Suraj Patel is an attorney, adjunct professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, and co-founder of Creative Caucus. A former Obama staffer, Patel unsuccessfully ran for election to the US House to represent New York’s 12th Congressional District in 2018 and 2020. Patel’s June 2020 primary election was marred by extensive delays and errors, with results not certified until August 4th, 6 weeks after the election. The primary saw 1 in 5 ballots disqualified, and in July Patel filed a federal lawsuit against Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Board of Elections over the invalidation of the uncounted ballots. The high rejection rate has led to national attention, and President Trump has repeatedly weighed in. Patel conceded the race on August 27th.
Neil Sehgal: More than 1 in 5 ballots were discarded in your district. The few votes that you were able to get counted through your lawsuit saw you leading by a wide margin. And the federal judge in your case explicitly welcomed campaigns to petition for additional votes to be counted. Why concede?
Suraj Patel: It was several things. First off, the election was June 23rd. By the time we got the state of New York to follow the order from the judge, it took another two weeks for the state, in a closed-door process, to publish the new result after counting 700 more votes. That was two months after the election. At that point, we had been pouring through thousands of photocopies of ballots to make this case, thousands of volunteer hours, and we were nearing a breaking point. How much more can you do knowing that the state was hell bent on certifying the election, not being transparent about what was being counted, and when it was being counted? We looked at the ability of the judge’s order to bring in more ballots and realized that the number of ballots we could maximally bring in under the current order would still be short. That still left 11,500 more ballots that were tossed in our race. And it left the question of the thousands of ballots that were never mailed disproportionately to Brooklyn and Queens, where we do well. But that would have taken a whole new proceeding, hearing, and cost.
Honestly, we realized that the finality of the election and proximity to the November election put us in a really bad position to keep fighting. It’s really disappointing that democracy didn’t work in our district, but this was always bigger than one campaign and one candidate. Donald Trump is an existential threat to our democracy. It’s unfortunate that my fight to count votes, my fight to stop disenfranchisement, was conflated with fraud not just by Trump, who I expected, but also by my opponent, the Chair of the House Oversight Committee. That’s disappointing. Thousands of New Yorkers didn’t have their voices heard. I think they’re angry and they will continue to be, and they know who sided with them.
NS: President Trump had suggested that there be a do-over for your primary. Had more actors been on board, had your opponent been on board, had a judge been on board, would a fresh election have been a solution?
SP: I honestly can’t speculate. Obviously there’s no way my opponent was going to be on board with anything like that. And I don’t want to share common cause with Donald Trump and give him a precedent in November. But this issue of whether Trump will honor the elections results is a completely fabricated issue. The fact that the media and others ask him that consistently allows it to be a question. It doesn’t matter whether he accepts the results of the election. The Constitution mandates that he does. He’s participating in the election and therefore on January 20th come hell or high water, whether he accepts it or not, he’ll be removed from office and replaced with Joe Biden if that’s what the election results are. We have really veered from normalcy here. By even nearly asking the question, we’ve taken something that can’t possibly be a question or an issue and made it one and that’s on the media.
NS: Hilary Clinton recently said in an interview that Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances if the election is close. Do you think Biden should follow that advice?
SP: I can’t speak to the Secretary’s specific remarks because I’m not familiar with them. I imagine she means that he shouldn’t concede on election night knowing that ballots will be coming in over the next seven days. And if that’s the case, then of course he shouldn’t concede on election night. If there are votes left to be counted, then he should stay in until those votes are counted, much like I did. We know what Donald Trump will do. We know he’ll declare victory, if he can. But that’s not how democracy works. It doesn’t just stop when it becomes politically inconvenient for you, which is what I faced in my race. My opponent declared victory several times without votes being counted. It was crazy.
NS: Five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington—have long held universal vote-by-mail elections. Why was it so hard for New York to follow their example?
SP: First, those states have done this for years. They have really up to date databases and automatic registration. They’re used to it. New York tried to throw this together in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t want to let that be an excuse because many of us, myself included, had warned that they were ill-equipped to be able to do this properly. For years, people have been calling for the State Board of Elections and the County Boards of Elections—which is a political patronage driven system in New York—to be professionalized and be made independent like other states. This wasn’t the New York Board of Elections’ first issue. There’s a decade, where time and again, we’ve seen voter rolls purged, we’ve seen the vote counts take six weeks like ours did, and we’ve seen processes never be questioned. New York needs to professionalize this and we need real reform. For that to happen, the State Legislature and the Governor need to act and pass reforms. Those reforms have always been held up because politics is the only business where the players are also the umpires. People who determine the rules of the game, the time, place, and manner of the elections are the people in office who have a fundamental connection with the outcome. So it’s going to take a popular-uprising type thing where people really are saying, “This time enough is enough.” We need to not repeat this type of error over and over in New York. This isn’t the first time.
