(Photos: Ben Brandstein)

The space that used to house Coup, on Cooper Square, still feels like a cocktail lounge, but the young people at the bar during a recent visit were hunched over laptops instead of pints. Scrawled on three massive rolls of brown paper were the talking points of Suraj Patel, the Congressional candidate who is now using the space as his campaign headquarters. Patel’s platform, outlined on his website, states that voting should be digital, gender is a spectrum, healthcare is a right, and marijuana should be legalized.

During the June 26th congressional primary, Patel will challenge Democratic incumbent Carolyn Maloney in the 12th District, which covers Greenpoint and parts of Williamsburg, the Lower East Side and East Village, among other neighborhoods. The race has already garnered attention in the tabloids, after Maloney dismissed Patel’s impressive fundraising by saying his donors included “a huge amount of the name Patel.” Patel deemed the remark ignorant and racist, only to find himself in the news again when the New York Post dug up questionable comments he had made about a 16-year-old gymnast on social media.

Despite the drama between them, Patel says his main opponent isn’t Maloney – it’s apathy. “Everything we do here is to educate, inform, and empower people to vote,” said Patel. The tall, slender 34-year-old with hazel eyes and a Clark Kent curl has been engaging people by attending yoga classes and gym events. “People are already gathering in these spaces,” said Patel, “So why not go run on a treadmill for 45 minutes with everyone, and then give a little spiel about why I’m running for Congress. It’s all about being accessible.”

Another endeavor to be accessible is the Meet Suraj option on his campaign website. Every Wednesday, for 30 minute increments, Patel either grabs coffee with or calls anyone that reserved a slot that day. “They sign up, I meet with them. Done,” says Patel.

Patel was born in Mississippi to Indian immigrants. His family had owned Tex-Mex restaurant in Mississippi, and in Indiana they got involved in the hotel and hospitality business. Since then, Patel became the president of an Indiana-based hotel company called Sun Group, moved to the East Village, and has given lectures on business ethics at NYU. It seems that his business background plays a major role in the way he views politics. “A while back my business brain kicked in and was like, Wow, the way we do campaigns is so broken,” Patel said. “Like, they happen, they’re very transactional, you win or you lose, and then you move on and everything dies. I want to create something sustainable.”

As a Democratic candidate, Patel’s positions on certain issues are as expected. He believes the country hasn’t taken enough action against climate change. He supports sanctuary cities, women’s rights, and takes issue with the massive incarceration problem in the United States. With some issues, he’s gone a step further. “I was the first congressional candidate in New York to call for the full defunding of ICE if we win Congress back in November,” said Patel, arguing that an immigration and customs force should operate and remain at a country’s borders, not within its cities.

Maloney, meanwhile, has been an intense advocate for women’s rights as well as climate change, and has introduced a number of bills to reduce gun violence. But her opponent didn’t seem impressed. Regarding her advocacy track record, Patel said, “It’s not enough to be ‘for’ a bunch of things and then do nothing about them.”

Last month, Politico reported that Patel’s campaign was outraising Maloney’s (nearly $550,000 over eight weeks). George Arzt, a spokesperson for Maloney, said that the money was mainly coming from family and relatives. According to Buzzfeed, Maloney followed by saying the money was coming from a large number of people from his home state and “a huge amount of the name Patel.” Patel shot back: “Let’s let New York decide whether it’s more offensive to raise money from Patels and real people like I do or from corporate PACs and Donald Trump like she does.”

More recently, Patel told me that his family’s success aligns him more with small businesses. “The story of us Patels, as a family, is one of cash flow generating small businesses,” he said. “We saved our profits and reinvested them.”

Patel hasn’t completely escaped the ever-eager outrage of the internet, however. Earlier this month, the New York Post reported that in 2012, Patel had joked on social media about buying a promise ring for then 16-year-old gold medal gymnast McKayla Maroney. When I asked Patel about the comment, he said he doesn’t ever mind discussing it. “The post in question was a 70-comment thread that they plucked a few responses from,” he said. “It’s easy to pull a thing apart and show it out of context.”

“I was under the White House social media policy from 2009 onwards,” Patel continued, referencing the work he did on Barack Obama’s campaign. “If they had thought something on social media was bad they would have flagged it or I wouldn’t have even posted it. So if it was good enough for them…well.”

Discussing the Maroney posts led Patel to an impassioned critique of the issues surrounding social media. “One thing people say to me is, ‘Oh my God, how are you running for Congress, I would never do that with my social media profile.’ This entire generation is growing up with their lives on social media!” Patel continued by saying that having awkward or potentially “damaging” information online can’t be “disqualifying, or a silencing tactic the establishment uses. But they do. And it has a silencing effect on these people’s ability and drive to run for office. It’s not my fault Carolyn’s been in office since the advent of the fax machine.”