One morning last week, a group of prominent feminists gathered at the former Upper East Side home of one of their ancestors, Eleanor Roosevelt, for an emergency meeting.
The purpose of the meeting, convened by New York Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, was technically to craft a 12-point plan to tackle the rollback of abortion rights that are eating up the country.
“I’ve been in that fight for a long time,” said the 15-year-old congressman. “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 — found themselves grappling with another more immediate crisis: the possibility that Ms. Maloney, one of the most powerful women in Congress could be removed from office this month after three decades.
Just a week before the Aug. 23 primaries in New York, Ms. Maloney is approaching the endgame of an unwelcome, wide-open, and increasingly vicious primary battle against her longtime congressional neighbor, Representative Jerrold Nadler, after a New York court unexpectedly combined their Manhattan quarters. spring.
With mostly similar views, the candidates have toiled 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. An upstart challenger, Suraj Patel, a 38-year-old lawyer, targets younger voters, emphasizing the need for generational switching against two seven-year-olds who were first elected in the 1990s.
For Ms. Maloney, 76, and her allies, however, the race is increasingly centered on women — both their electoral potential to influence the outcome and the importance of protecting one of them at a time when the Supreme Court and Republican-led States are reversing reproductive rights enshrined half a century ago.
The congresswoman has lent the campaign $900,000 of her own fortune, spending a significant amount on a television ad that reinforces the message, “You can’t send a man to do a woman’s job,” she tells New Yorkers.
“He may be able to talk better than I can,” Ms Maloney said in a post-event interview, referring to Mr Nadler. “Men are more likely to be trusted. But I’m a fighter. Women fight for women.”
A fixture of the tenuous Upper East Side and the backrooms of Congress, Ms. Maloney is not a household name nationally or a particularly well-known orator. But few women have ever amassed more influence in Washington, or used with such intense focus, to push for the Equal Rights Amendment, paid family leave, a national museum of women’s history, and the fight against gender-based violence.
“I’m not here to speak to Jerry Nadler,” said Gloria Steinem, a founder of Ms. Magazine and a leading spokeswoman for the women’s movement who lives in the district. “I just think Carolyn Maloney is the most needed, the most trusted, the most experienced, and we need to send her back to Washington.”
Ms. Maloney, a tenacious politician known for 5 a.m. cold calls and arm-running campaigns that can drag on for years, was less delicate.
In the interview, she bluntly said that Mr. Nadler didn’t work as hard as she did, especially on local issues; accused him of taking credit for a woman’s work and said residents of one of the wealthiest, most liberal districts in the country needed her—not he or Mr. Patel.
The tack has the supporters of mr. Nadler to get annoyed, especially after she assaulted him for putting forward his Jewish identity. She had previously maintained that she would never ask women to vote for her based on her gender.
Ms. Maloney’s long career in public life – which began as a teacher in East Harlem in the 1970s after a car accident nearly killed her and put an end to her aspirations as a ballerina — and her campaign messages were no doubt more varied than just that.
She wore an FDNY jacket for years and fought for medical benefits for 9/11 first responders. She helped bring home billions of dollars in support of the Second Avenue Subway and recently overhauled the Postal Service, achievements she eagerly touts on the campaign trail.
The current campaign is also haunted by the resurgence of legislation, letters and statements Ms. Maloney made years ago when she questioned whether there was a link between vaccines and autism in children, which her detractors say effectively lent a familiar voice. to one of the most common — and debunked — claims made by vaccine skeptics.
Ms Maloney said she “regrets” asking questions on the subject at all and drawing attention to her efforts in distributing Covid vaccines. But that’s what Mr. Patel and Mr. Nadler from puncturing her, or stopping a shadowy anti-Maloney super PAC from allocating more than $200,000 in 11-hour ads that amplify the attack. (Mrs. Maloney called the dark money ad unfair and “just another example of the old boy network of New York politics trying by every means possible to take down a powerful woman.”)
Ms. Maloney’s campaign used similar framing to reject Senator Chuck Schumer’s endorsement for Mr. Nadler on Monday, arguing that Ms. Maloney was the better choice at a “time when women’s rights are on the chopping block.”
Indeed, there are few priorities 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 Planned Parenthood v. Casey Supreme Court decision restricting abortion rights. She upset a longtime male congressman in 1992, when there were only about 28 women in the House; she fought to pass bills against human trafficking and to extend paid family leave.
Her hitherto unsuccessful work to pass the stalled Equal Rights Amendment (written by Alice Paul, a relative of her late husband) was so comprehensive that Ms. Maloney attended the Met Gala last year, decked out in a yellow, green, and purple dress calling her for his passage. Enshrining women in the constitution is “the answer” to many of the attempts to curtail reproductive rights and discriminate against women, she says.
Meanwhile, Ms. Maloney has broken barriers for women at almost every stage of her career — she became the first person to give birth on the city council (“It was, like, national news,” she laughed) and, more recently, the first woman to give birth to it. powerful House Oversight Committee.
However, some political strategists and scholars watching the race believe its appeal may be more limited than Ms. Maloney wants — especially given Mr. Nadler’s track record battling 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 brought together 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,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said in Mr. Nadler’s TV ad. (Planned Parenthood and NARAL have both endorsed incumbents.)
“I am very proud of my track record of supporting many women leaders for elective positions,” said Cynthia Nixon, a Nadler supporter and actor who ran for governor of New York in 2018. Jerry’s track record of passing important civil rights legislation — truly leading every major piece of LGBT civil rights legislation for the past 20 years — and casting principled and courageous votes, such as “no” votes to the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. ‘
Mr Patel, for his part, mentioned the bickering between the two incumbents over who deserves credit for what was more telling.
“We’re running a race that is focused on the future, and they’re both running a race, frankly, they criticize each other about the past,” he said, pointing out that he agrees with their views.
But Ms. Maloney’s supporters insist that there is a difference between taking the right stance on women’s issues and making your congressional work the center of attention.
“As much as male lawmakers believe in a woman’s right to choose, I’ve never had any of them call me and push me into action,” said Sonia Ossorio, the chair of the New York branch of the National Organization for Women. .
Mrs. Ossorio feels so strongly that she has distributed copies of a letter she wrote in support of Mrs. Maloney to residents in her East Side building. “She puts women first when she makes decisions,” she said.
Recently, Mrs. Maloney sat across from a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt and put a similar frame on the contest with Mr. Patel and her longtime ally, Mr. Nadler.
“This is the woman’s hour,” Mrs. Maloney said. “This is the time when we need our most experienced and toughest leaders to fight for and turn around women’s rights in Washington.”