Alice Cancel Settles Into Her New Job as Albany Lawmaker

About five weeks ago, Alice Cancel was sworn in as Sheldon Silver’s replacement in Albany. This week we caught up with the Lower East Side assemblywoman elected to represent the 65th Assembly District for the remainder of Silver’s term.

In a phone interview Tuesday evening, Cancel said she’s skeptical of Mayor de Blasio’s push for permanent control of New York City’s public schools. The current law expires at the end of this month. The governor and assembly speaker have proposed extending mayoral control for three years; Senate Republicans are only want a one year extension.

In her campaign, Cancel said she believed school administrators (and the mayor by extension) were failing to give parents a meaningful role in their childrens’ educations. “Parents need to have a strong voice,” she said, noting that her concerns are unrelated to the current mayor. “What if we have another Rudy Giuliani?” Cancel asked. “We wan’t have permanent control. I would support temporary renewal.”

Another Albany issue of particular local interest is a law approved by the City Council last month instituting a 5 cent fee on plastic bags. City Council member Margaret chin was a prime sponsor. The State Senate passed legislation prohibiting the measure and the assembly was poised to do the same. [City Council and state legislative leaders are now talking about revisions.] Cancel said environmental issues are important to her and she’d like to see a version of the legislation implemented. But in the face of intense industry lobbying, some members have called the fee a tax on the poor. Cancel said she planned to talk with Council member Chin about potential changes in the law.

Finally, Cancel said she remains hopeful that “something will get done” related to stronger ethics rules for lawmakers before the current session ends. Albany lawmakers and the governor have been under fire for failing to make the issue a priority in the aftermath of Sheldon Silver’s conviction and the conviction of former Senate leader Dean Skelos. The governor’s latest proposal is not being warmly received by government watchdog groups. Cancel said there are a lot of ideas on the table. Lawmakers, she said, are well aware their constituents are unhappy about the lack of progress on ethics reform. “We want to pass legislation,” she added.

Cancel was appointed to four committees: Banks, Cities, Housing and Social Services. She’s established a district office at 250 Broadway (across from City Hall). Monica Guardiola, a longtime adviser and former staffer in Silver’s assembly office, was appointed chief of staff. Cancel said she will be conducting interviews for two additional staff positions tomorrow. If you’d like to contact her offices, you can click here.

Cancel is gearing up for the Democratic Primary, which is scheduled to take place Sept. 13. It will be a crowded field competing in the heavily Democratic District for the seat in the 65th Assembly District. There were persistent rumors that Cancel would not be running in the primary. But she reiterated once again this week that she has every intention of fighting to keep the seat she won six weeks ago.

Alice Cancel Sworn In as Lower Manhattan Assembly Member

Photo courtesy of Alice Cancel.

Photo courtesy of Alice Cancel.

As of this afternoon, the Lower East Side and other downtown neighborhoods once again have representation in the New York State Assembly. Alice Cancel was sworn in today by Democratic Majority Leader Joseph Morelle.

Sheldon Silver was forced to relinquish a seat he’d held for nearly 40 years this past Nov. 30, immediately after a federal jury found him guilty of corruption charges. Silver will be sentenced tomorrow. Cancel, the Democratic nominee, came out victorious in an April 19 special election in the 65th Assembly District.

Cancel will be introduced to fellow members of the Assembly when the session resumes tomorrow. She’ll serve the remainder of Silver’s term, through the end of this year. There will be a Democratic Primary in September and a General Election in November to determine who takes the seat on a permanent basis.

Follow-up: Alice Cancel Wins Sheldon Silver’s Seat, Fall Campaign Already Underway

Alice Cancel with City Council member Council member Rosie Mendez Tuesday night.

Alice Cancel with City Council member Council member Rosie Mendez Tuesday night.

It’s been three days since Democrat Alice Cancel emerged victorious from the special election in the 65th Assembly District. This morning, we’re taking a closer look at how she prevailed and also at what’s ahead as the battle begins anew for Sheldon Silver’s former legislative seat.

Cancel got around 7300 votes, about one-thousand more than Yuh-Line Niou, her rival running on the Working Families Party line. But now there’s a new campaign to run. At least 6 candidates will be vying in the September Democratic Primary.  Meanwhile, there are some bruised feelings after a contentious election and a need for a little “fence mending” among elected officials and community activists, who found themselves on opposite sides of the political battle.

