Earlier this month, Melanie D’Arrigo announced her primary challenge to Tom Suozzi, the Democrat representing Congressional District 3, covering parts of Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties. In her opening video she says, “I believe everyone deserves a seat at the table. But the table itself is broken, rotted by corporate greed, the super-rich, and generational politicians more concerned about their next election than our next school getting shot up.” When I met her shortly before the launch, her combination of charisma and seriousness conveyed that she had it in her take on the forces she decries.
D’Arrigo’s decision to run is the product of a trend identified by social scientists Theda Skocpol and Lara Putnam shortly after Trump’s election to the presidency. They argued persuasively that suburban white women are the demographic group that has been most politically transformed by the unexpected 2016 outcome. This matters, they note, because more than half of the country lives in suburbs.
An activist and mother of three, D’Arrigo’s campaign was in part motivated by the incumbent’s participation and leadership in the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus (Suozzi is the vice-chair of the caucus.). The bi-partisan Congressional group consists of 24 centrist Democrats and 24 Republicans. Their first act in the 116th Congress was to extract a procedural concession from would-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi in exchange for supporting her. The concession handed power from the Democrats to a Republican party with Donald Trump at the helm.
“His role in the Problem Solvers Caucus overall is super problematic. He trades a dollar for a quarter every time. It only benefits Republicans; it does not benefit Democrats,” D’Arrigo told the Huffington Post.
Suozzi’s activity in the Problem Solvers Caucus resonates in New York, where nominal Democrats created the Independent Democratic Conference to keep the state Senate in Republican hand from 2012 to 2019. Six of the eight turncoats who participated in the conference were punished with successful primary challenges in 2018. D’Arrigo’s campaign aims to teach Suozzi a similar lesson, but at the federal level.
D’Arrigo’s platform is striking, given the traditional political logic used to understand the suburban districts. She supports the Green New Deal, because, she says, the climate crisis is a “world-ender.” And the second issue on her platform behind voting rights is that “everyone should pay their fair share,” again cutting against traditional analysis of how to win a suburban district.
But as Eric Levitz has argued, the notion of the political center is largely a myth, and in fact, taxing the rich is a very moderate position. Political reality in New York suburbs has long been more complicated than the stories we tell about them. In 2002, the Working Families Party successfully primaried Naomi Matusow, a Democrat in a suburban Assembly district, hammering the incumbent for her failure to vote to raise taxes.
Michael Weinstock, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, has also announced his bid Congress in CD-3 and is positioning himself to the incumbent’s left. Weinstock has attempted to thread the needle by telling the Queens Eagle that he is “in between” the now-famous Queens Congressperson, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Tom Suozzi. His campaign website makes no mention of the Green New Deal or his position on federal taxes.
D’Arrigo’s campaign, meanwhile, draws attention to the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Her website takes a blunt policy position: “children should not be locked in cages, no matter how nice the government promises to make the cages.” Suozzi’s Problem Solvers Caucus yet again played a role in supporting Trump, recently backing a Republican-drafted emergency spending bill for the border camps, lacking regulation on how the money would be spent.
D’Arrigo says that she grew up on Long Island with limited means, and that the environment made “giving up” the far easier path. “The hard choice is to fight,” she says. But that is the choice that she has made in 2019.
This fight will entail finding a path to victory in a district that is traditionally understood as close to the political center. D’Arrigo will need to build a political coalition of young people, working people, people of color, and, perhaps most of all, the suburban white women like herself, who are horrified at the misogynist sitting in the White House and anyone who enables him – whether they have a D or an R after their name.
It won’t be an easy fight for her, but Suozzi, it appears, is in for a real one.
Luke Elliott-Negri is a scholar based in New York City.