Luke Henry, left, and Paul Newell, right, have been making the rounds in their campaigns against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Two upstart candidates mount challenges to Silver
By Julie Shapiro
Perhaps Sheldon Silver’s critics are making up for lost time.
It’s been 22 years since the Assembly speaker faced a primary challenge, and he has fought few Democrats in his 32 years in the Assembly.
But next month, Silver faces not one, but two primary challengers for his seat in the 64th District. Joining Silver on the ballot Sept. 9 are Paul Newell, 33, a community activist and lifelong Lower Manhattan resident, and Luke Henry, also 33, a lawyer who moved to the district last fall and has lived in Lower Manhattan for 13 years.
They both say they are running for Silver’s seat to bring New Yorkers open government and fresh ideas. They charge that Silver is maintaining Albany’s closed-door political culture.
“Until we have a transparent government, we won’t win,” Newell said. “Albany needs to be shaken up.”
Henry blamed Silver for not providing the shakeup himself.
“Silver has the responsibility to make sure something other than the status quo happens,” Henry said.
Newell and Henry agree on many of the fundamentals, from congestion pricing, which they support, to market-rate development, which they oppose — unless community amenities are part of the package. But it’s their differences, not their similarities, that are driving their campaigns.
Newell’s family has deep roots in the Lower East Side, where his grandmother was born in 1906. Newell touts his longtime connection to the district and his background in community activism as the résumé he needs to support the district.
Henry, a lawyer who has represented medical malpractice victims, says his legal background sets him apart. His training will help him negotiate deals and catch subtleties in bills, Henry said.
The challengers were neck-and-neck in fundraising as of the July 15 filing: $70,000 for Henry and $68,000 for Newell, though Newell has been fundraising longer. Their figures are dwarfed by Silver, whose campaign war chest is more than $3 million.
Each challenger has received one endorsement. Democracy for New York City endorsed Henry, while Newell won the support of BlogPac, an organization that funds progressive candidates.
Silver has netted dozens of endorsements, including U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, Downtown Independent Democrats, the Working Families Party and a slew of unions.
Arthur Schwartz, Democratic state committeemember for Greenwich Village, isn’t endorsing in this Assembly race but he said Newell made a good impression on him. Schwartz and Newell are working together on U.S. Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in New York.
“I appreciate people who are willing to go against the tide to get things accomplished,” Schwartz said, referring to Newell’s early support of Obama in Senator Clinton’s home state. Newell is an elected delegate for Obama.
While Schwartz praised Newell, he said he’d be happy to see either Newell or Henry elected over Silver.
“Electing Paul or Luke would change the culture in Albany,” Schwartz said. “It would open Albany up.”
Both challengers left jobs to run for office — Newell last summer and Henry this spring — and both pledge to be full-time Assemblymembers if elected. Silver works at Weitz & Luxenberg, a private law firm, in addition to serving in the Assembly. Silver has never said how much money he makes at the firm, and Jonathan Rosen, Silver’s campaign spokesperson, said Silver worked “very few” hours there. Silver works more than 100 hours a week on Assembly business, Rosen said.
Newell’s refrain is that “three men sitting in a secret room” unfairly decide the future of all New York State — referring to Silver, the governor and state Senate majority leader.
“New ideas have no chance in the secret room,” Newell said. His new ideas include a 30 percent affordable housing mandate for developers, a statewide system of park-and-rides to ease congestion and moving the budget process from April to June to take tax revenues into account.
Henry has new ideas as well: He would convert what he called “underutilized property” into green, affordable housing, put polling stations in nearly every apartment building and give legislators discretionary money based on merit, not seniority.
Rosen, Silver’s campaign spokesperson, said Silver has fought for his district on many fronts and that he has particularly battled for transparency on the World Trade Center rebuilding.
“He’s really been Lower Manhattan’s voice in Albany,” Rosen said. “He stood up to the two Georges [Bush and Pataki].”
The one issue above all others that has become a lightning rod for Silver’s critics is congestion pricing. The traffic-mitigation plan, proposed by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, would have charged drivers $8 to enter Manhattan below 60th St. on weekdays. The plan died earlier this year when Silver refused to bring it before the Assembly because it did not have enough votes. Silver maintains that he supported the plan.
Newell questioned that claim, saying that if Silver had pushed congestion pricing, it could have passed.
“What is the point of having Sheldon Silver as speaker if he’s not going to back us on health and quality of life concerns?” Newell said.
Newell supports congestion pricing, but said it does not go far enough. He wants the state to build park-and-rides — parking facilities near transit hubs, such as train stations — in Westchester County and on Long Island to encourage drivers to leave their cars behind. He also wants the city to provide free transfers for those commuters to the city’s subways and buses.
“That would cost pennies for what it’s worth,” Newell said, referring to the cleaner air and the state’s reduced carbon footprint.
