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Ayn Rand's Revenge

What Reshma Saujani's insurgent campaign says about the future of New York politics

John Vaught LaBeaume
September 23, 2010

This primary season, a young woman named Reshma Saujani waged an audacious, well-funded challenge to an 18-year veteran liberal congresswoman, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, in New York’s 14th District, based on Manhattan’s East Side. The district’s aging old guard closed ranks around the uninspiring incumbent, and Saujani came up far short.

But by speaking up for voices in a younger, entrepreneurial generation that is slowly but inexorably altering the district’s dynamics—those who found themselves drawn to her message of allowing New York to grow into “the next Silicon Valley”—Saujani’s brash bid might mark the first stirrings of Ayn Rand’s revenge.

The East Side of Manhattan was Ayn Rand’s playground. Home to soaring skyscrapers and behemoth banks, Robber Baron manses and “Mad Men” ad agencies, Rand declared this locus of America’s financial might to be the ultimate testament to human achievement, incontrovertible evidence of man’s conquest of nature.

This swath of New York City was the only “rational” place for Rand to call home. She established residence in a high rise apartment and held her “salons” there. She secured space in  her “symbolically heroic Empire State Building”—in Murray Rothbard’s mock-Randian vernacular—for the Nathaniel Brandon Institute, her vehicle for Objectivist proselytizing.

The real people who actually lived in those skyscrapers and worked in those big banks, however, Rand found lacking. Politically, they expressed themselves in favor of policies that Rand found morally abhorrent and which she feared would be ruinous to the American capitalist system whose fruits padded their bank accounts.

Back in Rand’s heyday, the “Silk Stocking District,” as the Upper East Side’s congressional district has been historically known, was dominated by liberal Republicans the likes of Barry Goldwater’s nemeses, Nelson Rockefeller, and Mayor John V. Lindsay, whose audacious social experimentation left New York an “ungovernable city.”  

Lindsay and his cohorts were Protestant, well-educated, wealthy, and well-bred. They were Republicans because they found the Catholic, working class, ethnic-based politics of New York’s Democratic bosses profoundly distasteful. Union rabble-rousing may have turned them off, but these elites worried about an unfettered market, too, and assumed that the best and brightest among their ranks could solve society’s problems by controlling the levers of government.  

By 1992, Republicanism was no longer fashionable and the district had grown more demographically diverse, but the district remained a bastion of “limousine liberalism.” Then-Rep. Bill Green, a Jewish Republican with a patrician, WASPish air about him, could no longer hold on, even if his name was listed on both the New York Liberal Party line as well as the GOP in the voting booth. Green was defeated in a redrawn district by Carolyn Maloney, a city councilwoman from the Upper East Side. Two years later, in the Republican tsunami of 1994, a Republican-Liberal city councilman spent record millions, but the Upper East Side stood aloof from the rest of America, and defied the Republican tide. Maloney took two-thirds of the vote and has not been challenged seriously since.

This year, irate at being passed over for appointment to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, Maloney made noises about challenging appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from the left, and amped up her liberal rhetoric, incorporating the Democrats’ Wall Street-bashing demagoguery. In the end, she dropped her challenge, and decided to seek reelection, but this didn’t sit well with some of her newer, younger constituents—many of whom work in the technology sector, and who were open to a fresher voice speaking for them in Washington, one that might show a little more respect towards the industries that butter their bread.

Enter Reshman Saujani, a young woman with an impressive resume and a compelling story. The daughter of Indian immigrants who fled Idi Amin’s Uganda, Saujani worked as an attorney for hedge funds and raised bundles for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential run. Tapping her Wall Street ties, Clinton connections, and roots in the Indian-American community, she amassed a formidable war chest. On the bio page of her website, Saujani vowed to take a softer tone in contrast to Maloney’s increasingly shrill populist orthodoxy, promising to be a “bridge builder who can align the ambitions of Wall Street with the needs of Main Street.”

