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Our Conversation with Assembly Candidate Lester Chang

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Lester Chang.
Lester Chang.

We’re continuing our interviews with candidates on the ballot in next week’s special election to replace Assemblyman Sheldon Silver. The former speaker was forced from office after being convicted on federal corruption charges last November. Today it’s Republican Lester Chang’s turn to answer questions about the unusual campaign in the 65th Assembly District.

Chang lives in Nolita and grew up on Eldridge Street. He’s an international shipping consultant and has served in the U.S. Navy Reserves for 18 years, working in military intelligence. He served in Washington D.C. after 9/11 and did a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Earlier in his life, Chang worked in accounting and finance and did a stint with the U.S. Census Bureau. During our candidate forum last week, Chang talked about his family struggles early in life. His dad died of lung cancer when Chang was just 8 years old. His mom ran a Chinese restaurant to keep the family together.

We began by talking about what motivated him to jump into politics at the age of 55:

Do you see the homelessness out on the street? (The) slashings (of innocent bystanders)? All these things built up, built up, built up, and then of course the conviction of (Sheldon) Silver. And I said, there has to be someone honest in government… I was angry.

The New York Republican Party is salivating at the prospect of sending one of their own to Albany to replace Silver, the former speaker who they loathed for so long. The former mayor, Rudy Giuliani was the star attraction at a March fundraiser for Chang in Chinatown. Giuliani said of the GOP candidate in Lower Manhattan, “He will erase the stain of corruption from this district.”

On the ballot, Chang is appearing on the Republican line, as well as on the Independence, Reform and the “Clean Up the Mess Party” lines. The later organization is his own creation. Chang said he became a Republican about 10 years ago:

I had been a Democrat for a long time… I didn’t like the messages with the Democratic Party. On the Republican side, I am fiscally conservative — better management of government, of public resources… and that’s why I got disgusted with the Democrats, fiscally, giving away money. That’s the only thing, but everything else, I’m right down the middle.

The ideological makeup of the 65th Assembly District obviously does not favor the Republican Party. There are around 7,000 Republicans compared with 45,000 Democrats. The Democratic nominee, Alice Cancel, has a huge built-in advantage. Another Democrat, Yuh-Line Niou, is running on the Working Families Party line, and has collected endorsements from many leading Democratic office-holders.

But in our interview, held in Chang’s campaign office near Chatham Square in Chinatown, he and Republican operative Rob Ryan explained how they plan to pull off the unlikeliest of victories. Referencing Chang’s local ties and Yuh-Line Niou’s status as a relative newcomer to Lower Manhattan, Ryan said, “Lester’s roots are a helluva lot deeper in the district. You have someone here (in Chang) who has a real resume. He’s actually done a bunch of stuff with his life.”

Chinatown has long been fertile ground for Republicans (just ask Rudy Giuliani). “Down the street,” said Chang,” there are a lot of disenfranchised Democrats. A Lot!” Ryan also thinks the presidential primary, taking place on the same day next week, will influence the special election. He assumes that many downtown voters will be coming out for Bernie Sanders, and that they’ll likely support fellow-Working Families Party candidate Niou, or Green Party candidate Dennis Levy. The Republican Party hopes the progressive vote is divided among the three liberal candidates, giving Chang an opening. The GOP is spending heavily on direct mail to influence more than 15,000 registered voters who haven’t declared any party affiliation.

Lester Chang 025 (1)

On some issues, Chang doesn’t sound much like a Republican.  He’s a resident of rent stabilized housing and has called for a new version of the Mitchell Lama affordable housing program in Manhattan. Chang supports a stronger rent regulation law in Albany. While he’s personally sympathetic to ending vacancy decontrol, the candidate said it’s probably not realistic politically:

The easiest fix is to raise the cap (at which apartments enter the free market). If you keep raising the cap, vacancy (decontrol) becomes mute. To overturn (vacancy decontrol) is going to be very hard… The cap should be easier to move… I (also) want stronger laws (to prevent displacement)… We need to have stronger teeth for landlords who are stretching the rules… Right now, let’s change the tone. Instead of luxury (housing) — luxury buildings destroy neighborhoods, (New York should emphasize affordability)… You have people making over $100,000-200,000 a year (moving into previously low-income neighborhoods). They expect goods and services to be at that level, not necessarily 99 cent stores or bodegas. When you start to change (communities), you change the character right away. (Mayor) Bloomberg was giving away so much luxury — let’s slow down. Let’s pause. Let’s give the other side a chance to develop — the real affordable, lower- to middle-income, stabilize it and maybe give them, the non-profit developers, a chance to develop those neighborhoods, to counter-balance the luxury.

