Reshma Saujani Says She’s Running the Show This Time Around

Reshma Saujani. (Photo: Facebook)

Reshma Saujani. (Photo: Facebook)

Last time Reshma Saujani ran for office, it didn’t go so well. The former deputy public advocate and Girls Who Code founder spent more per vote than billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but finished with just 19 percent in her 2010 primary challenge against Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

And even today, she continues to face flak for taking on a popular incumbent, which was painted most recently by one of her opponents as an anti-feminist move.

But Ms. Saujani, 37, said this time around, as she campaigns for public advocate, it’s a very different story.

“I was such a naive candidate,” she said during an editorial board meeting at The New York Observer’s Midtown office last week, reflecting on her 2010 bid.

For one, the former lawyer who worked for a series of hedge funds and financial services institutions before running for office, complained she was unfairly portrayed as the pro-Wall Street candidate (despite declaring she was “running on my Wall Street record, not from it.”) While she earned huge campaign contributions from supporters ranging from tech giants to Mr. Bloomberg’s girlfriend, it wasn’t exactly a popular branding to take so soon after the financial industry’s meltdown–especially in a Democratic primary.

But Ms. Saujani, who since been accused of running away from her résumé, said that her work in the finance sector was exaggerated, and balked at being described inaccurately as a former hedge fund manager or investment banker in the press.

“I’m not gonna apologize for working in financial services, but I was a lawyer,” she said, explaining that the campaign had called “over and over and over again” asking outlets unsuccessfully to make corrections. “And so I never could get out of that narrative … No one wanted to talk about the daughter of refugees” whose first job was with Baskin-Robins and began working in local South Asian politics, rallying the community to support John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, she said.

“I didn’t fight back as hard in 2010 and my campaign didn’t want me to fight back as hard,” said Mr. Saujani, who acknowledged a comment made by one person in the room that sometimes it felt a bit like she was running dressed in her mother’s business suit. “We couldn’t break through.”

But this time around, she said, things are different, with a campaign she describes as “authentically Reshma.”

Ms. Saujani’s platform is focused on restructuring what she describes as an “amorphous” office” to focus on four areas she cares about: jobs, education, housing, and women and seniors, to be managed by four deputies. (Right now, she said, the office is inefficient. “You have a lot of people that do press, because in the 24/7 news cycle nobody cares what the public advocate is saying. I want to gut that. All of it,” she said.)

In terms of aesthetics, the campaign is very different as well. Her mailers literally pop with color, with one especially noteworthy version unfolding into a flower. She dresses in brighter colors, dons thick Hipster glasses and her single campaign commercial features a close-up on her face as she declares: “I’m one of you.”

“We’ve run an authentically Reshma campaign,” she said. “I am running a campaign on women and girls and I feel very passionately about that … that is who we are.”

And while she lags far behind in the early polls, she’s confident that, in the final weeks of the race, she’ll break from the pack–but said she’d be happy with the results either way.

“If I win I will win as me, and if I lose I will lose as me,” she said.