The local Democratic and Republican parties have selected their candidates to run in the April 19 special election for the State Assembly seat vacated by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last November, when he was convicted of multiple corruption charges.
The Democratic Party nomination has gone to Alice Cancel, a Lower East Side-resident who also works in the office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer. The Republicans are fielding Lester Chang, a Chinese-American businessman and naval reservist who lives in the Lolita neighborhood north of Little Italy.
Both candidates were chosen in the last week by the county committees of their respective parties, rather than in “open” primaries, in which the public could vote. The candidates who win the April 19 election will have only five months in office before having to face voters again. Both parties will hold another primary in September of this year, and the new Assembly member will compete in another general election in November.
But for now, each candidate is hoping to represent the 65th Assembly District, which extends from the Battery up to Vesey Street on the West Side and as far north as Houston Street on the East Side. In addition to swaths of Battery Park City and the Lower East Side, this district includes parts of the Financial District, SoHo, and Little Italy. In this heavily “blue” landscape, the nod of the Democratic party is generally tantamount to winning the general election, which usually makes the primary the real contest, with the actual election relegated to the status of a formality. This year, however, in the wake of the corruption scandal that forced Mr. Silver from office, a victory by the Democrat’s candidate may not be a foregone conclusion.
On the Democratic side, five hopefuls were vying for the nomination. They faced each other, and the party’s county committee, at a packed Sunday afternoon meeting on the Lower East Side. With almost 200 members of the county committee were in attendance, four district leaders and one Assembly staff member made their cases. The first was Alice Cancel, who said, “I am running because I have a passion, the commitment, and the experience, to get things done in the community. I fought for better neighborhoods because I lived here. I raised three sons here. I fought for my children, and the neighbor’s children, and their children’s children.”
She was followed by Gigi Li, who proclaimed, “my first and most important promise to you is that I will work harder than anyone else in this campaign. And, if elected, I will be a tireless advocate in the State Assembly for our community. The core of my plan involves expanding social services, investing in youth and education, and encouraging smart development. We need to guarantee that classrooms and schools are considered as part of any large development projects.”
Next was Paul Newell, who recalled, “many of the people in this room first met me when I launched a campaign some years ago focused on making sure that we have an Albany that can respond to our communities and some of the problems that brought us here today.” (This was a reference to Mr. Newell’s spirited, if quixotic, 2008 primary challenge against Mr. Silver, then at the apogee of his power. This marked the first time that Mr. Silver had faced such an opponent in more than 20 years.)
He continued, “The reason I love Lower Manhattan is that it’s a diverse place where people from different classes and different communities can live together. Because we have an infrastructure of housing in this community that has made that possible, from the New York City Housing Authority, to Mitchell-Lama, to Section Eight, to rent-regulated apartments. This infrastructure is the last thing making it possible for working and middle class people to live in our communities. I pledge to that I will continue to fight to maintain that infrastructure, and that we can do it without selling off our playgrounds.”
Paul Newell: “Lower Manhattan is a diverse place where people from different classes and different communities can live together, because we have an infrastructure of housing in this community that has made that possible. I pledge to that I will continue to fight to maintain that infrastructure, and that we can do it without selling off our playgrounds.”
Mr. Newell was followed by Yuh-Line Niou, the only one of the five who is not a local Democratic Party district leader, and also the sole candidate with direct experience in Albany. (She serves as the chief of staff for Assembly member Ron Kim, who represents a district in Queens.) Ms. Niou, as the outsider in the group, focused on how the mechanism for selecting the nominee is decided by party insiders. “Let’s be honest: This process is not one anyone would have chosen. It doesn’t not reflect the diversity of our district. And it is not very democratic. I humbly thank everyone who has committed to support me, but this process is the problem. I have always advocated for those who have no voice, so now, I have made a choice to stand up for those who have no voice in this room, and represent them as well. And with this, I am withdrawing from this flawed process.” This drew audible gasps from the audience. Before leaving the podium, Ms. Niou said, “I look forward to sharing my vision for Downtown in April and in September with all those who have no voice here and who need and deserve so much from their Assembly.” This may have been an indication that Ms. Niou is considering a third-party candidacy, perhaps under the banner of the Working Families Party, which endorsed her for the Assembly seat.
The Democratic slate was rounded out by Battery Park City resident Jenifer Rajkumar, who amplified on the theme of a flawed, opaque selection process: “During my conversations with many of you, I have often heard your views that this entire county committee voting process is undemocratic. That this is a rigged system, an insiders game. You and the media, and voters at large, complain about how this county process is fixed. Indeed, many of us came here today with our marching orders handed to us.
Jenifer Rajkumar: “I have often heard your views that this entire county committee voting process is undemocratic. That this is a rigged system, an insiders game. Many of us came here today with our marching orders handed to us. We know better. And we know we can do better. We should do better.”
Ms. Rajkumar continued, “we did that knowing that it requires us to ignore our firm beliefs and our better instincts and our clear knowledge that there is a higher calling that leads us beyond blind obedience. We know better. And we know we can do better. We should do better. And so when we finish this meeting, let us not go out and continue to complain about how broken Albany is, and how disingenuous our leaders are, and how undemocratic this entire process is. Instead, right here and now, let us take this chance to speak out and give our words meaning through what we do here today.”
After the candidates spoke, ballots were handed out, filled out, and collected. When the votes were tallied, about 15 minutes later, Ms. Cancel had 5,772 votes, more than the three other remaining candidates combined. (Because of a complicated “weighting” process, the number of votes far exceeds the number of members of the county committee.)
Separately, the Republican candidate, Mr. Chang, in an apparent effort to hedge his bets, has sent volunteers onto the streets of Lower Manhattan, collecting signatures that may allow him to appear on the April 19 ballot under the Independence Party line, as well as under the Republican banner. The volunteers collecting signatures on South End Avenue over the weekend asked passersby, “do you want to clean up the mess at the Battery Park City Authority?” At least one local resident who spoke to the canvassers thought she was being asked to sign a petition about local representation on the Authority’s board. For some reason, Mr. Chang’s volunteers did not mention that he is already the Republican candidate.