Committee picks Cancel for special election; Niou abruptly bows out before vote

Alice Cancel is the Democratic nominee for the April 19 special election to fill the vacant 65th Assembly District seat.    Villager file photo by Tequila Minsky

Alice Cancel is the Democratic nominee for the April 19 special election to fill the vacant 65th Assembly District seat. Villager file photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Wed., Feb. 10, 1o p.m.: On Sunday afternoon, longtime District Leader Alice Cancel was overwhelmingly nominated by County Committee members to be the Democratic nominee in the April 19 special election to succeed former Assemblymember Sheldon Silver.

The vote was held at the Educational Alliance, at 197 E. Broadway.

Although predictions had been that there would be several rounds of voting, Cancel won on the first and only round of balloting. About 185 County Committee members weighed in. Known as “weighted votes,” which are based on a formula, the final tally was 5,772 for Cancel, 1,770.5 for Paul Newell, 605 for Jenifer Rajkumar, 93 for Yuh-Line Niou and zero for Gigi Li.

The weighted vote was determined by the level of turnout in the 65th A.D.’s various election districts for Governor Andrew Cuomo in his general election in 2014. For example, two committee members who both live at 77 Fulton St. in Southbridge Towers, but are in different election districts, had different weighted votes. One’s vote sheet was worth 24.5 weighted votes, while the other’s was worth 93 weighted votes.

The district includes Lower Manhattan, Chinatown, Little Italy and the Lower East Side and stretches up into Soho and a small part of the East Village.

Calling the nominating process “flawed,” Niou dramatically dropped out of the running after concluding her five-minute speech to the members.

“I am withdrawing from this flawed process — and look forward to sharing my vision for Downtown in April and in September with all those who have no voice here, but who need and deserve so much from their assemblymember,” Niou said, emphatically punctuating her statement by raising her hand straight up in the air above her head. There were some gasps and “oohs” from the crowd at the surprising twist.

Most understood, though, that she withdrew because she didn’t have the votes to win, and that it was thus strategically smart, so as not appear a loser. Niou recently was endorsed by the Working Families Party and intends to run as a third-party candidate in the special election on the W.F.P. line, and will run in the September Democratic primary election, too.

Huh-Line Niou gave an impassioned speech — before abruptly withdrawing from the County Committee vote.

Yuh-Line Niou gave an impassioned speech — before abruptly withdrawing from the County Committee vote.



Meanwhile, Lester Chang, a businessman and Navy reservist who lives in Nolita, will also be on the ballot on the Republican line for the special election.

Before throwing in the towel, Niou, who is chief of staff for Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, touted her Albany experience, saying she would know exactly how to allocate the $85,000 staff budget that a freshman assemblymember gets. Losing Silver’s seniority will be a big “hit” for the district, she noted.

“Silver had a huge budget,” she said. “I know how to work [a much smaller] budget. …

“I may not be by birth, but I became by choice, a Downtown New Yorker,” she added.

Rajkumar, similarly, in her remarks to the crowd slammed the process as “undemocratic.”

“Indeed, many of us came here today with our marching orders handed to us,” she said.

Some in the crowd cynically noted that if Rajkumar or Niou had had the votes to win, they would not have condemned the process.

Both Li and Newell, in their five-minute speeches, spoke about growing up in the district. Li said that, from now on, including a school in any large development needs to be considered, adding that she pushed for a school to be part of Essex Crossing in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area project.

“She’s a good speaker,” one impressed audience member commented after Li had finished.

Newell said Lower Manhattan has “an aging infrastructure” of public housing, Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 buildings, “housing an aging population, which is the only thing keeping people here,” and that this housing stock should be preserved and expanded.

Rajkumar also gave polished remarks. Quoting former New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, she said, “ ‘There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’

“Today,” she said, “let us, from the East Side to the West Side, set aside our marching orders and vote for the best candidate. … Let us vote for the candidate capable of moving our district and its people forward into a bright new tomorrow. Then we once again can be a shining beacon to the entire city and state.

“I have been in the trenches with you many times,” she told the crowd, noting she had fought, in particular, for improved bus service.

In her remarks before the vote, Cancel — her voice filled with passion, even a bit of defiant anger — said she has been a resident of the district for 40 years and a district leader for 22.

“I raised three sons here,” she said. “I worked side-by-side with Eddie Garcia to create Sol Lain ballfield. I was a P.T.A. president and currently sit on the board of Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth. I worked to prevent the eviction of thousands of people from this community — whether they live in private or public housing. I’ve been living in this community through 9/11, through the untimely floods and blackout of Superstorm Sandy. I am a grassroots activist, a mother, a neighbor, and I will be proud to be your next representative in the New York State Assembly.”

In her brief acceptance speech after the result was announced, Cancel told the committee members, “It’s going to be a great challenge. This is just a hurdle. There is still more to go.”

Afterward, speaking to The Villager, she said, “I’ve been a district leader for many years. I will now have to do it on a bigger level. I’ll have a bigger district to cover.”

She said that housing, the environment and schools would be among her top issues.

Cancel defended the nominating process, saying, “The people that came in this room are all community people.”

After Silver’s conviction, Cancel’s husband, State Committeeman John Quinn, had told The Villager that she didn’t want to run for Assembly. Asked on Sunday what changed her mind, Cancel said, “Because the community reached out to me and said that I would be the perfect candidate — I had already been doing this for 20 years — that the people coming out of the woodwork would not be the best candidates because they hadn’t been here that long.”

For his part, Newell said he had turned down an offer by the Independence Party to run as a third-party candidate on their line in the special election.

