U.S. Rep Meng to face first primary challenge since taking office

Kew Gardens resident Melquiades (Mel) Gagarin will challenge four-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Grace Meng in 2020. Photo courtesy of Gagarin

Kew Gardens resident Melquiades (Mel) Gagarin will challenge four-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Grace Meng in 2020. Photo courtesy of Gagarin

By Emma Whitford 

Four-term Queens Congressmember Grace Meng will face her first primary challenge since taking office, the Queens Daily Eagle has learned.

Meng, 43, is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and was elected Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2016. In the sprawling 6th Congressional District — which includes Flushing and runs through Elmhurst to the west and Bayside in the northeast — she is backed by the Queens County Democratic Party and has forged deep ties with large Asian-American and Orthodox Jewish communities. She is New York’s first Asian-American member of Congress, and she previously served two terms in the State Assembly, where she represented Flushing. 

Meng’s 2020 challenger is Melquiades (Mel) Gagarin, 37, of Kew Gardens. Gagarin, a member of the Queens Branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, told the Eagle he plans to seek the DSA endorsement and is forging a challenge to the Democratic establishment in both Queens and Washington. The recent insurgent campaigns of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán — for whom he volunteered as a canvassing lead — inspired his run, he said. 

Gagarin filed with the Federal Election Commission on July 12 and formally announced his campaign today in an open letter to Meng shared with the Eagle. “I came up in traditional Democratic politics… but we have lost our way,” Gagarin wrote, calling for a “true progressive alternative.” 

Gagarin’s letter outlines priorities including so-called “social housing,” an ambitious, federally-subsidized alternative to incentivising private developers; universal basic income; and deeper investment in seniors “beyond social security.” The call to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement is “not a political slogan but a moral imperative,” he writes. 

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng. Photo via U.S. Congress

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng. Photo via U.S. Congress

Both Gagarin and Meng are Elmhurst natives, and are raising young families in the district. They are both Asian-Asian, along with 40 percent of the district. (Meng is Chinese; Gagarin is Filipino.) Meng cosponsors legislation that Gagarin supports, like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She is also a vocal opponent of a proposed citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census. 

Gagarin hopes to distinguish himself on the question of whether President Donald Trump should be impeached. He is “absolutely” in favor of this, he said. Meng is less definitive, taking the position that “impeachment is not off the table.” Gagarin will reject corporate donations. Meng has not. “Since 2013 our district hasn't had a choice, and I'm going to provide that choice,” Gagarin said.

Meng is also a prominent pro-Israel voice in Congress, a stance that has won her support in the Orthodox community of Kew Gardens Hills. She was an early opponent of the Iran Nuclear Deal and spoke at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy 2020 Conference, where journalist Claire Shipman introduced her as “an outspoken leader on issues important to the pro-Israel community.” 

Gagarin would support a two state solution that “upholds the dignity of the Palestinian people,” he said. “I do not support the continued expansion into contested territories that further displaces Palestinians or denies their right to the creation of the state of Palestine,” he told the Eagle

Gagarin, who has worked for criminal justice reform nonprofits, is not new to politics. In 2009, at the age of 27, he ran in a six-way City Council race for the open District 29 seat. He finished last, with just 6.2 percent of the vote. (Karen Koslowitz won the seat, which she still holds.) Prior to that, he worked as a communications liaison for State Sen. Jose Serrano Jr. from the Bronx, and as a community representative for ex U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner in Queens. He’s currently finishing an online public policy and planning degree through American University and is a self-described “stay-at-home dad” to his three kids: ages 8, 10 and 12. 

Queens attorney and former politician Mark Weprin lives in Meng’s district. The two overlapped in the State Assembly, and Weprin chaired Meng’s 2012 congressional campaign. “People love her. She has a unique ability of being well-liked,” he said of Meng, noting that she is a “strong ally for Israel.” 

“She cares about good schools and quality healthcare and low crime. Those are all things that are very important in Eastern Queens,” Weprin added. “I don’t think someone running against her as a Socialist is going to speak to that community.” 

Jesse Rose founded the grassroots group New Queens Democrats, an Our Revolution chapter that endorsed Cabán. Speaking for himself, he said, Meng has been “active on the Left” and is not a priority for a challenge. He does not know Gagarin. 

That said, Rose added, “I think there's a mindset in Queens politics right now that everybody's vulnerable and I like that because I think everybody should have to justify their position.” 

Aaron Taube, a member of the Queens DSA electoral working group, told the Eagle that 2020 endorsements are far off. 

“Mel is great,” Taube said. “It’s really early for us, and the process will be a member-led, highly-democratic process that will include an analysis and deliberation over Mel as a candidate, and more strategic questions about the district. And a conversation about resources, because so much goes into these races.” 

Cabán, the DSA’s candidate for Queens district attorney, received 32 percent of the vote in Meng’s district last month, according to preliminary results analyzed for the Eagle by Benjamin Rosenblatt of Tidal Wave Strategies. She trailed the party establishment candidate, Borough President Melinda Katz, who received 42 percent of the vote. “It’s a pretty large victory for Katz compared to the borough-wide results, but not a blow-away result,” Rosenblatt said. 

Results from the 6th Congressional District in the June 25 Democratic primary for Queens DA. Map by Benjamin Rosenblatt.

Results from the 6th Congressional District in the June 25 Democratic primary for Queens DA. Map by Benjamin Rosenblatt.

Reached for comment on Tuesday, Meng said she was “deeply proud” and “honored” to represent the district.

“Anybody is entitled to run and we take nothing for granted,” Meng said. “I will continue to fight tirelessly for the people of Queens whether it's opposing the policies of the Trump administration, ensuring access to affordable healthcare, working with our labor unions to ensure safe working conditions, fighting for women and equal pay, helping veterans, standing up for underrepresented communities such as working families and immigrants, and being a voice for the voiceless.”