Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney: Mr. Pragmatic Goes (Back) to Washington
On January 3, 2013, the Hudson Valley’s Sean Patrick Maloney became the first openly gay congressman from New York State. But he’s been too busy to pay his own pioneering any mind
Photograph by Michael Polito
On the 92nd day of his first term, Sean Patrick Maloney wakes up in his home in Cold Spring, lifts weights, eats a bowl of cereal, drinks a cup of coffee, chats with his two daughters — the 12-year-old is going out for the middle school track team; the 10-year-old is big into rugby right now — catches up on the news, and receives a death threat.
Well, if you can even call it that, because if it is, it’s surely the laziest death threat ever recorded. The tiny extremist Westboro Baptist Church out in Topeka, Kansas, has Tweeted him a link. It takes you to a flyer, demanding that the federal government impose the death penalty on all homosexuals and execute Maloney and three of the other seven openly gay members in the two houses of U.S. Congress — only in much coarser language.
Maloney, a Democrat, is no activist and no crusader. So he reports the incident to the Capitol Police and gets on with his workday. He isn’t the outspoken Harvey Milk (the first openly gay person elected to public office in California in the 1970s). Maloney ran for public office as a gay man but not as The Gay Man. He’s proud of who he is, proud of the three children he adopted with his longtime partner, Randy Florke. He doesn’t run away from being gay, but it isn’t the point of his political career either. And there isn’t any time to lose. This summer, some 2,000 civilian employees at the United States Military Academy at West Point will receive notice that they’ll be furloughed for one day a week. They’ll effectively lose a fifth of their income until September because of the sequester, the automatic budget cuts the previous session of Congress imposed on itself as punishment for not passing a budget. Maloney would rather focus on these types of issues. “There are going to be people out there who engage in this kind of hate,” he says. “You can tie yourself in knots worrying about stuff like that.” So he doesn’t.
“They will lose over time, they always do,” Maloney says. “And the best way to defeat that kind of hate-based agenda is to be effective in the job and to demonstrate that, despite our diversity, we all believe in basically the same things. It’s not going to affect anything I do. I don’t think you can do this job in some defensive crouch.”
On this frosty April morning he gets on the 7:58 a.m. train to Croton-on-Hudson, but not until he’s shaken some hands on the platform — “Can I say hi? I’m Sean Maloney, a member of Congress.” He settles into a seat and toggles through briefs on his iPad, from which he never strays very far. He tries to keep reading up on the never-ending deluge of information on the politicking and demagoguery and horse-trading in Washington to a minimum. “You can spend your whole day running around and being busy and get nothing done,” Maloney explains. “So we focus on doable stuff.”
Doable stuff. That might as well be the motto for Maloney’s administration. Realism — a singular pragmatism. He doesn’t grandstand about mucking out Washington. He doesn’t want to over-promise and under-deliver; he’s a freshman in the minority party, after all. “I’m focused on working around the edges and making your taxes work for you in some tangible way,” he says. “Hitting singles and doubles.” He is well-versed in sports metaphors, like all successful politicians. He looks the part, too: tall; in shape; with a long, symmetrical face, neat silvery hair, and blue eyes. He wears a well-tailored navy blue suit; a light blue shirt; and a red, white, and blue checked tie. He gets animated talking about the sequester. Other passengers shoot us looks. “It’s just dumb,” he says. “There are far better ways to reduce your spending than to arbitrarily go after things that are already cut or underfunded. But dumb ideas pass for normal in Washington sometimes.”
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Shooting hoops at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center
The train pulls into the Croton-Harmon station and Maloney bounds up the stairs, down the stairs, and into a waiting car. His light step belies his 46 years. He’s taping a TV segment for Regional Network News (RNN). Richard French, the sympathetic host, asks him about gun control, family values, gay marriage, Tea Party influence, the sequester. The usual. But then Maloney gets to his own talking points. He’s trying to reform crop insurance, which favors mega-farms in the Midwest but doesn’t do much good for the more than 1,000 smaller farms in his district. Those in Orange County alone lost $50 million worth of harvest during Hurricane Irene. (“It really matters to those farmers, and by extension the whole economy of the region, that when there’s a disaster these guys actually get the benefits they’ve been paying for,” he says later. “They don’t now; they should.”) He wants to renew the lapsed funding for safety inspections on dams. According to Maloney, his district has almost 100 of them deemed a high hazard. (“It’s important we get smart about storm prevention in a future of more extreme weather.”) And he hopes to cut down on the long wait for veterans to get their disability claims by allowing them to see doctors outside the VA system. Unsexy stuff. Urgent stuff. So he introduced bills for all three in March and April. “The day-to-day, bread-and-butter of this job is to find a way to make the federal government useful to folks in the Hudson Valley,” Maloney says. “To find simple ways to make it work.” His constituency, which covers just about every American demographic, consists in large part of commuters and farmers, making their living down in New York City or far away from it, working their land. So he got himself on the House Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Next he gives a talk at New York Life in Sleepy Hollow, where some 300 employees commute from Maloney’s district. On the drive over, we hit one pothole after another. It’s strange bobbing through the patchwork road with one of the few men in America with the power to fix it. In front of a packed room, Maloney talks about his father, who reinvented himself as a life-insurance salesman in New Hampshire after his business making wooden handles for scythes in Canada went under. Maloney is a good storyteller. He has a gift for putting people at ease, for undercutting the big deal he’s supposed to be. You want to tell him things — it can’t be helped. He wants to hear them, too.
