Après Shelly Silver, le deluge of candidates? Or maybe not…

Photo By Jefferson Siegel Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was swarmed by photographs and reporters as he left federal court in Lower Manhattan on Mon., Nov. 30, after being found guilty on all counts in his corruption trial.

Photo By Jefferson Siegel
Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was swarmed by photographers and reporters as he left federal court in Lower Manhattan on Mon., Nov. 30, after being found guilty on all counts in his corruption trial.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Jenifer Rajkumar, Paul Newell, Gigi Li, Jenny Low, _____ (fill in the blank)… . Who will be the next person to represent the 65th Assembly District?

Whoever it is ultimately, one thing is for certain: The Assembly seat will remain vacant until April.

Monday’s conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on seven federal corruption charges cemented what seemed fairly inevitable ever since his shocking arrest back in January — namely, that, after Silver’s decades-long political reign, Lower Manhattan will be getting a new assemblymember.

Word on the street had been that, regardless of the trial’s outcome, the “tarnished Silver” wouldn’t run for re-election next year.

However, following his felony conviction for engineering $4 million in what prosecutors called kickbacks through referrals to his lawfirm, Silver was instantly stripped of his political office. His Assembly home page was immediately scrubbed clean — a search for it yields “Not Found” above a blank white page — and phone calls to his Assembly office are now automatically redirected to the office of Carl Heastie, who replaced Silver as Assembly speaker in February. Silver could face up to 20 years in jail, though he is appealing.

The day after the momentous ruling, Governor Andrew Cuomo clarified the situation regarding how Silver’s successor will be chosen. According to the New York Observer, during a press conference on Tuesday, Cuomo when asked about whether he planned to call a special election to fill Silver’s former seat, said it would be held in April on the same day as the presidential primary.

Cuomo, who has been reluctant to call special elections in the past, said that holding one for the Lower East Side seat and two other vacancies on that day would save money.

As opposed to an open primary, the local Democratic and Republican county committees would each pick one candidate who would then face off in the special election. The winner, though, could face a challenge six months later in a traditional primary in September.

Silver was Assembly speaker for 20 years, making him one of the state’s most powerful politicians, if not the most powerful. He represented the Lower East Side in Albany for twice that long. His fall represents not only a huge sea change for Lower Manhattan, but a rarity in a state Legislature where, without term limits, winning election basically means a job for life.

A rare opening

“They’re like the Aurora Borealis,” Hank Sheinkopf, the veteran Democratic political consultant, said of open seats in the Legislature. “You don’t see them very often.”

It’s no surprise, but the Democratic candidate will be overwhelmingly favored to take the special election.

Illustration by Elizabeth Williams Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, the Tribeca-based youth program, at Silver’s trial on Mon, Dec. 23, during the case’s closing statements. Silver helped Manhattan Youth get its start and supported the group over the years.

Illustration by Elizabeth Williams
Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, the Tribeca-based youth program, at Silver’s trial on Mon, Dec. 23, during the case’s closing statements. Silver helped Manhattan Youth get its start and supported the group over the years.

“Unless Mars collides with Venus, the Democratic nominee will win,” Sheinkopf quipped. “For the Republican to win — you’d have a better chance of finding gold in the Gowanus Canal.”

Rajkumar and Newell, who are co-Democratic district leaders are also members of the same political club, Downtown Independent Democrats. Newell ran against Silver in the 2008 primary, while Rajkumar gave Councilmember Margaret Chin a strong challenge in 2013.

The September primary could well be a “free-for-all,” Sheinkopf predicted.

There’s no campaign finance system at the state level, he noted, meaning the government offers candidates no matching funds, which is a way to even the playing field for less well-funded candidates. So it boils down to “who can put up the money” to wage a campaign, he said.

“Rajkumar can raise money,” he said. “Paul Newell has run [for Assembly] before, so he probably feels he has a claim on the seat.

“If Gigi Li were in the race, it would be a different story,” Sheinkopf said, referring to the Community Board 3 chairperson.

