AD65 candidates at a debate (photo: @FilAmDems)
In a world where U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara hadn’t turned his eye toward public corruption in state government, Sheldon Silver would likely be running for his 21st term in the Assembly and easily extending by another two years his 40-year reign over Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District.
In the real world, Silver, who had already resigned the powerful Assembly speakership he held for almost 20 years, was automatically stripped of his seat in November 2015 when he was convicted on multiple federal corruption charges.
Silver’s Assembly seat was filled during an April 19 special election - a process notorious for being easily controlled by local political parties - by Alice Cancel, the preferred choice of Silver’s still-active and -influential network.
Now, fewer than five months later, a Democratic primary contest between Cancel, the short-term incumbent, and five other local political and community activists will be far less malleable for the disgraced former speaker’s allies. In the heavily-Democratic district, the primary winner is all-but-certain to win November’s general election. Republican candidate Lester Chang is running again; Chang earned just under 19 percent of the vote in the April special election.
While Silver’s pall will hang over the district for decades to come, this election is its first chance at a fresh start, an argument being made by Cancel’s challengers.
The change from Silver has already come at a price for the district, given the immense power held by an Assembly Speaker. Cancel took Silver’s place as a rank-and-file legislator with little sway in the Assembly majority. Whoever wins this year, Cancel or another candidate, will head to Albany as a rookie legislator without major committee assignments; with little leverage to push for major initiatives’ and unable to deliver the millions of dollars in community funding Silver was so revered for in his district and derided for from outside it.
Cancel, a former district leader, won the seat with the backing of the Manhattan Democratic Party, Silver’s wife, and a number of his allies. Since winning the seat Cancel has made a number of gaffes and appeared to many as unprepared to hold the seat.
Normally, incumbency is seen as a major advantage, bringing with it name recognition, powerful endorsements, and a dedicated fundraising apparatus. But Cancel hasn’t demonstrated that to be the case. She drastically trails other candidates in fundraising and hasn’t had much time to establish constituent services that would allow her to ingratiate herself with her voter base. She has also underperformed in her few public appearances and primary debates. Cancel has been media shy and reluctant to campaign, though during the special election she explained that her public scarcity had to do with health concerns.
The incumbent’s perceived weakness appears to be part of why five challengers hope they can marshall a dedicated base of support in what is expected to be a low turnout affair. The September 13 vote is the third primary day in New York this year.
Challenging Cancel are Paul Newell, Yuh-Line Niou, Jenifer Rajkumar, Gigi Li, and Don Lee.
Newell is a community activist and district leader who was the first Democrat to challenge Silver in nearly two decades, when he ran against him in 2008. Newell, who was endorsed by The New York Times editorial board, won about 22 percent of the vote with Silver at 69 percent. The effort gained Newell experience and notoriety that he hopes to capitalize on during this year’s primary.
Niou also has experience running for office in the district - she challenged Cancel in the special election with the backing of the Working Families Party (WFP). Niou lost by 700 votes in an effort that won her the support of The Times’ editorial board and major elected officials. (While saying that any of the challengers would be better than Cancel, The Times is again supporting Niou this month.)
Rajkumar is a human rights lawyer and district leader who has been involved in advocacy initiatives on tenant rights, labor protections, and women in politics. She challenged City Council Member Margaret Chin in a 2013 primary and, like others running now, sought the Democratic nomination for the April special election.
Li is chair of Manhattan Community Board 3 and made history in 2012 when she became the first Asian-American to be elected to chair a city community board. Li has been involved in advocating for services for families and children.
Lee is a technology executive with a long history of community activism. He got his start in politics in the Koch Administration and is now running as an outsider candidate.
The void left by Silver is immense as he brought billions worth of pork to the district over the decades, used his power to micromanage almost all changes in the district, and stood as a champion for many liberal causes. At the same time, many in Albany saw Silver as a long-term impediment to state government ethics reform and to policy reforms that could have positively impacted his district, especially on affordable housing.
The federal corruption charges against Silver revealed his close financial ties to the real estate lobby that he swore he was fighting during Albany negotiations over rent control and other major housing issues.
While many expected Silver’s conviction to bring real change to Albany the special election to replace him was a sign to many across the state that there were still plenty of roadblocks in place. When Manhattan Democrats gathered to back a candidate for the empty seat, Silver’s allies maneuvered to ensure that Cancel got the nod. Special elections in New York remain largely controlled by local party committees.
Niou and her supporters protested the selection process and campaigned against Cancel with the backing of the WFP, which is supporting her again. Other candidates plotted for their current runs.
This crop of candidates for the 65th will be looking to tap into voting bases across a district that includes Chinatown, the Lower East Side. and most of Lower Manhattan. Political consultants expect that the district’s powerful Asian vote, which could have been tapped as a bloc by one candidate, to be splintered, making the race less easy to predict.
According to the state Board of Elections, as of April 1, 2016, there were 65,766 active registered voters in the 65th Assembly District, 43,094 of them Democrats. (There were 6,320 active registered Republicans and 14,100 active registered voters unaffiliated with a party.)
Top issues facing the district include affordability, especially in housing, as well as education, including school space, climate resiliency, senior services, and health care infrastructure. There is also, of course, a lot of discussion of government ethics and state government reform.
Gotham Gazette spoke to all of the challengers about the race, but attempts to secure an interview with Cancel were unsuccessful.
Candidates painted a picture of a district where elderly residents are finding it harder to afford to stay, where immigrant families can’t afford more than one bedroom, and where properties owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) are in constant disrepair. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature managed to put aside $2 billion for affordable housing and supportive housing, but have yet to actually allocate spending for most of that sum.
