Campaigns & Elections

As New York moves left, can a pragmatist oust a progressive Democrat?

A lower Manhattan Assembly primary highlights the party’s shifting middle ground.

New York State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou.

New York State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou. New York City Department of Transportation

Most incumbent Democrats worry about primary challenges from the political left, but a few of the most prominent progressives in the state Legislature are facing threats from the center in the June 23 primary election.

Former sanitation official Ignazio Terranova argues that state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris should get thrown out of office over his role in blocking the Amazon deal. Andy Marte, a former aide to the controversial Brooklyn party boss Vito Lopez, says state Sen. Julia Salazar has missed one too many community board meetings. And businesswoman Grace Lee says she launched her campaign because Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou had not done enough to address toxic contamination at a former thermometer factory in lower Manhattan.

Perhaps the most formidable challenger among them is Lee. She boasts a telegenic family, an Ivy League education, activism experience and support from a few local Democratic leaders and political clubs, but money is what is really giving her a shot. “What makes it competitive is that Grace Lee has raised more money than typical challengers,” said Democratic consultant Evan Stavisky. “If you're running against an incumbent, you need resources, you need an operation, but you also need to get voters a reason to fire the incumbent.” Lee has raised mored than than $400,000, a significant amount of it self-funded, which puts her at an advantage over Niou, who has raised more than $250,000 for the race, according to campaign filings. 

In the absence of substantial policy differences with the incumbent, Lee’s campaign has drawn a contrast more about political style than substance, while emphasizing local issues in Assembly District 65, which includes parts of Chinatown, the Lower East Side and the Financial District in lower Manhattan.

A race pitting a practical-minded challenger like Lee against a progressive incumbent like Niou may be relatively rare, but it cuts to the heart of the evolving character of the Democratic Party. “Progressives are rapidly becoming the establishment,” Democratic consultant Hank Seinkopf said. “They will then be set upon by others who may not be progressive or may be progressive, depending upon the definition.” 

What makes someone like Lee a moderate candidate compared to Niou is also evolving. Both candidates say they want to defund the police, raises taxes on the wealthy and create a single-payer health care system at the state level. What makes them different are the approaches they would bring to working with Democratic leaders. Niou has built a reputation over two terms in office for bucking legislative leadership when she thought it was not progressive enough. Niou has criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo at times. After Niou and other female lawmakers criticized a gubernatorial fundraiser held with state Budget Director Robert Mujica in the middle of budget season, one top Cuomo staffer insulted them with a profanity

“When you have a relationship with the administration that is cantankerous at best, you don’t help your district,” Lupe Todd-Medina, a spokeswoman for Lee, told City & State early in the campaign. In recent months, Niou has taken steps that her rival criticized as going too far in prioritizing progressive ideals. The incumbent voted in May against a $100 million rental voucher program. Niou voted against the state budget in early April. Then there was the vote she made against $40 million in emergency funding in the first days of the pandemic. “She was voting against her constituents,” Lee said in a recent interview. “If we wanted to address the crisis, we needed to act quickly and her vote was a vote against doing that.” 

There is more nuance to these votes than Lee lets on. Progressives have criticized the voucher program, for example, as an insufficient measure that undermined efforts to cancel rent completely. Niou was hardly the only lawmaker to vote against a budget bill that included changes to bail reform and less spending on education and social programs than many lawmakers wanted. “We were actually only one vote away from actually voting it down,” Niou said of the budget vote during a recent debate with Lee. “I don't think that it was necessarily something that was symbolic. It was actually purposeful.” The $40 million in emergency funding was coupled with a vast expansion in the emergency powers that the governor strong-armed through the state Legislature with only a few hours’ notice. “Every single editorial that came out after that vote to give the governor extraordinary powers, agree with me,” Niou added at the debate. That claim is not completely true, but Niou was hardly alone in criticizing Cuomo at the time. 

These episodes highlight how a challenger like Lee has become the candidate of an old guard Democratic establishment that might be secretly rooting for her to beat Niou, who has not received any financial backing from the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, even as it has provided aid to other embattled incumbents. Politico reported that an additional clue of Lee’s appeal to Assembly leaders came through a retweet by Assembly spokesman Mike Whyland. “We can’t afford to have political posturing instead of immediate relief,” Lee had tweeted, attacking Niou over her “no” vote on the rent voucher program. Whyland, whose retweet appears to have been undone later, later told Politico, “The speaker supports all incumbent Democrats.”