On other issues, Chang is more in line with his party’s mainstream. He opposes the new statewide $15 minimum wage that’s going to be phased in over the next several years. Chang believes it will hurt mom-and-pop businesses and low-income residents who can’t afford to pay higher prices in local shops and restaurants. He’s skeptical about a proposal being advanced by the #SaveNYC group to give commercial tenants lease renegotiation rights.

It’s a free market. What we can do is give incentives. My proposal is for landlords to give tenants longer leases and they get a significant (property) tax break for that… I suspect some of the stores are being warehoused, as well… If you don’t rent a storefront in a certain amount of time, there a penalty. You don’t want empty storefronts because it also affects real estate values.  Maybe there should be a penalty against an owner if you don’t rent your space in a year or 16 months.

Chang is a strong proponent of charter schools. “I believe in choice,” he explained. “Parents should make the choice. If they feel a charter school is a good fit for their kids, let them make that choice. That’s how I feel.” The candidate understands that co-locating charters in existing school buildings is a contentious issue. Chang thinks the city has an obligation to find space for charter schools if there’s no room in traditional schoolhouses. He also supports tuition tax credits and mayoral control of the public schools, but believes parents should be given a stronger voice in their kids’ educations. Chang is adamantly opposed to changing admissions tests for specialized high schools, which have come under fire for being culturally biased.

Chang said he would fight for increased anti-terrorism funding in Lower Manhattan. “I will be the biggest squeaky wheel,” he asserted, “to make sure we get our money here. New York is still number one bull’s eye.” He believes the National Guard should be mobilized to help protect the city and that there should be more surveillance cameras in key locations.

On an issue that has long frustrated people in Chinatown, Chang believes the police department should loosen automobile restrictions through Park Row. The route was closed following 9/11 for security reasons and continues to hobble local businesses.

Why can’t we just (open Park Row) at limited times, during the weekends or during the daytime? There’s a balance in there. If we can’t have a balance, let’s provide free shuttle buses. You gotta give. It’s choking our businesses and community here.

To help Chinatown businesses dependent on tourism, Chang said he has a suggestion:

I’ve thought about this. You know there’s (shuttle bus) between Battery Park and South Street Seaport. Extend that from South Street Seaport to Chinatown… Cut across Canal Street and stop by Little Italy, because they would like that, too. Go up two blocks north at Centre Street, to Museum of Chinese in America. Help them out a little bit. Then go down south to Battery Park. It will benefit not only tourism but the residents of (these neighborhoods). Why not put some New York State tourism funding in there? It’s basically the Downtown Alliance running it. Chinatown doesn’t have that kind of money… We’re not talking about a billion dollar project. Maybe a couple million. It makes sense.

Another transportation issue of interest to a lot of people in the neighborhood is the regulation of intercity buses. A state law meant to tame the burgeoning industry has proved ineffective due to scant enforcement by the NYPD. Several years ago, the city investigated the idea of creating a downtown bus depot, but concluded that there are no suitable locations in Lower Manhattan. Chang said it’s time to try again. “We need a depot somewhere in Lower Manhattan,” he argued,  “not above ground, but deep underground,” perhaps under the Manhattan Bridge.

Chang believes it would deliver a powerful message to state legislators if voters sent him to Albany in the aftermath of Sheldon Silver’s conviction. The message, he said, would be, “You failed. It’s very simple.” Chang is in favor of term limits for committee chairs. While supportive of term limits for all lawmakers, he doesn’t see that as a realistic proposal in the short term.

Summing up, he explained, “I’m so damn angry about what’s happening. If I can be that spark for other, regular people, hey, we can make a difference… People need to know, he said, that “a regular Joe can be a public official. This is a decent job if you’re true to yourself.”

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