Neighborhood Activists Duke It Out Over Judicial Delegates in This Week’s Primary

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If you’re like most Lower East Side residents, voting in this Thursday’s Democratic Primary is probably the last thing on your agenda.

While there are no high-profile races on the ballot in our community, registered Democrats will be asked to choose judicial delegates in the 65th Assembly District. These office-holders may be obscure, but they are influential. Judicial delegates nominate candidates to run for State Supreme Court at judicial conventions.  This year, for the first time in a long while, you have a choice to make. There are two competing slates.

On on side, you have a slate being advanced by the Truman Democratic Club, Assemblyman Sheldon Silver’s political organization. Candidates include Judy Rapfogel, Silver’s longtime chief of staff; Chinatown activist Virginia Kee; and Aixa Torres, tenant leader at the Alfred E. Smith Houses. Among the alternates are Karen Blatt, a district leader; and Gary Altman, board president at the East River Co-op.

On the other side, you have a slate running on a reform agenda, arguing that judicial delegates have all-too-often been selected in back room deals by party insiders. This slate is led by Paul Newell, a district leader who challenged Sheldon Silver in 2008 and may very well run for his Assembly seat again next year. Other candidates include: Ayo Harrington, an East Village activist who filed a discrimination complaint against Community Board 3’s leadership and then was not reappointed to the board; and Wei-Li Tjong, a former board president of the Seward Park Co-op. Among the alternates is Sara Romanoski, a leader of the LES Dwellers neighborhood group.


judicial delegate ballot

Over the holiday, the Post made note of the battle for judicial delegates on the Lower East Side. In a story titled, “Silver trying to use chief of staff to exert control over state judges,” the tabloid reported:

Sheldon Silver continues to try to cling to his power over the state judiciary. After an aborted attempt by Silver’s Harry S. Truman Democratic Club to put him on the ballot as a judicial-convention delegate, the club instead is floating his trusted chief of staff… Rapfogel is married to William Rapfogel, who is serving up to 10 years in prison for stealing more than $9 million from the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the giant nonprofit he headed.

Wei-Li Tjong reached out to The Lo-Down yesterday to explain why he decided to run as a judicial delegate. This is part of what he had to say:

I think this election is critically important for our constituency because — for decades — the manner in which judges are elected on the Lower East Side has been completely opaque, and decided behind closed doors by essentially the same group of people — people who are inextricably linked to the political corruption and graft in our neighborhood that has recently been exposed by federal prosecutors. In our district, there are usually no real challengers to the Democratic nominees for judgeships, so this group has been able to effectively pick who the next judges will be — hardly “democratic” with a small “d.” Their continued association with imprisoned embezzlers and influence-peddlers raises a serious question as to precisely whose interests are being represented when they make their selections.

Members of the Truman Club believe the challenge has little to do with concerns about fairness in the political process. Instead, they think it’s effort to grab more control of judicial nominations. This year, the Democratic Party was forced to settle for smaller judicial slates because Governor Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Party was entitled to some positions. Downtown clubs had conversations about coordinating their delegate nominees.

Karen Blatt said in a statement:

This year the Truman Club along with UDO (United Democratic Organization) and the LES Democrats put together an exceptionally qualified slate of candidates for Judicial Delegates and Alternates that represent the diversity of the Lower East Side and Lower Manhattan. Truman Club members chose to support these candidates because each one has been a tireless advocate for the community and we have seen them time and time again fighting for us. In previous years our candidates have always selected the best and most qualified judges based on merit and I am confident that this slate of new and returning delegates will continue in this proud tradition. This diverse group of candidates reflect the very fabric of our neighborhood, and their experience working together for our community is why they are the right choice on Thursday.

Click here to find out where to vote.