“Hi, I’m Paul Newell and I’m running for New York State Assembly.”
Standing outside the Grand Street subway stop in Chinatown on a sunny May afternoon, Paul Newell’s sales pitch was not generating much response. After a dozen or so people ignored his extended hand and smiling, bespectacled face, his aide, Alex Li, suggested Newell start with “ni hao,” Mandarin for “hello.”
“I’ll give it a shot,” Newell said. The refined pitch helped Newell secure a few signatures for his petition.
But that was not the only reason he was on that corner in Chinatown. Shaking hands and handing out campaign flyers, the first-time candidate kept one eye out for his opponent, the man he hoped against all odds to unseat in the September primary. But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was up in Albany. His “community command center,” though, was scheduled to be on the streets for a health care drive, according to flyers taped to several lampposts in the area.
“Still looking for the Shelly-mobile, belching black smoke and Darth Vader music,” Newell said, smiling.
Silver has dominated New York State politics for close to three decades and has been one of the “three men in a room” for almost half that time. As speaker, he has funneled millions of dollars in member items to various groups and causes in his district, and as the leader of the Assembly’s super-majority (106 out of 150 members), Silver has a lock on the Democratic establishment.
All of which begs the question: How does one actually mount a primary challenge against Shelly Silver? For that matter, how do two?
“I don’t think that running against a 32-year incumbent is easy,” Newell said, sipping coffee at the counter of a diner on Canal Street. “But if I had to pick a year to be a 32-year incumbent, I would not pick 2008.”
Silver has not faced a primary challenge in 20 years. This year, he faces two: Newell, a community organizer, and Luke Henry, an attorney, both born in 1974, the year Silver won his first term. Both say they are undaunted by the steep uphill battle they have decided to wage.
By virtue of taking on the speaker, Newell and Henry’s candidacies have received more attention than their shoestring campaigns could have ever bought. With some claiming that Silver is too popular—or too entrenched—in his district to be ousted, the two first-time candidates are struggling to explain to voters why Lower Manhattan needs a new man in Albany. On top of that, with neither willing to pull out to increase the other’s chances, whatever anti-Silver votes there are will likely be split between them on primary day.
That has nearly every political observer around dismissing their efforts as one of the more lost of lost causes.
But Newell is pressing his case more on an attack of the system than on the specifics of Silver’s representation of the district. He bases his argument on explaining to voters that they are losing battles in Albany they should be winning because of the dysfunction Silver helps perpetuate, citing congestion pricing and the decline of affordable housing in the district as two egregious examples. Henry also is framing most of his attacks on Silver as speaker, while drawing the connection to how he believes this has also harmed district residents in particular.
“I don’t think Sheldon Silver is a bad man,” Newell said. “I think he’s a bad assemblyman and a terrible speaker.”
Newell has used his indictment of Silver’s leadership of the Assembly to generate more free-flowing donations from far beyond the district, which covers Chinatown, the Financial District, Battery Park and the Lower East Side.
“I’m raising money from people in Rochester,” he said. “I’m getting volunteers statewide.”
A convention delegate for Barack Obama, Newell is using the Illinois senator’s presidential campaign as a model for trying to win the election by bringing in new supporters. He says he has seen increased energy on the streets that gives him confidence.
A separate strategy for Newell has been to show up outside events he knows Silver plans to attend. He was spotted Aug. 13 outside a bar on Houston Street, where Silver was meeting with members of the Freelancers Union. To those who would listen, Newell would blast Silver’s record on affordable housing. Inside the event, Silver took his opponent’s criticisms in stride.
“It will take them quite a while to get the stature where they will even have a role in doing anything,” Silver said in response to Newell’s claim that he would improve on Silver’s record if elected.
Henry’s strategy, by contrast, is to target longtime supporters of Silver in an effort to flip them to his candidacy.
“His friends,” Henry said, sitting on a bench off of Madison Street in Chinatown, “they need to be persuaded.”
Henry, a pink-faced and energetic political neophyte (though he did work for Geraldine Ferraro’s 1998 Senate campaign), is seeking to tap into what he calls a new current of anger and frustration at Silver and his Albany colleagues. He points to the New York Times editorial railing against Silver following his decision not to call a vote on congestion pricing.
Henry said he decided to take on the speaker, instead of aiming lower for his first foray into politics because he was too incensed by the lack of accountability in Albany.
“There’s no legislative process in the Assembly,” Henry said. “There’s been piecemeal change, but that’s not real change.”
A month before the primary and the campaign has turned fairly ugly, with the challengers attacking each other, at times, rather than the incumbent. Newell suggested in a recent article that Henry’s old job at the Wilson Elser lobbying firm, which has ties to Silver, may indicate that he is in the race only as a spoiler. Henry called the allegations absurd.
Aside from all the drama accompanying the race, Silver’s massive campaign war chest—as of the pre-primary filing, he had just over $3 million—puts his two challengers at a distinct disadvantage. Newell, who spent more than he raised in the past month, has just under $20,000 on hand.
Newell said he plans to counter Silver’s cash-rich campaign with a simple message: That Silver may bring in millions to the district and raise millions, but he also cost his voters millions by killing the congestion pricing plan and repealing the commuter tax in 1999.
“I’m not going to match Silver’s $3 million,” Newell said, “but I don’t have to.”
Henry, who said he is running a “clean money campaign,” reported having a little more than $17,000 on hand. He released a low-budget web video of himself standing on the street, asking passersby to donate $5 each to his campaign. Five people, including his sister, agreed.
For all of Silver’s advantages, there have been signs that he may not coast to re-election as easily as he might prefer. Both Henry and Newell have opened campaign offices in Chinatown. Newell was endorsed by BlogPAC, a consortium of liberal bloggers. Henry was endorsed by Democracy for New York, a non-profit political action committee. And while Silver has already been endorsed by all the local political clubs that have weighed in, the votes were far from unanimous.
Silver, clearly taking the challenge seriously, hired a campaign firm and has been polling, fundraising and increasing his visibility in the district. All sides were geared up for potential petition challenges earlier in the summer, with both Newell and Henry retaining lawyers to help them get on the ballot. But none have surfaced so far. In the past, Silver has been represented by State Sen. Martin Connor (D-Manhattan/Brooklyn), an election lawyer who has assisted the speaker in challenging the petitions of his Republican opponents in the past. Connor is also facing an insurgent primary challenge this year, from former Sen. Charles Schumer aide Daniel Squadron.
Jonathan Rosen, Silver’s campaign spokesman, said the emergence of two primary challengers this year did not surprise the speaker too much. “It takes a great deal to faze him,” Rosen said.
Out collecting signatures recently in Chinatown, Newell threw his hand out to anyone who would shake it, though most admitted they did not live in the district. He gave directions to a few tourists, argued good-naturedly with a homeless man (who said he was a registered Republican) and chatted in fluent Spanish with an older woman walking a small white dog.
Finally, a man with a scarred face and an olive-green jacket stopped, the first one of the afternoon genuinely interested in Newell’s campaign.
“We need to build more housing for regular people,” Newell told him, “not just for billionaires.”
“I’ll vote for you,” the man said, signing the petition. “I don’t really like Shelly Silver.”
Newell collected his signature, beaming like he just won the election.
“Peace be with you, man,” he said.
A version of this story originally appeared in The Capitol.
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