Two years ago, Suraj Patel led an insurgent, but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to unseat incumbent Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney as District 12’s congressional representative.
Undeterred, he’s back on the (virtual) campaign trail again, but in a vastly changed political landscape. The pandemic and recent protests have influenced his platform, and the race is heated as Maloney has taken more proactive steps to protect her more than 25-year hold on a congressional seat.
Greenpointers spoke with Patel about his involvement in protests against police brutality that have roiled the city as well as his legislative priority to demilitarize the police if elected to Congress.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
To voters who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself and explain why you’re running for Congress?
I’m a first-generation American. I’m an attorney and business ethics professor at NYU, and I worked for Barack Obama. I’m running for Congress because this is a moment for change.
We’ve got an incumbent Democrat who represents some of the worst parts of our times. Why do we have a Democrat in a district this progressive that essentially enabled so many of the things that Republicans for decades have fought for? We need generational change right now. If you look around, people are marching, and their aspirations need to be turned into laws. I think the people who turn those aspirations into laws need to be a different set of people than the ones who created the systemic oppression we see today.
You’re running to be our representative in the federal government. What would be the first piece of legislation you’d push for if elected to Congress?
We should be legislating to demilitarize police forces in our country. We see millions of people activated by it now across the country. We can’t just let these be like other times. It can’t be sets of protests that then dissipate and no action happens. The action we need is no longer hashtags or posts. The action we need is legislation to change the laws that allow police to brutally murder mostly black and brown men and women in this country with impunity.
The police are mostly state and locally funded. How would you encourage federal oversight?
The federal government has fairly limited oversight on law enforcement, which is a state and local thing, except for federal marshals, the FBI, etc. We also have federal courts and federal sentencing guidelines. While those don’t account for the vast majority of people that deal with the criminal justice system, they are massive signaling mechanisms. I think we can do a lot by leading by example.
There are also several bills that exist in Congress already that utilize carrots-on-sticks that get police departments at the state and local level to change their behavior. Education is similar. The federal government has very little oversight over education, but the education department used “Race to the Top” in the Obama years to use grants to get schools to change curricula, reduce class sizes, etc.
I think the frustration out there is palpable for a good reason. The vast majority of American states are controlled by Democrats. Who needs Republicans when we have Democrats like these who tolerate this kind of behavior? I squarely put Maloney in that demographic. Her record on this is beyond atrocious, from not only voting for the 1994 crime bill but celebrating the fact it would pay for the incarceration of undocumented immigrants. You can say it was a generational thing and everyone did it back then. But a lot of them have taken steps to remediate their record. Congresswoman Maloney tried to get Donald Trump to make Ray Kelly his FBI director. She wrote an op-ed and actively lobbied for the man who pursued aggressive stop- and-frisk policies to be Donald Trump’s FBI director. It’s just an atrocious record.
Have you participated in the protests sweeping across the city? What would be your advice to protestors in your district?
I’ve protested in Washington Square Park. I have been handing out PPE to protestors. I’ve protested at Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side. And tonight I will be attending the vigil at McCarren. I don’t know how I’m going to get home. I live in Alphabet City.
[Note: This interview was conducted last week while the city curfew was still in effect.]
It’s sad that we live in a police state when people are peacefully protesting by and large. I can’t say there hasn’t been looting and damage, but it’s very unrelated to the protests that have been so peaceful and necessary.
Change has come. It’s on the streets. It just needs to be now turned into action, and that action is legislation, and that legislation is going to come from new leaders.
The 12th Congressional District cuts across Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. What do you think is the most pressing issue here in North Brooklyn? What do you think is most important in Greenpoint?
I would have said transit and infrastructure, but it would be irresponsible to say that now. The number one issue facing us as a city is small businesses and the character of our city and our neighborhoods. COVID has enacted an enormous toll on everyone. I’ve run a small business before, so I know cash flow is the lifeblood of a business. Nobody is ever planning to run on zero cash flow for two weeks or three weeks at best, no matter how responsible your business is.
We have to create a long, sustained support system for our small businesses that includes rent reductions, regulations and reducing sales tax and restart loans. If you think about it, margins in restaurants in New York City are already razor thin. If you’re telling people that they can operate only on 50% occupancy or 25% occupancy, it’s never going to happen.
Is there anything else you’d like to communicate to voters?
Two years ago when I ran for Congress, I did it because I had the principled thought that we deserve to be represented by somebody who actually is out on the streets, who lives in our neighborhoods, who represents the aspirations and hopes of our generation and, frankly, the city writ large.
I’m a first-generation American, and our stories haven’t been told in Washington well enough. I was honored to receive 70% of the vote in Greenpoint and Williamsburg two years ago. We know we have the team, the name, the record and the operation to win this race. I’m asking for everyone’s support if they want real representation to vote for me, because otherwise it’s a vote for Maloney.