During the campaign, both the mainstream media and her opponents portrayed Cancel as a puppet of Sheldon Silver, a “hand-picked party hack.” Many elected officials, including State Sen. Daniel Squadron and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, backed Niou. Even Cancel’s own boss, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, was in Niou’s camp. While Cancel had a big advantage running on the Democratic Party line, she became an underdog and was accused of operating a lackluster campaign. She raised just $5,000, compared with $140,000 for Niou.

Rosie Mendez, Alice Cancel, Margaret Chin.

Council members Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin were the only prominent elected officials to back Cancel.

On Tuesday evening, City Council member Rosie Mendez, a fervent Cancel supporter, said the campaign was marked by “personal attacks, misinformation (and) outright lies about Alice.” Some of it can just be chalked up to “politics,” said Mendez,” but she added, “One or two people (elected officials) made this really personal. That’s going to be very hard to mend.” The Council member said she was surprised by, “the lengths that the Working Families Party (had) gone to (in order to) elevate the candidacy of Yuh-Line Niou, who has spent very little time in this community (Niou has lived in the district for about two years). That meant something to people at the end of the day.”

The votes were barely counted the other night when Paul Newell, one of the contenders in September’s primary, sent around a sharply worded statement. He linked Cancel to the “Sheldon Silver machine,” but also took aim at Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic party boss who was accused of meddling in the Lower Manhattan race. Crowley and the “Queens machine’s politics of big money and personal attacks” failed to win the day, Newell asserted, in spite of “dumping hundreds of thousands of special interest dollars on vicious and misleading attack ads.”

This point of view was also expressed by Soho activist Sean Sweeney of the political club, Downtown Independent Democrats (candidates Newell and Jenifer Rajkumar are club leaders). ” I feel that this is a major defeat for the Working Families Party,” he told us on Wednesday, “and the local elected officials who selfishly switched allegiance from their own party to endorse a Queens Machine candidate backed by the Working Families Party.”

Yuh-Line Niou.

Yuh-Line Niou.

For Yuh-Line Niou’s part, she put out a statement — congratulating Cancel — and stating, “We knew that running against the machine, off the Democratic line would be a challenge.” Alluding to the next campaign, she said, “We move on tonight from this party-dominated special election to September’s primary, and I look forward to continuing our vigorous fight to advance our progressive values.”

During the afternoon on Tuesday, Senator Squadron stood outside a polling place on Grand Street, passing out literature for the Niou campaign and urging passersby to vote. Several hours later, as votes came rolling in., he was one of the first people to place a congratulatory call to the assembly member-elect. John Quinn, Cancel’s campaign manager and husband, said Squadron suggested they sit down sometime soon for a post-election conversation.

Squadron and Cancel, now counterparts in the Senate and Assembly, have good reason to work past their differences. But given the looming primary election, politics is likely to take precedence over policy — both in Albany and here in the district for the rest of this year.

Known Democratic candidates in the September race include Paul Newell; Jenifer Rajkumar, a district leader in the Financial District; Gigi Li, chairperson of Community Board 3; and community activists Don Lee and Christopher Marte.

65th assembly district

In the aftermath of the special election, the campaign organizations are sifting through precinct-by-precinct reports for useful takeaways.

Even though she faced a huge financial disadvantage, Cancel and Quinn successfully did what they’ve been doing for years as political operatives in their section of the Lower East Side. They got their loyal supporters — many of them residents of large complexes such as the Vladeck Houses, the Smith Houses and Southbridge Towers — to the polls.

As expected, Niou performed well in Chinatown. She collected 351 votes at Confucius Plaza alone, compared with 139 for Republican Lester Chang and 51 for Cancel. But she also won a lot of support in the Grand Street Cooperatives, Sheldon Silver’s traditional political base.  She had worked hard to gain the backing of reform-minded residents of the co-ops, many of whom are eager for a clean break from the past.

It remains to be seen whether Lester Chang will run again on the Republican Party line. On Tuesday, he came in with just shy of 19% of the vote. Rob Ryan, a campaign spokesman, told us this week that they’d be taking a hard look at the numbers before making a decision. They saw the special election as a unique opportunity and hoped to take advantage of a split vote among Cancel and Niou, both Democrats. Ryan hoped more independents would show up (the NYC GOP spent heavily on direct mail aimed at unaffiliated voters). That didn’t happen.

For the moment, Cancel is focused on finishing out Sheldon Silver’s term in Albany.  On Tuesday, she told supporters, “You elected me and you wanted me to be your representative and to go to Albany to clean up the corruption and that’s what I’m going to do!” On Wednesday, Quinn told us she’ll be in a good position to take a strong stand on ethics reform and other issues because Cancel has no intention of staying in Albany long-term. “She’ll serve one or two terms, and that will be it,” said Quinn.

