Activist and nonprofit founder Rana Abdelhamid on Wednesday launched a Democratic primary challenge to Rep. Carolyn Maloney in New York’s 12th congressional district, marking the third straight election in which Maloney, who has been in Congress since 1993, will face intense opposition from party progressives.
This time, though, the field will include a candidate with the support of Justice Democrats, the group that spearheaded the campaigns of incumbent-ousting leftist New York Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and Jamaal Bowman in 2020.
Abdelhamid is the second Justice Democrats-backed candidate of the 2022 midterm cycle, following last week’s announcement that Nashville-based activist Odessa Kelly was running to unseat longtime Tennessee Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper. Maloney’s diverse, heavily Democratic district has one of highest levels of income inequality in the state and country. Abdelhamid comes from a working class, immigrant Muslim family in Queens and, in a statement kicking off her candidacy, accused Maloney — the chair of the House Oversight Committee — of failing large parts of the sprawling district.
“As the pandemic has exacerbated inequities in our communities, this district deserves a representative who fights for renters instead of developers, and small shops instead of big banks,” Abdelhamid said. “A leader who went to New York City public schools, isn’t a millionaire, and answers to all of us — not just the corporate PACs who fund her reelection campaigns.”
Maloney announced plans to seek reelection last month, and Suraj Patel, who challenged her in the previous two primaries, recently indicated that he is preparing to run for a third consecutive cycle. Patel came within a few thousand votes of defeating Maloney last year in a contest that included another progressive candidate, Lauren Ashcraft. Maloney finished with 43% of the vote, down from nearly 60% two years earlier in a one-on-one race with Patel.
Abdelhamid’s announcement was met with scorn by New York Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, who declared her campaign as a power grab by the Democratic Socialists of America. (Abdelhamid is a DSA member, but the group has not yet endorsed her. In addition to her advocacy work, she is also employed by Google.)
“Make no mistake about it. This challenge is not about progressive causes. This challenge is about one thing: power. Maloney has it and the DSA wants it,” Jacobs wrote in a long, scathing statement.
In a tweet, Abdelhamid swiped back at Jacobs, who is a close ally of embattled New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“If my primary job was defending Andrew Cuomo, I’d be looking for an excuse to talk about literally anything else too,” she wrote. “This unhinged statement is beneath anyone claiming to represent Democrats — it could have been written by Donald Trump.”
Democratic City Councilman Brad Lander, a leading candidate this year for city comptroller, was more welcoming: He endorsed Abdelhamid earlier in the day.
The early clashes are another sign of what is expected to be a pitched fight ahead. Maloney’s district has become more competitive in recent years. It was one of the few statewide that delivered a sizable chunk of support to Cynthia Nixon in her 2018 primary challenge to Cuomo, which appealed to Justice Democrats as they helped recruit Abdelhamid.
But she was no stranger to the political or civic scene before jumping into the race. Abdelhamid’s activism began more than a decade ago after she was attacked on the street by a man who tried to rip off her hijab.
“As someone who has fought tirelessly for her community against racism and economic insecurity, we’re proud to support Rana Abdelhamid’s campaign for progressive change,” Alexandra Rojas, Justice Democrats’ executive director, said in a statement. “Voters and activists all across the district have made clear that they want to help usher in a new generation of leadership into the Democratic Party free of corporate money and dedicated to uplifting all of our communities.”
Following her summer 2009 assault, Abdelhamid — already a black belt in karate — made a fateful decision.
“I thought that maybe I should go out into my neighborhood and teach self-defense to young girls,” she said in a 2019 speech. “And so I actually went out and knocked on doors, spoke to community leaders, to parents, to young women, and finally was able to secure a free community center basement and convince enough young women that they should come to my class.”
The small gatherings, which evolved to include more personal conversations, grew over a decade into an international organization called Malikah.
In a video accompanying her announcement on Wednesday, Abdelhamid talks about her father, who lost his deli after a landlord’s rent hikes made it unaffordable, and her mother, who was told by doctors, after contracting Covid, that “she’d have a better chance (of) surviving if we could get her care at a private hospital.” (Her mother has since recovered.)
“Through a year of pain and loss, we’ve shown up for each other,” Abdelhamid says in the video. “We deserve a representative who shows up for us too.”
In 2020, Bowman defeated 16-term incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel in a Democratic primary with a similar message — that he had become disconnected from large parts of his constituency in New York. Maloney has a liberal voting record, was a cosponsor of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution in Congress and is a member of the House “Medicare for All” caucus. Abdelhamid supports many of the same big ticket progressive agenda items, but criticized Maloney for taking campaign donations from real estate developers and big banks.
In her reelection announcement last month, Maloney highlighted her own personal journey.
“When I first ran for office, they said I was too young,” she tweeted. “They told me I’d never win because I was a woman. $10 billion dollars to NYC and 70 bills signed into law later, I say never take no for an answer.”
In a photo underneath the text, Maloney held up a card with the message: “I’m not going anywhere.”