Peter Harrison can still remember the first time he saw Carolyn Maloney in person. It was 10 years ago, at a tenants association meeting, right after he had moved into Stuyvesant Town. After his market-value apartment became rent stabilized, he twice had to fight eviction notices in housing court.
“I still remember naively feeling—for a lack of a better word—’safe’ that our congressional representative is here at my tenants association meeting fighting for us against these big corporate landlords,” said Harrison. “It didn’t take very long to look under the hood and say, A, she’s getting money from a lot of these groups, and B, she’s not actually doing anything to prevent these types of predatory private equity firms and corporate landlords from coming in to a middle-class housing development with public money.”
Harrison’s own housing struggles pushed him intro activism. In recent years, he has had a front-row seat to the left-wing insurgency within the Democratic Party, beginning with his work organizing in New York for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. He went on to work for Julia Salazar’s successful 2018 State Senate primary challenge of Martin Dilan in northern Brooklyn. He says he wrote about 20,000 words on federal housing policy for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign ahead of her stunning 2018 primary upset of longtime Rep. Joe Crowley in his Bronx-Queens district.
Now Harrison, 36, is hoping for his own AOC moment among the challengers to Maloney—who has been in Congress since 1993—for the 2020 Democratic nomination in a district that includes most of Manhattan’s East Side and extends into Brooklyn and Queens.
A shadow primary of sorts is underway to determine who the left wing will coalesce around. Suraj Patel, the hotel executive and NYU business professor who won nearly 40 percent of the vote in the 2018 primary against Maloney, is running again. Erica Vladimer, a former State Senate staffer who has become an advocate for sexual-assault victims is also in the race, as is Lauren Ashcraft, a JPMorgan Chase project manager, activist, and comedian who identifies as a democratic socialist.
Harrison, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, did well in a Nov. 4 candidate forum, where all of the challengers spoke to the Lower Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn electoral working groups. He beat out Ashcraft, Vladimer and Patel in an informal straw poll.
The next step for Harrison will be speaking to the Lower Manhattan branch on Nov. 25, when another vote will take place on whether the branch will endorse him. He will also have to present at the Queens and Northern Brooklyn DSA branch meetings, and receive a 60-percent majority vote in at least two of the three branches.
The final step is a vote by the New York City DSA chapter’s leadership committee. The city chapter says it has more than 5,500 members across the five boroughs. An endorsement could prove crucial to a progressive primary candidate, especially in a June contest with low turnout.
If elected next November, a socialist winner wouldn’t be the first to represent the area. For three, non-consecutive terms from 1915-1919 and 1921-1923, Meyer London won his seat by running under the Socialist Party of America banner.
Maloney, whose campaign did not respond to specific criticisms from Harrison, said she welcomes challengers into the race. “It’s deeply encouraging to see how many people want to enter public service in the aftermath of the 2016 election,” she said in an emailed statement. “Debate and discussion are hallmarks of our democracy, and will help lead the Democratic Party to sweeping victory in the 2020 election.”
Building a campaign on housing
To make time for a congressional run, Harrison has taken a step back from his job running a tenant organizing app from homeBody, a public-benefit corporation he co-founded.
He teaches a graduate business administration class on Saturday mornings at Baruch College, which he says keeps the rent paid. “It’s not easy running for office when you’re broke, which is basically what I am,” said Harrison, who earned his master’s in urban planning at Columbia University. Prior to that, Harrison—like Ocasio-Cortez—had worked as a bartender. He said he doesn’t have health insurance. He’s also planning on getting married in April.
His campaign does not accept donations from firms, associations, executives, corporations or political action committees (PACs) associated with real-estate interests. He feels any money he misses out on will be made up in the energy he hopes to generate with his campaign platform, which reads like a progressive wish list.
His proposals include abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency that has been condemned for family separations and deportations under the Trump administration. He also supports the Green New Deal, the signature proposal from Ocasio-Cortez that would transition America’s power grid away from fossil fuels. He also supports the cancelation of student debt.
People who came of age after the Great Recession, Harrison said, are more skeptical of capitalism as a solution for issues like climate change. He acknowledges that running as a socialist will make it harder to connect with some voters.
“It’s not leading with, ‘Vote for me because I’m a socialist,’ it’s ‘Vote for me because I’ve got a plan to solve the housing crisis,’” said Harrison, who centers much of his messaging around critiques of the Blackstone Group, which purchased Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village for $5.5 billion in 2015.
As senior housing advisor at the progressive Data for Progress think tank, Harrison was a co-writer of its 51-page Homes For All report outlining an agenda that includes building millions of publicly owned homes and broadening rent stabilization and rent control. He has embraced many of these policies as part of his congressional platform, with the over-arching message of housing as a basic human right.
He also proposes a ban on Wall Street housing-market speculation and would seek to block local zoning laws that ban affordable housing. In June, he was among dozens of protesters arrested at the State Capitol in Albany while demonstrating for improved tenant-protection regulations, including universal rent control.
The money race
Harrison wants to create separation with Maloney on the issues of real-estate developer contributions—Maloney has received $57,777 from that industry for the 2019-20 election cycle, according to Open Secrets—and her support of the aborted Amazon deal in Long Island City.
Maloney has had far greater overall fundraising success than any of her challengers, raising $1,016,483 (with $500,817 on hand), according to the latest filing with the Federal Election Commission on Sept. 30.
Harrison has raised $22,504, with $13,541 on hand, trailing Ashcraft’s $32,639, with $25,721 on hand. Vladimer reported $18,675 raised, with $13,900 on hand. (Patel has yet to file his disclosure statement.)
“It’s a system that doesn’t allow folks that aren’t independently wealthy, or can raise a ton of money from some questionable sources, to find a way to run,” Harrison said.