BEACON, N.Y. — In Washington, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has infuriated Republicans for offering an LGBT amendment they say was orchestrated to kill the appropriations process . But constituents and fellow politicians here in New York’s 18th District say Maloney is far from a partisan troublemaker.
Maloney, a Democrat, commutes home every weekend to the southern Hudson Valley , typically spending at least one day traveling the district, split nearly evenly between Republicans and Democrats. On Saturday, that meant running in a race benefitting those with disabilities, meeting with students and hosting a town hall meeting.
The issue of LGBT equality in the workplace that Maloney’s been fighting for in Washington, the source of the GOP’s appropriations agony, did not come up even once during his constituent conversations Saturday -- a day before the mass shooting in Orlando. Fla., galvanized the gay community.
The fight for gay rights is personal for Maloney, who is openly gay , but he says it’s not his top priority in Congress. Instead he’s focused on things like helping veterans, overhauling the crop insurance program and addressing a water contamination issue in his district.
“I’m a stick-to-my-knitting kind of member,” Maloney said in an interview Saturday over breakfast at the Yankee Clipper Diner in Beacon. “I have been determined to earn my stripes by doing real work and finding ways to get things done across the aisle even in a divided Congress.”
Maloney, 49, is serving his second term in the House, after winning two tight races in 2012 and 2014 against former Republican Rep. Nan Hayworth .
The 18th District, which was redrawn the year Maloney decided to run, includes Orange and Putnam counties, as well as southwest Dutchess County and east Westchester County . A total of about 720,000 people live in the district, according to 2014 Census data .
The rural towns show a variety of economic conditions: the dilapidated buildings in downtown Poughkeepsie , a revitalized waterfront in Newburgh surrounded by large pockets of poverty; the old town of Beacon that has turned into the hip new place to live; the commercial district of chain hotels and restaurants in Fishkill just a mile from the small businesses on Main Street; large riverfront homes along the east side of the Hudson; and the military town of West Point, home to the United States Military Academy .
Maloney grew up in a Republican household in New Hampshire, the youngest of six children. In the Hudson Valley, many of the local politicians and representatives from surrounding districts are Republican. Maloney rejects characterizations that he pushed the LGBT amendment as a Democratic political ploy to kill the appropriations process.
[ Regular Disorder: Another House Free-for-All ] “I’m not some partisan warrior,” he said. “I think I’m the opposite. I think I’m one of the most bipartisan members of the House.”
Maloney’s constituents echo that assessment.
Stanley Tatur, a registered Republican, said he did not vote for Maloney in 2012 but did in 2014 and likely will again this year because he’s done a good job and proved himself to be interested in more than Washington politics.
“He lives in the area and he actually seems like he cares,” Tatur said.
Maloney’s support of the military and veterans, efforts to help displaced families find housing and securing resources for the local fire and police departments are things Tatur says he likes about his congressman. One area where Tatur believes Maloney is not doing enough is finding ways to stop jobs from moving overseas and mitigate the decline of manufacturing.
“I guess it’s kind of a mixed bag. I agree with the old time Ed Koch,” Tatur said, referring to the former New York City mayor and congressman . “If I agree with seven out of 10 things he does, then to me that’s a big plus. If I agree with all 10, I’m crazy.”
Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro , a Republican, says he’s had no problem working across party lines with Maloney.
“I have very little patience for partisan politics getting in the way of good policy and good ideas and the congressman shares that belief,” Molinaro said. “In a day and age where it seems that people are too focused on what makes us different, we’ve done really well putting those things aside and focusing on really what our community needs.”
Maloney works hard to keep his constituents informed and is out in the district as much as he’s able to be, said Elizabeth Waldstein-Hart, executive director of Walkway Over the Hudson , a nonprofit that turned an abandoned railroad bridge into a historic state park. Maloney participated in the Think DIFFERENTLY Dash, a one-mile race for people with disabilities that her nonprofit hosted Saturday morning.
While she resides outside of Maloney’s district, Waldstein-Hart said she personally appreciates his work fighting for LGBT and other equal rights issues.
“He talks about tolerance, and that’s really what I respond to,” she said. “We need to be tolerant. We have to stop pointing fingers and calling people different.”
