Elizabeth Holtzman has heard the doubters, the skeptics and the New Yorkers who were mildly surprised that she is still alive, let alone up to the challenge of running for Congress at age 80, half a century after she became one of the youngest women ever to serve there.
“The 1980s wants its candidate back,” quipped Chris Coffey, a Democratic political strategist, recalling his first reaction when he heard that the pathbreaking former congresswoman, feminist and New York City official had launched a comeback bid.
To all of that, Ms. Holtzman, a Democrat, says that she is not only happily among the living, but ready to prove that she is every bit as pugnacious as when she left electoral politics some three decades ago.
So on a recent July evening, she stepped into a green kayak and paddled laps somewhere between Brooklyn and Manhattan, pointing a reporter toward the Statue of Liberty, the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and a lifetime of fights that she regrets are urgently new again.
“I was really angry,” Ms. Holtzman, an avid kayaker, said back on dry land, explaining how the leak predicting the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade had driven her out of a long political retirement and into an improbable campaign for New York’s newly reconfigured 10th District.
“I was angry at the result, but the so-called reasoning was even scarier because it made women second-class citizens, bound by the thinking of people who were misogynist in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries,” she said. “So, I decided to run.”
The Aug. 23 Democratic primary for a rare open seat in the heart of liberal New York City has attracted no shortage of head-turning candidates, including a sitting congressman from Westchester County; an architect of Donald J. Trump’s impeachment; a Tiananmen Square protester; and rising stars in their 30s, and until recently, a former mayor of New York City.
But the race’s most surprising twist may be the re-emergence of Ms. Holtzman, who, in a summer of intense Democratic anxiety, is asking voters to set aside pressing concerns about aging leadership in Washington and return a storied fighter to the arena who first made her name during the Nixon era.
That possibility has left longtime admirers, former foes and a whole generation of voters who have scarcely heard of her at least a little baffled, particularly in a summer when questions about President Biden’s age (79) are front-page news and Senator Dianne Feinstein has shown the perils of taxpayer-funded senescence.
Her opponents make a broader argument: For all her experience and evident mental acuity, Ms. Holtzman is simply out of step with the challenges facing New Yorkers trying to make it today in an increasingly unaffordable city. And if she won, they grumble, she would block an important steppingstone for a new generation of New York leaders.
“The problems that need to be solved in this country would benefit from voices that have lived and experienced them,” said Carlina Rivera, 38, a City Council member from Manhattan who is considered a leading contender in the race.
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“For many people in their 40s or younger, they’ve only ever experienced more transience than a sense of security in their jobs, their benefits, their housing and their education,” she added. “I fit into that category.”
Ms. Holtzman uses the same logic, only in reverse.
It is her own experiences — working in the Civil Rights-era South, fighting for abortion rights in the 1970s and challenging a Republican president undermining democratic norms (Richard M. Nixon) — along with a sense of national backsliding that she says persuaded her to re-enter electoral politics. Otherwise, she would most likely be spending summer weekends kayaking her beloved Peconic River on Long Island instead of zipping around the city to crowded candidate forums and paddling with reporters.
“I’m not a person who sits on the sidelines,” she said in an interview at a cafe near her Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, home after the boating outing. “I’ve taken on the right wing, I’ve taken on presidents, and I can stand up to them.”
Ms. Holtzman knows that her campaign is a long shot, but she has been here before. At the age of 31, she became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in 1972, decades before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed the title, by defeating a 50-year Brooklyn incumbent, Emanuel Celler and the Democratic Party machine. She was the first (and only) woman to serve as district attorney in Brooklyn and as New York City comptroller.
A legal mind with a prodigious work ethic, Ms. Holtzman was hardly an average backbencher. As a House freshman, she battled Nixon to the Supreme Court over war powers and later used her perch to help track down and deport Nazi war criminals from the United States and fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. Then as district attorney, she pushed the courts to curb the use of peremptory challenges to keep African Americans off juries because of their skin color.
There were also bitter disappointments. She came within a percentage point of being New York’s first female senator in 1980, badly lost a Senate primary in 1992 and then, a year later, was ousted after a single term as comptroller amid a banking-related scandal that undercut her ethical record.
In the interview, Ms. Holtzman likened questions about her age to arguments that a woman was not fit to serve as district attorney and drew a distinction between herself and Celler, whom, decades earlier, she had portrayed as tired and out of touch.
“There are obviously some preconceptions about people my age. Can they do the job?” she said. “I feel I have something unique to offer. And I’m not tired. That’s the whole point.”
Unsurprisingly, many of Ms. Holtzman’s defenders are older. But some of them are unexpected.
“Biden’s decline has made it more difficult for those who are older,” said Alfonse M. D’Amato, 84, the former Republican senator who defeated Ms. Holtzman in 1980. “But that doesn’t mean that every person who is older can’t do the job. Maybe the experience that life has given them makes them as capable or more so.”
Ms. Holtzman’s allies argue that her boundary-pushing style, which helped win a generation of admirers (many of whom still vote), has the potential to offset concerns about her advanced age among younger, progressive voters hungry for authenticity.
It also makes Ms. Holtzman something of an appealing safe harbor for some older voters who say now is not the time to take a chance on a promising but less seasoned politician, like Ms. Rivera or Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, 39.
“She is kind of a dream candidate for me,” said Eileen Clancy, a researcher in Manhattan who recalled as a child watching Ms. Holtzman participate in the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate hearings.
“I’m probably much more aligned with Yuh-Line’s policies,” Ms. Clancy said. “But I have to say, considering the country is in an uproar now and the questions at hand, I think Holtzman is uniquely capable. She could add a gravitas to Congress, and she has the backbone and nothing to lose.”
With a dozen candidates in the race and a highly abbreviated campaign timeline, any winning candidate probably only needs a small slice of the vote. A pair of recent polls of likely primary voters by progressive groups showed Ms. Holtzman in the middle of the pack, neck and neck with Representative Mondaire Jones and Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon.
But the challenge for Ms. Holtzman may be reaching and turning out potential supporters who do not realize she is running.
Though she has stayed active in private legal practice and on federal commissions and has written books, her political network thinned long ago: Gloria Steinem, a feminist contemporary, is her only recognizable endorser. As of Friday, her campaign Instagram account (run by hired consultants) has only 25 followers — a dozen more than her Facebook page.
And when other candidates showed up with colorful signs and volunteers to march in Brooklyn’s Pride parade in June, Ms. Holtzman walked with an openly gay state lawmaker and an aide, with little indicating she was running for anything.
Her fund-raising operation? “It’s rusty,” Ms. Holtzman said just before her campaign reported raising $122,000, about one-tenth of the amount raised by Daniel Goldman, another Democrat in the race. “Getting it geared up and functioning like a lubricated machine, it’s not happening yet.”
So far, Ms. Holtzman has sent out a single glossy mailer that touts her record and her “guts” — but could also serve to surface questions about her age. (Others were set to follow.) “Sometimes a picture’s worth a thousand words,” she said, describing a photograph it features of her with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal Supreme Court justice who died at age 87.
Bill Knapp, a veteran political ad maker who got his start working for Ms. Holtzman in 1980 and is working on this year’s race, conceded the race was “no layup,” but argued that Ms. Holtzman had a lane, particularly in the shadow of the abortion decision.
“There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical,” he said. “But when you take a measure of the person and the times, this is possible.”