Niou said it must be a priority to get the money out of the state’s coffers and into districts. Asked about Cuomo’s plan to revive the expired 421-a tax break for developers who agree to build a certain percentage of affordable housing, Niou was skeptical. “Affordability is a huge issue for our district and the thing is you can't lose money building apartments in Manhattan,” she said, noting the escalating cost of rent. Niou said that if 421-a is necessary checks must be in place.
“We need to make sure developers pay workers the proper wage and make sure we are actually getting affordable units,” Niou said. She also advocated reopening discussions over rent regulation laws to end practices that incentivize landlords to push tenants out.
Meanwhile, Li said the state needs a multi-pronged approach to affordable housing. “We can't just throw money at new development to solve the affordability issue,” she said. “We need preservation. Repairing NYCHA properties and dealing with sustainability must be a priority, but it is important we build new apartments.” She added that she believes it is time to alter the Urstadt Law that gives the State say over major city issues in order to give the City more power.
Rajkumar advocated for quickly funding supportive housing projects and reforming 421-a to “hold developers accountable.”
Newell said his district faces an “acute capital need” as far as housing goes, citing the disrepair of NYCHA properties. “We obviously need to continue building to meet our housing demands, but not I’m sure we need 421-a, with or without a wage subsidy.” He said that he would favor increased checks on the subsidy program to ensure developers are actually delivering the affordable units they receive breaks for.
Lee said that “special interests” must be removed from housing policy and that the State is “playing with funny money.”
Asked how she would preserve affordable housing at a recent debate, Cancel responded: “To be very honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that question, in terms of how do we stop what’s going on,” before suggesting rezoning might help, according to The New York Times. Rezoning is under purview of the City Council.
With education funding a major issue in the district and a proposed tax credit for donations to education institutions likely to be a major factor during the next legislative session in Albany, Gotham Gazette asked the candidates about their position on the controversial measure that is aimed at helping private and charter schools. The five challengers all appeared opposed to the measure, to varying degrees. Li said that while she generally supports “compromise,” she is “focused on funding public education first and foremost.”
Newell said flatly that he opposes the tax credit. Niou, who noted that Cuomo supports the credit said, “The Governor wants lots of things but he hasn't paid us for the CFE case yet,” referring to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that resulted in a judge saying the state chronically underfunds the poorest schools. “So he owes public schools, so it is ridiculous to give breaks to people who support private schools when public schools are suffering,” Niou said.
Rajkumar said CFE funding is critical to make sure city schools can serve students from all districts equally. She also decried how legislators use funding for city schools as a political “football.”
Lee said he was concerned that people who make donations not be allowed to dictate how the money is spent.
The candidates also all came together on the need to save local health care providers given the closing of Beth-Israel Hospital. They were also concerned about resiliency issues the city was forced to confront during Superstorm Sandy.
Li said she discovered while campaigning that many residents of the district don’t realize they are eligible for health care and other benefits under the Federal Zagroda Act. Li and Niou said that they saw a desperate need in the district for constituent service efforts to connect residents with government programs.
All of the challengers to Cancel professed to support a list of government ethics reforms that include limiting or banning outside income for legislators, implementing a statewide system of public campaign financing similar to that employed in New York City; ending the LLC loophole; and adjusting the budget process to make it more open and inclusive.
They differed less on what they wanted done and more on how they would achieve it.
“I think we have a window of opportunity for real change that hasn’t existed for generations,” said Newell, who added that he expected Democrats to take control of the state Senate thereby ending a Republican blockade on most of the aforementioned reforms. “On the Assembly side, Carl Heastie did not expect to be Speaker, and he filled out last session without putting dramatic changes into action,” said Newell. “Next session I think we will see who Carl Heastie really is when he brings the Assembly into the 21st Century.”
Rajkumar said she believes individual Assembly members and committee chairs need more individual power. She also wants lobbying on legislation to be revealed in a database in real time.
Lee said voters are tired of waiting for the system to change. “These guys see problems and they say ‘let's kick it to the next election cycle.’ They have no sense of urgency. They are so out of touch and expectations have gotten to be so low. The bigger issue is that we need true reform - not fresh blood but a blood transfusion,” Lee said.
Asked about the differences between challenging Silver and 2008 and running in a crowded field in 2016, Newell first said the difference is “we are going to win,” but added having a crowded field of deeply invested community members means that the district will have the first “healthy debate process” it has had in decades.
As for campaign funds to support stretch-run efforts, Cancel reported having $11,581 on hand as of her 11-day pre-primary filing.
Other candidates have significantly more money for final flyering and other advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. Endorsements from unions, elected officials, and other groups have also been divided, mostly among Cancel’s challengers.
Rajkumar reported having $182,826 on hand in her 32-day pre-primary filing; her 11-day pre-primary filing has not been posted by the BOE. Rajkumar has been endorsed by The Public Employees Federation and Citizens Union of New York, a government reform group.
Newell reported having $92,347 on hand as of his 32-day pre-primary filing. He has been endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, Citizen Action of New York, and City Council Members Rosie Mendez, Mark Levine, and Ben Kallos.
Niou reported having $76,635 on hand in her 11-day pre-primary filing. Along with her endorsements from The New York Times and The Working Families Party, Niou is supported by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, state Senator Daniel Squadron, and others.
Li reported having $36,404 on hand as of her 11-day pre-primary filing. She has been endorsed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Members Margaret Chin and Helen Rosenthal, and state Senator Jesse Hamilton.
Lee reported having $31,856 on hand of his 11-day pre-primary filing.