‘We are not different’
Maloney delivered a similar message at Saturday’s race .
“We are not different,” he said, encouraging the crowd to celebrate diversity “because it’s the source of our greatest strength.”
While many of his fellow congressmen turned Sunday's shooting that killed 50 people in a gay nightclub into an opportunity to discuss either terrorism or gun control, Maloney focused on what it meant for the LGBT community. He called it "an attack driven by hate — hate for our community, our values, and a senseless disregard for innocent life."
The strength Maloney draws as a gay man was on display in the House the past few weeks, where he’s become the Democratic messenger for LGBT rights. The partisan fight that threw a wrench into the appropriations process is not one Maloney wanted to wage.
It began with an amendment Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., added into the National Defense Authorization Act that would have opened the door for federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT workers. Maloney first joined a Republican-led effort to strip it from the bill, but they were denied a vote on the floor.
“I’ve never voted against a defense bill before. I never thought I would,” Maloney said. “I represent 23 percent military families here in the Hudson Valley. We take this stuff very seriously. But when Steve Russell offered that anti-gay amendment and we started to think about it, I just felt I couldn’t support it. And everything led from there.”
The morning after the defense bill passed the House in late May, Maloney was leaving the gym when he got a call from his deputy chief of staff asking if he wanted to offer an amendment on the military construction and veterans affairs appropriations bill the House was considering that day to allow for an up or down vote on the workplace discrimination issue.
“I said, ‘Great idea,’ went right to the House floor, wrote it on the fly,” Maloney recalled.
A roll call vote on the amendment just hours later sent the House floor into chaos as a few Republicans switched their votes at the last minute to defeat the amendment by a single vote.
“Think about how stupid that is,” Maloney said. “If they had just let it pass, I guarantee the military construction appropriations bill would have sailed through the House with both Democratic and Republican support. There was nothing else in that bill that Democrats were going to vote against in large numbers. The issue would have been over.”
But it was not over. Maloney offered his amendment again on the energy and water appropriations bill the House took up the following week. The amendment was adopted, but the bill failed with 175 Democrats and 130 Republicans voting against it. Republicans say Democrats intended to sink the bill but Democrats say it was other discriminatory amendments Republicans offered that contributed to the bill’s failure.
Republicans have since decided to limit amendments on appropriations bills, all but guaranteeing they won’t allow another vote on Maloney’s amendment. Still, he intends to keep offering it.
Back home in his district, Maloney was surprised how supportive his constituents were, especially since he voted against the defense bill. But he realized why later.
“It’s because people really want politicians to stand for something,” he said. “When they see you fighting for something when you’re really passionate about — even if it’s maybe not the top of their list — I think they admire that.”
Chief among Maloney’s admirers is his husband Randy Florke, who said he was proud to see his partner of more than 20 years fight for such a vital issue.
“I just find it shocking that the House Republicans have taken kind of the one negative issue that [Donald] Trump hasn’t talked to and made it theirs so they just have the full package,” Randy said.
Maloney met Florke in New York City in the early 1990s shortly before going to Little Rock to work on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.
After Clinton was elected, Maloney returned to New York and the two started dating. A few months later, they found themselves parenting a 3-year-old boy named Jesus who had been taken away from a mother struggling with drug addiction.
Jesus becoming part of the family helped solve another problem for Maloney: coming out to his parents.
“They could understand that my life was healthy and full of people who cared about me by looking at Randy and Jesus,” Maloney said.
A few years later Maloney went to work as a staff secretary to Clinton in the White House, so he was commuting back and forth between Washington and New York. Jesus, who is now 26, spent part of those three years in Washington with Maloney and attended school there.
They later adopted two more children — daughters Daley, now 15, and Essie, who is 13.
On weekends when Maloney is touring the district and meeting with constituents, his daughters often join him. Essie says she enjoys seeing her dad help people with their problems, and Daley says it helps provide perspective on issues that are far bigger than the ones her freshman classmates complain about.
Maloney will be happy to hear that. “My biggest fear in Congress is that my kids won’t know why I spent so much time away and that it didn’t mean as much as it needs to, to justify that sacrifice,” he said. “I think when they’re out and about with me and they see that we’re helping people and trying to fix problems, it helps them understand why their dad’s not around.”