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Follow-up: Alice Cancel Wins Sheldon Silver’s Seat, Fall Campaign Already Underway

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Alice Cancel with City Council member Council member Rosie Mendez Tuesday night.
Alice Cancel with City Council member Council member Rosie Mendez Tuesday night.

It’s been three days since Democrat Alice Cancel emerged victorious from the special election in the 65th Assembly District. This morning, we’re taking a closer look at how she prevailed and also at what’s ahead as the battle begins anew for Sheldon Silver’s former legislative seat.

Cancel got around 7300 votes, about one-thousand more than Yuh-Line Niou, her rival running on the Working Families Party line. But now there’s a new campaign to run. At least 6 candidates will be vying in the September Democratic Primary.  Meanwhile, there are some bruised feelings after a contentious election and a need for a little “fence mending” among elected officials and community activists, who found themselves on opposite sides of the political battle.

During the campaign, both the mainstream media and her opponents portrayed Cancel as a puppet of Sheldon Silver, a “hand-picked party hack.” Many elected officials, including State Sen. Daniel Squadron and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, backed Niou. Even Cancel’s own boss, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, was in Niou’s camp. While Cancel had a big advantage running on the Democratic Party line, she became an underdog and was accused of operating a lackluster campaign. She raised just $5,000, compared with $140,000 for Niou.

Rosie Mendez, Alice Cancel, Margaret Chin.
Council members Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin were the only prominent elected officials to back Cancel.

On Tuesday evening, City Council member Rosie Mendez, a fervent Cancel supporter, said the campaign was marked by “personal attacks, misinformation (and) outright lies about Alice.” Some of it can just be chalked up to “politics,” said Mendez,” but she added, “One or two people (elected officials) made this really personal. That’s going to be very hard to mend.” The Council member said she was surprised by, “the lengths that the Working Families Party (had) gone to (in order to) elevate the candidacy of Yuh-Line Niou, who has spent very little time in this community (Niou has lived in the district for about two years). That meant something to people at the end of the day.”

The votes were barely counted the other night when Paul Newell, one of the contenders in September’s primary, sent around a sharply worded statement. He linked Cancel to the “Sheldon Silver machine,” but also took aim at Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic party boss who was accused of meddling in the Lower Manhattan race. Crowley and the “Queens machine’s politics of big money and personal attacks” failed to win the day, Newell asserted, in spite of “dumping hundreds of thousands of special interest dollars on vicious and misleading attack ads.”

This point of view was also expressed by Soho activist Sean Sweeney of the political club, Downtown Independent Democrats (candidates Newell and Jenifer Rajkumar are club leaders). ” I feel that this is a major defeat for the Working Families Party,” he told us on Wednesday, “and the local elected officials who selfishly switched allegiance from their own party to endorse a Queens Machine candidate backed by the Working Families Party.”

Yuh-Line Niou.
Yuh-Line Niou.

For Yuh-Line Niou’s part, she put out a statement — congratulating Cancel — and stating, “We knew that running against the machine, off the Democratic line would be a challenge.” Alluding to the next campaign, she said, “We move on tonight from this party-dominated special election to September’s primary, and I look forward to continuing our vigorous fight to advance our progressive values.”

During the afternoon on Tuesday, Senator Squadron stood outside a polling place on Grand Street, passing out literature for the Niou campaign and urging passersby to vote. Several hours later, as votes came rolling in., he was one of the first people to place a congratulatory call to the assembly member-elect. John Quinn, Cancel’s campaign manager and husband, said Squadron suggested they sit down sometime soon for a post-election conversation.

Squadron and Cancel, now counterparts in the Senate and Assembly, have good reason to work past their differences. But given the looming primary election, politics is likely to take precedence over policy — both in Albany and here in the district for the rest of this year.

Known Democratic candidates in the September race include Paul Newell; Jenifer Rajkumar, a district leader in the Financial District; Gigi Li, chairperson of Community Board 3; and community activists Don Lee and Christopher Marte.

65th assembly district

In the aftermath of the special election, the campaign organizations are sifting through precinct-by-precinct reports for useful takeaways.

Even though she faced a huge financial disadvantage, Cancel and Quinn successfully did what they’ve been doing for years as political operatives in their section of the Lower East Side. They got their loyal supporters — many of them residents of large complexes such as the Vladeck Houses, the Smith Houses and Southbridge Towers — to the polls.

As expected, Niou performed well in Chinatown. She collected 351 votes at Confucius Plaza alone, compared with 139 for Republican Lester Chang and 51 for Cancel. But she also won a lot of support in the Grand Street Cooperatives, Sheldon Silver’s traditional political base.  She had worked hard to gain the backing of reform-minded residents of the co-ops, many of whom are eager for a clean break from the past.

It remains to be seen whether Lester Chang will run again on the Republican Party line. On Tuesday, he came in with just shy of 19% of the vote. Rob Ryan, a campaign spokesman, told us this week that they’d be taking a hard look at the numbers before making a decision. They saw the special election as a unique opportunity and hoped to take advantage of a split vote among Cancel and Niou, both Democrats. Ryan hoped more independents would show up (the NYC GOP spent heavily on direct mail aimed at unaffiliated voters). That didn’t happen.

For the moment, Cancel is focused on finishing out Sheldon Silver’s term in Albany.  On Tuesday, she told supporters, “You elected me and you wanted me to be your representative and to go to Albany to clean up the corruption and that’s what I’m going to do!” On Wednesday, Quinn told us she’ll be in a good position to take a strong stand on ethics reform and other issues because Cancel has no intention of staying in Albany long-term. “She’ll serve one or two terms, and that will be it,” said Quinn.

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