Just weeks after the April special election that brought Alice Cancel to the New York State Assembly, the ranks of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination replace her have grown by one. Paul Newell, a Lower Eastside resident with a long history of local activism, declared his candidacy on Sunday afternoon at rally in Straus Square, near Seward Park, on East Broadway.
Surrounded by supporters, Mr. Newell assailed what he calls “the culture of corruption and failure in Albany,” in a reference to the scandals that resulted recently in the convictions of both former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (who once held the seat for which Mr. Newell is now running) and State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
Mr. Newell drew a direct connection from this political climate to numerous challenges that plague Lower Manhattan. “The costs of corruption,” he said, “are not a few million dollars in bribes, or somebody’s son’s no-show job. The costs of corruption are higher rents, higher taxes, overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling subways.”
“We can, and must, do better,” Mr. Newell continued. He described the 65th Assembly District as, “one of the most important gathering places of the world, with Chinatown, Little Italy, Grand Street, Lower Eastside, Battery Park City, and the Financial District all in walking distance. It’s a district of old communities, each with their own history and heroes. It’s also a district of new communities, and neighborhoods reborn.”
Mr. Newell celebrated the diversity of this patchwork of precincts by quoting a description made famous by urban planning visionary Jane Jacobs: “Different people using the same streets for different reasons at the same time.” He added, “that diversity gives our neighborhood its hope and its electricity. And we have had to fight for it every step of the way.”
“Our communities are beautiful,” he reflected. “Chinese, Jewish, Latino, black, and Italian, working class, middle class. We live in NYCHAs and co-ops, Mitchell-Lamas and Section 8s, tenements and lofts, and yes, even condos.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Newell ran for the seat once held by Mr. Silver and now occupied by Ms. Cancel, but withdrew in February when Ms. Cancel secured the Democratic nomination. He also mounted a spirited, if quixotic primary challenge against Mr. Silver in 2008, 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. During that race, Mr. Newell was endorsed by the New York Times and won the support of many reformers, although he was ultimately defeated at the polls.
Mr. Newell is an elected Democratic Party District Leader for the Lower East Side. He is joining a field that includes one other declared candidate: Jenifer Rajkumar, who is the Democratic Party District Leader for Battery Park City. At least one additional hopeful, Financial District resident Yuh Line Niou, is widely believed to be considering a run for the seat. Like Mr. Newell, Ms. Rajkumar and Ms. Niou were also contenders for the Democratic nomination won in February by Ms. Cancel. (Ms. Niou withdrew the Democratic Party contest and continued her candidacy under the banner of the Working Families Party.) Ms. Cancel has not yet confirmed whether she will run for reelection.
The process that delivered the nomination to Ms. Cancel in February was in some ways unusual. The short interval between Mr. Silver’s conviction in November and the special election in April left no time for a traditional, public primary election. Instead, the party’s County Committee was empowered to decide upon a nominee. Among some critics, this process fostered the perception that political insiders were making a choice that rightfully belonged to the public. At the same time, a public nominating process might have produced a consensus candidate who already reflected the voter disaffection with insiders and could thus claim a broad mandate.
In the event, however, the nominating process was anything but unifying. The Democratic County Committee gave the party’s nod to Ms. Cancel, who (like Mr. Newell and Ms. Rajkumar) was an elected District Leader. Because she was strongly supported by the Truman Democratic Club, which was Mr. Silver’s home base (and where he and his associates are believed to retain considerable influence), Ms. Cancel was dogged by the perception that she represents a continuation of Mr. Silver’s legacy, rather than a clean break with a tainted past. This did not stand in the way of her victory in the special election, however, which won her the right to serve out the remaining months of Mr. Silver’s term.
Whether the support of party loyalists will be enough to sustain Ms. Cancel (assuming she chooses to run for reelection) in the upcoming Democratic primary, on September 13, is an open question. Mr. Newell and Ms. Rajkumar (and any other candidates who enter the race) will be counting on public support (rather than that of party regulars) to secure them the nomination. (In the heavily “blue” landscape of Lower Manhattan, the nomination of the Democratic party is usually 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.)
Mr. Newell is a longtime community organizer, tenant activist, and persistent advocate for ethics reform in Albany, who helped found New York Neighbors for American Values, a coalition dedicated to preserving diversity and religious tolerance. He also helped grow the Ubuntu Education Fund from a fledgling non-profit into an internationally recognized leader in the response to HIV and AIDS, which now reaches more than 50,000 vulnerable children in New York and South Africa.
More recently, he led grassroots opposition to the 2010 closure of St. Vincent’s Hospital, and is now leading a similar campaign to stop the pending shutdown of Beth-Israel Hospital. Mr. Newell has also fought to extend rent regulation to thousands of apartments throughout Lower Manhattan. “It is still possible to live in Lower Manhattan without being a millionaire,” he said at his campaign announcement on Sunday, “and we intend to keep it that way. This is our community.”