Representative Carolyn Maloney has represented New York’s Twelfth District in Congress for almost 30 years. But a new crop of challengers have entered the race to unseat the longtime Democratic politician. Local activist Maya Contreras announced her candidacy in July, and the New York Times reports that previous challenger Suraj Patel is considering a potential third run.
Justice Democrats, the grassroots PAC who has helped to elect candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, are backing Rana Abdelhamid, a Queens native and non-profit founder who cut her political teeth by organizing self-defense classes in her neighborhood when she was only a teenager. Greenpointers spoke with Rana about what she’s learned through conversations with her neighbors, why democratic socialism means basic human rights, and the role of tech in combating white supremacy and misinformation.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The 12th district represents a pretty diverse mix of neighborhoods, including parts of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. What issues do you think are present across the board?
It’s been really beautiful, actually, to be able to have conversations with people across all parts of the district, and it’s been really fascinating to find how many similarities there are and the challenges that people are confronted with…This is a part of the country where we have some of the largest public housing units in all of North America – Queensbridge. And definitely in the city we have the highest rent costs, and people struggle a lot with housing insecurity and lack of quality housing in the middle of the pandemic. Astoria Houses didn’t even have access to gas in their homes to even cook their food in the middle of the winter.
[Another issue is] the fight for climate justice and climate resiliency and our infrastructure. I mean, we saw with Hurricane Ida how many of our communities were impacted, small businesses were impacted, our homes were devastated, people’s lives were lost, and this was a hurricane that started not in New York City, but in Louisiana. So we know that the challenges of climate change are impending and people really feel that.
Then of course, conversations about community safety, coming from a neighborhood that has been overpoliced and that has been criminalized in various ways, but also a community that has been confronted with various levels of hate-based violence. As a woman who has experienced various levels of gender based violence, I care deeply about community safety. I’m a self-defense trainer, and I hear conversations from folks around their experiences with insecurity across the city, and I think we have to expand our meaning of what community safety could look like.
Suraj Patel ran unsuccessfully against Carolyn Maloney in both the 2018 and 2020 primaries, though Maloney’s margin of victory in 2020 was much thinner than in previous years. Do you think there are any lessons we can learn from the last few Congressional primaries, and why might you be better positioned to win over Patel?
I think what’s very telling, and also just with conversations that I’m having with people across the district, is that there is this sense of urgency for a different kind of leadership and for a leadership that is connected to community and is going to be responsive to people’s needs, to working people’s needs, to immigrant communities needs, and to communities that have been, quick frankly, not engaged in the political process in so long. And I’m really excited to be running a race that is already building a diverse coaltion that is engaging people across the district in issues that really matter.
Quite frankly, I’m someone who is from the city, who was born and raised here, who’s gone through New York City public schools, who grew up in a neighborhood literally nicknamed Asthma Alley. I’ve experienced what a neighborhood is like when it’s overpoliced and came to this work through a place of deep love for her neighborhood. It is resonating with people, and it’s inspiring that grassroots momentum that’s needed to win a race like this.
Something I thought was interesting that you have on your website underneath your “racial justice” platform is that you say: “Tech companies must also be held accountable for their role in facilitating the convening power of white nationalist groups.”
I know you have a tech background through your work at Google. What is your vision of how the tech industry should handle the presence of white nationalists and rampant misinformation online?
I’m someone who has organized within the tech space and who does work that is about bringing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the tech space, and I’ve seen how there is a challenge around diversity and equity in tech, and we have seen over the past year actors like Facebook agree with civil society and take a stance against white nationalism, it can be really disruptive to the convening power of white nationalist groups. We saw that right after the attacks on the hill and the violence that unfolded that Facebook actually decided as an entity that they were going to shut down a lot of the groups that were convening groups for these entities and ultimately what happened was that it was very difficult for these groups to organize on other platforms, and they became disjointed.
There’s so much research that shows how important it is for us to ensure that these platforms are creating some level of accountability, that these platforms are not necessarily ensuring that these groups are able to thrive. So that’s what it looks like for me, is having strengthened policies and a platform, but also, I think there’s an important role that government has to play, because these are private sector entities that at the end of the day, their incentive oftentimes is their bottomline, and the role of government is to make sure that the wellbeing of our communities and our societies are not at risk in the face of these forms of violence. So that’s what I think of.
I know you’re a DSA member, I’m a DSA member myself. What does democratic socialism mean to you, and also, since Greenpoint is home to a lot of folks with an Eastern European background from whom socialism might have a negative connotation, how do you think we can organize and define “democratic socialism” as something that works for everyone?
