U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler speaks during his election night victory party in the Democratic primary election, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, in New York. Nadler won in New York's 12th Congressional District Democratic primary against attorney Suraj Patel and Rep. Carolyn Maloney. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The political topography of New York State used to have an enduring logic. In New York City mayoral races, the quest for physical safety was paramount, such as Ed Koch prevailing as a death penalty liberal in the 1977 Democratic primary over Mario Cuomo and others. It includes Rudy Giuliani’s two terms back when he was a formidable prick and a veteran federal prosecutor, not a veteran of prosecutions. Eric Adams continues this streak. His biography was the message as a longtime cop and a Black kid who got beaten up by police. The liberal Bill de Blasio years made sense only considering how much crime had declined. It gave Democrats the room to reject Mike Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policing.

New York City congressmen were always interesting. John Lindsay, a future mayor and Republican-turned-Democrat, represented the “Silk Stocking” district that moved up the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan. In Harlem, Charles Rangel made his own brand of machine politics following the long run of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Hakeem Jeffries elbowed out a crowded Brooklyn field, and when he went to Congress, he quickly rose and is a good bet to be the speaker some day. And a slew of interesting ethnic pols from the boroughs filled every delegation: Jewish liberals like Eliot Engel, Chuck Schumer, and Stephen Solarz; Last Hurrah Irishmen like Joe Crowley; Italians like Susan Molinari, the moderate Republican from Staten Island; and Hispanics such as the liberal-turned-conservative Herman Badillo and the progressive José Serrano.

Some of this predictability was fraying before Tuesday’s internecine primaries. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knocked off the inattentive Crowley in 2018. Staten Island deviated from its position as a red-state redoubt of cops and firefighters long enough to elect the human fireplug Max Rose, a veteran who seemed like something out of a World War II GI movie. He lasted one term but won the Democratic nomination on Tuesday night for his old seat.

But this year is different: Battle without purpose. Hunger Games with a schmear. If you believe that Democrats aren’t saintly but don’t have it in them to play hardball, the past year in New York will ratify your feelings. New York Democrats tried to create a redistricting plan that would increase its numbers in the House and create enough safe blue seats to ease the sting of losing the chamber to Republicans, which still seems eminently possible. But the Democrats blew it like Woody Allen’s hapless bank robber in Take the Money and Run, who hands his demand note to a teller: “I have a gub. Apt natural.”

While Republicans pass redistricting plans that enshrine conservative districts like king’s shires, the courts struck down New York’s Democratic plan. That led to the appointment of a special master, Jonathan Cervas, who came up with a scorpions-in-a-bottle map that turned Democratic allies into enemies. (See my colleague Zachariah Sippy’s interview with him.)

We saw whether the Lannisters or the Baratheons survived on Tuesday night, but everyone suffered. Representative Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who was forced to cross Central Park and run on the East Side, managed to defeat another long-standing incumbent, Carolyn Maloney. Nadler seemed to out-organize the East Sider, and he probably helped himself by noting that if he lost, the city would be without a Jewish member of Congress for the first time since Leviticus. I don’t want to say New York is more sexist than other states, but, interestingly, New York City has never elected a woman mayor, and New York State has never elected a woman governor. (Kathy Hochul, the current governor, was elected as lieutenant governor and took over when Andrew Cuomo resigned.) The headline here is that Democrats somehow wound up with two liberal members with close to 60 years of seniority in a septuagenarian duel.

The most intriguing race was the 10th, a Brooklyn-centered district with multiple candidates. Honorary squad member Mondaire Jones gave up his seat to run in this district rather than face Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who bigfooted him and prevailed on Tuesday night in Jones’s old district. The front-runner and winner was Dan Goldman. He’s a super-wealthy attorney and an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune. He’s hit all of the liberal Stations of the Cross: Sidwell Friends, Yale, Stanford Law, impeachment prosecutor, and (this is too perfect) MSNBC analyst. He was the conventional choice and got The New York Times’s endorsement, as did Nadler and Sean Maloney, a white male trifecta that must have sent Slack channels buzzing at the Gray Lady. Among the strongest candidates is Yuh-Line Niou, a Taiwanese American, very progressive. She’s spent considerable time clarifying her comments about the BDS movement, which promises to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel. This is generally the kind of question most New York politicians innately know how to handle, such as “Mets or Yankees?” and “Poppy or Plain?” But Niou’s wobbly insistence that she doesn’t support BDS, only anti-BDS legislation, seems to have kept her from free fall. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be a primary night without a Planet Earth Republican facing a Trumper. In this case, the 23rd District saw a close contest between the perennial candidate Carl Paladino and Nick Langworthy. “You can shove a pole up The New York Times’s ass. And you can quote me on that,” Paladino told me on Election Night 2016 as we milled around the New York Hilton on 6th Avenue with My Pillow’s Mike Lindell and the comedian Joe Piscopo, realizing Trump was going to win. The following year Paladino was removed from the Buffalo school board after he was asked what he wished for in 2017. Among his answers: “Michelle Obama. I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.” Paladino lost.

As in the film Gladiator, Tuesday’s march of death grew wearying, even for the bread-and-circus political analysts who thrive on this. This redistricting plan didn’t accomplish anything, and it put able young politicians like Jones and seasoned hands like Maloney out of a job. That would have been okay if their demise was over policy or demographics or something interesting. For instance, 81-year-old Liz Holtzman ran for the 10th on Tuesday, 50 years after she shocked the country by knocking off veteran Congressman Emanuel Celler. The victory of an antiwar feminist against an aging machine pol meant everything in 1972. (And Holtzman went on to have a distinguished career not only in the House but as New York comptroller.) Likewise, when AOC knocked off Crowley, it showed that socialism held more sway with younger voters. Instead, Tuesday night at the abattoir got Democrats nothing. As Russell Crowe said, “Are you not entertained?”

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.