Published in partnership with The American Prospect.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney took other members of the New York congressional delegation by surprise when he declared last month that he will leave his district to run in a slightly safer neighboring region.
The choice sparked outrage among fellow party members at the top House Democrat charged with defending lawmakers in vulnerable races. As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Maloney has access to crucial polling and analysis, and appears to have decided that the move to a district that gives him just a two-point edge is vital for his political survival.
Abandoning his former district, primarily in the Hudson Valley, makes it more likely that Republicans will capture the open seat, something Democrats cannot afford if they want to hang on to the House.
But local politicians in Maloney’s region say that although the congressman heads the party’s national electoral strategy, his willingness to sabotage fellow Democrats is familiar. Maloney has long guarded his right flank by supporting Republicans and declining to campaign for Democrats in the district he is now exiting.
“He hasn’t done anything to build the party or the infrastructure behind it,” said former Dutchess County Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Ruggiero. “Locally, he’s all about himself.”
Ruggiero speaks from experience. Maloney declined to endorse Ruggiero when he challenged incumbent Marc Molinaro for Dutchess County executive, after Molinaro’s failed bid for New York governor. The NRA-backed Republican’s platform centered on building a new jail complex in Poughkeepsie.
Since winning that race, Molinaro has declared that he is running in New York’s 19th District, which is newly competitive as Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado has left it to become lieutenant governor. Several local political organizers said Maloney’s failure to endorse Molinaro’s progressive opponent typified his unwillingness to go to bat for Democrats in his district.
“It’s infuriating because Marc Molinaro is the county exec, he’s slick, but he doesn’t have much power unless people give him power,” said Lisa Jessup, chair of the Democratic Committee in the Hudson Valley city of Beacon.
MALONEY BIGFOOTED HIS WAY into the district he’s bigfooting out of. He originally entered the old 18th after buying a home in Cold Spring, and quickly became a force holding the line against progressives.
Elisa Sumner, then chairwoman of the Dutchess County Democratic Committee, had recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with DCCC chair Steve Israel about strategy for the region, where she and other party leaders were confident that a progressive could win. She pointed to Rep. John Hall, an environmentalist and rock star with the 1970s band Orleans (“Still the One”) who had written music performed by Pete Seeger, criticized the Iraq War, and been a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
If Hall could win in the Hudson Valley, she reasoned, so could another progressive local like Matt Alexander, then mayor of Wappingers Falls. But she learned that Maloney, who had been an aide to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, had President Bill Clinton making robocalls on his behalf.
“We begged him not to run in the district,” Sumner said. “We already had [political] machines up and running, and he just came in and cleared the field.” In response, she added, Maloney “intimated that he wanted to be in this district because it was closer to the New York City media market.”
Maloney campaign spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg disputed that claim, writing in a statement, “It is nonsensical and false to allege that the NYC media market was a motivating factor. In reality, the media market posed a challenge—it’s the most expensive media market in the country and he was a first-time candidate with no cash on hand against an incumbent worth tens of millions.”
When Maloney was elected, several Democrats said, he emphasized bipartisanship at the expense of his own party. He bragged about voting routinely against President Obama, including on implementing the Affordable Care Act. When Donald Trump took office, Maloney was one of 33 House Democrats who voted with Republicans for one of the administration’s few legislative victories, a bank deregulation bill that mostly benefited large regional banks.
In 2014, Maloney backed former state Sen. Bill Larkin of Orange County, an anti-choice, NRA-funded Republican, when Larkin faced a challenge from Newburgh City Councilwoman Gay Lee, a pro-choice Black woman.
The following year, Maloney endorsed Republican Rob Rolison, an ex-cop who also opposed abortion, for mayor of Poughkeepsie. He went door-to-door with Rolison and Molinaro, the county executive, snubbing Randy Johnson, another Black Democrat in the majority-minority and left-leaning city.
He hasn’t done anything to build the party or the infrastructure behind it. Locally, he’s all about himself.
In the next mayoral election, Rolison faced a progressive challenge from Joash Ward, a Black man who grew up in Poughkeepsie public housing, graduated high school as valedictorian at 16 years old, and became an intern in the Obama White House. Maloney again stepped in to endorse Rolison, tipping a close race, which the incumbent ultimately won by just 312 votes.
Johnson, the Poughkeepsie county legislator who lost to Rolison in 2015, noted that Maloney had frequently declined to endorse Black candidates. “He really did a disservice to the Democratic party in the city,” he said.
Not everyone agrees that Maloney has neglected to support Democrats. Scott Reing, chairman of the Putnam County Democrats, stressed in an interview that Maloney flipped his seat from Nan Hayworth, a member of the far-right Tea Party.
“As someone who lives in Putnam County, a deeply red county otherwise, Sean has shown up for us,” Reing said. “It’s a point of pride that every Democrat in our very red county is represented by a Democrat.”
“Maloney’s record of supporting Democrats in the Hudson Valley and all across the country speaks for itself: he has raised and contributed millions of dollars to candidates and party committees, campaigned for candidates, knocked doors, and rallied volunteers for his fellow Democrats,” Ehrenberg, the campaign spokesperson, said in a statement.
Local party officials also recalled Maloney’s reluctance to stump for Democrats in tough races, even when he did not actively endorse the opposition. Lisa Jessup, chair of the Democratic Committee in the Hudson Valley city of Beacon, said she vividly remembers hosting an event for a mayoral candidate that Maloney and Ruggiero attended, shortly after the congressman had declined to endorse the Democrat for county executive.
After the event, Jessup tried to group speakers together for a photo, and was stunned by how nimbly Maloney extracted himself: “He just sort of jumped off the side of the stage and was out the door.”
Maloney has stressed that he sits in a swing district. “If I wasn’t managing the Frontline program, I’d be on the program,” he recently told reporters. Now, he will face a primary challenge from Alessandra Biaggi, a state senator who in 2018 unseated a key architect of New York’s Republican-aligned Independent Democratic Conference. She sees a similar foe in her new target.
“Maloney cares more about short-term wins and holding on to his power than strengthening the Democratic Party,” Biaggi told the Prospect and New York Focus.
In the new 18th District, Maloney would likely have been running against Colin Schmitt, a Trumpian Republican assemblymember who last year gave a speech to galvanize protesters on their way to the January 6th protests of Biden’s inauguration in Washington. Schmitt will instead vie with Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, a graduate of West Point military academy who says he has launched one of the first county-level Green New Deal plans in the country.
As a less-tested Democrat, Ryan will face headwinds. Meanwhile, Maloney will need to woo wealthier voters in Rockland and Westchester Counties. Even centrist Democrats aren’t thrilled about it.
“I’m not going to sell my soul so people can call me Congressman again,” Max Rose, a former Staten Island congressman running in the 11th District, wrote in a Tuesday statement that appeared to obliquely reference Maloney. “If we can only win in seats where Joe Biden won by more than ten points then we will never build the coalition we need.”