The ink has barely dried on the special election for Sheldon Silver’s 65th district state assembly seat and we’re already sprinting towards the general primary in September. Less than a week after Alice Cancel won a controversial election for the seat, Jenifer Rajkumar, a Democratic district leader in the financial district, officially threw her hat in the ring and announced her campaign for the position.
At her rally last night, Lower East Siders, Battery Park residents and Chinatown Coalition supporters gathered over guacamole at SouthWest NY to support her. Rajkumar decried “corrupt machine politics” and promised a “service campaign” in which 10 percent of her and her campaign workers’ time will be spent volunteering at local non-profits. Last year she ran a pilot pro-bono legal services clinic at University Settlement to provide housing and employment help to district residents, and she said she plans start it again as part of her campaign.
The 65th district is a strange amalgamation: It encompasses Wall Street and Battery Park, swathes of Chinatown, Little Italy and the Lower East Side (but not Baruch Houses, the largest public housing complex in Manhattan). Rajkumar tried to appeal to all of these constituents, speaking about fighting tenant displacement, supporting co-ops, pressuring for NYCHA repairs, saving the Elizabeth Street Garden, and her respect for Jewish traditions.
Many familiar faces at Coalition to Protect Chinatown rallies showed up to support Rajkumar. David Tieu, a frequent spokesman for the Coalition, said he was personally supporting her because he had seen her willingness to publicly back community efforts to protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side from more privatization and development. “She has been very supportive of the 83-85 Bowery tenants, she’s stood with us in protests,” he said. “Also, as an elected official, she was the only one who publicly supported the Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan and marched with us both times. The only official to come out in the pouring rain in October 2015.”
Wendy Cheung, a daughter of Chinese immigrants who still lives and works in Chinatown said it was important to her that Rajkumar supported the CWG rezoning plan as well as the SWEAT law against wage theft. “I am Chinese and many people may ask, why don’t you support other Chinese candidates?” she said. “It is because Jenifer is willing to take a stand on the issues most important to us as Chinese working people.”
Rajkumar herself is the daughter of Indian immigrants. A human rights lawyer by training, she has experience litigating gender discrimination, tenants’ rights and whistleblower cases with Sanford Heisler Kimpel LLP, and has served as district leader for five years, since she was 28. In 2013 she ran for City Council against incumbent Margaret Chin and made a good showing for a newcomer, with 41 percent of the vote.
That may be a sign she’ll fare well against Cancel in the September Democratic primary, who had been dogged by accusations that she has too many links to Silver (Cancel was even quoted in the New York Times calling Silver, who was booted out of office for corruption, “a hero” instead of disavowing him). Cancel’s path to becoming the Democratic nominee for the special election has been a particular source of controversy because she was chosen in a closed-county committee primary of 180 voters, many of them long-time Silver supporters, and not in a general primary. Her opponent, Yuh-Line Niou, withdrew from the Democratic primary and ran with the Working Families Party instead, calling the process “flawed.”
But Rajkumar isn’t the only one running against Cancel– it could be a pretty crowded field for the coveted Democratic nominee position. Niou, for one, will definitely be back trying to win the Dem primary in the open election. Rajkumar’s co-district leader Paul Newell is holding a kickoff fundraiser for his campaign next Monday at 22 East 18th Street. He actually ran against Silver back in 2008 on an anti-corruption platform, and has community organizing experience, helping to preserve rent regulations and organize tenants. Christopher Marte, a 27-year-old Dominican-American who grew up on the Lower East Side, is also running for the Democratic nomination with a barebones grassroots campaign, knocking on doors. This is his first time in politics–since graduating from Long Island University he worked at minority-owned investment fund and IBM, and recently interned at an immigration law firm. Marte will have a rally and fundraiser tomorrow night at RPM Bar.
Word on the street is that Gigi Li, Community Board 3 chair, will also try to run again, as well as Don Lee, a Chinatown technology executive and community activist. And don’t forget the other candidates who lost to Cancel in the first election: Denis Levy, a marijuana advocate for the Green Party, and Lester Chang, the Republican nominee, are also likely to try again.