 16th district, or find another district. 

Party leadership approved of the decision. Three days after the power grab, Pelosi told reporters, “We’re very proud of Sean Patrick Maloney.”

But Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told Politico that Maloney’s move was “terrible,” and “hypocritical,” pointing out the conflict of interest Maloney would have in primarying a candidate whose campaign funding he controls, and demanding he resign from his DCCC role.

Sources familiar with Jones’s decision-making told The River that while Maloney’s actions were ugly, a primary between the two would have been even uglier, and would have left one of the two congressmen without a race to run in come November.

Jones decided to run in the newly-drawn NY-10 against former Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and more than a dozen other Democratic primary candidates, leaving Maloney alone in the Democratic primary—though not for long.

Shortly after Maloney’s power grab, Biaggi announced that instead of running for NY-3, she would take on Maloney in a primary. Biaggi told Gotham Gazette: “Voters can have a say and vote for someone who is a progressive Democrat who actually has a record of making progress…or they can vote for a selfish corporate Democrat who clearly only cares about himself.”

Biaggi has embraced the role of an outsider running to bring transformative change to the Democratic Party. Despite her family lineage rooted in the Democratic political machine as the granddaughter of Mario Biaggi, she’s not that interested in maintaining the status quo.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that the Democratic Party, at least in New York, has not really embraced any of the new energy or the new people who have come in from all different ages, because there’s a really, unfortunately, old playbook that they keep relying on which is not really speaking to voters,” she says. “And that’s why we’re seeing lower voter turnout.”

Like other progressive Democrats, Biaggi is especially disappointed in the party—and Nancy Pelosi and Maloney in particular—for throwing its weight behind Henry Cuellar, an antiabortion Democrat with an A rating from the National Rifle Association who defeated primary challenger Jessica Cisneros by just 289 votes in a run-off in Texas.

Maloney told The Dallas Morning News, “I would never second-guess the speaker on any of our decisions, and certainly not on this one. And look, Congressman Cuellar is very independent, and there are issues that he and I disagree on.”

But Biaggi is much more comfortable questioning party leadership. When asked if she thought Pelosi was bold enough to take action and wield her power to make abortion access a right, Biaggi sounds doubtful. “If she is able to change some of the norms and some of the traditions that the party has historically supported,” she says.

“There should be no anti-abortion Democrats in this party. Like we need litmus tests,” Biaggi says. “They spent Democratic dollars to elect an anti-abortion, anti-union, A-rated by the NRA candidate. Are you kidding me? With Democratic dollars?”

The (Green) Power Broker

This isn’t the first time Maloney has been at odds with the younger, more progressive wing of his party. New reporting by The River Newsroom reveals how Maloney interacts behind the scenes with those who seek to challenge the stagnation and complacency of the Democratic Party.

While he was still a candidate, Jones was lobbied by the environmental group Food and Water Watch to oppose a controversial proposed expansion of Danskammer, an electrical power plant in Newburgh that burns fracked gas to turn power-generating steam turbines. 

Hurricane Sandy flooded Danskammer in 2012 and left it out of commission. In 2014, it was revamped as a “peaker plant,” sending power to the electrical grid during times of high energy consumption.

In the fall of 2019, Danskammer Energy proposed a $500 million expansion to make the plant a full-time operation, a move that would dramatically expand the amount of gas burned at the plant and worsen ongoing air pollution problems in the surrounding neighborhoods. The plant’s owners framed the proposal as a step toward zero-carbon energy, announcing plans to convert the plant to run on “green” hydrogen made with renewable energy by 2040.  

According to activists with Food and Water Watch, the hydrogen plans were an attempt to mislead the public about the sustainability of the project. Not only has hydrogen never been used as a power generator in the US, but there was no large-scale source of green hydrogen at the time of the proposal.

“The hydrogen technology they are claiming they will eventually use doesn’t even currently exist. We should judge their proposal at face value, which if approved, will import and burn fracked gas from Pennsylvania,” Emily Skydel told the Times Herald-Record.

When Jones won his election in November, one of his first orders of business was to press then-Governor Andrew Cuomo to oppose the expansion of Danskammer. Jones had his team draft a letter and circulate it among the entire New York Congressional delegation, a motley crew that includes outspoken “Squad” members Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman and Maloney ally Hakeem Jeffries.

The letter highlighted Danskammer’s impact on local communities that are already struggling with pollution problems. “Historically, Newburgh has borne the brunt of environmental injustice; in recent years, its residents have suffered high levels of toxic polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) in their drinking water,” the letter read. “Poorer, denser communities disproportionately have felt the impacts of COVID-19; added air pollutants from the Danskammer expansion could exacerbate our ongoing public health crisis.”