Alice Cancel Wins Special Election to Succeed Sheldon Silver


Alice Cancel declares victory as supporters, including City Council member Rosie Mendez looks on.

Longtime district leader Alice Cancel won a special election tonight to replace former Assemblyman Sheldon Silver in Albany.

Unofficial results show her with 39.21% (7284 votes) in the 65th Assembly District contest. Yuh-Line Niou, a Democrat running on the Working Families Party line, has 33.64% (6250 votes). Lester Chang, the Republican candidate, attracted 18.94% (3520 votes). Green Party candidate Dennis Levy came in fourth with 3.56% (661 votes).

Cancel awaited results with supporters at the Knickerbocker Village headquarters of Lower East Side Democrats, her political club. She thanked community members for working hard to overcome Niou’s well-financed campaign. Cancel ran her operation on a budget of just $5,000.

While Cancel won the Democratic nomination at a County Committee meeting in February, Niou denounced the process as undemocratic. The Working Families Party provided her with a lot of ground support, and Niou racked up many key endorsements. Cancel was portrayed as a disciple of Sheldon Silver, who will soon be headed to prison for federal corruption crimes. City Council member Rosie Mendez, standing by Cancel’s side, said last night that she had been subjected to unfair attacks.

Cancel will not have long to celebrate. She will face several challengers, including Niou, in a September Democratic Primary. We’ll have a more detailed report tomorrow, including reaction from Cancel, Niou and Chang.

Council Member Margaret Chin Endorses Alice Cancel in Special Election (Updated)

Rosie Mendez, Alice Cancel, Margaret Chin.

Rosie Mendez, Alice Cancel, Margaret Chin. Photo by

In 11 days, a special election will be held to decide who will replace Sheldon Silver in the 65th Assembly District. This morning, City Council member Margaret Chin came to the Alfred E. Smith Houses to announce her endorsement of Alice Cancel, the Democratic nominee.

Cancel is opposed by Yuh-Line Niou, a Democrat running on the Working Families Party line, Republican Lester Chang and Dennis Levy of the Green Party. Niou and Chang are both Chinese. Margaret Chin is the first Chinese American to represent Chinatown in the City Council.

As rain starting falling today, a diverse group of supporters gathered under scaffolding on Madison Street. The event was coordinated by Council member Rosie Mendez, an early supporter of Cancel.  As a resident of the assembly district, Chin said she has been thinking about who to vote for in the special election:

When I thought about it, it was easy. It’s going to be Alice. Alice knows the community. She knows our schools. She knows our small businesses. She knows about public housing. She’s worked with the tenants: Latino tenants, Chinese tenants, African American tenants. And I’ve worked with Alice. She is a district leader who works with the elected officials. When there is a problem in the community, she calls me… I know there are other candidates who are running. One of them, I don’t share his values. He’s a Republican. The other one just moved into the district. She doesn’t know the people! You have to know the people. I know Alice is a fighter. When she fights for tenants, watch out.

chin endorsement wide

cancel and chin

Yuh-Line Niou has lived in the Financial District for about two years and is chief of staff to Assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens. She has the strong backing of Virginia Kee, the co-founder of the United Democratic Organization (UDO), Chinatown’s only political club. Chin and Kee are longtime rivals. While Chin is supporting Cancel in the special election, the Council member told us today she would be backing another candidate, Gigi Li, in the regularly scheduled Democratic Primary in September.

Chin is well aware her decision will be a controversial one in Chinatown. “For me, it’s a very clear choice,” said Chin. “I hope that the community, especially the Chinese community, know that we don’t just vote for someone because they’re Chinese.”

Cancel, a resident of Southbridge Towers, has served as a district leader for the past 25 years. Her opponents and newspaper stories have portrayed Cancel as a “crony” of Sheldon Silver, the former speaker soon headed to prison for federal corruption crimes. Silver’s political organization, the Truman Democratic Club, provided critical support to Cancel when the Democratic County Committee chose her as the party’s nominee. “In the last few months,” said Council member Mendez, “she’s been attacked, and I don’t know why. She has done nothing wrong but to work and represent the people in this district.” Referencing the supporters from public housing developments in attendance, Mendez added, “She was content being district leader and never seeking higher office, except all of these people here — not once, not twice but multiple times — asked Alice to run.”

