Young Reshma Saujani, pretender to the 14th Congressional District throne held for nearly 20 years by Carolyn Maloney, sat slouched and fidgety in the wilting heat at a small Lower East Side cafe last Sunday afternoon.
“The demographics of the district look more like me than they look like Carolyn,” said Mr. Saujani, toying absent-mindedly with a discarded straw wrapper. “I can’t tell you how many times people said, ‘Oh, I thought the 14th was just the Upper East Side.’ People don’t even realize it goes all the way down to the East Village and Roosevelt Island and Astoria, Queens, and Long Island City. I often feel like I’m running in six different City Council races. It’s so incredibly diverse. And all the things she’s attacked me for, like not being from around here. Look, not all of us can be the 10th-wealthiest woman in Congress and buy a mansion on the Upper East Side.”
Fidgeting could be construed as a nervous habit. Certainly, Mrs. Saujani has plenty to be nervous about if she is serious about winning this race.
Ms. Maloney is a formidable politician who’s held power–in Congress and, before that, the City Council–nearly as long as Ms. Saujani’s been alive. She’s won the lifelong loyalty of feminist groups with her championing of women’s issues; she’s generally well regarded in her district; and by helping them get elected in the formerly Republican East Side, she has earned the loyalty of fellow local politicians, from Councilwoman Jessica Lappin and Assemblyman Jonathan Bing to State Senator Liz Krueger. Indeed, some of her supporters credit her with transforming the East Side from Manhattan’s last Republican bastion into a Democratic stronghold.
“Carolyn has done much more to get my generation of electeds into office than anyone in this district,” Assemblyman Bing said.
‘Stranger things have happened, but not much stranger,’ said political consultant Evan Stavisky of the likelihood of Ms. Saujani winning.
Further, there are next to no substantive differences between Ms. Maloney’s and Ms. Saujani’s platforms. And while it’s not impossible that the very prospect of something “new,” coupled with the democratizing power of new media, could prove powerful enough to thrust Ms. Saujani into power, it is unlikely. The strength of Ms. Maloney’s network, even without lots of new-media strategies, remains very powerful and has significant in-district organizing power.
Even so, neither Ms. Maloney nor her supporters appear to be taking any chances by ignoring Ms. Saujani, a 34-year-old Indian-American former fund-raiser for John Kerry and Hillary Clinton who has worked as an attorney for hedge funds.
“Reshma Saujani is a candidate, an opponent, to be taken seriously, and Carolyn is focusing heavily on this reelection campaign–to be fair, probably more than she has had to do in the last several cycles,” said Senator Krueger, who is a supporter of Ms. Maloney’s.
The idea of a fresh face has a great deal of appeal this anti-incumbent year, which might be part of the reason why Ms. Saujani has been able to pick up support and money from well-known Democratic figures-like former Democratic National Committee chair Maureen White-even as some of the same are vehemently behind Ms. Maloney. Onetime vice presidential candidate and Maloney supporter Geraldine Ferraro called Cathy Lasry, wife of billionaire hedge fund manager Marc Lasry and co-finance chair of Ms. Saujani’s campaign, telling her that Ms. Saujani should wait her turn, according to Ms. Saujani’s campaign. After Mayor Bloomberg’s companion, Diana Taylor, came out for Ms. Saujani, one of Ms. Maloney’s supporters, Trudy Mason, apparently acting on her own, publicly reproached Mr. Bloomberg for his girlfriend’s behavior.
To little end. Ms. Saujani is still in the race. And she has raised a staggering amount of money for such a little-known candidate, more than $800,000 for this election, much of it from the finance industry, to which Ms. Saujani is considered more sympathetic. Ms. Maloney, who declined to comment for this article, has raised more than $2 million, nearly one-third of it from PACs, according to opensecrets.org.
“I know we’re going to win,” said Ms. Saujani, back at the cafe. She was dressed for the oppressive heat. Black-and-white flip-flops, a sleeveless dress, D&G sunglasses perched atop long brown hair.
“We’re out there with the people every single day, and her support is really soft,” Ms. Saujani said. “I haven’t issue-tested or poll-tested what I’m saying or what I’m talking about. It’s what I feel from the gut. People always ask me, ‘Why are you running? Why are you running?’ I really feel called to serve.”
“Because I think more so than ever before we need new ideas in Washington,” Ms. Saujani said. “I think that especially after the recession, we’re at this tipping point in the economy. Most recently, China just spent $300 billion on national infrastructure, and our fastest train is the Amtrak. It seems as though there’s lots of small thinking right now, and I think we need big ideas.”