Sources close to the issue say Maloney did not appreciate Jones taking action on the Danskammer issue. “My boss is livid, this power plant’s in our district, you’re putting us in a really tough position,” a Maloney staffer allegedly told Jones’s team.

According to sources familiar with the matter, the letter was sent to Maloney’s team ahead of time, before it was circulated for signatures from other New York lawmakers, but Maloney’s team never responded.

Maloney’s team rejects this account. “The Congressman had no involvement in this matter as there was never a formal request made by Rep. Jones’s team to sign onto the letter. There were only staff-level discussions broadly about the subject of the plant and about the normal processes for circulating letters on issues like this,” the Maloney campaign said in a written statement.

A spokesman for Maloney’s team said, “We are unaware of any efforts to get in touch with our office prior to the staff level conversations that occurred once the letter was circulated.”

Others with inside knowledge of the ongoings say that behind the scenes, the letter sparked a fierce dispute between the two Congressmen.

“Maloney made it very clear that there was a hierarchy to not only Congress, but within the Equality Caucus,” said another source. The Equality Caucus is chaired by the nine openly-LGBTQ members of the House of Representatives, including Jones and Maloney.

“The way these letters work, it’s not like it was created [in a] vacuum. [Teams] consult with the stakeholders in the district, and circulate the letters widely to those who may be impacted,” said another source who requested anonymity to better describe what happened behind the scenes. 

Maloney’s chief of staff allegedly reached out to Jones’s team and said, “… not only should [Jones’s team] have come to them, but that [Jones] shouldn’t have been leading the letter at all—that it actually could have had Sean’s name on it.”

Jones was just days into his first term as a freshman Congressman, and loath to make any enemies, let alone one as powerful as Maloney.

One source familiar with the dustup heard “secondhand that Maloney was individually calling members of the New York delegation telling them that Mondaire’s office didn’t know what they were doing and not to sign on.”

Jones’s team, “apologized and [was] very deferential. But it became a bigger conflict than it needed to be, because of, basically, a pissing match of a senior Congressman to a junior Congressman,” the source said.

In conversations during this conflict, Maloney’s team allegedly said that the issue was not Jones’s opposition to the expansion of Danskammer, but that Jones was undercutting Maloney in his own district. 

Sources familiar with the matter don’t buy this explanation.

“The notion that proper channels weren’t followed, I would call bullshit on,” one source said. “Sean’s office did not take up the letter, which is what they could have done. They did not offer their own version of the letter, which often happens on issues that are important in the district.”

Another source pointed out that even though the Danskammer is in Maloney’s district, the implications of pollution extend beyond his own constituents.

“It’s not as though you can isolate the consequences of a highly pollutative liquid natural gas-burning plant,” said the source. “It would have impacted people in [Jones’s] community too. So that is sort of how [he] saw it. It could have affected kids in Haverstraw, Ossining or Peekskill. It’s not just about district quarters.”

One source involved with the letter said they had, “hoped [Maloney] might be an ally because he talks a big talk, but that’s only when people can see him.”

In 2018, Maloney co-sponsored a bill in Congress called the Off Fossil Fuels Act that would have required the country to move to 100% carbon-free electric energy by 2030, a far more ambitious goal than the one set by New York’s 2019 climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The OFF bill would have eventually forced Danskammer to stop producing power with natural gas and would have created issues around its expansion.

In a short span of time, Maloney went from publicly endorsing the Green New Deal to allowing his staff to discipline a young progressive Congressman for seeking  to prevent the expansion of a natural gas power plant. And while Maloney’s team insists that he wasn’t personally opposed to the letter, he never made an effort to help Jones in what would have been a tangible step toward addressing climate change.

Maloney’s team insists that the letter wasn’t on his radar, noting that this happened in the two weeks between the Capitol Riots on January 6th and Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Maloney’s reluctance to get involved in the Danskammer fight may have stemmed from union allegiances. During his 2020 run for reelection, Maloney received an endorsement from the Hudson Valley Building and Trades Council, a union that represents roughly 8,000 workers across 29 unions, and is pro-Danskammer expansion.

“Congressman Maloney is a champion of Hudson Valley working families. He has always fought to create jobs and support local labor,” said Todd Diorio, President of the Hudson Valley Building and Construction Trades Council. “Unions and leaders from across the Hudson Valley supported the Danskammer plant because it would create good-paying local jobs without increasing pollution, serving as a bridge until New York has enough reliable renewable energy to meet our needs.”

Last year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation denied the Danskammer project a necessary permit, stating that the expansion of the power plant was incompatible with New York’s climate law. 

A House Divided

“In Spanish, we have a word for a relationship with a person that has the same name and it’s called tocaya. And so Alessandra is my tocaya,” said Ocasio-Cortez at a canvas launch event in August 2018, when she was still just a candidate for the House of Representatives and Biaggi was running in the Democratic primary for State Senator.