Aixa Torres, tenant president of the Smith Houses, said she was chosen by other community members to take Cancel to lunch and urge her to get in the race.  “It was the community,” explained Torres, “not any elected official, not any club. It was this community of leaders who got together to say, ‘Alice, we need for you to run.’” Nancy Ortiz, tenant president of the Vladeck Houses, also spoke today, saying, “It is our community and we want someone to represent us from our community.”

Last week, Yuh-Line Niou was endorsed by two local representatives, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh. Other prominent backers include City Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Sen. Brad Hoylman, Congresswoman Grace Meng, Council member Ritchie Torres and an array of labor unions with ties to the Working Families Party.

UPDATE 2:01 p.m. Here’s reaction from Yuh-Line Niou’s campaign:

We knew that Shelly Silver’s allies would be working to elect Alice Cancel, so we’re not surprised to see Margaret Chin lining up with the status quo to stand against reform.  Margaret’s support has a two week expiration date because she is supporting a different candidate in September, and this is exactly the kind of cynical politics and deal-making that has led to so much voter anger at Albany. In fact, Yuh-Line Niou has generated massive support from progressive leaders in this district and across the city because she represents a break from the past and a new, more responsive voice for downtown residents.  That’s why she’s been endorsed by the UFT, the Hotel Trades Council, Tenants PAC, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Congressmember Grace Meng, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr, State Senators Dan Squadron and Brad Hoylman, and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal. Lower Manhattan deserves better than clubhouse politics and cynical gamesmanship.

(Audio) Here’s the Full Recording From Last Night’s Candidate Forum

Last night, there was a public forum at the East River Cooperative, the first opportunity for voters to see and hear from the candidates on the ballot in an April 19 special election to replace former Assemblyman Sheldon Silver.  It was hosted by Cooperatively Yours, a resident organization. Our own Ed Litvak was the moderator. Alice Cancel, Democratic nominee, and Yuh-Line Niou, who is running on the Working Families Party line, both participated. Republican candidate Lester Chang was invited but did not attend. Here’s a full audio recording of the event. As the tape begins, you’ll be hearing introductory remarks from Jeremy Sherber of Cooperatively Yours. We’ll have a synopsis of the event at a later time.

Our Interview With Alice Cancel, Democratic Nominee in the 65th AD

Alice Cancel.

Alice Cancel.

Just a few weeks ago, Alice Cancel was dead set against running for the New York State Assembly seat in Lower Manhattan. But after local activists made their choice on Sunday, it’s exactly what she’s doing. Following her nomination by the Democratic County Committee in the 65th Assembly District, we met with Cancel yesterday afternoon to talk about the weekend’s dramatic events.

First off, some background. Cancel was born in Puerto Rico and came to New York with three sisters and three brothers. Her mother created a life for them in the South Bronx. Cancel moved to the Lower East Side in the 1970s. She raised three kids of her own at Knickerbocker Village, the historic affordable housing complex on Monroe Street. Cancel has worked for former State Sen. Martin Connor, NYC Comptroller John Liu and now for Comptroller Scott Stringer. In 2003, she married John Quinn, now a retired labor leader, who’s the driving force behind Lower East Side Democrats, a political club. Cancel has been a district leader for 22 years. Cancel and Quinn live at Southbridge Towers over by the Brooklyn Bridge.

During our conversation at a restaurant near her apartment, Cancel talked about her origins as a Lower East Side activist. She first became involved as a parent organizer when her children were enrolled in Head Start and then in elementary school. “I became very entrenched in our community and all of the things that were surrounding us,” she said. One of her early battles centered on a campaign to change the school administration at P.S. 1, where her kids were enrolled. Later, she was an advocate for changes at the Catherine Street homeless shelter, and joined Community Board 3. Cancel was a founding member of the Sol Lain Little League.

Alice Cancel surrounded by supporters, including Council member Rosie Mendez.

Alice Cancel surrounded by supporters, including Council member Rosie Mendez.

Not long ago, Quinn recalled, he was telling anyone who would listen that his wife would divorce him at the mere suggestion of running for the Assembly seat. After the removal of Sheldon Silver from the office he’d held for almost 40 years, Quinn and Cancel knew they’d be potential king-makers. As soon as the governor called a special election at the end of January, their club became a main focus for all of the Democratic candidates angling for the seat. Everyone was clamoring for their support.

So how did Cancel make the transformation from “absolutely not!” to “Yes I can!”?

“The community,” she explained, said very clearly, ‘We want you. You can do this. You have been doing it (advocating for the district). We think you would be the best person for us to send up to Albany.’ That’s what made me change my mind.” During her birthday party on Three Kings Day last month, Cancel finally announced her decision. “I have friends from one side of the district to the other, said Cancel. “I have support across the board. They got together, as tenant leaders, they’re very powerful and they said, ‘Listen, we can do this. We want you to do this. We want you to accept our nomination.'”

