The Race Dividing Women

A little-known Wall Streeter challenging a New York House incumbent is roiling national women's groups. Dana Goldstein on the two well-funded candidates vying for the feminist mantle.

04.18.10 10:42 PM ET

A little-known Wall Streeter challenging a New York House incumbent is the talk of women's groups. Dana Goldstein on the two well-funded candidates vying for the feminist mantle.

With 83 percent of Congress made up of men, a primary battle between two viable female candidates is rare. In 2008, there were just 18 Democratic and four Republican House primaries between two women, according to data from the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

Because the situation is so uncommon, women’s organizations and individual activists can be unsure how to react when one female candidate challenges another—especially when both claim the feminist mantle and both can raise serious cash.

“It can be wrenching to see a powerful, respected senior woman vying for her seat with a dynamic, well-funded younger woman,” said Nora Bredes.

That’s why the race in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which encompasses much of the hyper-affluent East Side of Manhattan and parts of Queens, is one to watch: Not only is newcomer Reshma Saujani taking on 18-year House veteran Rep. Carolyn Maloney in one of the only Democratic primaries this year between two women, but Saujani has been able to raise more than $800,000 months ahead of the Sept. 14 primary election, much of it from Wall Street.

Saujani, 34, is a graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School who did time in the trenches of hedge funds and corporate law. Her friends are wealthy and enthusiastic about financing her political ambitions. She worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and she says Clinton then offered her a job in the State Department, which Saujani turned down when she decided to run for office. The daughter of Indian-Ugandan parents who were expelled by Idi Amin’s regime in the early 1970s, she’s wonky, articulate, and—it doesn’t hurt—beautiful.

But though Saujani is undeniably a face to watch in Democratic politics, her debut on the New York political stage has caused as much anguish as celebration. Her candidacy split the board of a New York state women’s issues PAC, the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, and has raised the hackles of many longtime feminists.

It turns out that especially in the Democratic Party, where influential fundraising organizations like EMILY’s List exist exclusively to increase the percentage of women serving in government, a younger woman looking to unseat an older one can provoke strong emotions.

“It can be wrenching to see a powerful, respected senior woman vying for her seat with a dynamic, well-funded younger woman,” said Nora Bredes, director of the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership at the University of Rochester and the incoming president of Eleanor’s Legacy. Saujani and several supporters of her campaign resigned from the Eleanor’s Legacy board last month, in part because of disapproval from Maloney supporters.

“You can build a career beginning with a smaller seat, a city council race, a state legislature race,” Bredes said. “There are lots and lots of options.”

It is exactly this wait-your-turn mentality that irritates Saujani, who points out that groups like Eleanor’s Legacy and EMILY’s List have spent a generation encouraging young women to get involved in politics and run for office.

“I was very surprised when I started getting emails or letters from folks telling me not to run,” Saujani told The Daily Beast at a Spanish restaurant in the West Village last week, ignoring her café con leche as she spoke fluently about a series of policy issues. “In our generation, I would never think, ‘I’m not going to compete for this job because there’s a woman in it.’”

Indeed, if feminist organizations are successful in their mission of getting more women elected to public office, it will eventually become a quixotic battle to convince young, ambitious women not to take on female incumbents.

For the record, Saujani says that Hillary Clinton, her mentor and the patron saint of New York feminists, has not advised her not to run against Maloney. Still, some have accused Saujani of hypocrisy; As The New York Times noted, last summer she signed a letter asking Maloney not to challenge Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in a primary. Saujani says she signed the letter to support Gillibrand, an old friend with whom she once worked at the corporate law firm Davis Polk. (In August, Maloney bowed out of the Senate race, reportedly in part because of Gillibrand’s strong support from women’s organizations.)

As an Indian American and first-generation American, Saujani says she’d be an ideal representative for a diverse district. More controversially, she thinks Maloney, a supporter of limits on CEO and bonus pay, has been too harsh on Wall Street. She touts a plan to create a National Innovation Board to fund startup companies that promise to hire, using a mix of private and government money.

