You have to hand it to Nita Lowey. Over a span of three decades, the popular Democrat stymied a long line of politicians of varying ability and rank who coveted her congressional seat — if only she would just step aside for some reason or simply retire. Nobody dared take her on in a primary. Some of them were “boy wonders” who grew old waiting.
Oh sure, a few obscure Republicans and anonymous third-party dreamers challenged her from time to time in the general election, but in a solidly Democratic district, these campaigns were deemed fruitless before they even began.
And so the political pipeline was clogged with thwarted Democrats.
A plumber’s Johnny mop came in 1999 — or so it was thought initially — when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced he would not seek reelection. Lowey was all set to run in his place. It seemed like the natural order of things.
And then came Hillary Clinton.
Well, you know the rest.
Lowey graciously acceded to Hillary’s wishes and went back to the House of Representatives and stayed there for 20 more productive years, rising to become the first woman to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Lowey epitomized the qualities of the perfect suburban Democrat: liberal, well-to-do, dignified, safe, and adept at bringing home the bacon.
Lowey was at the forefront of change. During her 32 years in office, the racial and ethnic makeup of Congress has become more diverse. In 1989, only 5.6% of members in both houses were women. Today, it’s 24%.
But Congress as a whole hasn’t gotten any younger. In fact, it keeps getting older and older — to the point that the thick odor of resentment against the so-called gerontocracy is in the air, most notably expressed by enfant terrible Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, after defeating entrenched incumbent Joe Crowley in the 14th Congressional District, wasted no time in forging an antagonistic relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is pushing 80. Were you to Google “Congress is too old,” you’d get about 235 million results.
“Lowey epitomized the qualities of the perfect suburban Democrat: liberal, well-to-do, dignified, safe, and adept at bringing home the bacon.”
According to Quorum Analytics, in 1981 the average age of a House member and Senator were 49 and 53, respectively. Today, it is 57 and 61. The average American voter is 20 years younger than their representative in Congress.
For Lowey, the disparity is even greater. At 82, she is about twice the average age of the people residing in her district, the 17th, which includes large chunks of Rockland and Westchester Counties. For the last few election cycles, observers wondered when she would finally pack it in and take a well-deserved break from the scrum of Beltway politics. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise to many when she announced in October that she would not seek re-election in 2020.
That she was being challenged for the Democratic nomination for the first time had nothing to do with her decision, she claimed in several post-announcement interviews.
“It’s such an incredible opportunity to serve,” Lowey told me in October, “and I will always be grateful to the people in this district, but I think 32 years is enough.”
Still, it hardly went unnoticed that one of her challengers, Mondaire Jones, a corporate attorney from Suffern, was a full-fledged member of the “woke” culture. Jones, 32, a gay African American who grew up poor, has a life narrative that is about as different as it gets from Westchester’s pantheon of wealthy congressional office-holders, like Ogden Reid, Richard Ottinger, and, for that matter, Nita Lowey.
He sees his uniqueness as practically a requirement for office.
“We need more young people in office,” he told me. “We need more young people of color in office. We need more young queer people in office. I would be the first openly gay African American member of Congress in United States history.” (Other candidates will vie for the nomination in a June primary, but, ironically, one of them will not be Chelsea Clinton.)
Not long after Jones’ July announcement, Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who is 66, told me in an interview, “The tide is changing in the Democratic Party, and age is becoming a factor in people’s minds…. There is concern that by dint of being around a certain amount of time, you’ve almost disqualified yourself.”
Clearly, Latimer was alluding to Lowey and a similar dilemma facing 71-year-old Rep. Eliot Engel, whose claim to the neighboring 16th District will be contested by two much younger candidates — one of whom has been endorsed by the Justice Democrats, a group that backed AOC.
The rebellion is on.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org