His next appointment is a presentation on the new Tappan Zee Bridge. On our way, we see road workers chucking steaming kernels of hot asphalt into the craters that pockmark the road, as traffic drones on around them. In Nyack, Maloney is shown a slick video of the futuristic new bridge that is to replace the old traffic artery. Halfway through, it freezes. “Just like driving over the bridge itself,” he quips.
The congressman spends the rest of his day on a dam tour in the town of Kent, then talking to a reporter in his sparsely decorated office — a purple orchid serves as the only adornment amid all the mahogany — and later meeting members of the carpenters’ union and the utility companies. His line of questioning is always the same — what are the problems, what might be the problems, and what are the solutions. While on the road, he makes and takes calls. A staffer on the other line asks him a question. “Just do what makes sense,” Maloney answers.
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Sean Patrick Maloney stands outside his Newburgh headquarters
Photograph by Michael Polito
On November 6, 2012, 58 days before his term was to begin, Maloney was elected over incumbent Nan Hayworth, who had held a slight lead in the polls. The newly redrawn 18th district spans a jagged, lopsided arc. Its bases start just north of Rockland County’s Ramapo in the west and at Armonk in the east, hugging the New Jersey, Connecticut, and even Pennsylvania state lines before converging just north of Poughkeepsie. The district includes all of Orange and Putnam counties and swaths of Dutchess and Westchester — rural parts and rich pockets. It does not include Sullivan County’s Jeffersonville, where Maloney and Florke — who has a business building, renovating, and decorating country houses — have had a weekend home for 16 years; or New York City, where they lived during the week. So when the districts were redrawn and Maloney decided to run against Hayworth in the 18th district, rather than challenge Chris Gibson in the 19th — which had subsumed the 22nd, where he’d resided — she called him a “carpetbagger.” (Maloney had moved to Cold Spring, which is in the district, before the election. His family will follow from New York after the school year.) She also pointed out that the New York Times had endorsed Richard Becker, a cardiologist and Cortlandt town councilman, during the Democratic primary because of Maloney’s unclear role in the “Troopergate” scandal, which ensnared Governor Eliot Spitzer while Maloney was a top aide.
Maloney in turn accused Hayworth of belonging to the Tea Party, the populist über-conservative movement that swept into the 112th Congress at the height of the recession in 2010. She’d voted to defund Planned Parenthood and curb healthcare coverage for contraception, and he reminded the voters of it loudly and often.
Money from interest groups flooded in, reflecting the importance of the new swing district to the balance of power in the House. Hayworth received $1.44 million from political action committees; Maloney $383,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings. They combined to spend $5.56 million (Hayworth $3.31 million, Maloney $2.25 million) on their campaigns, funding the ugliness that unfolded as attack ads gobbled up air time.
But no matter how heated the race got, Maloney’s sexuality never became a factor. “Hayworth would have been foolish to make it an issue because the research would show that people would be repelled by that,” says Maloney. “A supermajority in the Hudson Valley clearly thinks it’s wrong to discriminate, to hate people for characteristics that are fundamental to who they are, like their race or their religion or their sexual orientation. The politics of hate aren’t very good.
“It is both heartening but also logical that we’re at a point where this issue takes a backseat to the issues that actually matter to the voters in their own lives,” Maloney continues. “This is a job, and a campaign is an employment interview; just as you wouldn’t put your personal life at the center of an employment interview or a professional situation, I don’t know that it’s the central fact for folks here.” Govern well. Know the issues. Find solutions to local problems. Create jobs. “All that stuff matters to them much, much more than who I love.”