Saujani’s donors cite her hedge fund and corporate law experience as key selling points. “Someone like Reshma really understands what it is that’s being regulated,” said Rosina Rubin, the co-owner of car service Attitude New York and a prolific Democratic Party fundraiser. Rubin is one of the Eleanor’s Legacy board members who resigned alongside Saujani in March. “I don’t think we can continue to bash Wall Street and think the answer is to just have greater taxes for people who make money and create jobs,” she said.

The Maloney camp responds that the congresswoman helped to create 38,000 jobs through her federal appropriations to support construction of the Second Avenue subway line and Long Island Rail Road extension. Saujani, though, has a less blue-collar vision of 21st-century jobs, mentioning friends who’ve been laid off from banks and law firms. She wants to expand the high-end retail, new media, and biotech sectors, and cites Gilt Groupe, the Web site that offers flash sales of designer clothing, as a favorite new business in the district. But she’s quick to hit back at the suggestion that she’s running to represent the rich—maybe because she realizes that in 2010, the Democratic grassroots is not exactly crying out for politicians to defend Wall Street.

“I don’t have a lot of money or come from a lot of money,” she said, adding, “I’m angry, too” at the irresponsible behavior that led to the mortgage crisis. “My sister”—an OB-GYN—“bought a $700,000 house with no money down.”

On women’s issues and gay rights, Maloney has been an outspoken advocate since her time on the New York City Council in the early 1980s, writing bills to extend family medical-leave benefits to gay couples and, in Congress, repeatedly re-introducing the Equal Rights Amendment. She also increased funding for rape kit DNA testing. But Saujani says that on these issues, too, she can do a better job.

Maloney should have made more powerful speeches against abortion restrictions in the health-care reform bill, and should have refused to vote for the initial House version of the legislation that included Stupak’s total ban on abortion coverage, Saujani told The Daily Beast. “I think we need the equivalent of our Bart Stupak,” she said. “A woman who is going to say, ‘You know, I’m not going to vote for this if it doesn’t protect our right to choose.’ That’s one of the privileges of being in a safe Democratic district. You can take those hard votes on the House floor. You have to.”

On gay rights, Saujani says she’ll play a more active role supporting marriage rights in Albany, accusing Maloney of being “in Washington too long.”

“It’s unacceptable” that gay marriage is illegal in New York, Saujani said. “New York should set the standard. We should be leading the charge, not Maine.”

In Maloney’s inner circle, there is incredulity that Saujani would attempt to position herself as the greater advocate for women’s rights in particular. “Maloney has taken nothing but strong stances,” said Jonathan Parker, political director of EMILY’s List, which endorsed Maloney. “She’s been a champion for women’s rights and a champion for progressive issues. For us, it’s an easy decision.”

But for other advocates, the Saujani-Maloney race tests their principles.

“I’m somewhat conflicted,” said Jennifer Lawless, who in addition to researching  women in politics as an American University political scientist, ran her own unsuccessful 2006 House primary challenge against a male Democrat who opposes abortion rights, Rhode Island’s Jim Langevin. “If you’ve got a woman who is a strong supporter of women’s rights, like Carolyn Maloney, there are all of these other men who could be challenged instead of her.”

At the same time, Lawless added, a woman vs. woman Democratic primary clearly represents “positive evolution” in that more women are getting involved in politics.

Saujani still faces an uphill battle. Though she is nearly matching Maloney in contributions, the incumbent still has far more cash—$2 million—on hand for a general election, and can expect support from labor unions and other deep-pocketed establishment funders. What Saujani is sure about, though, is that running against Maloney doesn’t make her a disloyal feminist.

She asks, “If we’re setting up all these barriers to young women—don’t run against a woman, and don’t run against a man we like—how are we ever going to get to parity?”

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women's issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.