One morning last week, a group of leading feminists gathered for an emergency meeting at the former home of one of their foremothers, Eleanor Roosevelt, on the Upper East Side.
The purpose of the meeting, called by Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, was technically to present a 12-point plan to counter the rollback of abortion rights that was engulfing the country.
“I’ve been in this fight a long time,” said the 15-year-old congresswoman. “We take a step forward, they push us back.”
But as she and others took turns speaking, attendees — including leaders from Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women — also faced another, more immediate crisis: the possibility that Ms. Maloney, one of the most powerful women in Congress, could will be removed from office this month after three decades.
Just a week before the August 23 New York primary, Ms. Maloney is nearing the endgame of an unwelcome, wide-open, and increasingly vicious primary campaign against her longtime congressional neighbor, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, after a New York court unexpectedly merged their Manhattan boroughs Spring.
With overwhelmingly similar views, the candidates have struggled all summer to differentiate themselves. Mr. Nadler, 75, has attempted to claim the progressive mantle, highlighting his status as the city’s last remaining Jewish congressman. A rising challenger, Suraj Patel, a 38-year-old lawyer, is targeting younger voters and stressing the need for generational change against two seventy-year-olds who were first elected in the 1990s.
For Ms Maloney, 76, and her allies, however, the race has increasingly focused on women – both their voting potential to influence the outcome and the importance of protecting one of their own at a moment when the Supreme Court and those of Republican-led states are rolling back reproductive rights secured half a century ago.
The congresswoman has lent $900,000 of her own fortune to the campaign and is spending a sizable chunk of that on a TV ad that reinforces the message: “You can’t send a man to do a woman’s job,” she tells the New Yorker.
“He may be able to speak better than me,” Ms Maloney said in a post-event interview, referring to Mr Nadler. “Men are more trusted. But I’m a fighter. Women fight for women.”
A fixture of the posh Upper East Side and the backrooms of Congress, Ms. Maloney is neither a household name nor a particularly well-known speaker nationally. But few women have ever accumulated more influence in Washington, or used it with such intense focus to push for equal rights change, paid family vacations, a national women’s history museum and the end of gender-based violence.
“I’m not here to speak out against Jerry Nadler,” said Gloria Steinem, a founder of Ms. Magazine and a leading spokesperson for the women’s movement who lives in the district. “I just think Carolyn Maloney is the most needed, most trusted, most experienced and we should send her back to Washington.”
Ms. Maloney, a hard-line politician known for cold calling at 5 a.m. and campaigns that can drag on for years, was less sensitive.
In the interview, she said bluntly that Mr. Nadler did not work as hard as she did, especially on local matters; accused him of honoring a woman’s work and said the residents of one of the wealthiest and most liberal counties in the nation needed her – not him or Mr Patel.
The turnaround has prompted Mr Nadler’s supporters to balk, particularly after they attacked him for emphasizing his Jewish identity. She previously insisted she would never ask women to choose her based on their gender.
Ms. Maloney’s long public career, which began as a teacher in East Harlem after a car accident in the 1970s, nearly cost her her life and ended her aspirations as a ballerina — and their campaign messages were undoubtedly more diverse than just that.
She wore an FDNY jacket for years and campaigned for medical benefits for 9/11 first responders. She helped bring billions of dollars home in support of the Second Avenue Subway and recently overhauled the postal service, accomplishments she is keen to tout on the campaign trail.
Recognition…Desiree Rios/The New York Times
The current campaign has also been dogged by the resurgence of legislation, letters and statements Ms Maloney made years ago questioning whether there was a link between vaccines and childhood autism, which her opponents say there is They’ve lent a trusted voice to one of the most common – and debunked – claims by vaccine skeptics.
Ms Maloney said she “regrets” ever asking questions on the matter and has sought attention for her efforts in Covid vaccine distribution. But that hasn’t stopped Mr. Patel and Mr. Nadler from spearing them, or a shadowy anti-Maloney super PAC from reserving more than $200,000 in 11th-hour ads to ramp up the attack . (Ms. Maloney called the dark money ad dishonest and “just another example of the old boys network of New York politicians trying to bring down a powerful woman by any means necessary.”)
Ms Maloney’s campaign used a similar framing when she dismissed Senator Chuck Schumer’s endorsement of Mr Nadler on Monday, claiming that Ms Maloney is the better choice at a “time when women’s rights are on the chopping block.”
In fact, few priorities have been more closely associated with her career than the work of the women’s movement. She declared her candidacy for Congress on the day of the Supreme Court’s Planned Parenthood decision against Casey to limit abortion rights. She angered a longtime male congressman in 1992 when there were only about 28 women in the House of Representatives; She fought to pass anti-trafficking legislation and expand paid family leave.
So extensive was her previously unsuccessful work getting the stalled Equal Rights Amendment passed (written by Alice Paul, a relative of her late husband) that Ms Maloney went to the Met Gala last year in a yellow, green and purple dress for its passage. She believes that enshrining women in the constitution is “the answer” to many of the efforts to limit reproductive rights and discriminate against women.
Along the way, Ms. Maloney has broken through barriers for women at almost every stage of her career — becoming the first person to give birth on city council (“It was like national news,” she laughed) and more recently, the first woman to chair the powerful House Oversight Committee.
But some political strategists and scholars watching the race believe the appeal may be more limited than Ms Maloney wants – particularly given Mr Nadler’s own track record of fighting for many of the same issues.
His team was quick to point out that Ms Maloney does not have a monopoly on female voters. The campaign quickly assembled a Nadler women’s group led by Gale Brewer and Ruth W. Messinger, popular former Manhattan borough presidents. “America can’t afford to lose him,” says Senator Elizabeth Warren in Mr. Nadler’s television ad. (Planned Parenthood and NARAL have both endorsed incumbents.)
“I am very proud of my record of having endorsed a large number of women leaders for elective office,” said Cynthia Nixon, a Nadler supporter and actress who ran for governor of New York in 2018. Jerry’s record for passing major civil rights legislation – truly spearheaded every major piece of LGBT civil rights legislation over the past 20+ years – and in casting principled and courageous votes like voting no to the Iraq War and the Patriot Act.”
For his part, Mr Patel said the bickering between the two incumbents over who deserved credit for what was more telling.
“We’re racing a race that’s focused on the future and both are racing, frankly, nagging each other about the past,” he said, noting that he agrees with their positions.
But Ms Maloney’s supporters insist there is a difference between taking the right positions on women’s issues and making them a core part of your congressional work.
“As much as male legislators believe in a woman’s right to vote, none of them have called me and motivated me to act,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York branch of the National Organization for Women.
Ms Ossorio feels so strongly that she has distributed copies of a letter she wrote to residents of her East Side building in support of Ms Maloney. “She puts women first when making decisions,” she said.
Ms. Maloney recently sat opposite a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, framing the contest with Mr. Patel and her old ally, Mr. Nadler.
“This is woman’s hour,” said Ms. Maloney. “This is the time we need our most experienced and toughest leaders to fight for women’s rights in Washington and turn it around.”