Brooklyn Boro

Socialist comedian seeks to unseat 26-year congressmember

Lauren Ashcraft is “here to break the system.”

December 5, 2019 Victoria Merlino
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A 30-year-old comedian and former J.P. Morgan project manager is challenging U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney for her seat in Congress — and hoping her bid gains traction among New York progressives in an increasingly crowded field.

Lauren Ashcraft, a democratic socialist, is running against Maloney, a 13-term incumbent, in the Democratic primary for New York’s 12th Congressional District. She is one of three challengers who hope to replace Maloney in a district that includes parts of Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The district is diverse, spanning some of the nation’s wealthiest ZIP codes, such as Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Midtown, as well as poor sections, like the Queensbridge Houses — the nation’s largest public housing development. In Brooklyn, the district covers Greenpoint and parts of Williamsburg. The demographics pose unique challenges for meeting the needs of all constituents.

Ashcraft said her main concerns are forcing corporate money out of politics, creating better infrastructure for people with disabilities and fostering environmental sustainability.

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“One of the things that people keep saying is that our system is so broken, and it’s absolutely not,” she told the Eagle in November. “Our system is built to do exactly as it does very well. And what we as a society can’t do any more is to continue to let it work that way. So I am here to break the system.”

Ashcraft said her family’s experience inspired her to run for office. Her grandfather, an Air Force veteran and a coal miner, died in a major mine explosion in 1968, leaving her grandmother, an immigrant from Japan, as a single mother with limited means and few options for earning a living. She and Ashcraft’s father were able to survive off social security checks, Ashcraft said.

“That’s something that I have grown up with, just understanding that corporate greed literally kills people,” Ashcraft said.

Ashcraft has lived in the district since 2014. She first resided in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay after she landed a job at J.P. Morgan, before moving to Long Island City this year.

“I became radicalized by working in the private sector in New York City, and I realized that capitalism is socialism for corporations and billionaires,” she said. She now works at her church.

She said she chose to challenge Maloney in part because she believes Maloney’s history of accepting corporate contributions makes her less accountable to her constituents, and she wants a more vocal advocate in Congress who can buck the status quo.

“I do hold issue with, first of all, the money she accepts, because it shows me that she doesn’t represent me. She represents all of the corporate PACs that she’s accepted money from. You can’t do both,” Ashcraft said.

“You cannot be a progressive if you support corporate PAC money,” she said. “That’s like the number one thing.”

Though Ashcraft has never held political office before, she is active as an organizer, hosting comedy shows to benefit causes like Planned Parenthood, and serves as a project manager and emcee for the New York City Women’s March.

She is also a member of the Queens branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, and she canvased for public defender Tiffany Cabán during the Queens district attorney race. Ashcraft was not endorsed by the Queens DSA, who chose to back just one Queens candidate — an Assembly challenger — during the 2020 election cycle. The Brooklyn DSA endorsed four candidates, all for state races.

From January to September this year, Ashcraft has raised $32,639, according to campaign filings. In that same time period, Maloney raised more than $1 million.

Serious challenges from the left are fairly new for Maloney, who has been in Congress since 1993, and on the New York City Council before that. New York University lecturer Suraj Patel, who challenged Maloney during the 2018 primary and lost by almost 20 percent, represents one of her most successful challenges thus far.

Patel announced in September that he would be running against Maloney again. He and Ashcraft join lawyer and Sexual Harassment Working Group member Erica Vladimer and housing advocate Pete Harrison as primary challengers.

Maloney has long been considered a progressive in her own right, though the definition has started to shift as democratic socialists like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reframe the national conversation. Maloney has championed women’s issues, recently netting an endorsement from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and has been a vocal opponent of President Donald Trump, calling for Trump’s impeachment.

A spokesperson for Maloney’s campaign disputed the notion that Maloney is not progressive.

“Year after year, the Congresswoman’s hard work on issues like worker’s rights, paid family leave, pay equity, healthcare, the environment, gun violence, women’s rights and more has resulted in endorsements from every major labor union and progressive issue group,” the spokesperson said. “It’s obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention that Carolyn Maloney is a force of nature when it comes to achieving progressive goals.”

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  1. These progressives are annoying and once we head through another recession. Progressive issues will take a back seat for the amount of money in new yorkers pockets. They are over doing it…