New York Times: “Specter of Corruption” in Campaign to Replace Sheldon Silver

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The New York Times today is zeroing in on the campaign to replace former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in the New York State Assembly.

Reporter Vivian Yee compares and contrasts the race to fill the Long Island seat of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos with the contest in Lower Manhattan, where Silver was a larger than life figure for decades. Both Albany leaders were convicted of corruption charges late last year and forced from office.

Yee writes, “…It seemed safe to assume that the special elections… would come down to which of their would-be successors could offer the greatest contrast to the two politicians.” While the candidates in the Skelos campaign seem determined to run far away from Skelos, the Times notes, “the reform issue has played very differently in Lower Manhattan, where Mr. Silver, a Democrat, ruled local politics for four decades as an assemblyman and then speaker of the Assembly, dispensing large amounts of pork along the way.”

There’s a recounting of the meeting earlier this month of the Democratic County Committee, in which about 180 party activists chose longtime district leader Alice Cancel to run in the April 19 special election. In an interview with The Lo-Down a few days later, Cancel said of Silver:

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?

The Times picked up not only on Cancel’s depiction of Silver as a “hero,’ but also on the major role played by the Truman Democratic Club, Silver’s political organization, in picking her to replace the former Lower East Side power broker:

Ms. Cancel’s path from reluctant candidate to front-runner is not only a case study in local politics, but also a testament to Mr. Silver’s continued influence, despite the high probability that he will go to prison after he is sentenced in a few months… “Oh, man, there’s an odor emanating from the process, both in a systemic sense and in a structural sense,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, who has watched the district’s politics. “It’s got this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality.” … Especially troubling for some observers was the role played by Mr. Silver and his friends, most prominently Judy Rapfogel, his former chief of staff. Her husband, William E. Rapfogel, is a former Jewish community leader who is serving time in federal prison for stealing more than $9 million from the charity he ran… Ms. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver did not say why they supported Ms. Cancel, who moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico as a child and now works for the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer… Ms. Rapfogel and several of her relatives attended the vote on Sunday, committee members said, clapping heartily as Ms. Cancel’s victory was announced… Government watchdogs and reform supporters in the district assailed Ms. Cancel’s selection, concerned that she would be no more than a conveniently placed front for Mr. Silver and his allies.

Yuh-Line Niou (seated, second from left) visits the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Yuh-Line Niou (seated, second from left) visits the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

The Times story goes on to discuss one of several challengers taking on the Democratic nominee:

The mechanics of the selection process so disgusted one of Ms. Cancel’s opponents, Yuh-Line Niou, the chief of staff to Assemblyman Ron Kim, Democrat of Queens, that Ms. Niou dropped out of the running in her nomination speech on Sunday, calling it “undemocratic.” Even if committee members felt free to defy their club endorsements, she and other critics said, individual members’ votes were weighted, giving more power to election districts that had higher turnout in the 2014 governor’s race… “I think that anybody would be bothered by how the system worked,” Ms. Niou said in an interview. “I don’t think that it’s right.”

It should be noted that Niou and the political club backing her, the United Democratic Organization (UDO), actively sought the support of the Truman Club. The group’s founder, Virginia Kee, has spoken in glowing terms about what she feels Sheldon Silver did over the years to support the Chinatown community. On the day of the County Committee vote, several sources told us, Niou and UDO members gathered for breakfast at the Grand Street cooperatives with Truman Club leaders. It was during this meeting that Niou learned the Truman Club would be throwing its support behind Cancel. Hours later, Niou announced her withdrawal from the County Committee election.