When I think about democratic socialism, I think about basic human rights from an economic standpoint. I think about access to healthcare, access to housing, access to education. I don’t think that people’s basic needs should be left to a capitalist market that, again, is driven by profit incentives and increasing profit margins. People’s diabetes medication, people’s ability to have a roof over their heads, people’s access to basic things that we need to survive should be funneled and should be funded by our taxpayer dollars and should be guaranteed by our government. That’s what this is about for me, and that’s what I’m really excited to advocate for as a representative.
I understand why people have different qualms with the history of the ways in which some forms of government have manifested but oftentimes that’s because that was tied in with dictatorships, right? And this is why the ‘democratic’ part is so important. People have choice in this, and I think it’s really important to be able to point to leaders that we have that have been fighting for a progressive agenda and what the outcome looks like, and it looks like what we’re funding right now, and what we’re advocating for funding right now at a national level, even at a mainstream level.
New York will undergo congressional redistricting soon. You recently retweeted a New York Times article that mentions Congresswoman Maloney’s desire to offload some of her young, working class constituents from her district. You wrote that “Our Congresswoman has always made it clear what she thinks about Brooklyn & Queens…she doesnt.”
Can you talk more about what you meant by that statement, and also what your expectations are of the redistricting process as a whole?
After I retweeted that, my parents, who are both immigrants from Egypt and are getting much more politically involved as I go through this process, felt also very offended by that on a personal level, and I found it also personally very shocking that a congressional representative who’s been in political office for so long to say something like that, which is literally very bluntly saying that she does not want to represent a huge swath of her own district. It’s very clear when you talk to people on the ground, when you walk through a neighborhood like mine and ask people about Representative Maloney, they do not know who she is. It has been very clear for almost three decades now that she has not been engaged with certain parts of her district, and it continues to be very clear as she advocates to remove those parts of the district from who she is representing.
Climate change and waterfront issues are very important to Greenpoint, since we are a waterfront district, and we’ve historically been used as an environmental dumping ground. How do you envision the Green New Deal for NY-12?
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people in Brooklyn, and one, I am super inspired by the incredible activism and organizing that has been taking place for decades now in North Brooklyn to fight against really horrifying levels of inequality, in terms of trash waste management and the pipeline. There’s such incredible resilience and advocacy, and I feel deeply inspired by it as someone who, on this side of Queens, we’re dealing with different but similar outcomes in terms of the asthma rates. I know that north Brooklyn also has very high asthma rates just like Astoria does. It’s an unfortunate reality that historically low income and immigrant working class communities are often the ones facing the brunt of climate change and the climate crisis.
I mentioned Hurricane Ida earlier, and I’ll mention it again, that it is horrifying to me that a hurricane that started in Louisiana can have such devastating effects on New York City. People died. It’s because we have not prioritized a real and pending climate crisis that we will surely face. I was in New York City when Hurricane Sandy happened and it was a terrifying time, and so many of our communities, especially those that are right by the water, and this district is the heart of it, so many waterfronts in this district will be very deeply impacted. It’s going to impact our small businesses, it’s going to impact our housing, it’s going to impact our public transportation. It will impact those who are hurting already the most.
When I think about a massive mobilization, I’m talking about deep investment that needs to happen, that recognizes the scale of the solution, and we need a champion who’s going to advocate for this in a way that they understand how important and urgent this is, and that’s what this is about.
You got your start running self-defense classes. Did you learn any lessons from that to use in your political organizing work?
Oh, absoutely. 1000%. Being a self-defense instructor is all about allowing individuals, and particularly my background is working with women and non-binary people, to be able to step into their power when for so long, we have been told that our bodies don’t hold power. That is what organizing is about too. I’m a relational organizer in my movement work, and it’s all about building trust and getting people to understand the power of their own voices and understand how they can change systems and redistribute resources. Political organizing, I’m learning, is similar in that this whole race is about getting people engaged and allowing people to see what is possible in terms of our collective power and how we can stand up against a corporate-backed entrenched Democrat who has not been responsive to our needs, and understanding that we ourselves can change our district, our city, our neighborhoods for the better when so often our power has been taken away, and we have not had access to political powered spaces, and really redistributing that power through this campaign and through the base that we’re building. So I’m really excited that I’m able to transfer some of that vision and skillset and hopefully I’ll get to do some self-defense classes along the campaign trail as well.
Any last thoughts about what readers should know about you?
I think most important, as I’m running this race, I recognize that there is a lot of existing powerful local leadership, especially in Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan, everywhere that I’m able to have conversations, I recognize existing leadership, and I want to run this race in a way that honors that leadership and that is learning from existing community and existing community power and that then translates into not only what our team looks like, but also the policies and the messaging that we’re focused on, to be able to really run a campaign that’s not focused on an electoral moment, but that lives beyond an election, and that really builds power collectively across the district for a better New York City. This is kind of what I’m hoping to build through my team and through the base that we’re creating, and I’m really excited to connect with folks across various parts of the district.