Former Assemb. Sheldon Silver represented the 65th District for decades, rarely facing serious opposition. Now that he’s gone, there are four choices for a replacement and the beginnings of a new order.
It’s not the hot ticket showdown in Tuesday’s primaries, but the special election in Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District is a key indicator for the soul of New York City politics.
For decades, the Assembly district that covers Chinatown, Little Italy, Lower Manhattan and much of the Lower East Side, was represented by Assemb. Sheldon Silver. While in office, Silver became leader of the Assembly and one of the most powerful men in the state — until last year, when he was convicted of corruption charges along with State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
Silver and Skelos, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, were the “three men in a room” who kept tight control over lawmakers and largely controlled policy in the Empire State.
Four candidates walk into a bar. Ouch.
There are four candidates on the ballot Tuesday, running on the Democrat, Republican, Green and Working Families lines.
The heavily Democratic district is unlikely to go for the Republican or Green Party candidates, but the race between Democrat Alice Cancel and Yuh-Line Niou of the Working Families Party line, is closer.
Cancel, a longtime district leader, has praised the former assembly speaker. She got the nod in a party-controlled selection process, which gives the impression that local Democrats aren’t exactly turning over a new leaf. Silver’s allies campaigned for her to be the only choice for voters.
In special elections like this one, party leaders choose candidates instead of putting the choice to the voters via primary. It can be an undemocratic process, particularly in a district like the 65th that is dominated by influential political clubs.
With the budget passed and few days left during which the Assembly will be in session, there’s little for the winner of this special election to do in Albany — besides receive a little legitimacy for his or her November run.
Which makes it look like local power brokers are stacking the deck once again, in the kind of command-and-control performance at which Silver excelled.
This is why Niou is getting a surprising amount of traction, though she’s running on a third party line and only recently moved to the district. She has the backing of prominent Democrats Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James, in addition to a number of City Council members and state legislators. (Niou was chosen by the Working Families Party and has also not faced a primary).
She is currently chief of staff for Queens Assemb. Ron Kim, and fought against predatory lending practices and for immigrant rights while in Washington State.
Niou would be one of few Asian-American politicians serving in the State Legislature, an acknowledgement of the growing political strength of Asian-Americans, emerging in such displays as the show of support for former police officer Peter Liang.
She could also represent a new path for an area that is rapidly changing.
The district has recently been home to a real estate scandal that generated citywide interest — the murky sale of a former nursing home, Rivington House, to developers who plan to turn it into luxury condos after a deed restriction was lifted. The scandal highlighted the neighborhood as a front in the gentrification fight, where longtime residents feel they’re being pushed out. For some, there is the perception that backroom dealers like Silver only sped up that process, as with Extell Development’s planned luxury tower supported by the 421-a tax exemption program; or when Silver blocked affordable housing for decades in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.
On Tuesday, voters have the chance to cast ballots against the status quo (in a classic example of party roadblocks to participation, voters will have to ask for a second ballot other than their presidential one).
Electing Niou even for a brief term might indicate that some New Yorkers have had enough of Silver’s and Skelos’ politics as usual and are willing to try something new.
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