NS: You’ve called your election the canary in the coal mine for the general election. Governor Cuomo has taken significant steps in the wake of your election to correct what went wrong. But how optimistic are you that not just New York but every state will heed the lessons of your race come November?
SP: In some cases I’m very optimistic. New York, for example, passed a series of reforms aimed directly at the November election. They were aimed directly at the mistakes that happened in my election, including extending postmark deadlines, adding a big red X next to the signature line on the envelope on the outside where 10% of people miss it due to the faulty design of the envelope, and things like that. So we already saw changes in New York. We already saw a Pennsylvania state Supreme Court rule that ballots can be accepted after the election if they were postmarked on time. We are seeing direct results of the action that our supporters, our volunteers, and everyone took. I take a lot of comfort that whether it was a loss for me, it was a victory for democracy. That being said, what happened in our race, which was a massive disenfranchisement of thousands of voters, can also be looked at by people who want to suppress votes and say, “Okay, here are some legal ways for us to ensure that thousands of votes are not counted.” And that’s a scary thought. We warned that unless it was fixed in my election, New York was providing the blueprint for how red state governors or legislatures could legally disenfranchise thousands. And, I think we’re seeing that too.
SP: We had a remarkable field program distributed around the country. So many of our interns and volunteers tended to be younger. They were in college, and back in their parents’ homes across the country. We ended up making 1 million phone calls and mailing thousands of handwritten letters, and really going old school and trying to come up with ways to replicate person-to-person contact without actually having the person-to-person contact. Phones and texts obviously aren’t disruptive by any means, but the sheer volume we did was as close to person-to-person contact as we could get.
NS: You participated in the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. What do you think is the role of inside work (e.g., electoral politics) as opposed to outside work (e.g., street protests) in creating positive change?
SP: I am a massive proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement and of the street protests because they are a catalyst for legislative change. One thing I always said during this race was this time had to be different. This time the aspirations of the millions of people that are marching across the streets had to be turned into laws through new legislation. At the end of the day, that’s the ultimate goal of the movement: legislation. There’s a really disgusting and dark history here. And the folks who had their hand in making the laws that we are now protesting cannot be trusted to undo them with new ones.
NS: During your campaign you branded yourself an Obama Democrat and as an anti-establishment candidate. Many on the left would claim that Obama represents the establishment. It almost seems to be an oxymoron to call oneself anti-establishment, a progressive, and an Obama-Democrat. How do you resolve the conflicting labels?
SP: When I joined the Obama campaign in 2008, we were in a primary against the establishment. We were in a primary against Hillary Clinton who at that point had locked up the entire party machinery, elected officials, etc. And we were the antiestablishment. So when I say anti-establishment, stylistically it is significantly different. It is running against a status quo that isn’t delivering. Anti-establishment is not necessarily left or right. It’s a structural and systemic difference.
When we ran that campaign and when we governed the country with President Obama, there was a unifying element. There was this idea that inclusive campaigns can lift people up and still win. And that’s the kind of campaign we ran: a really positive one on a message of bringing more people in and building a big tent. So I think that puts me in that sort of Obama lens. At the same time, I’m running against the establishment and am significantly more progressive than the current office holder in the district.
NS: How do you explain the dissonance between Obama’s startlingly high popularity among Democrats and the fact that the majority of 2020 presidential candidates, including Biden, ran far to his left?
SP: The country has moved either in some cases far to the right, from where it was in 2010, and in some cases far to the left from where it was in 2010. We have seen greater polarization, and Obama governed where he could at the time. Let’s not forget Obamacare was a massive expansion of the healthcare system, and let’s not forget that he pushed hard for a public option that was torpedoed by Joe Lieberman. I think that the idea that Obama wasn’t progressive enough has to be viewed through the lens of the times. But I’m thrilled that everyone’s platform this year was more progressive. I think that’s where we ought to be.
NS: As an Asian-American, do you think you faced unique challenges in running for Congress?
SP: A hundred percent. I think that there’s a significant problem in the establishment party apparatus specifically in New York, and in media coverage of Asian American and South Asian candidates. We saw Andrew Yang face it. There are a lot of assumptions made about the type of background you have and the candidacy you have. The proof is very simply put in the fact that there are no South Asians in office in the entire city of New York. Not a single one, not in city council, not in any state, local or federally elected position. For a city that is as diverse as it is, it’s political machinery is anything but. There is no home base and that’s a problem we’re going to have to keep fighting head-on.