Maloney won with 52 percent of the vote. But the fight isn’t over. The first attack ad against him has already run, appearing after his decision to vote against the House Republicans’ plan to balance the budget. Hayworth is already making noises about running again in 2014.
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Maloney (center) with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and U.S. President Bill Clinton
When Maloney arrived on July 30, 1966, his mother likes to say, he was lucky to get a name at all. He was born in Quebec into a blue-collar Irish Catholic family originally from Boston’s North Shore. He was the sixth and last child — five boys and a girl who has serious developmental disabilities — and by then his parents had just about run out of apostles and saints to name their children after, his mother often jokes. They were a diligent bunch. “He comes from a family of very responsible people who work very hard and care deeply about their community and their neighbors,” says partner Florke. “And I think he has a strong sense of that.”
The Maloneys had moved to New Hampshire after their father’s business failed. Sean got into Georgetown University and spent two years in the School of Foreign Service before transferring to the University of Virginia and earning a degree in international relations. He spent a year in Peru doing volunteer work — irrigation, literacy, that sort of thing — before enrolling in UVA’s law school. “I wanted to be Atticus Finch,” he says, referring to the main character in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
In 1992, he deferred the job with the high-powered New York City law firm one is supposed to get after law school and began working on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign instead. “I slept on a floor in Little Rock, Arkansas for six months,” Maloney recalls. “Which tells you something about how important I was.” That summer, he headed to New York as part of the advance team for the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. His first night there, he met Florke in line at a club. He came out soon thereafter. “He was very adamant about coming out in a very open way, with work and family and friends,” says Florke. “It took him a long time to get to that conclusion. But he knew it was his only key to happiness, to be honest and forthright.”
Maloney worked on Clinton’s re-election campaign in ’96 as well, and left his law firm the next year to join the White House staff. By 1999, he had risen to staff secretary, the youngest in history. He’d far exceeded his parents’ most fanciful expectations for him. “When I got my job at the White House,” he says with a laugh, “my mom said to me, ‘Honey, you’re very smart. But I don’t understand why they’d give you that job.’ ” He brought them into the Oval Office to meet Clinton. “The president made them feel welcome and important. He knew who they were and he understood my dad’s struggles and what he had been through; he was working for people like that,” Maloney says. “That’s the kind of public servant I’m trying to be. Somebody who is focused on people who are getting up every day and doing right by their kids.”
When Clinton left office, Maloney spent three years running a software company and a year and a half in law. But in 2006, the pull of politics tugged at him anew, and he ran for attorney general in New York but lost the primary to Andrew Cuomo. He’d made an impression on Eliot Spitzer though, who had just won the gubernatorial campaign, and Mahoney became a top aide. When Spitzer resigned in March 2008 following a prostitution scandal, Maloney stayed on with his successor, David Paterson, before returning to law.
By the time Maloney ran for Congress, he and Florke had adopted three children. “Our kids sort of found us,” he says. In 1993, when they’d only been together a few months, they began taking care of Jesus, a three-year-old whose family was in crisis. In 2000, an adoption agency that had placed a child with friends of theirs got in touch and asked if they’d like to parent Daley, who had been born in Texas five days earlier, after the original adoption plan fell through. Yes, they would. The agency called again two years later. Would they adopt Essie as well? They would. “We were not looking to adopt,” Maloney says. “Somebody just reached out to us.”
This urge to help out where he can is what underpins his yearning to serve, too. It’s what compelled him take a pay cut of almost half a million dollars a year when he returned to Washington. “He’s in politics because that’s where his heart is,” says Florke. To Maloney, running a business and practicing law were as much a way of making a living as an education for public office. “He absolutely has to be involved, it’s so part of his core,” says Florke. “He knows he has something to contribute. There’s no option not to do it for him.”
On the second day Congress was in session, Maloney took to the floor to address the House of Representatives. He was only the second of the 84 freshmen in this 113th Congress to do so. He pleaded for relief money for victims of Superstorm Sandy to be pushed through swiftly.
When he was elected, Maloney was given 670 days from his swearing-in to the next election, when his constituency would get the chance to terminate his mandate or extend it by two years. Just 450 or so of those are work days. And Congress is only in session for about half of that time. Every day is precious in the House of Representatives: Unlike in the U.S. Senate — where the appointment is for six years — congressmen only get a two-year term, meaning they are forever campaigning for the next election.
