Inside Politics: Why the Truman Club Sided With Alice Cancel

Yuh-Line Niou, Alice Cancel.

Less than a week away from the special election in the 65th Assembly District, the Lower Manhattan campaign is attracting more citywide media attention. The latest publication trying to make sense of the unusual contest to replace Sheldon Silver is the Wall Street Journal.

In a story posted last night, the Journal positions the race as a test for Silver’s longtime allies in the Truman Democratic Club:

The club’s influence will be put to the test next week, when voters decide who will succeed Mr. Silver in Albany. For decades, whoever claimed the Democratic Party line was a shoo-in for the job in this lower Manhattan district, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 50,000 to 7,500. This year, however, a liberal challenger, Yuh-Line Niou, is making the election competitive by framing it as a referendum on Mr. Silver and the party machinery that kept him in power for more than 30 years.

The Truman Club and Silver’s former chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel, played key roles in Alice Cancel’s nomination Feb. 7 by the Democratic Party’s local County Committee. In recent days, tensions have been rising between Cancel and Niou, who is running on the Working Families Party line.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that the club’s primary aim was to derail the candidacy of Paul Newell. He challenged Silver in 2008 and has been an unpopular figure among members of the former speaker’s inner circle ever since. The article hints at a vigorous debate that was playing out within the Grand Street organization about how to remain relevant, even as Mr. Silver prepares for a lengthy prison sentence:

At the meeting where Ms. Cancel won the vote, Judy Rapfogel… said the Truman club remained strong “and will continue to have victories in the community.”

The Village Voice this week is also delving into the behind-the-scenes machinations on the Lower East Side. Reporter Nick Pinto writes:

Silver’s loyalists flirted with backing Niou against Newell, but there were some problems. While Niou narrowly met the residency requirement of having lived in the district for at least a year, some questioned whether she met the requirement of residing in New York for the past five years. Besides, the math didn’t add up. If team Silver wanted to stop Newell, they’d need to ally with the more powerful Lower East Side Democrats, which they did, throwing their weight behind Alice Cancel. On learning she wouldn’t get the backing from Silver’s people, Niou publicly quit the Democratic race, alleging a “flawed and undemocratic process.”

In general, the mainstream media, including the New York Times, have portrayed the special election as a battle between a Sheldon Silver ally (Cancel) and a reform-minded newcomer (Niou). Supporters of Cancel and other local political insiders, however, say what was actually happening at the County Committee-level shows that this characterization is at least partially inaccurate.

Our sources in the Truman Club confirm that all of the candidates, except Newell, sought the Truman Club’s backing. They suggest that the account in the Voice is basically correct — that Rapfogel wanted to support Niou, who was being championed by Virginia Kee of the United Democratic Organization (UDO). The Chinatown club cultivated close relations with Silver over a course of many years.

But Cancel’s club, Lower East Side Democrats, held well over 30% of the votes at the County Committee. After the Truman Club did the math and realized that only Cancel had enough support to win, Rapfogel and company changed course. Niou and Kee did not learn of their decision until the day of the County Committee vote.  The Working Families Party had decided to endorse Niou, after initially telling Paul Newell he’d won the organization’s backing. The shift gave Niou a position on the special election ballot and a platform from which to challenge Cancel.

In the past several weeks, Niou has picked up key endorsements from the state’s Democratic establishment, as well as from the New York Times. She also enjoys a huge fundraising advantage, having collected more than $160,000 compared with $4,300 for Cancel. The Democratic nominee has not helped her case by repeatedly calling Sheldon Silver a “hero.”

Republican Lester Chang hopes the battle between the two Democrats offers him an opportunity to claim Silver’s old Assembly seat. The theory is that Cancel, Niou and Green Party candidate Dennis Levy will split the progressive vote.  Meanwhile, several candidates are preparing for “the real campaign,” as one of them put it to us recently. Newell, Jenifer Rajkumar, Gigi Li and Don Lee plan to compete in the Democratic Primary in September (Christopher Marte is running as an independent). While no one’s saying so publicly, they’d much prefer to go up against Cancel, believing that Niou would be more difficult to unseat.

Later today, we’ll be publishing our sit-down interview with Yuh-Line Niou, including her thoughts on the County Committee process and the allegations that have been flying back-and-forth.