Campaigns & Elections

Niou officially launches Senate bid, prompting socialist candidate to run for Assembly instead

The DSA-backed legislative hopeful Illapa Sairitupac has announced his candidacy to replace outgoing Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou in a competitive June 2022 primary.

DSA-backed legislative hopeful Illapa Sairitupac.

DSA-backed legislative hopeful Illapa Sairitupac. Michael Paulson

Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou officially announced her candidacy Sunday for the state Senate. Her record as a progressive firebrand could make her a formidable candidate against incumbent Democratic state Sen. Brian Kavanagh depending on how the ongoing redistricting process affects the makeup of the district. Her candidacy will also shake up the electoral landscape of lower Manhattan, potentially providing an opening for the increasingly powerful local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America – of which Niou is not a member – to gain another foothold in the Assembly.

Rumors of Niou’s candidacy for state Senate caused some progressives to worry about how she might affect Illapa Sairitupac, a mental health social worker who had already announced a primary challenge against Kavanagh. Her candidacy was expected to attract significant support away from his DSA-backed bid and he has ultimately decided to run in the 2022 Democratic primary to replace her in the Assembly, he told City & State in an exclusive interview. 

Niou has represented the Assembly district since 2017 after she won a September 2016 Democratic primary for the seat formerly held by the disgraced longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was arrested on corruption charges in 2015. Niou made her mark as a backer of lefty causes like single-payer health care. Sairitupac says he can push the district further to the political left than ever as the DSA and other groups continue expanding their presence in the state Legislature.

A big area of focus for the DSA in past election cycles has been broadening its appeal to working class people of color. Sairitupac said he has a personal way of making his own case for election. “As a social worker, I am against the over-criminalization of folks of color, obviously – and the last thing we need is to keep throwing guns and cops at every single issue,” he said in an interview. “As an indigenous person I believe in this idea of all of us working together.” For now at least, he can lean on his fellow democratic socialists. He will officially announce his candidacy Monday morning.

Sairitupac has some significant backing already in his campaign to help restore Manhattan to its often forgotten past glory as a bastion of leftist politics. The DSA has established itself as a significant presence in recent years by backing anti-establishment candidates like him – with big wins in places like Brooklyn and Queens in recent years. A win in Assembly District 65 though would mean that left-leaning legislators would also represent the very heart of the capitalist system they seek to change – if Sairitupac can win an already competitive June 2022 primary to replace Niou.

Climate change is an issue that Sairitupac said shows how he will run local while highlighting his ideological bonafides. Disasters like Hurricane Sandy have highlighted how many parts of the district are vulnerable to flooding. “It’s 60 degrees out today,” he said last week. “It's almost Christmas. It's not normal. It's very strange and very unsettling.” If elected, he would be one more vote for outstanding bills like the New York State Build Public Renewables Act, which would empower the New York Power Authority to dramatically expand its renewable energy operations. He added that he would also be a yes on legislative ideas like raising taxes on the wealthy and establishing a state-level single-payer health care system

Sairitupac says his activist background places him further to the political left than Niou, who said in a text that she has not endorsed anyone to replace her in the Assembly. She made her name in the halls of power by delivering fiery floor speeches, staging dramatic protests, or otherwise provoking bête noire of the progressive left like ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “I’m not running against Yuh-Line, and I have a lot of respect for what she does,” Sairitupac said. “I will say that the DSA ... We are very excited to be on the ground, to put a body on the ground and call out truth and injustice.” He said he faces a trial in January after being arrested at a climate protest this summer. That is the type of venue where he sees himself fighting for lefty causes as a legislator – “militant” but peaceful, dealing with problems through organizing techniques. 

A competitive primary to replace Niou emerged about an hour after she issued a press release announcing her state Senate run. Local activist and businesswoman Grace Lee told City & State she would enter the Assembly race against Sairitupac. Lee’s unsuccessful 2020 Democratic primary campaign against Niou highlighted two important points about how she compares to Sairitupac. Lee ran on pragmatically minded issues like her involvement in efforts to help clean up toxic chemicals near schools in the district. Her ability to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the race also showed her access to the type of deep-pocketed constituencies that Democrats further to the political left lack. The pandemic, however, scrambled the race for her and other challengers, and she ended up losing to Niou by a hefty margin. 

The boundaries of Niou’s current district will likely change during the redistricting process expected to conclude early next year. Any candidate in the race to replace Niou faces the prospect of a competitive primary, especially considering the racial and socio-economic diversity of a district that includes parts of lower Manhattan like the Lower East Side, Chinatown and the Financial District. Sairitupac says the 2020 victory by fellow DSA-backed candidate and Peruvian-American Marcela Mitaynes in a district representing Sunset Park, Brooklyn makes him confident that he could win in lower Manhattan, given some demographic similarities between the two districts. More recent elections, however, suggest a rightward shift among some Asian American and Latino voters.

Expected support from the DSA, which originally endorsed him to run for the state Senate, will give him an early boost toward winning the June primary to replace Niou. The group has pulled off high-profile upsets in recent years, making national progressive superstars along the way like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Queens. Sairitupac could make his own splash in state politics if he can sell the DSA platform to voters with six months to go until election day. “The working class, when they hear what we stand for, they understand it,” he said. “I've been knocking on doors ... People are excited about (single-payer) and free public college and fully funding (public housing). So I think that our platform speaks for itself.”