Li in limbo?
Li, who would be expected to draw the district’s Chinese-American vote, ran into trouble this past summer when she tried to topple Rajkumar as district leader. The petition signatures that Li’s supporters collected to put her on the ballot were riddled with fraud, a lawsuit filed by two D.I.D. members charged. Ultimately, Li dropped out of the race, though denying the fraud allegations, and saying it was because she didn’t collect enough petition signatures.

Local politicos speculate that Li won’t now make a try for the Assembly seat. She did not respond to a request for comment this week on whether she might run.

However, Diem Boyd, founder of the LES Dwellers quality-of-life group, said she has been hearing rumors that Chinatown’s United Democratic Organization might be thinking of pushing Jenny Low for the open seat. Low has been a district leader for 10 years.

In addition, Lower Manhattan activist Arthur Piccolo is advocating for Catherine McVay Hughes, C.B. 1 chairperson, to run for the seat, saying she has the “character and intelligence” that would serve the district well.

Ready for change
Newell was the first to blast out a statement after Silver’s conviction was announced Monday.

“This is a sad day for Lower Manhattan and a sad day for New York,” Newell said. “Today’s verdict proves it is up to us to reclaim our government. No court will end Albany’s culture of corruption and cronyism. If we, as voters and citizens, continue to accept a government that favors those who buy power and influence, then that will be the government we get. But, if we want a government that is fair, transparent, and works for all of us, we must reclaim it ourselves. We can and must do better. The time for us to act is now.”

Asked for comment on Silver’s fall, Rajkumar said, “Lower Manhattan residents must now come together across neighborhoods, income levels and ethnicities, investing in a sense of collective destiny as we tackle the district’s pressing challenges of affordability, school overcrowding and small business survival. We must also come together to address larger national issues of gun violence, national security and equal pay for equal work. Working together, we can replace the culture of corruption in Albany with a culture of service. I look forward to being a part of this movement in any way that best serves our community and ensures honest and effective leadership for the future.”

As for when the Democratic County Committee will meet to pick the nominee, it wasn’t immediately clear, but some think January or February.

‘Take a timeout!’
Meanwhile, John Quinn, the outspoken Lower East Side Democratic state committeeman, said everyone should just take a timeout for a month or so, in the wake of Silver’s epic flameout. The fierce jockeying for political support by Newell and Rajkumar has been going on ever since Silver’s arrest earlier this year, he said.

“They’re both from the same club,” Quinn said, with exasperation, speaking Monday after Silver had been slapped with guilty verdicts on all seven charges that he faced. “I had breakfast with Paul this morning — he asked me to endorse him. I said, ‘How about getting the endorsement of your co-leader? Or how about you endorse your co-leader?’

“This is all too soon,” Quinn said. “Take a deep breath. This is a terrible thing for Silver. This is a terrible thing for the community. I’m not ready to endorse anybody. We just had a freakin’ disaster here. It’s not a good thing. Give it a rest.”

Plus, there are other parts of the district yet to be heard from, he added.

“What’s happening on Grand St.?” he asked, referring to Silver’s base. “Has anybody spoken to the Chinese? I’m waiting for Virginia Kee to weigh in,” he said of the U.D.O. co-founder and president emeritus.

U.D.O. won’t be frantically rushing to tout its candidate to succeed Silver, if it has one, he said.

“In that community, respect is very important,” he noted.

No Loeser
“If Jessica Loeser was here, she would be the heir apparent,” Quinn said, referring to the former district leader and Silver staffer.

But he said he spoke to Loeser a few months ago, and she doesn’t plan to return to the Lower East Side.

“She’s happy, she has kids,” he said. “She’s in Riverdale, it’s beautiful.”

Meanwhile, Karen Blatt, Loeser’s successor as district leader, isn’t as well known, Quinn said.

Recalls early Silver
Quinn, who was a strong Silver supporter, said he remembers how, early in the assemblymember’s political career, he was a real neighborhood presence, waging battle on behalf of community issues.

