A Primary Challenger in Carolyn’s Court

Yesterday afternoon, inside a cavernous recital hall at Baruch College, young congressional hopeful Reshma Saujani took to the podium to give her stump speech to a skeptical crowd.

About 70 people–including State Senator Liz Krueger and former Congresswoman Liz Holzman–had gathered for a candidate’s forum sponsored by five of the district’s political clubs, groups that are almost certain to endorse Ms. Saujani’s opponent, nine-term incumbent Carolyn Maloney.

“I know that a lot of people in this room probably are not sure why I’m running and strongly support Carolyn Maloney,” said Ms. Saujani, after detailing her personal political evolution, from her parents’ flight from Idi Amin, to her recent work in the Clinton and Obama campaigns. “And I think the Congresswoman has done a tremendous amount for this district in the past 18 years. She’s actively fought for women’s rights and she’s actively fought for 9/11 workers.

“I’m running because I have some ideas I want to put out there. I think the world has changed, I think the district has changed.”

Ms. Saujani highlighted four key planks of her campaign: jobs and the economy; immigration reform; Wall Street reform; and education reform.

“Nothing that you’ve said sounds any different than what Carolyn Maloney has been doing for us for the last 18 years,” said Charles Buchwald, a local district leader, during a question-and-answer session after the speech. Another questioner accused Ms. Saujani–who is 34 and has spoken about the importance of having a young woman of color in Congress–of running a campaign based on ageism.

Ms. Saujani replied that–while the people in the room might feel like their voices are being heard–her campaign is trying to reach those, especially in the younger generation, who don’t feel like they’re a part of the political process. And she acknowledged that might not appeal to the audience.

“Look, you guys aren’t going to endorse me. President Obama–I wasn’t even in the running for his endorsement. We’re not the establishment candidate,” Ms. Saujani said.

“When I thought about running in November, I didn’t know doors were going to be shut on me before I had a chance,” Ms. Saujani explained. “I thought, ‘Hey, there’s two Democrats running, this is New York, the only elections we really have are primaries, these are the only elections we have, and people will at least listen to me before they’ve made a choice.’

“Ninety-five percent of the time that hasn’t happened, but it happened here today–even if maybe you did know what you were going to do before you heard from me.”

When her time was up, Ms. Saujani thanked the crowd for having her, and gamely offered to take more questions in the hallway. Scott Caplan, a member of the Tilden Democratic Club, quickly followed her up the stairs, and wanted to know who she had voted for in the mayor’s race. Ms. Saujani–who is being supported by Mayor Bloomberg’s longtime girlfriend, Diana Taylor–deferred.

“Are you saying that you’re not willing, as a Democrat, to say whether you supported the Democratic candidate for mayor?” pressed Mr. Caplan, over the strains of a ukulele festival going on across the hall.

“I’ve done a lot of work for the Democratic Party, and we have supported Thompson,” said Ms. Saujani, who declined to discuss how she had personally voted. (Ms. Maloney endorsed Mr. Thompson during the campaign, but wasn’t present at an East Side endorsement ceremony in October.)

Standing alongside the group, and filming the exchange, was the press secretary for Ms. Maloney’s campaign, Alix Anfang. Ms. Anfang said at one point she was there “for myself”–but later explained the comment was sarcastic, since the two campaigns have been tracking each other for months.

The Saujani camp seemed to recognize her. “We’re having a private conversation, is that okay?” Ms. Saujani said to Ms. Anfang, before moving with Mr. Caplan further down the hallway. Ms. Anfang obliged.

An hour later, with Ms. Saujani long since gone, Ms. Maloney entered from the back and took a seat in the crowd. She gave her hair a few quick brushes, while lieutenant governor candidate Chris St. Lawrence finished his speech.

Ms. Maloney was introduced to warm applause, and detailed the House’s recent achievements–from her own consumer protection bill to the long struggle to pass the president’s health care bill. She called the latter “thrilling.”

“As all of you know, all politics is local,” she said, citing the federal money she’s brought back to the district–in the form of the Second Avenue Subway, and the Queens-Manhattan Connector.

One question posed to her was about whether a federal immigration law would supercede Arizona’s law; another was–the questioner admitted–“more of a thank you than a question” for helping to relieve school over-crowding.

Ms. Maloney never mentioned a primary. She never mentioned Ms. Saujani.

When there were no more questions, she hurried up the stairs, citing her tardiness for her next engagement.

A Primary Challenger in Carolyn’s Court