BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Bernie Sanders isn’t the only one talking about a “political revolution.”
A Republican first-time candidate, Lester Chang, thinks he has a shot at winning the special election next month for Lower Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District. And if he manages to pull it off, he said, it would be nothing less than “a tsunami.”
Chang, a businessman and Navy reservist, was born on Eldridge St. in Chinatown and has lived in Nolita more than 20 years.
He also will be on the April 19 ballot on three other lines besides the G.O.P. — the Reform, Independence and Clean Up the Mess party lines, the latter which he created for this election.
Chang is being backed wholeheartedly and aggressively by the city and state’s Republican establishment, who see this as a historic opportunity to capitalize on former Speaker Sheldon Silver’s epic downfall and make a dent in solidly Democratic Manhattan, which hasn’t sent a Republican to Albany in nearly 20 years. Winning the district formerly held by one of New York’s most powerful Democrats would be a colossal coup.
After representing the district for four decades, Silver was convicted at the end of last year on multiple federal corruption charges. Facing up to 130 years in prison, he is due to be sentenced next month.
On Monday night, no less than former Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at a Chang fundraiser in Chinatown at the 88 Palace dim sum banquet hall nestled beneath the Manhattan Bridge on ramp.
Another G.O.P. heavy hitter, Ed Cox, the chairperson of the State Republican Committee, was also on hand and gave brief remarks.
Speaking before Giuliani, Adele Malpass, the Manhattan chairperson of the Republican Party, told the crowd, “Imagine waking up on the 20th, when Sheldon Silver’s seat is held by a Republican. And when Lester wins, he will be the first Republican Asian-American elected in New York State. He believes in term limits, charter schools,” she said, to strong applause. “Yes, educational opportunity. It is just what we need.”
Introducing Giuliani, Malpass praised him for leading the “transformation” of New York and showing leadership after the World Trade Center attack in September 2001.
“He will always be America’s Mayor,” she said to a standing ovation and cheers of “Roo-dee! Roo-dee! Roo-dee!” as Giuliani took the microphone.
The former mayor praised Chang, but actually spent most of his time repeatedly laying into Silver, slamming him as a “dishonest crook.” He also bemoaned what he called the sorry state of New York, Chicago, Detroit and other major American cities, solely blaming their current Democratic mayors for their problems.
“On April 13, the guy who represented this district all the time that I was mayor is finally going to go to jail,” the former two-term mayor predicted. “In American politics, I never met a more dishonorable person than Sheldon Silver. This guy was a massive crook.
“Shelly had two problems — he was a crook and he was dishonest,” he continued. “In politics, you actually have some crooks that are honest. Shelly would take the money and he would doublecross everybody — that’s why he’s going to jail.
“He was completely in the pocket of the teachers union. They’re standing in the way of good education for our children,” Giuliani added of the United Federation of Teachers.
“We need charter schools, we need pay for performance, we need to get rid of [teacher] tenure. I think we need vouchers.”
Right now, Giuliani stressed, is a time when Republicans can make some real inroads, especially in urban areas.
“If I read all the polls correctly, people are tired of career politicians,” he said, referencing the presidential election. “You elect Lester on April 19, it’s a statewide story, it’s a national story. You win here — I tell you — it sends a signal we can win cities.”
Giuliani, who earned the moniker “America’s Mayor” after 9/11, bashed other American mayors — though only Democrats.
“Why is Detroit the way it is? Why is Baltimore the way it is? Why did Chicago have 50 murders in March?” he went on. “You know why — they have been governed by Democratic mayors. Democrats have ruined America’s cities.”
The way to improve cities is simple, Giuliani said: “Education and jobs will help people.”
He added that it was “disgraceful” that the 65th Assembly District, which is about 45 percent Asian-American, has not had someone of that background represent it in the Assembly.
“This is the most important Chinatown in America,” he said, to applause.
Giuliani urged everyone to contribute dollars to Chang’s campaign.
“If I said this better, maybe I could have been president!” he quipped of his own failed presidential bid. “He needs money. He’s not Donald Trump! He’s gotta raise money to get his message out.”
Speaking of Trump, Giuliani said the high turnout in the Republican presidential race would likely help Chang at the polls. He said Ted Cruz and perhaps John Kasich, too, likely will still be in the running when the New York presidential primary is held April 19, the same day as the Assembly special election.
“He’s going to win the race,” Giuliani predicted of Chang. “He’s got Democrats splitting the vote. I think the Republican [presidential] primary will still be going on when they come to New York.”
Chang’s opponents include Alice Cancel, the Democratic nominee, who was selected by a closed County Committee vote; Yuh-Line Niou, a Democrat running on the Working Families Party line; and Dennis Levy, the Green Party candidate running on a marijuana-legalization platform.
All Giuliani’s Chang cheerleading and Democrat bashing aside, however, the numbers definitely don’t favor a Republican candidate. Michael Zumbluskas, New York County chairperson of the Independence Party, provided The Villager with a breakdown of voters’ current party enrollment in the 65th A.D.: There are 49,604 registered Democrats and 7,675 registered Republicans — about a 6.5-to-1 ratio — as well as 2,256 voters registered with the Independence Party; 169 with the Green Party; 156 with the Conservative Party; 154 with the Working Families Party; 6 with the new Women’s Equality Party; 3 with the Reform Party. Another 17,169 voters are not registered with any party. There are a total of 77,248 eligible voters in the district, though 10,400 are considered “inactive” — not having voted recently — though still can vote if they show up at the polls.
