SURAJ PATEL, THE 34-year-old president of Indiana-based hospitality company Sun Group, learned something after the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. He learned it was time for action.
“I realized after that election that we don’t have the luxury of being complacent anymore,” said Patel, who is now challenging Rep. Carolyn Maloney in New York’s 12th congressional district’s Democratic primary this summer. And the young lawyer who once worked on former President Obama’s advance team during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns is making a strong run for it.
As of February, Patel, who lives in New York’s East Village, had raised nearly $550,000 over eight weeks, outraising the incumbent four to one over the last quarter, according to an article in Politico. He demurred on providing the current exact amount of funds raised by his campaign until he releases a quarterly report next week. “We’re keeping up and we have the funds to compete,” he said.
He keeps his campaign costs lower, too, through an approach of “getting face-to-face” with the voters. His campaign headquarters is in a converted bar in a busy retail part of town. Patel’s goal is transparency and hospitality, two characteristics he says are missing from modern politics.
Averring television and radio, Patel focuses on listening to the community’s “digital conversation” and responding with targeted video and print posting on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram. His is one of the most educated districts in the country, Patel said, so a progressive campaign has to challenge assumptions.
“We’re using a lot of different mediums to really empower the voting public to make educated decisions,” he said. “But all of this is still calculated to maximize face-to-face contact.”
Patel saw the power of that approach during his time helping the Obama campaign. “But I think we’re in a whole different place now,” he said. In 2008 there was no Instagram, and Twitter was far smaller.
In the six months since filing his candidacy, Patel’s campaign has grown rapidly to include 16 fulltime employees and nearly 50 interns. He shrugs off recent examples of negative campaigning against him, such as stories focused on some his past postings on social media and accusations by his opponent that much of his financial backing comes from out of state and his family.
In the first case, a New York Post article criticized comments he posted on Facebook in 2012 after meeting Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, who was 16-years-old at the time. Patel said the comments were just random jokes he made with his girlfriend at the time, a situation that many young politicians who have grown up on the internet could face. He worries about the chilling effect such tactics may have on the political involvement of the younger generation.
“It’s just pathetic,” he said. “It’s not our fault our opponents have been in office since fax machines were used.”
As for the second accusation, Maloney made it in response to articles on Patel’s fundraising success, according to The Lo-Down, a local news site for New York’s Lower East Side. The incumbent reportedly said his filings included a large number of people from out of state and “a huge amount of the name Patel.”
Patel pointed out that the Indian American community has established itself in this country for years. “Nobody’s ever had any difficulty soliciting their support,” he said. “But when one of them runs for office…”
He also pushed back against comments Maloney’s campaign spokesman George Arzt made suggesting he did not have the political experience to win despite his fundraising success.
“He cannot depend on his wealthy Indiana family indefinitely and he will need a lot more than that to create an identity, record and reputation to sway the people,” Arzt said in an emailed statement to Politico.
Patel called Arzt’s comments condescending and indicative of the establishment position that only career politicians should hold office. He said he’s proud to defend his record of political involvement. “The only thing I haven’t done, in my estimation, that they want me to do is be in Congress … yet,” he said. “I’m not a career politician. I’m fine with that.”
If he does defeat Maloney in the Democrat primary on June 26, Patel expects he will not even face a Republican challenger in November, and if he did he would expect to win. “Definitely the primary is the main election for sure.”