Challenger Grace Lee, left, and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou
An intense Democratic primary is unfolding in Lower Manhattan, where incumbent Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, a staunch progressive, is facing a challenge from business owner and activist Grace Lee, who is partially self-funding her campaign.
While the two candidates don’t appear to disagree on much politically, the race looks like a test of whether a well-financed challenger seizing on hyper-local issues can motivate enough voters to overcome a broadly popular incumbent. Meanwhile, the election is unfolding during a pandemic, and in a district that has been uniquely harmed by the coronavirus outbreak and its fallout, throwing campaigning into new territory and casting a great deal of uncertainty around who will actually vote this month.
The district includes parts or all of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Battery Park City, and the Financial District, as well as Governors Island. The primary, open to all Democrats in the district, is part of an election cycle where all 150 Assembly, 63 State Senate, and 27 New York House of Representatives seats, among others, are on the ballot, though not all have party primaries. Primary day is June 23, while early voting is June 13-21, and all voters are eligible for absentee balloting given a gubernatorial order due to the pandemic.
Seeking a third term, Niou has a strong following among progressive activists and elected officials, with the endorsements to show it, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Comptroller Scott Stringer, many of her Assembly and Senate colleagues, and even U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, to name a few. She has the support of the liberal Working Families Party, which helped spur her to victory over a short-lived incumbent in 2016, as well as New York State United Teachers, New York State Nurses Association, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AmplifyHER, Empire State Indivisible, Stonewall Democrats of NYC, and many other unions and political clubs.
Niou was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States when she was just six months old. She holds the seat that was for decades the domain of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose corruption conviction paved the way for a 2015 special election won by Silver ally Alice Cancel, whom Niou then defeated in the primary the following year.
Her challenger, Lee, is a first-generation Korean-American who owns a toxin-free beauty line for pregnant women and new moms. She got more formally involved in politics in 2018 when she worked as an event organizer with the progressive group called Swing Left, which is focused on getting Democrats to volunteer in swing states. More recently, she co-founded Children’s First, which organized a group of parents to advocate for the cleanup of a possibly toxic former thermometer factory site across from her daughter’s school in the South Street Seaport. The site is slated for development, which worried Lee and others about the disruption of buried toxins, and Lee says she’s running because she does not believe Niou has been active enough on the issue, or others. Earlier this year, Lee wrote an op-ed (in Gotham Gazette) about the issues at the site and a legislative response she wants to see that would empower local communities and apply to other similar circumstances.
“The shocking thing to me through this process is that there were no laws to protect children from sites like this one,” Lee said in an interview. “There were other legislators in New York State who were proactive about finding solutions and writing legislation to protect children from mercury except our legislator, namely my opponent, was not.”
Lee has made her campaign about this type of questioning Niou’s commitment to the district, as she otherwise shares a similar progressive platform to the incumbent. Both support single-payer healthcare, increased funding for public schools and public housing, and climate resiliency efforts. Aside from the seaport site issue, neither Lee nor her campaign spokesperson offered other specific examples where Lee believes Niou has not performed well, though the challenger has offered some broader criticism of Niou’s closeness to issues on the ground and representation of the district in Albany.
Lee has said that, having lived in Lower Manhattan for 15 years, she is better situated to lead the district in the midst of an ongoing public health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I believe that we are only in the first inning right now of one of the deepest economic crises of our lifetime,” Lee said. “And we need someone that understands it, who’s lived it before and can help lead this district out of the crisis.”
Lee specifically said her experiences being in New York during September 11, 2001 and the Great Recession that started in 2008 make her more prepared to lead the way.
Niou of course disagrees.
“[In 2008] she was working for JP Morgan & Chase, literally the people who were putting us into a subprime crisis,” Niou said in an interview. “It’s really important for us to make sure we have a good advocate at this time, and my whole life has been based on advocacy.”