This all makes for an interesting contrast with the support that Niou is getting from the ascendant progressive political establishment. U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are backing Niou’s campaign, as are New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Rep. Jerrold Nadler and members of the City Council such as Brad Lander and Mark Levine. A long endorsement list on her campaign website includes influential unions, advocacy groups and local tenant leaders. She is also enormously popular with the young progressive activists these politicians court. Videos of her floor speeches on important votes have also given her the type of social media stardom that has elud ed Lee throughout the race. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic has made it much harder for primary challengers of all stripes to get their message out, especially because of social distancing restrictions that made door-to-door campaigning impractical and politically questionable. But money has helped Lee even the playing field. Facebook Ad Library shows that her campaign has spent at least $16,000 on ads. The bulk of the money raised for the campaign appears to pay for political consultants, robo-calls and text messaging services, according to campaign filings with the state. She has also spent thousands of dollars on PPE to give out to voters after recovering from suspected COVID-19 in mid-March. She would not step out of the house for another month. Though she would do some volunteering in the community in subsequent weeks, she only resumed in-person campaigning in early June.

Injecting $250,000 of her own money into the campaign is a mixed blessing for Lee, who said that using her personal wealth has allowed her to focus on the campaign rather than pursue donors during a pandemic that has spurred economic turmoil. This ended the flow of four-figure checks into her campaign coffers, but it has hardly quieted the criticism about her connections to the financial industry and big business. This includes her marriage to Hanben Lee, the chief financial officer of the Bermuda-based insurance company Global Atlantic. The company was the subject of a 2018 consent decree with the state Department of Financial Services over alleged double billing of customers, and Hanben Lee’s name even appears in the Panama Papers, a massive data dump of financial records that highlighted the complicated ways that companies and individuals have moved their money through countries like Bermuda. 

Hanben Lee has never been personally accused of wrongdoing, but his personal wealth appears to play a role in keeping his wife’s campaign afloat. Campaign filings show that the nearly $2 million that he earns in salary for Global Atlantic has been the family’s main source of income. Lee does not mention that fact, instead touting her experience as the founder of company that has a line of all-natural maternity products. “Grace is currently a board member of Nine Naturals,” Lupe-Medina said in an email when asked about Lee’s level of involvement with the company. “She sold her majority stake in the company before the birth of her third child (who is now two years old). Nine Naturals continues to be successful.” The $250,000 that Grace Lee has lent to her campaign came from savings, Lupe-Medina added. “To insinuate that her success is the result of her husband is inaccurate and insulting.” 

Niou argues that Hanben Lee’s role in the insurance industry creates a “huge” conflict of interest for his wife. “I serve on the consumer protection committee,” Niou said in an interview. “I also serve on the banks committee, and I find it all very interesting because she wouldn't be able to serve on any of these committees due to the possibility that she would be enriching herself.” Her opponent counters that Niou has her own ties to the real estate industry and political action committees over the years. Commercial real estate management firm Platinum Maintenance gave $4,400 in 2016. Political action committees that have given to her Assembly campaigns include a $1,000 contribution from the consulting firm Brown Weinraub in 2017 and $250 from the law firm Cozen O’Connor in 2018.

Niou and Lee are just a few years apart in age. They are both the daughters of immigrant parents (Niou’s from Taiwan, Lee’s from South Korea) and both candidates grew up out of state before moving to New York City as adults. The Ohio-born Lee has lived in lower Manhattan for a decade longer than the Washington state-raised Niou – but both candidates only moved to Assembly District 65 shortly before they decided to seek the seat. Unlike other state legislative primaries, voters in the Assembly District 65 race are not going to be choosing one candidate over the other because of their race, age and gender. Niou, like Lee, has also lent money to her own campaign – $50,000, according to campaign filings. Given the relatively even playing field between the two candidates in the money game, the biggest difference between the two candidates from an ideological standpoint appears to be the different ways that they define the term “progressive.” 

Niou channels the idealist and confrontational tendencies of young firebrands like Ocasio-Cortez – even if that can risk, for example, delaying $40 million in emergency state funding. Lee advocates a more practical approach that emphasizes cooperation with the powers that be to get things done for constituents, a style of politics that evokes Cuomo’s own approach to progressivism. 

Similar arguments are being waged against other progressive incumbents. Terranova is going after Gianaris over his role in thwarting a proposed deal to set up Amazon’s HQ2 campus in Western Queens that would have purportedly brought 25,000 new jobs to the city. For Terranova, Gianaris’ position on a hot issue like bail reform is beside the point. Likewise with Marte, who is arguing less with Salazar’s professed democratic socialism and more about how she is supposedly is not available enough to local community board leaders. But neither of these challengers appear likely to win. “Gianaris' opponent and Salazar's opponents are not getting any traction,” Sheinkopf said. “The money has a lot to do with it.” That is not the case with Lee, although the contingencies of a global pandemic, early voting and a vast expansion of voting by mail make it hard to predict which candidate will win the race for Assembly District 65.

There are many reasons to believe that Niou has an easy path to reelection, but Lee cannot be counted out considering the ongoing uncertainty and the untested appeal of a candidate touting how she would be a more cooperative member of the legislative rank and file. That means Lee is challenging Niou from the political center – though that is very much a relative term in a Democratic Party that is moving ever leftwards with time. “I don't know if there's ever room in the middle of Democratic primaries,” said political consultant Darren Lopez Rigger, who is also a local district leader in Westchester County aligned with the more moderate wing of the party. “Whoever is the most far left seems to win.”