In September, a piece in the Observer introduced voters of the 64th Assembly District to Sheldon Silver’s newest foe: 28-year old Columbia graduate student Ed Chen. At the time, he was exploring the possibility of running against the powerful Speaker, who has represented Lower Manhattan in Albany since 1976.
This week, Chen officially took the leap, announcing “I have decided to unequivocally declare my intention to run in the 2012 election against Mr. Silver.”
As of Monday, Chen told me (over breakfast in Soho) that he was prepared to drop his challenge — but only if Silver agreed to back his proposal for a “jury style lending authority.” The idea, which would require a $100 million investment, is aimed at stimulating economic growth in Chinatown and other under-served communities (you can read more about the plan here). But, one day later, dissatisfied with Silver’s response and apparently offended by suggestions from some downtown activists that his demand amounted to “extortion,” Chen decided he was definitely getting in the race. In an open letter to members of the Assembly, he wrote:
I had believed he (Silver) would make a sincere effort to respond to the needs of our district, which has been long neglected, and unequally treated… Our district does not need a Speaker to represent us any longer — we have long seen the results a speaker can produce stagnation, fear, and ossification. My attempt at a good faith negotiation on behalf of my constituents is hereby terminated. I will fight tirelessly to unseat Mr. Silver, whether on the floor of the assembly or in his home district.
Chen, a candidate for a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, has been spending a lot of time in Chinatown lately. Earlier this week, Chinese language newspapers covered the launch of his SAT program. On Facebook, he claimed credit for the city’s decision to re-pave several streets in Chinatown (a project Silver’s office helped facilitate).
Chen acknowledges the neighborhood’s political establishment is loyal to Silver. But he insists there’s a lot of grass roots opposition to the Speaker.
Lower Manhattan activists are skeptical. Jeanne Wilcke, president of Downtown Independent Democrats, told me she’s happy Chen is engaging in the political process. She’d like to see more young people do the same. But Wilke said she has urged Chen to gain more experience before running for a seat in the Assembly. Other insiders question how much headway Chen can make in a district that has only been his home for a few months. While he has attended a neighborhood church for awhile, Chen concedes he moved into the district specifically to run for Assemblyman.
Two years ago, Chen worked briefly for Paul Newell, one of two candidates who unsuccessfully challenged Silver in the Democratic Primary. In a phone conversation this week Newell (currently a district leader) said he has not decided whether he’ll run again in 2012. For now, he’s focused on his re-election campaign for district leader next year. While declining to comment on Chen’s viability, Newell told me he thinks his candidacy is good for downtown, in that it keeps Silver on his toes.
If nothing else, Chen hopes his campaign will force all elected officials to pay more attention to Chinatown. The election of Margaret Chin to the City Council last year highlighted the neighborhood’s growing political clout. Since that time, she and Silver have forged close ties (Silver sometimes calls the two of them a “dynamic duo” for downtown).
Silver has a long history of supporting influential Chinatown organizations, including the Chinese-American Planning Council and Asian Americans for Equality. Chen intends to make the argument that Silver’s support is selective. Some groups are lavished with attention and money, while others are ignored, he claims.
For the moment, at least, Silver has more pressing concerns, including a possible (but perhaps not very potent) challenge to his speakership. When the dust settles in Albany, Chen says he’s determined to fight the speaker on his home turf. His letter to members of the Assembly ended on a defiant note:
Be assured, no amount of intimidation will cause me to withdraw from the race in 2012. And no amount of money, favors, or reprisals will cause the Chinese community, which has formed a majority of the district for the last 10 years, to withdraw their support for me. If you do not receive my future emails, you can be certain they were censored by those in charge of you (sic) institution — an institution which is supposed to reflect the values of our democratic and free society.