Leading up to next week’s special election, we’re interviewing the candidates battling to replace Sheldon Silver in the New York State Assembly. After she was elected Democratic nominee, we talked with Alice Cancel (an updated version of the early February story will be featured later this week). Today, our attention turns to Working Families Party Candidate Yuh-Line Niou.
Niou is chief of staff to Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim. She came to New York in 2010 to take part in the National Urban Fellows Program. Previously, Niou worked as a legislative assistant in Washington State and as a lobbyist for the Statewide Poverty Action Network. About two years ago, Niou moved to the Financial District.
In our interview, which took place last month, we began by discussing what brought her downtown:
It’s not a real awesome story. I actually was robbed where I was living in Harlem. My boyfriend at the time, my fiance (now), didn’t think I was safe up there, so he told me to move in, and so that’s how I moved to the Financial District with him. He was already living there. Actually, there were two incidents. We have a lot of safety issues. Some of the things that happen on the Lower East Side are very parallel. I watched a girl get raped on a pile of garbage, right across the street from the projects. That’s where I was living. I was living at 106th (Street) and 1st Avenue. I was calling police and yelling at him through my window… Another time I watched this guy slam a girl’s head into – she was at an ATM – just slam it right into an ATM machine and grab her money and run. I was trying to get the police to go after him, and they just took their time. So these are all incidents that kind of led to me moving down to the Financial District and moving in with my partner.
The circumstances that led to this campaign in the 65th Assembly District are obviously unusual. Sheldon Silver was forced from office after being convicted on federal corruption charges in late November. Governor Cuomo officially called the special election on Jan. 30, setting off a mad scramble by candidates interested in vying for the high-profile Lower Manhattan seat. Niou talked about why she decided to pursue elected office:
For me, I just realized, as a resident in the community, as someone who loves it here and wants to see the best for our district, I want to serve. I want to use my skill-set to be able to serve our community. I know exactly how Albany works. I know that whoever comes in is going to have a freshman budget, and it’s going to be tough. I think the biggest need that we have here is constituent services… The former speaker had over $1 million just to do constituent services… We’re going to be at an $85,000 budget, whoever comes in… I run a freshman office, so I know exactly how it’s done… Because you have such a limited amount of funds and because you have such a limited amount of time, you really need to hit the ground running on day one… In Ron’s office I was able to help service 30-60 people a day. That’s like 10,000 constituent cases a year… I’m going to make sure that folks really feel taken care of. That’s my mission and the reason I want to serve. As I look around, I just see the need… I strongly feel that having a voice is very important.
Niou was one of several candidates seeking the Democratic nomination at a local County Committee meeting in February. She dropped out of contention just before the vote, calling the process “undemocratic.” About 180 members of the County Committee, almost all with ties to the district’s four political clubs, voted that day. Clubs that turned out strongly for Governor Cuomo in 2014 (as opposed to Zephyr Teachout) wielded more influence. Here’s what Niou had to say about the process:
My biggest concern is that I wanted to see real representation from our district on that county committee. I just didn’t feel that it was very representative of that… As you know, it was a weighted vote… People didn’t have to live in the (election districts) that they were representing. The entire county committee was controlled by four clubs. On top of that, it was a weighted vote, which was about whoever was voting for the governor in the last election. In the (election districts) – especially in Battery Park City, the Financial District – some of them had voted for Zephyr Teachout, and so somehow they’re less Democrats. It was structured so that some people could have larger weighted votes. I think some of the politics that went into that were interesting, to say the least. I think I was one of the only candidates who did not have a vote herself.
In campaign literature, Niou has hit Alice Cancel hard, linking her to Sheldon Silver. Cancel was backed by the Truman Democratic Club, Silver’s political organization. Niou says she would be an independent voice in Albany with a strong commitment to reform. Her critics, however, have argued that she was just as determined as the other candidates in the race to win the support of Silver’s club. We asked Niou about that:
I never made any deals with anybody. I went in there and I knocked on doors. I made phone calls. I talked to as many County Committee members as were willing to give me time. I was able to peel off votes from all four clubs… I have a great mentor in (NYC Comptroller) Scott Stringer… One of the things I was doing was talking to each person and counting their vote… That is, I think, what every candidate should be doing. I was actually reprimanded for doing that, which I thought was even more undemocratic. I really wanted to reach each person and talk to them and tell them why I’m the best for this job.
