Newell gets D.I.D.’s nod; Rajkumar rages against ‘clubhouse gang’ politics

Paul Newell.
Paul Newell.

BY COLIN MIXSON | Breaking the deadlock that has gripped the Downtown Independent Democrats over who its candidate for the 65th Assembly District will be in the September primary election, last Wednesday evening, D.I.D. finally made a definitive choice, endorsing Paul Newell.

In their June 1 vote, the club went for Newell over Jenifer Rajkumar by about 2-to-1. Both are district leaders and D.I.D. members.

Newell previously ran in an Assembly primary when he challenged former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2008. He also was recently endorsed by two other local political organizations, the East Side’s Coalition for a District Alternative and the Stonewall Democrats, a leading gay and lesbian club.

“The D.I.D. has been standing for community representation and ethical government for 45 years,” Newell said. “I am proud to carry that banner in this election and will be prouder still to do so in Albany.”

D.I.D. President Jeanne Wilcke said, “D.I.D. members have seen Newell’s long service to our neighborhood and his fearless advocacy for reform. The vote was not a rejection of any candidate, but a firm support for Paul Newell.”

But Rajkumar slammed the club’s endorsement and vowed to remain in the race. A member of D.I.D. for the past six years, she heaped scorn on the venerable political outfit after it voted to endorse her club rival, Newell. She said the club “does not represent the greater community” and likened it to the triumvirate in Albany that traditionally has ruled New York State with an iron fist — and which formerly included Silver.

“A small group cast a vote that doesn’t reflect the true sentiments or diversity of our community,” Rajkumar said. “I suppose it was to be expected, since there’s really no difference between ‘three men in a room’ and a gang in a clubhouse.”

The 65th A.D. includes Lower Manhattan and the Financial District, Battery Park City, Chinatown, the South St. Seaport, most of the Lower East Side, a small part of the East Village, part of the South Village, a small part of Soho and Governors Island.

Jennifer Rajkumar.

The district is currently represented by Alice Cancel, who ran as the Democratic nominee in an April special election to fill the vacancy created by Silver’s conviction at the end of last year on federal corruption charges.

To become the Democratic nominee, Cancel won a February vote by the district’s roughly 200 Democratic County Committee members; Newell came in second in the County Committee vote while Rajkumar was third.

Cancel is running for re-election in September amid a crowded field of at least a half dozen hopefuls that includes several Asian candidates.

Last Wednesday, D.I.D. was faced with making the unenviable decision of choosing to endorse Newell or Rajkumar, both leading members of the 45-year-old political club.

D.I.D. has a long history of supporting both Newell and Rajkumar in their elections, including Newell’s bid for district leader in 2009 and Rajkumar’s run against then-District Leader Linda Belfer in 2011, plus Rajkumar’s unsuccessful challenge to Councilmember Margaret Chin in the 2013 primary election.

Beyond that, many D.I.D. members refer to both Newell and Rajkumar as a friend, underscoring the difficulty of the decision to endorse one candidate over the other.

“Everybody’s been friends with Paul and Jenifer for over a decade, so it was a very difficult call for everybody,” said D.I.D. member Tom Goodkind.

Some members were so upset with the prospect of choosing between Rajkumar and Newell that there was an effort to include “Captain’s Choice” on the D.I.D. ballot, an option allowing members to endorse all candidates in a given race — which is more positive than voting “No Endorsement.”

D.I.D. President Wilcke went so far as to put Captain’s Choice on the ballots that were handed out at the beginning of the June 1 meeting. However, the members present voted overwhelmingly to strike it off, with the general sentiment being that Captain’s Choice would dilute the club’s influence on the coming election, which, again, has at least half a dozen other candidates, plus incumbent Cancel.

“People were so concerned and would say, ‘Can’t we elect both?’ that the Captain’s Choice thing was floated,” Wilcke said. “But people understood that we really had to endorse a candidate. We’re here to give guidance to people who look to our endorsements.”

But Rajkumar took issue with the decision to nix Captain’s Choice, which — in light of the club’s decision to go for Newell — could have left her campaign in a far better position come November.

“The removal of Captain’s Choice from the internal club ballot — which would have offered an opportunity for members to support their preferred candidate — smacks of a fix being in,” she said.

However, Wilcke took issue with that statement, saying the decision to remove Captain’s Choice from the ballot was made in as open and democratic a way as possible, with a vote among members that followed a lengthy discussion on the nature of Captain’s Choice and its merits.

“We actually spoke at length — about to the point where people’s eyes were glazing over —to make sure we got it right,” Wilcke said. “So I don’t think that’s a fair comment.”

Former club president Sean Sweeney said that Rajkumar apparently knew her chances of beating Newell for D.I.D.’s endorsement were slim, since she called Sweeney requesting that Captain’s Choice be added to the ballot as a means of hedging her bet.

“She knew she was losing,” Sweeney said. “It was a very shrewd political move.”

Regardless, it would seem that Rajkumar is cutting off her nose to spite her face — as well as spite the club — in hurling accusations at her longtime friends and supporters, according to Goodkind.

“For her to scorn the club certainly is bridge burning,” he said.

Despite her harsh words, though, there doesn’t seem to be any hard feelings on the part of D.I.D.’s leadership, which looks forward to supporting her in future endeavors — just as long as she’s not running against Newell.

“I consider Jenifer like a daughter and I told her that, and Paul like a son,” Sweeney said. “She’s a little annoyed, I understand, it’s natural. She put a lot of time and effort into this campaign. And Paul and Jenifer were the best of friends. We all were. We still are.”

According to a D.I.D. source who requested anonymity, however, at least two elected officials and some club members are now saying they think Rajkumar, at this point, should throw in the towel.

“But it is unlikely she will drop out at this point, especially now that she has opened a campaign office and officially announced,” the source said.

In addition, in a close vote, D.I.D. last week endorsed Deborah Glick for re-election versus challenger Arthur Schwartz in the September primary for the West Side’s 66th Assembly District. Glick got 26 votes to District Leader Schwartz’s 22, with 3 votes for “no endorsement.”

Schwartz didn’t let the loss get him down, though, and said he is in it to win.

“The same night, however, I was endorsed by the 504 Democratic Club, the club of disability rights activists, so I batted .500,” he said. “I was also endorsed by Yetta Kurland. I never thought taking on a 26-year incumbent would be easy; this race will go down to the wire,” he predicted.

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