Zumbluskas acknowledged that many Manhattanites will never be able to bring themselves to pull the lever — or, rather, pencil in the oval — for a Republican, so the Independence line offers an alternative.
Similarly, Chang, speaking earlier, said that people can also vote for him on the Clean Up the Mess line, since “Some people may not want to vote for me as G.O.P.”
Zumbluskas initially had offered the Independence ballot line to Paul Newell and then to Jenifer Rajkumar. Both district leaders, however, declined the offer and are not running in the special election, but will run in the September Democratic primary for the Assembly seat.
At any rate, although “America’s Mayor” may be a tough act to follow, he isn’t running for office — Chang is. Taking the mic, Chang called Giuliani “like a mentor to me,” praising him for his leadership after 9/11.
“He gave us hope and he gave us steadiness,” he said.
Picking up where Giuliani and Malpass had left off, he proceeded to pummel Silver a bit more.
“For 40 years, Shelly Silver has held his residents of Manhattan captive,” he charged. “It was wrong. So now we have a chance to set things right.”
When he was very young, Chang’s immigrant parents moved their growing family from a cramped one-bedroom apartment on Eldridge St. up to a larger place in public housing in East Harlem. Chang later grew up in Brooklyn and attended Midwood High School. Rocking Chang’s family, his father died when he was eight. To make ends meet, his mother bought a Chinese-food takeout place, and it was hard work, but all the kids helped run it. He went on to attend SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx.
During his career, Chang worked first in business and finance, next for the U.S. Census, then went into international shipping. At age 35, he enlisted in the Navy and is now in the Navy Reserve.
“Boot camp wasn’t easy. Everyone else was 18,” he quipped.
After 9/11, he was called to duty, working for a Joint Intelligence Fusion Cell. In 2009, he worked as a military analyst for special ops in Afghanistan.
For 25 years, he has been an election poll worker at Confucius Plaza.
“I served the community, I served the state and I served the country,” he said of his varied history of service. “I’m a public servant.”
His main planks are education, revitalizing Chinatown’s economy, opposing the push for a $15 minimum wage — which is also a key plank of the state G.O.P. — and term limits in Albany.
“I will vigorously fight against Mayor de Blasio’s dumbing down the specialized high schools,” he told the crowd on Monday, to applause. “It should be merit-based, nothing less.”
Increased tourism is the best way to spark Chinatown’s business, in his view.
“After 9/11, we lost sewing factories here. We need to gain it back, and tourism is the way,” he said of boosting the enclave’s economy.
As for the “Fight for 15” campaign, he said, if elected, he would try to “slow down” the drive to boost the minimum wage from the current $9 because the higher rate would “hurt business.”
Term limits are needed, he said, because “We can’t have career politicians.”
Finally, he said, he is running because the district needs Asian-American representation.
“This district is almost 50 percent Asian,” he stressed.
Among Chang’s supporters at the event were prominent local businessman Charles Wang and Donald Hong, a former executive director and president, respectively, of the Chinatown Planning Council. Hong’s mother, Norma Chu, an early leader of C.P.C., was there, too.
“He represents someone who hasn’t been tainted in the pockets of politicians — and that’s what we need,” Hong said of Chang.
Another local businessman, Peter Lau, is also pulling for Chang.
Eddie Chiu, of the Lin Sing Association, is a Democrat but is backing Chang in the special election.
“He’s very clean — no [negative] background,” he said.
Even if Cancel wins on April 19, Chiu predicted she will lose in the primary.
“In September, I got another candidate — Paul Newell,” he added, with a smile.
Wang gave opening remarks from the podium along with Long “Dragon” Deng, the G.O.P. finance co-chairperson for the metro region.
Asked later what issues Chang could address, if elected, Deng cited two seafood regulations that are hurting Chinatown businesses. First, New York State is too strict in enforcing size limits on lobsters that can be sold, he said. Second, stores cannot display shellfish for sale in water because agencies fear it will lead to shellfish growing in municipal waterworks — which is a fallacy since the pipes are full of freshwater, not saltwater, Deng scoffed. Being caught violating these rules can bring a fine of $500 to $5,000, he said.
Brian Kolb, the Assembly minority leader, was in town last week to boost Chang’s candidacy at a separate press event.
“Lester Chang has the life experience needed to make a great assemblyman,” he said. “He understands the problems that affect this district and he knows how to fix them.”
Kolb said Chang is on target about not hiking the minimum wage.
“It’s almost like you have to remind people, the minimum wage is not a living wage,” Kolb said. “It will put people out of work.”
During the press conference with Kolb, Chang said he is taking inspiration from Trump, who is showing that a political outsider can shake things up, and that maybe he can follow suit.
“I’m a fresh face. That’s maybe why Donald Trump is resonating,” he said. “Yes, he’s a reality TV star, but he’s a fresh face. So I hope that I can cut through.”
Asked if he has endorsed Trump, he said, no, not as of now.
However, Virginia Kee, president emeritus of Chinatown’s United Democratic Organization, which is backing Niou in the special election, downplayed the Chang hype and said he was picked because the G.O.P. was desperately scrambling to find a candidate, any candidate.
“You know him, and you don’t know him,” she shrugged of Chang. “He’s just a nice, pleasant person. He’s not the only person the Republicans called. They called a lot of people. I know because people told me they were asked to run. I don’t know if he was on the short list or the long list.
“We have a very capable candidate, not just someone nice. There are a lot of nice people walking on the street. Yuh-Line is capable. The Republicans put up another Chinese against a Chinese — they just want to split the Chinese vote.”