When Saujani sat down with me at the Roger Williams Hotel on Madison Avenue before the election, the candidate was still in spin mode, mopping up after an acrimonious radio debate with the incumbent. A slew of press stories had had portrayed Saujani as an apologist for Wall Street. “Saujani embraces Wall Street in bid to unseat Rep. Maloney,” was the headline of a profile in The Washington Post. Saujani was determined to counter that perception.

Her campaign had been “consistent from the beginning” in favor of Wall Street reform, Saujani said. She wanted to focus on hammering Maloney for “corrupt” fundraising practices, conjuring up the rhetoric of “reform,” a time-tested Silk Stocking “goo-goo” vote-getter, the line that helped Republican-Liberal office holders hold on as Democrats encroached.

When I interrupted to suggest that perhaps she shared, with the bulk of her constituents, a “more nuanced” view of Wall Street than her entrenched opponent, Saujuani concurred. The thought prompted her to share that more than just defending Wall Street, she favored policies that would allow New York City to become a “place where small businesses can flourish,” to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. As she dashed off to her next appointment, Saujani mentioned that I might like to stop by that night’s New York Tech Meetup, to hear more about her agenda for economic growth.

After some conniving, I secured a ticket to an auditorium full of young “Creative Class” types, eager to exploit trends in social media for fun and profit. Saujani walked up to the podium and declared that she was running for Congress because she thinks that “New York City has the ability to become the next Silicon Valley.” She offered some proactive ideas but said she knew when to hold up, “because sometimes the government shouldn’t just do anything, and I’m sure a lot of people in the crowd agree with me.” Her vow to fight for zero capital gains taxes for investors in new ventures like social media drew scattered, but spirited, applause.

There are some lessons here for libertarians in the Obama era. Affluent and educated voters show no signs of shaking off the Democratic label. Just like the Silk Stocking liberal Republican WASPs of yore, it’s simply not a sign of sophistication to countenance socially conservative beliefs. But there are limits to how much the folks who drive the economy will accept meddling in the economy when it starts to stifle their innovation and whop them in the wallet. Libertarians shouldn’t be afraid to appeal to this segment’s social liberalism—and take credit for being out front on issues of personal freedom decades before those stances became fashionable—and argue that government meddling in the boardroom can be just harmful as meddling in the bedroom. A dose of “liberaltarianism” here may be just what the doctor ordered.

Yes, Saujani was clobbered, and by a four-to-one margin, which is surprising considering all the cash she collected. The margin was probably distorted by the fact that her voters were younger, newer to New York, less ideologically liberal (on economics, at least), and decidedly less partisan: folks who do not turn out in force during quiet primary elections. But her base is growing, and while Maloney’s supporters may still lord over Democratic primaries, they are beginning to recede in the general population of Manhattan’s East Side just as the liberal Republican WASPs died out a generation before. In that regard, Saujani might be the “political entrepreneur” who took electoral risks that will yield dividends in the future. Furthermore, she convinced young, affluent, and influential Silk Stocking voters to agree that “sometimes the government shouldn’t just do anything.”

Notably, Saujani attraced supported from hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and Nate Westheimer, the man who filled that NYU auditorium with young entrepreneurs for the New York Tech MeetUp. The New York Observer tapped Westheimer as one of “The Insurgents of 2010,” for his efforts to spur investment in New York’s burgeoning tech sector.

Westheimer reminded the crowd that no other candidate felt it worth their time one week out from primary day to address this group of New York City entrepreneurs. Westheimer told me, via email, that he was making a rare electoral endorsement because “Reshma is different because she came to the table agenda-less, except the agenda to advance New York's technology sector,” and that agenda includes sometimes getting government out of the way of innovation.

Saujani has vowed to run again, maybe when New York’s tech sector has begun to blossom and its East Side electorate is ready for her message. Her upstart campaign looks like it may have been ahead of the game, and could be the starting point for those skyscraper dwellers and hedge fund traders on a road to electoral redemption, Ayn Rand-style.

John Vaught LaBeaume is a Washington Examiner Blogs contributor and co-editor of ElectionDissection.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.



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