A Crowded Field Maneuvers to Succeed Sheldon Silver in Albany

Clockwise from upper left: Paul Newell, Jenifer Rajkumar, Yuh-Line Niou, John Bal, Alice Cancel, John Bal.
Clockwise from upper left: Paul Newell, Jenifer Rajkumar, Yuh-Line Niou, John Bal, Alice Cancel, John Bal.
Clockwise from upper left: Paul Newell, Jenifer Rajkumar, Yuh-Line Niou, John Bal, Alice Cancel, Gigi Li.

How long will the Lower East Side and the rest of the 65th Assembly District be without representation in the New York State Assembly? That question is increasingly difficult to answer. But the uncertainty has not kept a growing field of candidates from maneuvering to replace Sheldon Silver in Albany.

Silver was forced from office late last year after a jury’s guilty verdict in the longtime lawmaker’s federal corruption trial. Last month, Governor Cuomo suggested he would call a special election April 19 to fill the seat, which Silver had held since 1976. Six candidates have already signaled their intention to compete for the position, with more announcements potentially on the way. The latest competitor, Community Board 3 Chairperson Gigi Li, confirmed over the weekend that she is very likely running.

Cuomo has until early February to make a firm decision about a special election. If he sticks with the April 19 date, the Democratic nominee would not be chosen by voters in the 65th Assembly District, but by about 200 party insiders. The assembly district’s Democratic County Committee would pick a candidate to run against a Republican in April (since the district is overwhelmingly democratic, the nominee would almost certainly win the general election). The winner would serve out the remainder of Silver’s term. The seat would then be up for grabs as usual in the regular state primary election and general election next fall.

But not so fast. The other day, City & State reported that the governor might be having second thoughts, in part, because April 19 is the same day that the New York Presidential Primary will be held:

According to a source, the New York City Board of Elections simply cannot handle (a special election along with the Presidential Primary). Apparently, there are separate computer programs for local races and national races, and holding them simultaneously that day would be too much for the board. I mean, let’s face it, competence was never their strong suit. Silver’s seat is in lower Manhattan, so the NYC Board would be in charge of holding the election for the Silver seat that day. That leaves two other possibilities. 1) Cuomo could call the special to line up with that new, weird congressional primary day that takes place in June. June 28th is the day this year. 2) Cuomo could push it to Sept. 7th, which is the day of the state primaries… If the election is held in June, it will also be a (county) committee selection, but if it’s pushed to September there would be an open primary.

No matter how the Lower East Side’s next assembly member is chosen, it’s clear there’s high interest in the seat, which hasn’t been vacant in four decades. Here’s a quick look at the likely contenders:

Paul Newell: A district leader who lives in the Masark Towers apartment complex on the Lower East Side. Newell unsuccessfully ran against Silver in 2008 and has been preparing for this campaign ever since.

Jenifer Rajkumar: Also a district leader, she unsuccessfully challenged City Council member Margaret Chin in 2013. Rajkumar, however, collected almost 6,000 votes (amounting to about 42% of the ballots in the Democratic Primary that year).

Yuh-Line Niou: Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Ron Kim (Flushing) and a fairly new resident of the Financial District. Niou is backed by the Uinted Democatic Organization (UDO), an influential political club in Chinatown. Her champion has been Virginia Kee, a founder of the Chinese American Planning Council.

John Bal: A longtime resident of Little Italy who unsuccessfully challenged Sheldon Silver in 1986.

Alice Cancel: A district leader and staffer in the office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer.  Cancel and her husband, John Quinn, are the driving forces behind Lower East Democrats, another downtown political club.

Gigi Li: The chairperson of Community Board 3, Li lives in Chinatown and briefly challenged Jenifer Rajkumar for district leader this past year. Amid accusations regarding her petitions, Li withdrew from that race, saying she had not gathered enough signatures to make it on the ballot. In a statement late last night, Li said, “I’m filing for the Assembly seat because I have the experience, work ethic and drive to deliver for the people of Lower Manhattan… I have a plan to expand social services, invest in youth and education, and ensure smart development.”

Don B. Lee: A familiar player in Chinatown for several decades, Lee is the chief information officer of Coalition of Asian American IPA. He worked for various New York City agencies in the 1980s and 199os. While Lee has not made an announcement about his candidacy, political consultant George Arzt tells us a decision is forthcoming (Arzt is not necessarily going to represent Lee).

Under normal circumstances, members of the county committee have little authority and few responsibilities. They’re elected positions that receive almost no attention from voters. Vacancies are filled by district leaders, who are also elected representatives. Both district leaders and county committee members are loyal to political clubs, organizations that offer important logistical support for candidates running for city, state and federal office. If the governor calls a special election, the clubs and the committee members will all of a sudden wield a lot of influence.

To lock up the nomination at the county committee, a candidate will need the support of their own club, plus a second political organization. At the moment, there is no consensus pick for the assembly seat.

Jenifer Rajkumar and Paul Newell are rivals within the same club, Downtown Independent Democrats (DID). While they are doing their best to sway county committee votes, the club will not endorse any single candidate.

Yuh-Line Niou has strong backing from UDO in Chinatown, but would require support from Lower East Side Democrats or the Truman Club, Sheldon Silver’s Grand Street club. Lower East Side Democrats will obviously be supporting Alice Cancel, their own district leader. As for the Truman Club, no endorsements are expected until Governor Cuomo makes up his mind about a special election. Within the club, members are discussing whether to run their own candidate. While no names have been publicly floated, local district leader Karen Blatt is one potential contender. When contacted last week, however, Blatt said she is focused on her service to Community Board 3 rather than on a bid for public office (Blatt is chairperson of CB3’s transportation committee).

So for the moment, it looks like a stalemate. In the end, the clubs could very well make some deals and settle on one candidate. On the other hand, it could get messy. Sean Sweeney, a leader of Downtown Democratic Democrats, said last week, “I predict it’s going to be a brawler at the county convention.”

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of conversation about the fairness of holding a special election. Allowing 200 political insiders to pick Lower Manhattan’s next assembly member is obviously not very democratic. While some point out that the successful candidate would eventually be required to run in a regularly scheduled election, others believe the seat should remain open until party primaries can be held.

For now, however, it’s all a theoretical conversation. Everyone is waiting on Andrew Cuomo.