Suraj Patel: A Candidate Ahead Of His Time

By Ariel Konieczko

The United States House of Representatives has turned red, with Republicans now in the majority; yet the seat for New York’s 12th District, which Beacon High School falls into, is held by a Democrat. After a hotly contested primary race on August 23, 2022, the representative holding this seat could have been Democrat Suraj Patel, a 38-year-old Indian American. However, Patel lost the primary to 75-year-old Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler. Regardless of his loss, Patel is still a bright voice in the Manhattan political scene and represents a new wave of congressional demographics.

Patel’s start in politics came from working on presidential campaigns, including those of Al Gore and Barack Obama. Patel has since become an attorney, NYU business ethics lecturer, and writer with several recent articles published. During an October 5, 2022, interview with the Beacon Beat, Patel reflected on his campaign loss. “There isn’t much we could’ve changed within our power to do anything differently,” he commented. “[In] each debate, each interview, and each high stakes event, not only did we do well, we exceeded.” To help with the seamlessness of his campaign, his “incredibly energized, hopeful, and hard-working” team “took nothing for granted.”

Originally, Patel decided to run in 2018 after Donald Trump won the presidency. “So many of us thought it’s time to take matters into our own hands because the generation above us has failed democracy. Right here in New York we’ve had leaders who’ve failed to live up to their potential and recognize what the city needs and that was a key cause in my running,” said Patel. 

Staff on Patel’s campaign agreed his invigorating energy was worth fighting for. They spoke of their experience as more akin to working alongside Patel as opposed to working for him.

George Rodriguez, age 58, who had a hand in every aspect of the campaign as Patel’s Field Operations Lead, has been with Patel since his first race in 2018. Rodriguez said, “I was attracted to him because he didn’t represent politics or business ‘as usual.’ He has a fresh face, a fresh voice, he’s young and energetic, and that’s exactly what we need in our politics right now.” Rodriguez, who is disappointed with today’s political climate added, “We need folks who are going to come in with new ideas and shake things up.” Patel’s campaign was influenced by his relatively young age; his incumbents Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney are both nearing 80 years old. From the floral design on Patel’s posters, which still plaster the streets of New York City, to the colorful pamphlets his loyal interns slid under voters’ doors, it was clear Patel was “genuinely trying to create a connection with the community,” Daniela Flores, a 15-year-old campaign intern said. “He felt unique and individual.”

Patel admits his eccentric brand, with the slogan “Change the Vibes,” worked to both his benefit and downfall. During this year’s August 23 primary, voter turnout was weak; less than 10% of District 12 (D-12) New Yorkers cast a ballot, and those who did have been supporting Nadler for over three decades.

Still, Patel said, “One of the reasons this message worked so well nationally and in the press is because it was authentic, and it hit the zeitgeist of the time, whether or not the voters themselves were a good example of the electorate.” While the grandparents of D-12 may have voted for Nadler, their grandchildren desire something contemporary.

Diya Mehta, a 19-year-old college student had an exclusive perspective while working as Patel’s Press and Social Media Lead. Mehta spent the last month of Patel’s campaign as his “body person,” so that each day Patel clocked his 22,000 steps, Mehta did the same. On primary Election Day, Mehta recalls “We got so many people to vote because we were standing outside on the corner of a farmers’ market, or we were standing on the corner of a Trader Joe’s.” Meanwhile, on the Upper West Side, in what the campaign painfully referred to as “Nadler territory,” campaign staff were facing an uphill battle.

Patel shared several explanations for his campaign’s loss, the first being, a flaw in New York’s primary voting system. Because registered voters are only allowed to vote for the party they affiliate with, it essentially “shuts out a lot of people who are still making their political decisions,” Patel said. “A lot of young people, despite voting Democratic consistently, still want to call themselves Independent.” Voters are not aware of the cascade of negative effects their political labels may have in the long run. Wrongfully, New Yorkers do not think that “a primary is the be-all-end-all election in New York,” Patel said.

Another reason D-12, which is predominantly white, did not welcome Patel with open arms may have been voters’ inability to embrace a man of Indian heritage. On the topic of culturally conservative voters, Patel said, “They don’t look for change, they’re not gonna rock the boat, they’re not gonna vote for the guy with the name Suraj Patel.” Even in New York, breaking chains of political bias is sometimes impossible, yet, when there is higher voter turnout in mayoral and general elections, Patel predicts that, “there is a space, I think, for a hunger for generation change, it is gonna be a little more balanced in turnouts.”

While this may be true, other congressional district winners are making national headlines. In Florida, Congressional District 10 elected the first Gen Z representative to office: 25-year-old Maxwell Frost. Younger leaders, even those who are not successful, are inspirational role models for further generations. Patel’s high school intern Flores was so moved by her candidate’s work that she is now an aspiring political science major. She said, “You can tell when someone is faking it. He was genuinely trying to create a connection with his community.” If that’s what it means to be a successful politician, Flores wants the same for herself.

“The most formative experience in my life and in my career has been to do campaigns. The camaraderie you get out of working in something that’s bigger and more energetic than yourself, being part of an idea, it’s immeasurably wonderful,” Patel said. He also shared a word of advice for budding politicians: “I would suggest that anyone do that at least once in their life, whether or not they want to run for office, it’s just an important part of American culture and politics.”

Suraj Patel will not be running a fourth race for any political office in the near future. He said, “When you’re trying something, or building a career in anything in life, your failures and triumphs are relatively private. What makes a campaign so strange is that they’re very public.” Perhaps Patel will distance himself from the general eye in the upcoming years, but look out for him, because he may eventually step on the playing field again.

Patel admits to not knowing what comes next in his career. Some possibilities he mentioned include, delving further into academia, working with MSNBC on forthcoming election material, or even writing a book. His staff has high  hopes for him.

Rodriguez said, “Whether he decides to run for office, whether he gets some sort of government appointment from the White House, or he goes into journalism, his potential is unlimited. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Hands down.