Art by Jennifer White-Johnson
The NY congressional candidate, who is running against Rep. Carolyn Maloney, is centering her progressive platform around addressing economic injustices—and giving voice to communities devastated by the effects.
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“I guess I’m so much of a feminist candidate, I don’t even think about that, because it’s just always been a part of my identity,” Maya Contreras says with a laugh during our interview. At that point, it’s already clear how much her lifetime of grassroots advocacy has shaped her candidacy for Congress—but then she name-drops Kimberlé Crenshaw. “As [she] said,” Contreras explains, “intersectionality is a prism for the way in which we see various forms of inequality and how they operate with each other and exacerbate each other.”
By using an intersectional lens to examine some of the most critical issues facing her community, and this country, Contreras is confident that solutions addressing harm and advancing progress are possible. And she knows that money is often the root of the inequality in opportunity that leads to injustice.
Contreras would be the first Afro-Latina woman to represent NY-12, and the first Black woman since Shirley Chisholm. She is running against longtime Rep. Carolyn Maloney to represent the community she calls home—the third-most unequal district in the United States, home to the Upper East Side in New York City as well as one of the city’s biggest public housing developments. In some neighborhoods, internet access is scarce. In others, environmental crises have gone unaddressed.
“Poverty is traumatizing,” Contreras declared in her campaign announcement video. Her platform addresses that trauma, and seeks to reckon with it. Throughout our conversation, she talks about closing gaps in opportunity and addressing entrenched systems of inequality. She identifies solutions and longs for new language and new infrastructures that would accelerate necessary cultural shifts.
And over and over again, it all comes down to money—who is controlling it, how it’s distributed, and the disproportionate role it plays in shaping our lives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DAME: After doing advocacy for so long, what made you decide to jump in the ring and run yourself?
Maya Contreras: Too many people, including myself and my husband, were financially struggling. I saw a lot of my friends just pack up and move and give up on New York because they just didn’t feel that it was financially viable for them anymore. Clearly, many of us had been treading water for years just to stay in the same place—and worse, I saw that many more people in my community weren’t treading water; they were drowning. They’re constantly fund-raising to cover medical expenses, medical debt, housing needs. Many of them are being paid sub-minimum wages or minimum wages. But we’re still the ones that are contributing the most to the economy. Because every time we get a paycheck—those of us who live paycheck to paycheck—the moment we get it, it goes right back out the door to pay our bills or groceries. We’re not the ones that are hoarding wealth. We’re not the ones offshoring money to avoid taxes. We’re the ones that are keeping the economy going. We’re keeping the lights on. And companies are profiting off of our poverty.
I’ve heard Maloney say, in lots of speeches on more than one occasion, “I can only imagine…” when she’s discussing poverty. I don’t have to imagine. I know I’ve known what it’s like to go to bed hungry, I know what it’s like to be unhoused, I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck—and I think that we have to have representatives who fundamentally understand poverty from a lived experience, to really understand the emotional toll it takes on a person, how it rips the fabric of a family, of a community.
DAME: How does your activist background shape your campaign? How would it shape your time in office?
MC: First I’ll say what really shaped my advocacy—and that’s creativity, poverty, and grief.
I’m an artist. I come from four generations of artists. And I think that creativity makes you approach work from different angles. If you are a creative person working in policy, you don’t tend to see things in a siloed way. You look at how they fit together or they don’t fit together. You look at new combinations. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me after I’ve given a lecture: “I’ve never looked at it like that before!” And that’s really exciting to me.
And poverty shaped me, because even though my mother was an incredibly loving and hardworking single mom, she suffered from the stress of being a single parent and the financial stress of being a single parent and the stigma of poverty. I went with my mom once to fill out paperwork to get us food stamps, and I remember the woman at the welfare office treating my mother with real disdain. And I remember going to the grocery store with those food stamps—the grocery store clerk scolded me and asked me, “don’t you have any real money?” I remember being really embarrassed. That was really painful. If you’re in poverty, you’re treated as a failure in this country. It’s not that the system is treated as a failure, it’s that you somehow have failed.
My advocacy itself began when my mother died when I was 16. My grandfather died 30 days after that. And then I moved across the country, so I lost all my childhood friends, my home city, in just a few short months. I was in a searing amount of pain—and it’s the kind of pain that makes you want to curl up and do nothing, it makes you sick to your stomach, but it can also make you really fight for your own life. I started volunteering for a shelter—because my family had dealt with housing insecurity the majority of my childhood, I thought that in my grief, I could be useful in that capacity, to work with unhoused people—and what I found right away was that a lot of basic needs weren’t even being met at these shelters. It seemed like everybody else was making money off the shelter system, except for the people that were unhoused. And I would meet politicians, because they were so fascinated by the 16-year-old girl that wanted to work at the shelter, and they would come there to take their photo ops every election season while they were secretly advocating to move homeless individuals to the outskirts of the city so they wouldn’t detract from their booming tourist industry. So I saw right away how bureaucracy and politics worked early in my life. And what I noticed right away for me is that it didn’t have to work that way.
