The year was 1988. Def Leppard topped the charts and stonewashed jeans were all the rage. It was also the last time powerful House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey faced a primary challenge.
That’s all changed now with the decision by Mondaire Jones, a former Obama administration Justice Department staffer and attorney for Westchester County’s Law Department, to challenge Lowey in next June’s primary. The 32-year-old political novice plans to take on the New York Democratic incumbent over her positions on issues ranging from climate change to student debt forgiveness to oversight of the Trump administration.
Jones hopes the same sentiment that propelled young progressives to victory in the last election cycle — with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of longtime New York Democrat Joseph Crowley the most famous example — will resonate with voters throughout New York’s Rockland and Westchester counties.
“The conventional wisdom dictated that people like me — young people, people of color — had to wait their turn, that they had to accept the opportunities that were given to them instead of putting themselves out there and letting the voters decide,” Jones said in an interview.
Lowey, 82, is among several members of the House Democrats’ old guard facing pressure from newcomers who believe it’s time for fresher — and more liberal — leadership in the chamber.
Lowey arrived on Capitol Hill after the 1988 elections alongside Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts; Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York; and Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, who took office in late 1988 after a special election. All are facing primary challengers this year.
The same goes for Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, first elected in 1986; Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, first elected in 1990; and even Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, the party’s point man on impeachment proceedings, who came to Congress after a 1992 special election.
Pressure from the left to begin a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has bled into Lowey’s campaign, as it has for many other veteran Democrats. Jones claimed credit for Lowey announcing her support of an impeachment inquiry July 31.
“I would ask anyone doing that analysis to explain why, from a timing perspective, she reversed course just days after I announced my challenge of her on Monday, July 8,” Jones said.
Former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee on July 24, after which calls for Trump’s impeachment grew louder.
Lowey declined an interview request, but longtime aide Elizabeth Stanley said Lowey “has a strong record as a champion for progressive priorities,” and that “she’d never take an election for granted.”
Lowey “considered the views of thousands of constituents who have contacted her about investigations into the Trump organization and about an impeachment inquiry as well as the ongoing court cases, facts uncovered by various committees and Special Counsel Mueller, and his testimony before Congress,” Stanley said. “She hopes that an impeachment inquiry and other continuing investigations will reveal the full truth about wrongdoing by the Trump administration and campaign that continues to threaten our elections.”
Using the gavel
Jones is launching an unusual line of attack against Lowey, casting her role as the first woman to chair the House Appropriations Committee, with the ability to dole out $1.4 trillion a year, as a liability.
“By the end of this campaign, people in this district will know that she has failed to use her position as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee — arguably the second-most powerful role in the House of Representatives — effectively,” Jones said.
The Homeland Security spending bill, which funds Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, is one area where Jones argues Lowey has not used her role to hold Trump “accountable.”
“She doesn’t get to say she brought home a couple million dollars for a project, but not own the fact that she’s funding the agency that she now says she’s trying to stop from doing the wrong thing,” Jones said.
Lowey has taken a tough line on Trump’s immigration policies, successfully holding down his requests for southern border wall funding while limiting the amount of money for ICE to detain undocumented immigrants. But Lowey also has to work with the Republican-controlled Senate and obtain Trump’s signature on spending bills to avoid another partial government shutdown.
The fiscal 2019 omnibus spending law contained $1.3 billion for border barriers, a far cry from Trump’s $5 billion request, but up from the zero demanded by progressives. The measure also funded ICE at $7.6 billion; that’s 7 percent more than the prior year, though well below the $8.3 billion Trump wanted.
It remains to be seen whether such critiques will stick, but the DHS funding issues highlight how fraught with peril this fall’s budget negotiations will be, including for veteran lawmakers like Lowey.
Array of rivals?
There are technically two Democratic challengers registered with the Federal Election Commission, but Luz Awilda Moreno-Casanova, who recently lost her race for a seat in the Westchester County legislature, has not yet launched a campaign website, raised any money or started social media accounts. The Casanova campaign did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Republican Jarred Buchanan, a New York City police officer, has filed paperwork to challenge Lowey as well, although if past elections are any guide, the primary will determine who represents the reliably Democratic 17th District. Voters there backed Hillary Clinton over Trump by a 20-point margin in 2016, and Lowey hasn’t received less than 55.5 percent of the vote in any of her reelection campaigns, according to CQ Roll Call data.
Like other veteran Democrats, Lowey appears ready to deploy a mountain of cash to fend off rivals. Lowey’s campaign is well-funded with nearly $1.1 million in cash on hand at this early stage. And it’s highly likely that she’ll have a list of endorsements by the time voters go to the polls in the June primary.
Jones launched his campaign after the last filing deadline, so there aren’t yet any campaign finance reports, but he does have two upcoming fundraisers. The first will be hosted in New York City by actress and star of HBO’s “Insecure” Issa Rae. The second is being held in San Francisco and will be hosted by Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs.
Democracy for America, a political action committee that supports progressives but doesn’t necessarily seek to oust Democratic incumbents, has gotten an application for endorsement from Jones. But they haven’t begun to evaluate Jones’ candidacy, or the views of progressives in the district, said the group’s CEO, Yvette Simpson.
She did, however, have a favorable view of some of Jones’ policy positions.
“It looks like Mondaire Jones appears to be an amazing progressive,” Simpson said. “He’s running on the right platform. He seems to have the credentials. He’s getting a lot of attention for his race. But we still have a lot to figure out.”
Added Simpson: “Nita Lowey has been in this seat for a long, long time, and it’ll be interesting to see how he differentiates himself in this district.”
Running against history
But even if Jones posts strong fundraising numbers, secures key endorsements and puts together the core elements of a grassroots campaign, he still faces long odds of winning. That’s not only due to Lowey’s tenure in Washington, but because primaries against incumbents are notoriously hard to win.
During the 2018 election cycle, a grand total of four primary challengers defeated the 376 incumbents running for reelection — two of them Democrats. That number has remained similarly low for the past three decades.
Campaign cash is one reason. But money is no panacea for incumbents, either — just ask Crowley, who burned through more than $3 million trying to fend off Ocasio-Cortez.
And while the number of incumbent primary losses has mostly been in single digits of late, some Democratic veterans no doubt recall 1992, when 11 of their ranks fell victim to primary defeats, not counting those battling each other in redrawn districts after the 1990 census.
One of the bigger risks to Lowey’s reelection efforts as well as those of other tenured lawmakers, Simpson said, is not adapting to a modern primary challenge.
“What we tend to find, particularly with established congresspeople, is that they rely a lot on money, they run more traditional campaigns by doing ads and things of that nature, and they end up with less of a ground game. And that ends up being their downfall,” Simpson said.