After moving around a bit as a child, Niou primarily grew up in Washington State, where she attended Evergreen State College. During her time there, she interned for Washington State Congressmembers Debbie Regala and Eileen Cody before doing post-grad advocacy work with the Statewide Poverty Action Network, according to her LinkedIn page. She later came to New York in 2010 as one of CUNY’s National Urban Fellows and worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and, after that, became Chief of Staff for New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat.
Lee has tried to argue that Niou growing up out of state means she does not have strong local roots, going so far as to claim that she “parachuted in” to the district in 2016 to run for office.
Voter registration data from the New York City Board of Elections shows that Niou first voted in the 65th Assembly District in November of 2014.
“These are laughable lies from a desperate candidate,” said Doug Forand, a political consultant who runs Red Horse Strategies and counts Niou as a client. “For Grace Lee to make these claims? Look, we know that we have politicians like Donald Trump who lie, we do not need politicians like that within our own Democratic Party.”
Forand pointed to Lee’s own community ties. Although she has lived in Lower Manhattan for some time, last May Lee moved about four blocks to officially reside within the 65th Assembly District, a move that occurred because her family needed more space, a Lee campaign spokesperson said.
Lee has some of her own endorsements from local organizations, such as Downtown Independent Democrats, the largest political club in the district. She’s also endorsed by local District Leader Jonathan Gardenhire. Niou, meanwhile, has endorsements from seven District Leaders in the district.
Lee also has drawn support from 10 members and presidents of tenant’s associations at NYCHA developments. Assembly District 65 is among the top 10 districts with the most public housing apartments, according to 2018 data compiled by the Community Service Society of New York. It has 12 NYCHA developments, according to NYCHA. Lee lists funding for NYCHA as one of her main priorities on her website and has made it a campaign talking point.
Niou has focused on NYCHA during her tenure, helping to push for hundreds of millions in state funding for the housing authority, but seemingly noticed Lee’s attention to the issue, writing a recent op-ed (in Gotham Gazette) on the topic, where she called for further action at all levels of government in light of the pandemic and other long-standing issues.
“More than anything, I am deeply saddened by the way our NYCHA residents are being willfully ignored and mistreated,” Niou wrote. “[T]hey deserve a government that will fight for them, not turn a blind eye to their suffering. Like so many institutions of government, NYCHA needs to rebuild trust with its residents, and that starts with honestly and competently addressing the problems they are facing today, not making false promises or missing more deadlines.
On Niou’s campaign website, NYCHA funding and oversight is prominently featured under housing. The website states Niou “secured a record $550 million in funding for NYCHA for capital repairs to the crippling infrastructure,” over her two terms in office.
She also has her own list of endorsements from local NYCHA leaders.
Niou has criticized Lee on tenants’ rights issues more generally, citing her lack of support for Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar’s “good cause” eviction bill that would protect tenants in market-rate apartments from being evicted without reason. (Salazar is among Niou’s endorsers.) Lee had previously told Gothamist she was undecided on whether or not she supported the bill, but in a January Q&A with The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, which has since endorsed Niou, she affirmed her support.
“This is a necessity more than ever given the coronavirus pandemic,” Lee said at the time. “This, among other housing policies, will be the cornerstone of my agenda during my first term in office.”
Lee has made her background in business (she has a bachelor’s in economics from Columbia and a master’s in business administration from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business) She also founded and runs her own business, part of her pitch to voters, arguing that she would be able to help small businesses thrive and deal with the economic aftereffects of COVID-19. The broader coronavirus crisis has hit the district, especially Chinatown, very hard.
She’s also criticized Niou’s response to it, citing her “no” vote on an early March measure to issue $40 million of relief that also would grant Governor Andrew Cuomo the ability to supersede local and state authorities by way of executive order.
“For her to vote against that aid was voting against the health and well being of this community,” Lee said. “And we can’t have leaders in this district who don’t understand that.”
Niou said her vote was about disagreeing with giving the governor added powers she did not believe he should get.
