State Assembly candidate Paul Newell was endorsed by City Council member Rosie Mendez last week, in his bid to replace Sheldon Silver in Albany.
Supporters huddled on the porch Thursday afternoon as the storm clouds opened up at City Hall. But it didn’t keep Mendez and fellow Council members Ben Kallos and Mark Levine from speaking up for Newell, a district leader for the past seven years.
Mendez said, “I am proud to throw my support behind the only person who had the temerity to run against Speaker Sheldon Silver about 10 years ago. He is not afraid to take on the heavy guns and he will do that again as a member of the Assembly come November. I am going to work every day to help him realize that goal for our district.”
Several candidates are competing in the Democratic Primary, which takes place Sept. 13. Alice Cancel currently holds the office in the 65th Assembly District (she won an April special election). Leading up to the first election, both Mendez and Council member Margaret Chin endorsed Cancel. Mendez’s decision this go-around was expected after her political club, Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA), voted to back Newell. Chin is supporting Gigi Li, another candidate in the running.
The contenders faced a deadline this past week to submit petition signatures for the September ballot. There was also a fundraising disclosure deadline. We’ll have more about that in the next day or two.
Mendez represents Council District 2, which covers an area mostly above East Houston Street. Silver, of course, was forced from office after his conviction last year on federal corruption charges.
Just last month, voters elected Alice Cancel to serve the remainder of Sheldon Silver’s two-year term in the New York State Assembly. But a new political campaign is upon us. On Sunday, two candidates vying for the seat in the 65th Assembly District staged dueling kickoff events. They’re both planning to compete in the Democratic Primary, which takes place Sept. 13. We have separate stories this afternoon on the announcements from Paul Newell and Gigi Li.
Newell huddled with supporters in front of the former Jewish Daily Forward Building in Straus Square, a center of left-leaning activism for decades. “It was right here,” he said, “in this building that the Jewish Daily Forward cried out for justice for generations of Lower east Siders dreaming the American dream.”
Newell is a district leader who lives in Masaryk Towers, the Mitchell Lama Cooperative. He unsuccessfully challenged Sheldon Silver in 2008, criticizing the former speaker’s refusal to disclose outside income and Albany’s entrenched political culture. Over the weekend, he picked up the endorsement of CoDA, a political club just on the outskirts of the assembly district.
Newell emphasized his local roots (born and raised in Lower Manhattan) and said he’s “part of a proud Yiddish activist tradition here on the Lower East Side.” He also was not shy about recalling the earlier assembly campaign. “When three men sit in a secret room,” he told supporters, “and write laws for 20-million people, you can guarantee it is not our community that is being heard. Let me be as clear today as I was then.The culture of corruption and failure in Albany must end.”
“The cost of corruption,” said Newell, “is higher rents and higher taxes, overcrowded classrooms and crumbling subways. We can and must do better.” He called the district an “amazing place with an amazing story” that draws strength from its many ethnic, working class communities. Newell said he would be a fighter for all of the district’s diverse neighborhoods. “We are not a passive people in Lower Manhattan,” he explained. “It is not who we are. It is not who we want to be. We stand up. We organize and we demand what we need, not by trading favors with the well-heeled and well-connected but by standing up for our communities.”
At yesterday’s event, several local residents spoke on Newell’s behalf. They included Lee Berman, a board member at the East River Cooperative. “Paul will fight for all of us in Albany,” said Berman, “for quality education, for all of our children, unlike the former representative who only fought for some.” Mathew Quezada, a board member at the Hillman Co-op, also voiced confidence in Newell, arguing that he’s “best suited” to “help out all people within my community.” Others speaking for the candidate included Eddie Chiu of the Lin Sing Association in Chinatown and Carolyn English, a fellow Masaryk Towers resident.
Besides Newell and Gigi Li, candidates in September will likely include: Yuh-Line Niou, who ran on the Working Families Party line in the April special election; Jenifer Rajkumar, a district leader and attorney; local businessman Don Lee; Lower East Side resident Christopher Marte.; and John Bal, a contender who dropped out of the special election citing a rigged process to select Silver’s successor.
There’s plenty of room to debate whether Shelly Silver is good for the Lower East Side and good for New York State. But no matter your view of Albany’s most powerful man,” I think you’ll find the new documentary film, “Excuse Me, Mr. Speaker,” interesting, poignant and funny. The film debuted last month at the VisionFest Film Festival in Tribeca. There’s another chance to see it tonight (details below).
Filmmaker Justin Sullivan followed Paul Newell’s campaign to unseat Speaker Silver in last year’s election. It was the first time he’d been challenged in 20 years. Newell didn’t exactly seem like a formidable opponent. Here was a 32 year old guy, a community organizer living in a cramped, rent stabilized apartment on Division Street, who says things like “ritalin don’t fail me now.” Yet in spite of the long odds, he won the endorsement of New York’s three biggest newspapers. Sullivan, who’s been friends with Newell for years, got almost complete access to the scrappy, unconventional and, at times, absurd campaign.
The film is very entertaining. After winning the endorsement of the New York Times, a euphoric Newell declares he’s ready to forgive the paper for “weapons of mass destruction.” At the Democratic convention in Denver, he is determined to win over the political establishment — yet one Albany lawmaker goes in search of hand soap after accidently shaking Newell’s hand. On election day, police reprimand Newell for campaigning outside polling stations. Newell sees one officer as a potential voter, extending his hand.
But “Excuse Me, Mr. Speaker” has a serious message. Newell fearlessly argued that Sheldon Silver is beholden to big developers, an adversary of transparency in government and a politician who has forgotten “the little guy.” It’s a message that certainly resonated with New York City’s editorial boards, if not with voters. Even though the Silver trounced Newell in the primary election, the upstart did succeed in one respect. As the Times put it, Newell’s candidacy “brought the ever-secretive Mr. Silver out to meet voters and campaign for his job.”
There is, of course, an alternative point of view. Many non-profit organizations doing good work on the Lower East Side argue that Silver uses his clout to make sure they receive critical funding. His constituent services are top notch. His representatives fan out across the district, attending community meetings and seeking out constituents who need their help with a wide array of problems. In dealing with New York’s tangled bureaucracy, a call from Shelly Silver’s office can cut through a lot of red tape. Newell counters that this is exactly the thing that corrupts the political system. How is a challenger supposed to compete with a guy who has millions at his disposal to “buy an election?”
Newell is still actively involved in politics. He’s working with Pete Gleason, who’s taking on another incumbent, City Councilman Alan Gerson. At the screening I attended, he did not rule out the possibility of running again for the State Assembly. You can see “Excuse Me, Mr. Speaker,” tonight at 8pm at “The Tank,” 354 West 45th Street. More information here. Newell and Justin Sullivan will be on hand to answer questions after the screening.