Alice Cancel with supporters (Photo by Kavitha Surana

Alice Cancel with supporters (Photo by Kavitha Surana

Democratic District Leader Alice Cancel picked up two more endorsements today in the run up to a special election on April 19 to replace Sheldon Silver’s seat in the New York State Assembly. Both Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez, downtown councilmembers, said Cancel was the right choice for the job.

“Alice knows the community, she knows our schools, she knows our small businesses, she knows about public housing and she’s worked with the tenants,” said Chin in her endorsement. “She’s a district leader that works with the elected officials. When there’s a problem in the community, she calls them.”

Silver, who was found guilty of seven counts of corruption charges in November, held onto the seat for 40 years so this is the first time in a long while there’s been a real race for this position. But Cancel has captured the momentum for the special election in this heavily Democratic district– the other candidates are Republican Lester Chang and marijuana-legalization advocate Dennis Levy, and Yuh-Line Niou, who originally campaigned against Cancel for the Democratic nomination but dropped out of the process, calling it “flawed” and “undemocratic.” Niou is now running on a Working Families Party platform.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Cancel has lived on the Lower East Side since the 1970s and started her community activist career as a parent advocate back when the LES was a more dangerous place to navigate. She’s served as the district leader for the 65th assembly for 24 years and in 2003 she married John Quinn, a longtime union organizer.

But the shadow of Silver’s cronyism has dogged Cancel’s campaign. Niou and others have tried to paint her as a handpicked Silver minion– and it’s easy to see why, when even Cancel herself recently praised Silver as “a hero” to her district in The New York Times instead of disavowing him. But the main criticisms focus on the process by which Cancel snagged the much-desired Democratic nomination. Instead of a popular primary, the special election was turned over to the County Committee and Cancel’s nomination was decided by votes from just 180 members (some of the votes were weighted, giving more power to districts that had higher turnout in the 2014 governor’s race). According to The Observer, Silver allies like Judy Rapfogel, Silver’s former chief of staff (whose husband, William E. Rapfogel, is also serving time for corruption) “worked the room ahead of the decision.”

Nancy Ortiz, Rosie Mendez,  Alice Cancel, Margaret Chin, Aixa torres

Nancy Ortiz, Rosie Mendez, Alice Cancel, Margaret Chin, Aixa Torres (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

At the rally, Mendez alluded to the controversy without mentioning specifics. “In the last few months [Cancel] has been attacked. She’s been attacked I don’t know why. She’s done nothing wrong but work and help the people in this district,” she said. “She’s done it as a volunteer, she’s done it as a resident of this community, she’s worked to protect the rights of our children and the tenants of public housing and the people of this community. And she was content being district leader and never seeking higher office.”

At a debate sponsored by the The League of Women Voters of the City of New York last week, Cancel also defended the County Committee process. “All the folks that were on that County Committee went out and petitioned. So this was not a backroom deal,” she said. “These people were elected by their community to serve as a County Committee.” 

Then she flipped the accusation of “corruption shadowing the process” on its head, bringing her former boss, city comptroller Scott Stringer (who has endorsed Niou), into it. “Now, I have to bring to light: Scott Stringer? He was elected as an assemblyman through that same process. In case those of you didn’t know how he became a senator. So if the actual process was corrupt, then you know what? I guess Scott Stringer at the time when he was elected as an assemblyman, he was also corrupt,” she said. “However, it’s a democratic process and it’s not corrupt.”

When it was her turn at the debate, Niou shot back: “The county committee process, you have to understand, is determined by four clubs. And these clubs also came into power under the person that was actually convicted held the seat,” she said. “It’s not democratic when the folks who were in power are continuing to be in power, and being able to select somebody for this seat.”

Cancel also stumbled through some straightforward questions at the debate, reinforcing the image of someone who, if not an outright figurehead, seemed unprepared to represent one of the most important districts in New York. When the moderator asked basic questions, like what bills each candidate would introduce to the house if elected, Cancel sometimes tripped over her words without offering anything close to specific answers or details.

“Um, again, Housing…housing um…senior centers um… I mean these are things, basically what I would want to bring into my district,” Cancel answered slowly. “Affordable housing, more senior developments, and the environment.” Great topics, but no substance or actionable plans.

Alice Cancel (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Alice Cancel (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

But at the rally today she was more prepared, reading off a printed-out speech driving home the value of public housing and pledging to find ways to pump more state and federal funds into the New York City Housing Authority. “Since 1998, New York State has not provided any operating subsidies to NYCHA,” she said. “As a legislator I will continue to advocate and work to ensure that the state provides its fair share of funding to the New York City Housing Authority.”

Aixa Torres, president of the Alfred E. Smith residents’ association and a longtime public housing activist, said she’d personally pushed Cancel to run because of her support for public housing. She has known Cancel for 30 years and said her work as district leader has often been integral in untangling “hopeless” eviction cases and helping connect NYCHA residents in need with the heft of elected officials during crises like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. “She is hands down the only candidate that was fit to step up to the plate and take the assembly seat,” said Torres.  “She knows the state system and we need somebody who is going to defend public housing.”

If you’re not convinced, there are plenty of Democrat assemblyman nominee-wannabes waiting in the wings for the September 13 open primary election, including Jenifer Rajkumar, Paul Newell, Christopher Marte, and others (and probably Niou if she doesn’t win this round). The only question is whether a newcomer can defeat the growing burst of momentum Cancel may be riding on as an incumbent with six months in Albany under her belt by that time.