That June, Ocasio-Cortez upset 20-year Congressman Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary, pulling off what was seen by many as the largest upset of the 2018 midterms and the highest-profile victory for a candidate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

Biaggi says she was inspired to run, in part, by watching Ocasio-Cortez take on the Democratic establishment on behalf of working class voters. And in the spirit of Ocasio-Cortez’s upset, Biaggi defeated incumbent Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democratic State Senators who formed a coalition with the Republican majority that controlled the senate.

Klein spent close to $3 million on his campaign, but lost by 10 points, in an election in which six IDC members lost their primaries to the left. Once in the Senate, Biaggi sponsored anti-sexual-harassment legislation and later became a vocal critic of former-Governor Andrew Cuomo, both for his many sexual misconduct allegations as well as his mishandling of COVID-19.

But for all Biaggi sees wrong with her party, and for all her fiery rhetoric against Maloney, she sees herself first and foremost as a Democrat. On her lawn signs, the phrase “Democrat for Congress” is featured prominently, in only slightly smaller font than her last name. 

Other young progressives have been quicker to play up their anti-establishment bonafides. Like Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, Congressman Jamaal Bowman and Congresswoman Cori Bush both won high-profile Democratic primaries against establishment figures in 2020 with endorsements from the DSA and Bernie Sanders.

Biaggi makes it clear, “I’m not a Democratic socialist. I’m a Democrat, first and foremost, and I’m a progressive Democrat.”

Most of her policies align with the DSA’s: both support universal healthcare, codifying Roe v. Wade, the Green New Deal, universal pre-K, and the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which would strengthen workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain.

They disagree when it comes to foreign policy, Biaggi said, especially when it comes to Israel and Palestine. The DSA has supported efforts to boycott and divest from Israel in response to what they describe as the apartheid of Palestinian people. But, while Biaggi doesn’t doubt the injustices many Palenstinians have faced, she says she makes sure to listen to Jewish leaders as well.

“I have been a supporter of Israel. I represent a district currently that has a large Jewish population,” she said. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the leaders in that community from all different parts of the ideological Jewish spectrum.”

The Lower Hudson Valley chapter of the DSA has opted not to endorse Biaggi, saying in a statement, “We have not begun any endorsement proceedings in the CD-17 race because there are no socialists running, and we do not open our endorsement process for a race unless there is a socialist candidate running.”

But Biaggi might not need to wield a rose emoji—which many use to identify themselves as socialist on social media—to channel progressive discontent with Democratic leadership. As voter frustration rises on the left, anger at the Democrats is increasingly coming from inside the house. 

In 2016, much of the labor-concerned left supported Sanders because they felt abandoned by Clinton and her corporate donors. Just a few years ago, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders were among the only Democrats willing to critique their own party. But since 2020, criticism of middle-of-the-road Democrats like Nancy Pelosi has become more commonplace.

The party has evolved in a way that even a former Clinton staffer like Biaggi—who is married to another former-Clinton staffer, and at whose wedding Clinton spoke—feels comfortable criticizing the mistakes that led the party to its loss to Donald Trump.

“Who I am today and what I know today, and who I was in 2016 are two different people,” Biaggi said at an abortion rights rally in Rockland after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Of Clinton’s pick for Vice President, the pro-life moderate Tim Kaine, she says: “At the time it made sense. I don’t think it makes sense now.”

Biaggi also thinks that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg should have retired while President Barack Obama was still in office, allowing him to appoint a successor instead of staying on the court for the election of Trump, dying, and opening another nomination for the Heritage Foundation to make. She has tremendous respect for the legacy of Ginsberg, but she doesn’t think the solution to the current problem lies in venerating the dead.

Her tone is markedly different than that of Sean Patrick Maloney, who told MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart that voters who are frustrated with Democrats’ failure to deliver on their promises to protect abortion rights and regulate gun access should think about the legacy of the late John Lewis, who continued to march and fight for his beliefs in the face of a racist and violent opposition.

“We got to work, we got to vote,” Maloney told Jonathan Capehart. “If you believe we can all fit in this modern world and do well and have our rights and our freedoms protected, you got to vote Democratic, and you got to get out and work. You got to participate in these midterms. That’s what’s got to happen.”

But progressive frustration with the Democratic party continues to balloon. At a recent rally in Houston, TX, a crowd chanted at former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, whom Maloney endorsed for President in 2020: “Democrats we call your bluff. Voting blue is not enough.”

“This is not just about electing Democrats. It’s about electing bold Democrats,” Biaggi said at a recent rally in Rockland. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to get shit done.”