“The governor stapled $40 million towards services and expenses related to the COVID-19 outbreak to some very concerning expansions to his own authority and power,” Niou said of her vote in an explanation posted to Twitter. “This was done in the span of just a few hours with no eyes on the language of the bill until just before the vote.”
During the pandemic, both Niou and Lee have been working to help residents of the district. Niou’s office has been working to help people file unemployment claims, and to connect those in need of food or other necessities with mutual aid organizations. Lee is collaborating with the “$1k Project,” an initiative that matches families in need of financial assistance with other families that have committed to donating $1,000 a month to them for three months. Of nine families that have applied through her so far, two have been sponsored, seven are being considered and none have been declined, according to a Lee spokesperson.
Niou was also one of an unusually high number of Assembly Democrats who voted against parts of this year’s state budget. She did so in a floor speech, the video of which circulated widely, where she said, “This budget, this values document, makes a terrible statement that we value big businesses and profits more than we value people, our people, the people of this state, and that is simply not who we are."
Lee's work with the $1k Project, which relies on making connections to better-off families, mirrors Lee’s own fundraising. Her campaign has been heavily supported by business executives and wealthier donors, many from the financial services industry she formerly worked in. As of the most recent campaign finance filings, Lee has raised about $200,000 while also giving $250,000 of her own money to her campaign.
Niou has raised almost $230,000 in total for the campaign, with almost 5,000 individual donors — which is about 10 times more than Lee — and a much smaller average donation than her challenger.
Other than herself, Lee’s largest donors are Charles and Marissa Cascarilla, who each donated $4,700 (Charles is the CEO and co-founder of Paxos, a company with its own digital currency). She’s also received $2,000 from Frank Bisignano, Chairman and CEO of Fiserv, another financial technology company. Philadelphia-based Lily Fong, the Vice President of AIG, an American multinational finance and insurance corporation, donated $3,000 to Lee, who also received $2,000 from Emma Bloomberg, daughter of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In the most recent campaign finance filings posted on Friday, which show contributions made in the last three weeks, the difference in Niou and Lee’s fundraising has become even starker. While Niou had over 3,000 individuals donate to her during that time period (bringing her cycle total to more than 5,000) — an especially large number for an Assembly campaign — Lee had only 13 individual donors. Lee still had an influx of cash, though, as she put another $150,000 of her own money into the fund (bringing her total in self-financing to the aforementioned $250,000).
Lee’s campaign financing has drawn criticism from Niou’s camp, with Forand characterizing her campaign as an attempt to “buy her way into elected office.”
While Niou’s average campaign donation from individuals over the election cycle is now about $10, Lee’s is $366, according to State Board of Elections filings (and that doesn’t include the $250,000 Lee gave herself).
Besides a large number of individual donations, Niou has received money from many political action committees (PACs), the vast majority of which are associated with unions. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, New York State United Teachers, and Tenants PAC have each donated around $5,000 to Niou’s campaign.
In a statement to Gotham Gazette about her campaign funding sent after the publication of this article, Lee said, "At the beginning of this pandemic, I had to make some hard choices. I could either spend my time calling donors for money or going out into my community and helping. I chose the latter. My husband and I are fortunate enough to be able to loan my campaign money so that I could keep my staff on payroll. I don’t feel comfortable asking for money while people are dealing with this crisis." She highlighted that unlike Niou she has not taken any PAC money, and added, "I worked very hard to raise money for my campaign, and outraised my opponent in the first quarter without any establishment support. Unlike my opponent, I don’t have a citywide, establishment elected official or unions dialing for dollars on my behalf.”
The two candidates will meet on Monday, June 15, for a debate hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) and moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max. [UPDATE: Watch the AD Democratic Primary debate between Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and Grace Lee]
Note: this story has been updated with comment from Lee about her campaign fundraising. Also, while the Lee campaign said that the candidate had been endorsed by Alysha Lewis-Coleman, Chair of Community Board 3, and this article originally included that endorsement, Lewis-Coleman told Gotham Gazette that she had made no such endorsement and wished to have her name removed from Lee's list of endorsers above.