NS: What do you make of the accusations by Indian media that Harris is not Indian enough, and by American media that she isn’t Black enough?
SP: I find it so offensive. I find that from both accounts, it’s something we face as candidates that don’t fit your typical mold. The political media has a problem of not being able to grapple with something that doesn’t fit a clean worldview; progressive vs establishment, Black versus White, Republican vs Democrat, left vs right, or Berniecrat vs Bidencrat. The media has a tremendous issue with grappling with that and it chooses to ignore the parts that don’t fit in with what the current zeitgeist is. Indian-Americans are supporting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by 80% to 20% margins. What we’re hearing here is a loud, but vocal minority of people who represent a small sliver of the Indian-American electorate that for whatever reason have made common cause with Donald Trump. It’s shameful that the media and people have the ability to say she is not blank enough. Senator Harris is a remarkable individual with a remarkable, diverse upbringing which we should be only lucky to have.
NS: Before choosing Harris, Biden had already made a public promise to choose a woman as his vice president. For you, when does representation become tokenism?
SP: I don’t think that Biden’s promise amounts to tokenism. It amounts to recognizing that it’s 2020. It’s essential for the Democratic Party, if it really wants to be the party of diversity, to elevate voices that aren’t the historical ones that have been. To me, from the Indian-American standpoint, it is wild to think that your Nikki Haleys, your Bobby Jindals, some of these folks are Republicans. And they have found electoral success and dynamic support from within their party. I would allege in many of those cases that the Republican Party does employ tokenism, the model minority, et cetera. Those kinds of things are what they really like to elevate. The Democratic Party should not do that, but I think that there should be support for people who have a different experience in America that reflects more of our electorate as Democrats and not the past.
NS: You’ve had a pretty successful professional career already, but after Trump’s election in 2016, you became a full-time organizer. Does the careerist culture in today’s universities worry you?
SP: People should be entitled to do what they want. I don’t have umbrage at young 22-year-olds graduating and entering professions that will allow them to pay their debt back. We have an astronomical student debt load and astronomical tuition rates in this country. But I think you are seeing that even within those professions, when they leave Stern where I teach for example, they are entering these big firms with a pretty different mindset that looks at the world, the community, and the stakeholders as parts of business. We can’t abandon business if we’re progressives because commerce happens to be 85% of our economy. If we leave that to a certain set of folks, then I think we’re doing ourselves a major disservice.
NS: You teach business ethics at Stern. Do you think a Biden Department of Justice should investigate and prosecute Trump?
SP: That’s a thicket that I’m not going to speculate on yet. There are a lot of abuses and enrichment of the Trump family at the expense of our country that need to be looked into for sure. I believe that no one’s above the law, and it may not be the Biden Department of Justice as much as it could be attorney generals and others. I don’t know what the reference point is here on what we’re investigating, so I can’t speculate. And that’s me as a lawyer talking. I know this kind of nuance gets you in trouble in politics because people want red meat, but I have to look at the legal basis for what people are saying first.
NS: After the election is over, what do you plan on doing?
SP: I’m not sure yet. I’m exploring a lot of different possibilities. For now, my single purpose in life is to do everything I can to get Joe Biden and Kamala Harris elected. That is what I’ve been laser focused on since my election: helping make sure that the things that happened in our race with vote by mail don’t happen to Biden. I’ve been doing a lot of writing and thought leadership around it and organizing with my team of volunteers. We’re making thousands of calls into battleground states to recruit poll watchers. So that’s my temporary answer, between now and November. After that, I want to continue teaching and writing. After being on this political thing nonstop for so long, taking a little break and doing that kind of work might be refreshing. But of course, it’s temporary. There’s no way that I’m out of this fight. I think the country deserves progressive leaders with different experiences and backgrounds. I think New York City desperately needs that across the board. That’s where my focus will continue to be. This isn’t a short term thing.
NS: What advice would you give to young people who want to get involved in politics?
SP: I honestly can tell you that the best decision I made in my life was to leave law school in 2008 to join the Obama campaign because I was inspired by it. There’s something really freeing and remarkable about really throwing yourself fully into a political campaign. And not just a campaign, but something you truly believe in. That could be Black Lives Matter, an individual candidacy, or a campaign. Especially as young folks, there is no substitute for jumping right in and learning as you go. Find a cause, find a campaign, and at some point in your young life fully dedicate yourself to it. You’ll learn a lot about both it and yourself and it’s just the most incredible feeling. There is no better substitute for finding a cause and going for it.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.