In the April 19th special election, she will face Republican Lester Chang, Yuh-Line Niou, running on the Working Families Party line and independent Christopher Marte. Her chances of election are good in the heavily Democratic District. But Cancel will be challenged by several candidates in the regularly scheduled September primary. They will likely include fellow district leaders Paul Newell and Jenifer Rajkumar, Community Board 3 Chairperson Gigi Li and community activist Don Lee.

Quinn said he’s optimistic that, at least leading up to the special election, local Democratic activists will unite behind Cancel. They’ll be counting on continued support from the Truman Democratic Club, Sheldon Silver’s organization. The club offered crucial support to push Cancel to victory on Sunday. Newell and Rajkumar battled for support within Downtown Independent Democrats, their home club. Today, club president Jeanne Wilcke said her organization would be making an endorsement decision in the near future. The Chinatown-based United Democratic Organization, however, is certain to back Yuh-Line Niou.

On Sunday, the party’s nominee was chosen by about 180 County Committee members. The process has been criticized as undemocratic. The tabloids had a field day blasting Sheldon Silver’s continued grip on downtown politics even after his conviction on federal corruption charges. Some of the stories published in the past 48 hours portrayed Cancel as a Silver crony.

When asked about the criticism, Cancel responded:

I think the process works. We don’t get to use (the County Committee) every day, and when we do, it’s like a given. That’s the process. County Committee is like a sleeping giant. They’re sleeping and then, when something like this happens, someone gets indicted, or someone passes, that’s when the sleeping giant awakens. So this process, for me, works. Nothing should be changed. The mechanics of it work. Most of these people at the County Committee — they’re from the neighborhood, they know you and they know the community… No one’s from outside.

Not all County Committee votes were counted equally Sunday. They were weighted based on the turnout in each election district for Governor Cuomo in the last general election. Downtown Independent Democrats, which decided against endorsing the governor, paid a price. Lower East Side Democrats, which helped get out the vote for the governor, benefited. As an example, John Quinn, a committeeman, got 32 votes. In his view, this is the way the system works and everyone has always known that.

October 2012: Silver joined community activists, other elected officials to protest the closing of the Cherry Street Pathmark store.

October 2012: Silver joined community activists, other elected officials to protest the closing of the Cherry Street Pathmark store.

As for Cancel’s association with Sheldon Silver, she makes no apologies for standing by him over the years and even today, post-conviction:

For us, he was a hero — because of the things he brought to our community, because of the schools that we didn’t have that were built because of his negotiations to get it done for the community. The money that he poured in (to the community) for our seniors, for our daycare (centers), for our Head Start (programs). Why would we be attacking him?

Picking up where Cancel Left off, Quinn elaborated:

All this stuff that he did (the activities leading to his federal prosecution) that really wasn’t a part of our community — that was really wrong! But then he did these other things here. When you’re attacking Shelly and you say, ‘All the stuff that Shelly did was wrong,’ what about Manhattan Youth? He started Manhattan Youth (an after school and sports non-profit) with Bob Townley. Is that wrong? All those kids that are going to Manhattan Youth now — You can’t say that’s wrong.

But even as they remain loyal to the former assemblyman, Cancel and Quinn acknowledge the need for reform in Albany. This is what she had to say on the topic:

I think we should have term limits. Bad things happen when you’re there for too many years. We’ve seen that. Going up there, making sure that the (committee chairpersons) don’t get comfortable and the speakership doesn’t get comfortable. Maybe that’s what turns it around, and get new innovative ideas as that’s being changed… These jobs should be full time and they should get a raise. What they were getting, it was ridiculous. So of course they had to have those side jobs. I think that would be a good change.

Cancel said she considers issues like affordable housing and more schools top priorities. At the same time, she cautioned Lower Manhattan residents to acknowledge how much has changed for the community in Albany. Everyone, she said, must face the fact that our representative will not by Assembly speaker and will have limited clout:

As an assemblywoman starting out, I know I’m not going to get much. I can’t work miracles. It’s not going to happen. But working along the lines of trying to get affordable housing, maybe more senior housing, which we also need in the district… more schools. There are a lot of issues I’m going to be tackling from one side of the district to the other because there are a lot of different needs.

Asked what she would like downtown voters to know about her, Cancel concluded, “I want them to know I’m a grass roots person devoted to my community. I will be here for everybody.”