Jewish Insider

Meet Evelyn Farkas, the former Defense Department official running to succeed Nita Lowey

Friday, February 14, 2020

Evelyn Farkas hadn’t planned to run for Congress.

The 52-year-old Chappaqua Democrat now vying for a seat in New York’s 17th congressional district is a veteran public servant, having worked most recently — from 2012 to 2015 — as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia under President Barack Obama.

It was only about six months ago that the thought of seeking elected office began to take form for her when, on a trip to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in September, she had dinner with a group of political opposition leaders and discussed what plans they had if they didn’t make it into the coalition government — a conversation that led her to wake up at 4 a.m. wondering about the upcoming presidential election back in the United States.

“My first thought was, what happens if Trump wins again?” she told Jewish Insider in a recent interview at a coffee shop in Ossining, a small town in Westchester County. “What will I do?”

Her immediate instinct was to continue on as before. After leaving government five years ago, Farkas shifted into punditry, drawing on her experience as the Pentagon’s former top Russia expert to expound on national security issues as an MSNBC contributor and publishing opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico. Farkas believed she was doing her part to raise awareness about President Donald Trump’s seemingly cozy relationship with the Kremlin.

Such commentary began to feel inadequate as she watched with alarm as Trump consolidated power and weathered one scandal after the next. “If Trump were to be re-elected, my feeling was that would be insufficient,” she told JI. “That I would be mad at myself.”

So it was fortuitous for Farkas when Nita Lowey, the longtime New York congresswoman who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, announced in October that she would not seek re-election. Farkas entered the race a month later.

“I really had a realization that this is a mission for me,” she said. “That I’m taking this personally.”

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Though Farkas is something of a neophyte when it comes to campaigning, she is also perhaps the most high-profile candidate in the race to succeed Lowey, having raised nearly $466,000 in the first month and a half after announcing her bid for Congress, according to the Federal Election Commission.

She has already garnered a number of noteworthy endorsements from the likes of former Secretary of State John Kerry, Florida Senator Bob Graham, former Michigan Senator Carl Levin and New Jersey representative Tom Malinowski.

Farkas has a tough primary in store as more than a dozen Democrats — including local activists and state elected officials — jostle for the nomination ahead of the June 23 primary, including New York State assemblyman David Buchwald; New York State senator David Carlucci; former NARAL chairwoman Allison Fine; Westchester County Board of Legislators member Catherine Parker; and Mondaire Jones, an attorney who served in the Justice Department and has been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren.

Still, Farkas is an early frontrunner, according to Mark Lungariello, an investigative reporter who closely follows the Lower Hudson Valley political scene for The Journal News. Because a number of local elected officials won’t be making endorsements in the race, he told JI, campaign money and advertisements will likely determine which candidates are able to amplify their message. Farkas’ formidable warchest, he said, “could go a long way to getting recognized in a field with so many people.”

Farkas said that her decades of experience in Washington, D.C., make her uniquely qualified for the job — and she plans to use her connections in the House and the Senate if she is elected.

Her platform centers on a mix of local and national issues such as taxes, climate change, health care, women’s reproductive rights and the rise of antisemitic violence — of particular concern to residents in the 17th district, which includes all of Rockland County. Rockland is home to the largest Jewish population per capita of any county in the U.S. and includes the town of Monsey, where in December an assailant charged into the home of a Hasidic rabbi and stabbed five people with a machete. One month earlier, a Hasidic man in Monsey was stabbed while on his way to synagogue.

Such incidents are part of a surge in antisemitic hate crimes in New York and across the country — a trend that Farkas said she intends to spotlight in office by calling out the president, whom she believes has contributed to a worrying rise in ethnonationalism in the U.S.

“All we have to do is look back at history to understand it can very easily get worse,” Farkas, who is the child of Hungarian refugees who fled communism, told JI. “Just read what was happening as Hitler was taking power and what people were saying. The stabbing in Monsey was equivalent to, maybe, taking Jews out on the streets and beating them.”

Erica Newman, who recently hosted Farkas at a late-January meet-and-greet in her Ossining home, said she wished that more politicians in Washington would address the rise of antisemitism. Though she is still undecided, she told JI that Farkas appealed to her.

“I feel like she’s got the most experience of the candidates I’ve seen so far,” said Newman, who was also impressed by Farkas’s stance on Israel, which includes opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

“All too often, it seems to have potentially antisemitic underpinnings,” she told JI. “Israel is a multicultural democracy that shares our values and is our closest ally in the region. They have been invaded multiple times in living memory and live with a uniquely threatening security situation. We should not be supporting a movement that seeks to undermine their economic vitality or the rights of Israelis to travel freely in the world.”

Farkas is in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing in a position paper that she presented to AIPAC that the U.S. must empower “moderate Palestinian leaders capable of negotiating and supporting a peace agreement.”

In Farkas’s view, President Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which he outlined last month at the White House alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is bound to fail because the Palestinians did not participate in drafting it and have already rejected it.

“History shows us that this is not a recipe for any sort of peace,” she said.

Farkas, who in 2008 served as the executive director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, is also critical of the president’s dealings with Iran.

Trump’s move to pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration, along with his subsequent decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, was bad diplomacy, Farkas said, and leaves the U.S. in a weak position.

“What President Trump has done is pushed the Iranians into a corner,” she told JI, adding, “I see no sign of a diplomatic plan to translate whatever leverage he thinks he got on them into an agreement. I mean, ultimately, at the end of the day, you only know show strength vis à vis your adversary so you can get some kind of resolution that gives you an advantage. We don’t have that right now.”

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Farkas is most confident — and convincing — when she is discussing foreign policy, a testament to her long tenure in the Department of Defense. Whether she can translate that confidence to the more local aspects of her campaign may or may not determine her success at the polls.

But it will serve as an indication of her ability to adapt to a position that, until recently, she never envisioned for herself.

For the moment, Farkas is adjusting to the vicissitudes of life on the campaign trail after decades of service as a non-elected official. Her sense of purpose, she said, could not be clearer. “I love going and meeting people, hearing from them what are their concerns, what are their interests,” she told JI. “I like the chance to get in front of them and tell them who I am and why I’m doing this.”

“There’s nothing more meaningful that I could do with my life today,” she said.