What I would like to do in office is create more transparency at the federal level—we have to know where our politicians are getting our money from, but we have to know how it’s also being spent. And then I want to create policies alongside the people that are the closest to the harm.
I see way too many politicians right now in office being activists. I am an activist. I am an advocate. And that’s why I stayed out of the office for a long time, because I could shake the cage on the outside. But once you move into office, you really need to put pen to paper and go: How are we going to fix these issues? And that means you’re going to bring in experts. That means you get to sit down with your community. And that means you got to hammer out things and you get to put it to the floor. And that’s how you’re going to start changing things.
DAME: What are some of the ways in which you’re hoping that you would be able to effect day-to-day change for your district?
MC: I’d like to be on the committee for small business. It’s not heralded as a glamorous committee, but it does a lot of good, and it can really help those in my district—like artists and restaurant owners, bar owners, and small businesses. I’d also like to be a member of the congressional arts caucus, which would influence art legislation beyond the National Endowment of the Arts. And I want to hire the most inclusive and diverse staff and interns the hill has ever seen.
Then I’d like to start with having a discussion about being open and transparent about our federal budget and communicate to the public where our money is going. A lot of the public is busy, they’re working, but if they really found out where some of the money was going to, they’d be horrified. I look at the federal budget as a moral document. And right now the federal budget is failing people. The Pentagon has failed three of its last audits, meaning they can’t produce a clean audit and they think they can’t produce one until 2027. In 2018, they didn’t know where almost $800 million was. And these audits cost the taxpayers $200 million a pop. And they’re going to spend about a billion dollars in remediation costs trying to fix this situation. And to me, when we’re spending that type of money, we don’t have an excuse to say, well, we can’t find money to fund public housing or public education or a public internet option or universal childcare or universal health coverage.
One of the things I would like to change is just the way that we spend money trying to get elected to Congress. It’s not just a federal budget issue. Congressional candidates and members are trapped in a cycle of raising money and paying fees to be on committees due to the DCCC, sacrificing time away from constituent services. I’m actually surprised more congressional candidates don’t talk about this—I think it’s because they don’t want to rock the boat of power.
DAME: Speaking of rocking the boat: What are some of the challenges that you’ve been facing on the campaign trail?
MC: I’m going to go back to money. And I don’t just mean raising money. My husband and I, together, have never made six figures. We’ve never hit a hundred thousand dollars together, and we’ve been together for over a decade. My husband is currently bartending and teaching creative writing to support me so I can campaign full time. Our system is really designed for wealthy people to run for office. It is not designed for people like myself to run. And I am excited that more people like myself who don’t have money or come from money or throwing their hat in the ring, you know, despite a dearth of resources. But I think that to me has honestly been the toughest part: watching my husband come home at 6:00 a.m., from a rough bar shift, and then get up to grade papers.
DAME: Are there fears that come up for you on the trail? How do you work through them?
MC: I’ve got to be honest, I don’t have many fears. I feel like some of the worst things in my life happened to me at 16 years old. I’ve looked at this as a real privilege to be able to run for office. And I honestly love campaigning. I love talking to people about policy and possibilities. I love hearing about what is important to people, what concerns them, what they’re hopeful about. I’m not shy.
The tough thing, the fear, is the money. I raised more money in one month than AOC raised her entire first three months running for office. To me, that’s huge. But at the same time, I realized the media, unless I’m raising high six figures, they don’t care. They don’t give a damn if you’re liked in your community. They don’t care if you’ve got policy. They don’t care. They want to see that cash. And what they don’t take into account is that my base, in particular, are people that don’t have money. I have friends that can’t afford to get their teeth fixed right now. A friend of mine lives in a shelter right now. I’m not going to ask them for money. So I have to target people that have money, and that takes time because people who have money tend not to want to part with it. So I really want to work on campaign finance reform, because this is not how it should work. We should not be spending all of our time cold-calling people, convincing them to fork over cash. I don’t mind doing that. I am putting in that type of work. But it shouldn’t cost a million dollars for a seat.
DAME: Is there any advice that you would give to other women contemplating a run or running for office?
MC: First: Do it. I think that we have to have more people and more voices. I’d like to see more transgender women running, and more disabled women running for office. I definitely want to see more Native women, more Black women, more women of color running for office. But all of those groups tend to have multiple obstacles to contend with. And of course: it’s money.
I would tell these women: I want you to run, but we also need to figure out an infrastructure for Black women to run and other women of color run and women from other marginalized groups. I want independent thought and I want to have my own policies. I don’t want an organization to tell me how I’m going to be thinking of things or talking about policy. That means that I have to put my own infrastructure together.
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