In the race to fill the Manhattan seat vacated by convicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the candidates have placed tackling corruption at the top of their to-do lists.
So much so that Republican contender Lester Chang has a “Clean Up the Mess” party line, and Democrat Alice Cancel and Yuh-Line Niou of the Working Families Party have, respectively, “reform in Albany” and “cleaning up Albany” campaign website pages detailing their plans.
“Sheldon Silver has not been the first and will not be the last to go to prison because this has been an epidemic thing in the system,” Cancel said in an interview.
Cancel, Niou, Chang and Green Party candidate Dennis Levy are competing in a special election Tuesday for the 65th Assembly District seat, which includes the Lower East Side and Chinatown.
Silver, 71, was convicted in December of using his power to secure nearly $4 million in referral fees from a law firm that sought property tax reductions from developers and a personal injury firm that represented people suffering from asbestos-related diseases.
Silver’s story and influence have figured prominently in the race to replace him.
“It surprises me and at the same time, it doesn’t surprise me, because he’s been there for too long,” Chang said of Silver’s 38-year tenure.
Chang, 55, said he would seek limits on how long lawmakers can serve in leadership positions and wants members rotated regularly among committees. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has stumped for the global shipping and logistics consultant and U.S. Navy reservist.
Chang, a self-described fiscal conservative, said he hopes to appeal to “disenfranchised Democrats” in a race where residents can vote outside of their registered party.
Niou, 32, is running on the Working Families Party line after Manhattan Democratic club leaders chose Cancel as their nominee at a February meeting. Still, she has the backing of elected city Democrats, including Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer.
“It’s a very strange process where literally the power structure that the former speaker left behind picked the new candidate,” said Niou, who wants to reform the special-election system. “I wanted to make sure voters have a choice.”
Niou, chief of staff to Assemb. Ron Kim (D-Queens), said she will advocate for a state campaign finance system as transparent as the city’s, restrictions on outside income for lawmakers, and a pension-forfeiture bill for corrupt politicians.
Cancel acknowledged that she was “hand-picked” by party leaders but said she is independent of Silver and other Democrats and “won’t owe anybody anything” if she is elected.
“I am the candidate that Albany does not want because I am going to pick that fight,” she said.
Cancel, 61, a Democratic district leader, said she wants term limits for state politicians, campaign finance reform and a ban on outside income for lawmakers. She is backed by Democratic City Council members Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez.
Levy, 67, a community activist, said he has directed job placement and housing programs. At the center of his platform is the fight to make marijuana a legitimate business in the state.
“Legalizing marijuana and hemp to me represents jobs,” Levy said. “Unless we bring an entire new industry in, we’re not going to have any jobs.”