“When we had the prison barge down here, at the end of Montgomery St., Shelly fought it,” he recalled, “and he got rid of it. Two guys had broken out and hid in the bushes by the school.

“Before he was speaker, he was always at war with Ed Koch — over the prison barge, over everything. He and Ed Koch didn’t get along.”

And Silver was in the community, he added.

“I remember Shelly giving me a coupon for Pepsi in Pathmark,” Quinn recalled. “He said, ‘I got a coupon for Pepsi, it’s on sale.’

“He was in the community, he knew what was going on. He used to play basketball in the park, Sol Lain Park / Ed Garcia Park. He was a basketball player.”

A few weeks ago, Quinn told The Villager he thought both Newell, 40, and Rajkumar, 33, lacked the community experience to be assemblymember. He hasn’t backed away from that stance. In addition, Quinn said the 65th A.D. is an “East Side seat” — with a large amount of public housing on the Lower East Side — so D.I.D., which is based in Soho, shouldn’t expect to be the kingmaker.

Cancel not a candidate
Meanwhile, anonymous posters on thevillager.com accused Quinn of actually wanting his wife, District Leader Alice Cancel, to run for the open seat. But he said it’s not true.

“O.K., I think she’d be great,” he said. “She said if I started pushing her to run, she’d divorce me. I’d love to keep my marriage intact.”

For Quinn, losing Silver and his clout is something the state committeeman still can’t get over.

“Shelly was the greatest thing to happen for the neighborhood since Alfred E. Smith was speaker,” he said. “Did he get schools built, programs funded? He had the juice to do it. The Spruce St. School, that was totally Shelly. He put the pressure on [for funding and projects], and he brought stability to the community.”

‘Time to move forward’
But for many others, Silver’s ouster is a breath of fresh air, a long-awaited chance for a new start and political reform in Lower Manhattan.

“Justice in Lower Manhattan has been served, and now it is time to move forward,” said the LES Dwellers’ Boyd. “We still have a long way to go to fix our battered democracy. But for the first time in 40 years, there is a real opportunity to shake up the system and end the machine politics and pay-to-play culture in the 65th Assembly District.”

East Side cred claims
To those that say the two young co-district leaders from D.I.D. don’t have enough community experience, both Newell and Rajkumar said that’s far from the truth.

“I am a proud Lower East Sider,” Newell said, “the fourth generation of my family to live Downtown. And Quinn’s right that the bulk of the population is on the East Side. But all Lower Manhattan neighborhoods need representation and fighting for.

“Public housing is indeed very important in the district, as are Mitchell-Lamas, co-ops, rent-stabilized units and project-based Section 8 housing,” he added. “Maintaining our diversity of housing stock will have to be a priority for anyone looking to represent the district.”

As for Rajkumar, she responded, “Anyone who has followed my career at all knows that as district leader and in my professional life, I’ve developed a tremendously strong connection to the Lower East Side. Just this year, I organized a free legal clinic offering housing law services in Spanish, Chinese and English to over 1,000 residents of public housing, Mitchell-Lamas and co-ops on the Lower East Side. We had a packed house.

“I’ve worked repeatedly with community and housing groups on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown, and I’m part of the SWEAT coalition fighting to pass a workers’ rights bill in Albany that would help workers recover stolen wages. I’ve met personally with hundreds, if not thousands, of residents of the public housing complexes to discuss their interests and issues. I’m enormously proud of the work I’ve done on the East Side and of the wonderful relationships I’ve built there.”

Silver’s lingering clout
Sean Sweeney, a leading member of D.I.D., acknowledged Quinn is right, that it is an East Side district. He said he expected that more people will come forward who are interested in the seat — and also that Silver will exert his considerable influence.

“I bet other names will emerge,” Sweeney said. “There is always the oddball gadfly that no one can predict. And I am sure Shelly would not want a D.I.D. member to replace him. I don’t think he has ever supported a D.I.D. candidate for any office — save for Alan Gerson for City Council in 2001. So, I bet the other clubs will search desperately to make sure the Reform Democratic club — D.I.D. — has an opponent.”

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