Jerry Nadler Would Like 10 More Years in Congress

Jerry Nadler Votes In New York’s Postponed Congressional Primary Election

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The towering issue for voters so far this election isn’t the economy or foreign policy but age. Many have voiced concern to pollsters about the number of birthday candles for Donald Trump, 77, and Joe Biden, 81. Already the oldest presidents to ascend to the office, each would break their own record next year. Biden, for instance, would be 86 at the end of his second term, approximately double JFK’s age at swearing-in.

That exact longevity is just what Congressman Jerry Nadler envisions for himself. The 76-year-old says he can “quite possibly” see himself in office for another ten years. “I’m absolutely running again,” he says.

Last year, there were some whispers that Nadler’s service might soon be coming to a close. The signals were certainly there: His chief of staff departed. His wife had been fighting pancreatic cancer. In 2022, he stumbled somewhat during a debate with Carolyn Maloney and 30-something contender Suraj Patel, who decried them both as “1990s Democrats.” The performance helped sustain whispers that he might step aside come 2024, but none of this has moved Nadler, who says he sees himself running for several more terms. Today, he says, his health is “fine” and that his wife’s doctor told her the odds of her cancer “never recurring are 80 to 90 percent.”

Nadler, who represents a mighty chunk of Manhattan from around 14th Street up past Central Park, is the longest serving and oldest member of the New York delegation. For a sense of how firmly planted he is in the Big Apple firmament, consider that he knows the Zabars, as in the family, who “used to sit in front of us in synagogue.” He also famously repped their babka on the House floor during Trump’s second impeachment. The son of a chicken farmer born in Bensonhurst, on a block he would one day represent along with Manhattan, he launched himself into politics via the State Assembly in the 1970s while still in night law school at Fordham. Just how long has he been in Congress? His nomination fight for the seat in 1992 was managed by a 32-year-old guy named Scott Stringer. Nadler has been running ever since.

“Right now, I still feel very energetic,” he says. “I have a lot of things to do. When I decide that I can no longer do them, or that I have nothing left to do — which is ridiculous — then’ll be time to retire.”

Nadler rattles off a long list of priorities, including voting-rights legislation, legal protections for Dreamers, his own bill to deschedule marijuana entirely, plus “a mandatory code of ethics for the Supreme Court,” as well as 18-year term limits for justices and adding four more spots to the court. In the city, he is supportive of converting office space into housing, extending the Second Avenue subway, implementing congestion pricing, and pushing his pet project of a freight tunnel linking New Jersey to Brooklyn.

Nadler’s plan to keep running and working even as his age rounds up to 80 provides a case study of the forces that encourage America’s politicians to continue seeking office into their ninth decade. The idea of him staying on the job until 86 would be extraordinarily unusual in most professions but less so in Congress, where Chuck Grassley remains the very senior senator from Iowa at age 90 and Mitch McConnell serves as Senate minority leader at 82. In the House, 83-year-old former Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped aside from leadership in lieu of 53-year-old Hakeem Jeffries, but she’s still serving, along with Steny Hoyer (84), Jim Clyburn (83), and more 87-year-olds (2) than Gen-Z members (Maxwell Frost).

The advanced age of Congress is “a historical anomaly,” says Kevin Munger, a political scientist at Penn State and the author of Generation Gap: Why the Baby Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture. That anomaly is partially boosted by the amount of money it takes to win elections, Munger argues, and America’s two-party system, since third parties jockeying for power can attract more youth participation.

The House’s seniority system is also a strong push to stay in office and climb the ranks. Seniority plays a role in everything from office space to committee assignments and, of course, in the choice of powerful committee chairs, who essentially set the agenda for lawmakers. Nadler waited nearly three decades to reach the top of the Judiciary Committee in 2019, a role he’d be poised to retake if Democrats win the House this year.

Certainly Nadler’s forebears in Congress from Manhattan provide a precedent for lengthy periods of service. He overlapped with Charles Rangel, the son of Harlem whose House career ran for 46 years. And Rangel for his part overlapped with Emanuel Celler, another Judiciary Committee chairman and a son of the 1800s who served from 1923 to 1973, leaving at age 85 only because he lost to 31-year-old Elizabeth Holtzman, then the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

One reason some members leave unprompted is out of fear that they’d soon be in the minority, blocked from pretty much anything but making speeches. “You see people retiring if they think it’s hopeless,” says Jerry Skurnik, a personal friend of Nadler’s and senior consultant at Engage Voters US, which has done work for Nadler in the past. If Democrats flip the House, however, Nadler’s seniority means “he has more clout for the district,” Skurnik says. Returning to the chairmanship of the powerful Judiciary Committee would place him at the center of constant drama should there be a Supreme Court vacancy or Donald Trump wins and once again acts in office with little regard for law or precedent.

“God forbid he’s president,” Nadler says, “then we have to safeguard the Republic. This is the greatest threat to democracy since 1860.”

The specter of Trump is one major reason for all the political focus on age, now more than ever given that a decided lack of youthfulness is one of Biden’s principal weaknesses.

That vulnerability was highlighted with special counsel Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s handling of classified material, which found no need for charges but labeled the president a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who had “diminished faculties.” Nadler leaps to the president’s defense.

“You don’t want a president who can do the four-minute mile,” he argues. “You want a president who makes the right decisions, drives the economy and drives foreign policy, which he’s done fantastically. And there’s no sign that he won’t continue doing it.”

Though his lack of concern about Biden’s age may put him in the minority of American voters, Nadler is in good company on this issue among the bipartisan community of senior American politicians, who endure no matter how many freeze-on-camera moments they have. Biden is essentially primaryless, and Trump’s return has been hardly speed-bumped by Nikki Haley, who nevertheless has been ratcheting up her age-related criticisms, saying Trump has “confused moments” and suggesting that Trump and Biden would be using the White House as a “taxpayer-subsidized nursing home.”

Some broader cultural issues may be at play in the formation of the nation’s political gerontocracy. Munger, the Penn State political scientist, says he often gets asked by European journalists why American politicians don’t retire: “And it seems like from the American perspective, the answer is always sort of like, ‘And then do what?’”

Nadler, in particular, appears little ready to enjoy the leisurely fruits of retirement. “I’ve given no thought to what I’m going to do when I retire God knows when,” he says, which sounds plausible from a man who has only known politics in the half-century since his law-school days and who, when asked to name a favorite pizza spot in the district, declined. His typical order? “Plain.”

All of which leaves the Manhattan Democratic universe waiting around until Nadler decides to give up the seat. Nadler’s old friend Stringer suggests not to hold your breath.

“I think his successor in Congress is graduating college about now,” Stringer says.

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