“This is never a process that’s good for a reform candidate, but I participated fully,” he said of the County Committee vote. He noted that of the district’s four Democratic clubs, only his, Downtown Independent Democrats, is a so-called reform club.

Setting his sights on the September primary, another candidate, Don Lee, did not participate in the County Committee process and did not address the members at Sunday’s gathering. He had earlier issued a statement slamming the special-election process.

The vote’s timing was tough for the Chinese-American community, since it was the day before the Chinese New Year, a day when families get together and have dim sum.

In the days before the vote, Niou had come under attack on several fronts. Opponents charged that she did not have long enough legal residency in New York to run for office — which Niou’s team vehemently denied — plus that she never voted until age 30.

As to the claim about when she first voted, Matt Rey, her spokesperson, said before Sunday’s vote, “I’m not going to get into that right now. This is not the venue.” He did not respond to a follow-up request for an answer by press time.

One thing is for certain, Niou’s candidacy has attracted the strong interest and support of many in the city’s Asian-American community. Her boss, Assemblymember Kim, was at Sunday’s vote, dressed casually in a fleece pullover and khakis. Chris Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, was also seated in the audience, though he is not a County Committee member.

“I like Yuh-Line,” Kui said. “I’m just here to show moral support. I knew her even when she was in Seattle — we were both part of a national coalition of community development.”

How about Don Lee as a candidate? he was asked.

“I haven’t seen him for a while,” Kui shrugged of the Chinatown activist / IT specialist.

Yuh-Line Niou, center, put on a game face at last Sunday's County Committee vote, but Virginia Kee, president emeritus of U.D.O., to the left of her, was clearly disappointed that they couldn't sway the Truman Democratic Club's members to support Niou. At far left is Assemblymember Ron Kim, part of New York's new generation of Asian-American political leadership.

Yuh-Line Niou, center, put on a brave face at last Sunday’s County Committee vote, but Virginia Kee, president emeritus of U.D.O., to the left of her, was clearly disappointed that they couldn’t sway the Truman Democratic Club’s members to support Niou. At far left is Assemblymember Ron Kim, part of New York’s new generation of Asian-American political leadership. Niou is Kim’s chief of staff.



Diem Boyd of the Lower East Side Dwellers said the bigger contest is yet to come — the primary election, when the Democratic candidates will go head-to-head at the polls.

“I’m looking forward to September when democracy really can shine through,” she said.

In fact, Boyd said, it would have made sense just to forgo the special election, since Cancel will be in office for less than two months before the state Legislature breaks for its annual six-month recess.

Councilmember Rosie Mendez endorsed Cancel in the run-up to the vote. Speaking last Sunday, Mendez, asked her thoughts on Niou, said, “Yuh-Line seems very smart and she’s very personable. But, for me, the big factor is that she doesn’t have the experience and the history in this district. At the end of the day, there are three candidates I know very well — Gigi Li, Paul Newell and Alice Cancel. Alice knows every part of this district. She has to learn Albany, but I think she’ll figure that out and hit the ground running.”

District Leaders Newell and Rajkumar both hail from the same club, Downtown Independent Democrats, and neither would defer to the other in their hunger for higher office.

Allan Schulkin, commissioner of the Manhattan Board of Elections, who also was on hand for the vote, offered, “D.I.D. should have chosen the candidate. The two candidates should have decided who’s going to run. I think it was a mistake to split the vote.”

Judy Rapfogel, Silver’s longtime former chief of staff and a member of the Truman Democratic Club, also cast a vote as a County Committee member.

“It’s a process that has to happen,” she said of the County Committee selection. Asked who she would vote for, she said, “The person who will do the best for the community,” though didn’t specify.

As for the latest on Silver, she said, “He believes, on appeal, he will be vindicated. He is very upbeat, very determined.”

Ultimately, Truman threw its support behind Cancel, who already had the backing of her Lower East Side Democratic Club.

L.E.S.D.C.’s Quinn said Virginia Kee, president emeritus of the United Democratic Organization, had really been “twisting arms,” trying to work the vote for Niou.

Kee later said that U.D.O. saw the writing on the wall the morning before the vote, at which time the decision was made for Niou to withdraw.

“When we went in, we only had 12 percent of the vote,” she said. “You have to have 20 percent, otherwise you’ll be dropped [out of the running]. We knew that D.I.D. would be supporting Newell or Rajkumar. We were hoping for Truman’s support, and when we were told they were not, we said, it’s not a level playing field. So it’s really heartbreaking for us. Chinatown and Grand St. have been friends for a very long time. … At this point, I really don’t want to talk about it. It was very disappointing. I believe firmly, and we all do at U.D.O., that we have the best candidate and the one that will deliver for the 65th Assembly District.”

As for those who say Niou is too new to the district, Kee retorted U.D.O. likes that.

“She’s new,” she said. “Why do you want somebody who’s been here forever? She would help reform Albany.”

Kee thanked The Villager for having first “introduced” Niou to the broader community in an article last December.

Former District Leader John Fratta, who voted on Sunday, offered, “The primary in September is going to be an interesting race, depending how many Chinese are in it. I think Alice will be the front-runner — Alice has been working the district a long time — unless people put together some kind of coalition.”

District Leader Jenny Low, who is Kee’s goddaughter — Kee was her teacher in public school — said C.B. 3 Chairperson Li’s petition fiasco over this past summer was very damaging. Li abandoned her planned run against District Leader Rajkumar amid accusations of fraudulent petition signatures.

“The petition scandal is a huge handicap for anybody,” Low said. “We always go for the most qualified candidate.”

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