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
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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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