Just a few weeks ago, Alice Cancel was dead set against running for the New York State Assembly seat in Lower Manhattan. But after local activists made their choice on Sunday, it’s exactly what she’s doing. Following her nomination by the Democratic County Committee in the 65th Assembly District, we met with Cancel yesterday afternoon to talk about the weekend’s dramatic events.
First off, some background. Cancel was born in Puerto Rico and came to New York with three sisters and three brothers. Her mother created a life for them in the South Bronx. Cancel moved to the Lower East Side in the 1970s. She raised three kids of her own at Knickerbocker Village, the historic affordable housing complex on Monroe Street. Cancel has worked for former State Sen. Martin Connor, NYC Comptroller John Liu and now for Comptroller Scott Stringer. In 2003, she married John Quinn, now a retired labor leader, who’s the driving force behind Lower East Side Democrats, a political club. Cancel has been a district leader for 22 years. Cancel and Quinn live at Southbridge Towers over by the Brooklyn Bridge.
During our conversation at a restaurant near her apartment, Cancel talked about her origins as a Lower East Side activist. She first became involved as a parent organizer when her children were enrolled in Head Start and then in elementary school. “I became very entrenched in our community and all of the things that were surrounding us,” she said. One of her early battles centered on a campaign to change the school administration at P.S. 1, where her kids were enrolled. Later, she was an advocate for changes at the Catherine Street homeless shelter, and joined Community Board 3. Cancel was a founding member of the Sol Lain Little League.
Not long ago, Quinn recalled, he was telling anyone who would listen that his wife would divorce him at the mere suggestion of running for the Assembly seat. After the removal of Sheldon Silver from the office he’d held for almost 40 years, Quinn and Cancel knew they’d be potential king-makers. As soon as the governor called a special election at the end of January, their club became a main focus for all of the Democratic candidates angling for the seat. Everyone was clamoring for their support.
So how did Cancel make the transformation from “absolutely not!” to “Yes I can!”?
“The community,” she explained, said very clearly, ‘We want you. You can do this. You have been doing it (advocating for the district). We think you would be the best person for us to send up to Albany.’ That’s what made me change my mind.” During her birthday party on Three Kings Day last month, Cancel finally announced her decision. “I have friends from one side of the district to the other, said Cancel. “I have support across the board. They got together, as tenant leaders, they’re very powerful and they said, ‘Listen, we can do this. We want you to do this. We want you to accept our nomination.'”
In the April 19th special election, she will face Republican Lester Chang, Yuh-Line Niou, running on the Working Families Party line and independent Christopher Marte. Her chances of election are good in the heavily Democratic District. But Cancel will be challenged by several candidates in the regularly scheduled September primary. They will likely include fellow district leaders Paul Newell and Jenifer Rajkumar, Community Board 3 Chairperson Gigi Li and community activist Don Lee.
Quinn said he’s optimistic that, at least leading up to the special election, local Democratic activists will unite behind Cancel. They’ll be counting on continued support from the Truman Democratic Club, Sheldon Silver’s organization. The club offered crucial support to push Cancel to victory on Sunday. Newell and Rajkumar battled for support within Downtown Independent Democrats, their home club. Today, club president Jeanne Wilcke said her organization would be making an endorsement decision in the near future. The Chinatown-based United Democratic Organization, however, is certain to back Yuh-Line Niou.
On Sunday, the party’s nominee was chosen by about 180 County Committee members. The process has been criticized as undemocratic. The tabloids had a field day blasting Sheldon Silver’s continued grip on downtown politics even after his conviction on federal corruption charges. Some of the stories published in the past 48 hours portrayed Cancel as a Silver crony.
When asked about the criticism, Cancel responded:
I think the process works. We don’t get to use (the County Committee) every day, and when we do, it’s like a given. That’s the process. County Committee is like a sleeping giant. They’re sleeping and then, when something like this happens, someone gets indicted, or someone passes, that’s when the sleeping giant awakens. So this process, for me, works. Nothing should be changed. The mechanics of it work. Most of these people at the County Committee — they’re from the neighborhood, they know you and they know the community… No one’s from outside.
Not all County Committee votes were counted equally Sunday. They were weighted based on the turnout in each election district for Governor Cuomo in the last general election. Downtown Independent Democrats, which decided against endorsing the governor, paid a price. Lower East Side Democrats, which helped get out the vote for the governor, benefited. As an example, John Quinn, a committeeman, got 32 votes. In his view, this is the way the system works and everyone has always known that.
As for Cancel’s association with Sheldon Silver, she makes no apologies for standing by him over the years and even today, post-conviction:
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?
Picking up where Cancel Left off, Quinn elaborated:
All this stuff that he did (the activities leading to his federal prosecution) that really wasn’t a part of our community — that was really wrong! But then he did these other things here. When you’re attacking Shelly and you say, ‘All the stuff that Shelly did was wrong,’ what about Manhattan Youth? He started Manhattan Youth (an after school and sports non-profit) with Bob Townley. Is that wrong? All those kids that are going to Manhattan Youth now — You can’t say that’s wrong.
But even as they remain loyal to the former assemblyman, Cancel and Quinn acknowledge the need for reform in Albany. This is what she had to say on the topic:
I think we should have term limits. Bad things happen when you’re there for too many years. We’ve seen that. Going up there, making sure that the (committee chairpersons) don’t get comfortable and the speakership doesn’t get comfortable. Maybe that’s what turns it around, and get new innovative ideas as that’s being changed… These jobs should be full time and they should get a raise. What they were getting, it was ridiculous. So of course they had to have those side jobs. I think that would be a good change.
Cancel said she considers issues like affordable housing and more schools top priorities. At the same time, she cautioned Lower Manhattan residents to acknowledge how much has changed for the community in Albany. Everyone, she said, must face the fact that our representative will not by Assembly speaker and will have limited clout:
As an assemblywoman starting out, I know I’m not going to get much. I can’t work miracles. It’s not going to happen. But working along the lines of trying to get affordable housing, maybe more senior housing, which we also need in the district… more schools. There are a lot of issues I’m going to be tackling from one side of the district to the other because there are a lot of different needs.
Asked what she would like downtown voters to know about her, Cancel concluded, “I want them to know I’m a grass roots person devoted to my community. I will be here for everybody.”