That leaves even less time to get things done. “I’m not going to be useful if I’m just another combatant in a partisan war, a loud voice on TV,” says Maloney. “We have enough people fighting, wanting to be the most partisan; I want to be the most useful.”
Maloney quickly joined No Labels, a bipartisan group of 63 congressmen bored of the deadlock who meet regularly to find common ground on the issues. (Local Congressman Chris Gibson is also a member of this group.) “I don’t have the luxury of some sort of ideological rigidity,” says Maloney. “The person I just beat got herself caught up in this dumb partisanship and bickering that went on in Washington. She was more interested in pleasing some ideological agenda than in listening to the real problems of people in the Hudson Valley. I’m not going to make that mistake. The job is not to be brilliant or partisan or shrill or to get yourself on TV. The job is to be useful.”
He’s still a politician, of course. He mentions where he lives a lot, lest the carpetbagger accusation reappears. He calls people “folks,” a famous trick of the current president, which makes him sound more like the people whose votes he covets. And he’s quick to boast of the achievements of the Clinton administration, which he was a part of for only a few years and in which he never held a decision-making role.
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The congressman’s 2012 swearing-in ceremony, attended by (l-r) brother Mark Maloney, sister-in-law Sharon Maloney, Speaker of the House John Boehner, partner Randy Florke, daughter Essie Maloney Florke, Rep. Maloney, daughter Daley Maloney Florke, and son Jesus Florke
The question comes up regularly: Why haven’t Sean and Randy gotten married yet? Same-sex marriage has been legal in New York since July 24, 2011. They’ve been together 21 years. So what’s the holdup?
There hasn’t been the time, with a congressional campaign and Maloney’s term gobbling up the last 18 months. But the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, is a factor, too. Signed into law in 1996 by Maloney’s mentor Bill Clinton — who has since changed his position on it — it restricts federal marriage benefits to opposite-sex marriages. “Equality and fairness should matter to all of us — living in a country where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution mean what they say,” Maloney says. “I’m sure we’ll get married. I think that we have not done so up until now because it didn’t represent something that was truly equal — and still does not.”
President Obama’s administration has deemed DOMA unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a DOMA-related case in late March. “It does bother me that, despite the enormous progress represented by state law changing in New York, most of the significant practical reasons why you enter into a civil marriage still happen under federal law and are still very unequal,” says Maloney. “Whether you want to talk about your income taxes or your estate taxes or your gift taxes or your health-care benefits or immigration, they’re all creatures of federal law. Whether we’re married or not, it is illegal under federal law for Randy to get health insurance on my policy through the House of Representatives. Think about that. I’m a Member of Congress and I’m discriminated against under federal law, and that’s the problem with DOMA. It’s wrong, it’s discriminatory; we have to change it.”
Maloney won’t rule out getting married before DOMA is repealed, but he’s conscious of the power of his stance as a high-profile gay man. “Randy and I have been part of this fight for civil equality for a couple of decades,” he says. So they’ll get married when it makes sense both for them and for the wider movement. “It’s worked for 20 years, so I’m sure we can hold it together for a little while longer.”
Besides, Maloney adds with a chuckle, “I’m not going to get married until somebody proposes to me and I get a rock.”
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Photograph by David Burnett/DavidBurnett.com, courtesy of Newburgh Armory Unity Center
On the 31st day of his first term, Maloney walked into the Newburgh Armory in jeans and a sweater with his daughter Essie. They’d come so she could play basketball in one of the many programs the Armory now offers. (Newburgh’s ubiquitous benefactors, William Kaplan and Habitat for Humanity, put up the funds and labor, respectively, for the site to be turned into a community center.) While she played, Maloney ambled into the reading and arts-and-crafts program for toddlers, picked up a pair of scissors, and joined in. A witness described his disposition as a “gentle sweetness.” There was no fuss. Nor did he expect any. No entourage, no grand introductions, no television cameras, no politics. Just a congressman and his constituents. He hung out with the English as a Second Language class, switching between Spanish and English. He sat on the ground with the children and listened to the story being read.
He was there because he felt compelled to be. Because 143,845 locals had asked him to be there, to be their congressman, to care for them and hear from them and go to bat for them. It’s why he made his headquarters on historic Grand Street, a mile away. It wasn’t the nicest city in which to set up shop, or even the best neighborhood within it. But it made sense. It’s where the need is biggest. Where the pain of a district, slammed by a recession and natural disaster, aches the deepest. It’s where Washington is furthest away and the eye can’t miss the ailments of life in one of America’s most destitute pockets. Where he is needed most; where he can be the most useful.