Many people in the district have complex feelings about the former speaker. There was no shortage of dismay as revelations surfaced at his federal corruption trial. At the same time, a lot of local residents (including Alice Cancel) say they will always remember Silver’s advocacy on behalf of the communities in Lower Manhattan. Niou weighed in on the takeaways for her from Sheldon Silver’s rise and fall:
I think the takeaway is to represent your district well. I think you should never be morally compromised when representing your district. You’re put in a position of trust and higher standard for your district and to be their representative. You’re there to listen. You’re there to understand a lot of the complicated issues. We have one of the most beautiful parts of the state. We have a complex, diverse group of folks, with their individual neighborhoods, amazing cultures that surround each one, and you know, it’s a beautiful slice of New York… We’re held to protect… As a public servant you’re supposed to serve the people who elect you. You’re supposed to represent them as best you can. I think the community is mourning a bit. They feel sad and betrayed. I think the takeaway is never to put your community in that spot.
Niou’s opponents say she just hasn’t spent enough time in Lower Manhattan to fully understand the issues and people of the 65th Assembly District. Her response:
You can’t live in every single part of the district. I live in the Financial District and I know my folks there, but as a representative, I have to represent the whole district. I am out there talking to folks, listening to what they have to say and, you know, it’s amazing. It’s amazing to learn from people. I am not entrenched in any of the particular politics, so I think it actually gives me an opportunity to be a better unifier. I think it makes it so I could be a convener of sorts, to help bring different communities together. I know how to push agendas through in Albany and I know how to write great policy. Yes, there are different learning curves of sorts for everyone who comes into this position, but I will do my best to listen and to fight for everyone in our district.
ON THE ISSUES
Cleaning Up Albany: Niou said she wants to see campaign finance reform, term limits for the legislature and she supports stripping the pensions of convicted lawmakers. This is what Niou had to say about legislation pushed through the assembly to limit outside income (good government groups have criticized the bill for setting the limits too high):
Right now 90% of the caucus has outside income. A lot of folks, they’re willing to pass something, so they want to take incremental steps… This is our opportunity to really take a stand in this fight. We’re able to make sure that the person who we elect April 19 will be able to take a stand, fight for those things and really push the agenda forward. If every single member comes in, that has that same opinion, will be able to help move the agenda forward a little bit.
Funding Charter Schools:
We have to fund our public schools. That’s the biggest thing. It’s nice to have other ideas come in… I’m a product of the public school system. If anything takes away from the funding of public schools, i think there’s something wrong… We’re literally owed $44.6 million just in our district alone. Think about how much that funding could do to make sure students are able to pursue their dreams.
Mayoral Control of the public schools:
I think right now the United Federation of Teachers (which has endorsed Niou) is very supportive of mayoral control, since it’s (Mayor) de Blasio (in power) and he is helpful, but I think it’s a very controversial issue because under Bloomberg a lot of people were not so happy with it. There’s a history there. I think right now people want to add another three years.
Small Business Survival:
We need to close corporate loopholes for giant conglomerates … We should give some tax breaks to small businesses… and make sure (minority and women-owned businesses) are fully funded and promoted. We have amazing small businesses here, especially in our district – Chinatown, Little Italy, Lower East Side – There are amazing restaurants, all part of the culture here.
We asked what specific proposals for helping mom-and-pop businesses Niou would support:
There are a few that I have been looking at. Our community has amazing answers for that… One of the things is making sure there’s tax credits for – some kind of incentive – to help businesses stay. We’re losing businesses left and right. It’s upsetting, because it’s jobs, as well, and it’s part of the cultural flavor of each of our neighborhoods.
Intercity Buses: A state law aimed at regulating buses has been criticized as ineffective. Niou said she believes the problem is not so much the law but its enforcement:
If they’re not licensed to operate here, shut them down… If you’re not licensed to operate a business then you’re not a business. You should get fined and you should be criminalized. Get out of here! But at the same time… certain people want the buses. If they’re licensed, fine. But they have to follow the law… As I’m looking at the legislation, I don’t think the legislation is bad… The fines are an appropriate amount… I thought it was written very well. I do think it’s an enforcement issue.
Niou concluded our interview by saying:
I just want people to know where I come from. I have been a longtime advocate on many different levels. I come from the advocacy world. I have over 15 years of public service under my belt… Most of my expertise has been in making sure there’s financial literacy… Making sure we have good growth, bringing wealth into the state and for working families and protecting working families from predatory things. That’s my background. I have worked very closely with a lot of different agencies and organizations… coalitions… to move issues forward… We need to make sure every voice gets heard and understand how to navigate difficult situations together… We wouldn’t be fighting over the same piece of pie. We should be asking for more pie. I think that’s one of the things I’m very good at. I’m very well versed in how to ask for more pie.
The special election will be held April 19. Tomorrow we’ll have an interview with Republican Lester Chang. The candidates weighed in on a wide range of issues during our recent candidate forums. You can read a recap here.