Lower Manhattan primary offers a test for new progressives
By BILL MAHONEY | 06/12/2020 05:02 AM EDT
ALBANY — It’s clear that Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou has ruffled a few feathers in her four years in the state Capitol. Not every legislator can say that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office has dubbed them an idiot — with an expletive added — for daring to criticize his fundraising.
As many Democratic lawmakers try to fend of challenges from the left in this month's primaries, Niou is an outlier incumbent who’s being accused of being too caught up in progressive ideals and distant from on-the-ground reality. And there’s evidence suggesting that some key members of the Albany establishment would not be heartbroken if she lost to challenger Grace Lee in a fabled downtown Manhattan district.
A pair of campaign finance disclosure reports filed in late May seemed to confirm suspicions that the powers that be might prefer Lee to Niou. After reporting an impressive $156,000 fundraising haul in January, Lee reported $137,000 in total receipts a couple of weeks ago, thanks in part to a $100,000 loan she made to her campaign. The latter total for the four-month period was more than any other legislative candidate who has a primary on June 23, incumbent or challenger.
But the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, which provided aid to a dozen incumbents fending off primary challenges, did not identify spending a dime defending Niou.
Some exchanges on social media also raised eyebrows.
In late May, legislators passed a bill to allocate $100 million in rental assistance vouchers, to the chagrin of tenant advocates who wanted an outright cancellation of rent. Niou was one of 11 members who voted against the assistance measure because she preferred the alternative.
She publicly criticized Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie's decision to pull the assistance bill out of the Assembly’s Housing Committee when it seemed like it might fail there, saying that method of advancing the measure “did not actually exercise democracy.”
“We are talking about voting for a bill that is not properly vetted by the Housing Committee,” she said on the floor. “The relief that this bill is going to provide is going to be too little.”
That evening, Lee attacked her opponent for her vote.
“Today my opponent voted no on a bill that will begin to provide New Yorkers w/ $100M of much-needed rent relief,” Lee tweeted “There is much more to be done, and deeper relief is needed, but rent is due again in 4 days. We can’t afford to have political posturing instead of immediate relief.”
That was retweeted 10 times, including by Mike Whyland, the spokesman for Heastie and the Assembly Democratic conference of which Niou is a member.
Asked if Heastie supports Niou, Whyland said: “The speaker supports all incumbent Democrats.”
Niou has no shortage of fans among the resurgent left — earlier this week, she became one of five incumbent Assembly members to earn Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement. And some of them are angered by the apparent lack of support from her conference.
“It’s unconscionable to not fully support Yuh-Line Niou, one of the most active fighters for our communities’ needs,” said Make the Road Action’s Javier Valdés.
“Yuh-Line Niou is one of the fiercest champions for working people and tenants in Albany, and she’s unafraid to stand up to Cuomo,” said New York Communities for Change Director Jonathan Westin. “I thought the speaker was supposed to protect his members — not the governor.”
Niou declined to comment on the dearth of visible support, claiming the election isn’t at the top of her mind at the moment.
“I haven’t even really been focused on the campaign because of all the things that have been going on,” she said. “I haven’t fundraised that much. I haven’t done what I usually do, my door-to-door operations can’t be done. … I’ve just been focused on making sure that my district is OK.”
A case could be made that the district Niou represents is one of the most prestigious in the country. The list of those who have held the seat includes Alexander Hamilton, Al Smith, and Sheldon Silver. It almost certainly contains more universally recognizable landmarks than any other two square mile plot of land in the world, including Wall Street, Ground Zero, One World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Silver, whose career included over a decade as the most powerful Democrat in the country’s second-largest blue state, was booted from the seat after being convicted on federal corruption charges in 2015.
Party bosses essentially selected Silver supporter Alice Cancel as his successor. But with the backing of the Working Families Party, Niou ousted Cancel in the 2016 general election.
Niou, 36 and one of only three Asian American women ever elected to state-level office, was part of a trickle of young and diverse lawmakers that became a wave in 2018.
Like many of these new youthful members, she’s much more willing to deal with her official duties on a personal and ideological level than the more staid horse-trading politicians who have long dominated the hallways of the Capitol. Last year, she recounted sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a teacher while lawmakers debated the Child Victims Act, opening the door for other legislators to do the same as the measure passed by a commanding margin.
That unwillingness to play by the traditional rules of Albany means that she will sometimes vote no on omnibus pieces of legislation like budget bills while most of her colleagues are biting their tongues and simply voting yes. But she also takes it one step further, not simply voting no, but also assailing the way Albany does business. That's highly unusual for a member of a majority conference.
She voted against giving the governor emergency powers as the pandemic was beginning to unfold, saying, “It is easy to give up power during times of fear, but history tells us it is rarely easy to take it back. We, the Legislature, are supposed to be the check on this, and here we are, ready to hand all of the power to the governor.”
And about this year's budget, she said: “I find myself needing to speak up for the danger that we are putting people and our democracy in when we vote for this bill."
To Lee’s supporters, ideological purity is less important than the practical business of working for the district.
“Sheldon Silver met with all the resident leaders of [housing authority developments] in his district, every year, faithfully,” said Aixa Torres, president of the tenants' association of the Alfred E. Smith Houses. Lee, Torres said, “has listened more to us than her opponent. Maybe we were spoiled in the past.”
“Early on this year, when we saw that the fears of coronavirus were impacting local businesses in Chinatown specifically, I was in Lower Manhattan to call for economic relief for Chinatown businesses,” said Lee. “My opponent was producing hashtags about eating in Chinatown, but if you actually spoke to the business owners and heard about how their business was down 50 percent month over month over month, you would understand that hashtags would not be sufficient.”
Lee had been involved in the business world, but says the 2016 elections led her to be more focused on politics. She has since co-founded a local group that lobbied against plans to develop the site of a former thermometer factory near the South Street Seaport due to concerns that doing so would stir up mercury on the property located next to a school.
Voters “care that I’m not someone who’s going to sit on my couch and complain and whine about the issues of this district,” Lee said. “I’m going to get up and do something. And that’s what we need right now, we need leaders who are going to get up and do things, not complain about them, not whine about them on Twitter.”
Niou, for her part, vehemently rejects the idea that she has been unresponsive to local needs.
“I have literally been giving out almost 60,000 masks,” she said. “I had to have my family procure them ourselves. The city and state haven’t given us anything. … What else am I supposed to do? I’m working every single day, working only on the issues that are local. Every single one of my bills is inspired by something that’s gone on in our office, a case that I’ve handled, a person I’ve talked to in my district.”
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