Henry said he, too, would have supported congestion pricing, but he wanted some groups to be exempt from it, including people who own small businesses and people who do not have access to public transportation.
While both Newell and Henry criticize Silver for not using his power to serve his constituents, many, including even Newell, believe Silver has more power than either of them would have as freshman Assembly members.
“It has been valuable to Lower Manhattan to have the speaker,” Newell acknowledged. Last year, Silver brought home about $3.5 million in “pork” to the district, money that generally goes to nonprofit organizations, Newell said. Rosen, Silver’s spokesperson, said that money included funding for Lower Manhattan schools and youth programs.
“But we have been hurt more by New York’s dysfunctional government than helped by Sheldon Silver’s power,” Newell added. “Sheldon Silver does not go to bat for Lower Manhattan where it counts.”
Henry, however, thinks he would not be less powerful than Silver. He claimed that, if elected, he would have as much access to the governor as Silver does, since Lower Manhattan is key to the development of New York City and the state as a whole.
“I expect the governor would grant the same meetings to everyone,” Henry said. “I don’t know any lobbyists. … I’m friends with the people down here, the people who matter most.”
While Henry or Newell would be a new face in Albany if either of them won the race, the winner wouldn’t exactly be anonymous in the Assembly, since everyone would know him as the guy who toppled Silver.
“I will be a dragon slayer, at least,” Newell said.
Downtown’s real estate market is hot, giving developers the chance to make fortunes on luxury condos. Given this climate, Newell wants to do away with the 421-a tax breaks that encourage developers to build affordable housing, since he thinks they have plenty of money to build affordable housing without government subsidies.
“If you want to build market-rate apartments, mazel tov, it’s a free country,” Newell said. “But you should build 30 percent affordable housing, with no tax break.”
Newell believes Downtown will continue to draw developers, even if they have to include 30 percent affordable housing.
Henry said it’s important not to treat developers like “the boogie man” because New York needs their tax revenues. Like Newell, he thinks the state and city can strike a better deal with developers that brings more amenities to the community.
Henry’s affordable housing plan involves going green: He wants all state-subsidized affordable housing buildings to have green roofs. Henry envisions starting with the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area and creating a “green-building mecca” that serves as a model for the rest of the city.
Asked if New York has the money to build green affordable housing in the midst of a budget crisis, Henry said the state can come up with the cash by eliminating inefficiencies and finding savings elsewhere.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, should hedge fuel costs, locking in today’s fuel prices for next year, Henry said. Oregon and Chicago are both saving money this way, he said.
“I just saved us $15 million,” Henry said, though he later said that figure was not concrete.
Henry was born on the Upper East Side and grew up in Westchester, in what he calls a political household. He went to college upstate at SUNY-Albany, then moved back to New York City to work at a law firm. Henry dove into politics by working for Geraldine Ferraro’s unsuccessful 1998 U.S. Senate campaign. Chuck Schumer won that election, and Henry said he now thinks Schumer was the better candidate.
Henry went to law school at Fordham University, where he was president of the Fordham Law Democrats and founded the school’s American Constitution Society to advance progressive ideas in the judiciary. He has represented plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits and most recently worked in contract law. Henry has also worked pro bono for the Village Reform Democratic Club and served as a public member of Community Board 3’s Environment Committee.
Henry and his wife live on E. Fourth St. and are expecting their first baby, a boy, any day now. He said he decided to run against Silver because he sees this as a moment for a political sea change: New York has a Democratic governor and many think the state Senate will turn Democratic this fall.
Several blocks from Henry’s campaign headquarters in Chinatown sits Newell’s home base. Newell, a lifelong city resident, attended city public schools, including Stuyvesant High School and City-As-School. This race isn’t the first time Newell has been involved in a battle against a powerful speaker: He cut his political teeth as a student at Whitman College in Washington State while working on Congressmember Tom Foley’s 1994 re-election campaign. Foley, a Democrat, was speaker of the House of Representatives, and was defeated by a grassroots campaign by Republican George Nethercutt.
While watching an upstart candidate oust one of the most influential men in Washington, Newell learned that, as he put it, “Longtime incumbency is not what it’s cracked up to be.”
Newell worked on Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential bid, but when George W. Bush won the election, Newell grew disillusioned with politics and turned to nonprofit work instead. He traveled to South Africa, where he joined the fledgling Ubuntu Education Fund, which now serves 50,000 children a year and does preventative H.I.V. awareness both in South Africa and in the New York City metro area.
Newell hopped off the nonprofit track and entered the Assembly race, he said, because he saw a chance to use politics to make changes in the neighborhood where he grew up. Newell lives on Division St. in Chinatown with three roommates.
Asked if he’d ever voted for Silver, Newell couldn’t remember for certain, but one election stood out in his mind:
“In 2004, I wrote in Russell Simmons,” Newell said.