Specter of Corruption Hangs Over Special Elections for New York Legislature

Alice Cancel, a Democrat running to replace Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, who was convicted of corruption, on Madison Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan this week.

From the day the men were convicted on corruption charges and stripped of their caramel leather seats in the State Legislature, it seemed safe to assume that the special elections to replace Sheldon Silver and Dean G. Skelos would come down to which of their would-be successors could offer the greatest contrast to the two politicians.

For Assemblyman Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat who is seeking the seat held by Mr. Skelos, a Republican and the former Senate majority leader who was convicted on federal corruption charges in December, there had never been a better moment to be a former federal corruption prosecutor. “Albany urgently needs new, honest leadership,” Mr. Kaminsky said, accepting the nomination last month.

Yet even as Democrats expressed confidence that the specter of corruption would sink Republicans’ efforts to keep Mr. Skelos’s seat representing Long Island, the reform issue has played very differently in Lower Manhattan, where Mr. Silver, a Democrat, ruled local politics for four decades as an assemblyman and then speaker of the Assembly, dispensing large amounts of pork along the way.

For such efforts, the leading candidate to replace him, Alice Cancel, a Democrat, has praised him as “a hero.”

Ms. Cancel’s path from reluctant candidate to front-runner is not only a case study in local politics, but also a testament to Mr. Silver’s continued influence, despite the high probability that he will go to prison after he is sentenced in a few months.

It is a quirk of the special-election process that Ms. Cancel clinched her party’s nomination last week by winning a five-way contest — not by a popular primary vote, but in a vote of 180 members of the Manhattan Democratic Party in the 65th Assembly District. Individual members’ votes, in turn, were largely controlled by four local political clubs, including the Truman Democratic Club, which Mr. Silver and his allies have dominated for decades.

As the Democratic nominee in a heavily Democratic district, Ms. Cancel has an enormous advantage going into the April 19 special election.

“Oh, man, there’s an odor emanating from the process, both in a systemic sense and in a structural sense,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, who has watched the district’s politics. “It’s got this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality.”

The mechanics of the selection process so disgusted one of Ms. Cancel’s opponents, Yuh-Line Niou, the chief of staff to Assemblyman Ron Kim, Democrat of Queens, that Ms. Niou dropped out of the running in her nomination speech on Sunday, calling it “undemocratic.” Even if committee members felt free to defy their club endorsements, she and other critics said, individual members’ votes were weighted, giving more power to election districts that had higher turnout in the 2014 governor’s race.

Ms. Niou will run instead for the Working Families Party, a left-leaning, labor-backed group, positioning herself as the candidate of reform. She is also hoping to attract the support of Chinatown, whose expanding voter base has made the district far more diverse than the days when Mr. Silver’s constituents from the Lower East Side dominated.

“I think that anybody would be bothered by how the system worked,” Ms. Niou said in an interview. “I don’t think that it’s right.”

A third candidate, Lester Chang, a businessman whose parents worked as cooks in Chinatown, is running as a Republican. He has cast his campaign as a chance to “set things right” after Mr. Silver’s conviction in November on federal corruption charges, as well as to elect a second Asian-American to the State Legislature. (Mr. Kim is currently the only one.)

Especially troubling for some observers was the role played by Mr. Silver and his friends, most prominently Judy Rapfogel, his former chief of staff. Her husband, William E. Rapfogel, is a former Jewish community leader who is serving time in federal prison for stealing more than $9 million from the charity he ran.

A longtime Democratic committee member said that Ms. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver had asked members of the Truman Club to support Ms. Cancel. The committee member, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to alienate friends in the district, said Mr. Silver urged members who had expressed reluctance about Ms. Cancel to change their minds.

Ms. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver did not say why they supported Ms. Cancel, who moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico as a child and now works for the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer. Mr. Stringer has endorsed Ms. Niou.

Credit...Mike Groll/Associated Press

Ms. Rapfogel and several of her relatives attended the vote on Sunday, committee members said, clapping heartily as Ms. Cancel’s victory was announced.

The nomination process is not the only way Mr. Silver and Ms. Rapfogel have kept a less-than-invisible hand in the district. Ms. Rapfogel and several Truman Club members were elected last year as local judicial delegates, who nominate State Supreme Court justices.

Government watchdogs and reform supporters in the district assailed Ms. Cancel’s selection, concerned that she would be no more than a conveniently placed front for Mr. Silver and his allies.

Georgette Fleischer, a committee member, declined to vote for any of the candidates on Sunday to protest the process. “I’m just finding this very, very upsetting that people are still clinging to currying favor with someone whom they perceive to be still able to pull strings and make things happen,” she said, “despite the fact that he’s probably going to spend some time in prison.”

Ms. Fleischer added that she had been hopeful the convictions of Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos would usher in change in Albany. “I thought, ‘It’s going to be a new day, we’re going to turn over a new leaf,’” she said, “And unfortunately I don’t see a new leaf here.”

Mr. Silver’s lawyer, Joel Cohen, declined to comment.

In an interview, Ms. Cancel brushed off criticisms of the nominating process, attributing it to the complaints of sore losers. “Why should we fix something that’s not broken?” she said.

Though she has said she supports reforms including term limits and a full-time Legislature, Ms. Cancel dismissed suggestions that she should distance herself from Mr. Silver.

“Whatever he did in his private life has nothing to do with our district,” she said. “To me, it doesn’t matter, because I had nothing to do with it. He brought a lot of money to our district, was what the folks in the community cared about.”

Credit...Alejandra Villa/Newsday

In Nassau County, by contrast, Christopher McGrath, the Republican candidate to replace Mr. Skelos, has declined to mention the former majority leader while campaigning. And Mr. Kaminsky, the Democratic candidate, has repeatedly highlighted Mr. Skelos’s misdeeds and his own record as a corruption prosecutor.

Mr. McGrath devoted most of the opening speech of his campaign last week to detailing his years as a lifelong resident of the district and his stance on education policy, with no mention of ethics reform. He argued that it would be dangerous to elect someone who could help form a Democratic majority in the Senate, citing the tax increases and fiscal problems that he said befell the district the last time the party controlled both houses of the Legislature.

“This is the most important election in the history of New York State,” Mr. McGrath said, according to a transcript. “If you believe in a two-party system of government like I do, I need to win this election for the people.”

Democrats, in turn, seized on Mr. McGrath’s insistence that if elected, he would not give up his law practice at Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo, a large personal-injury firm where he is a partner.

“The last thing Albany needs is another Dean Skelos crony who cares more about his outside law practice than serving the people of Long Island,” said Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats. “It speaks volumes that as voters demand change, the Republicans nominate someone like Chris McGrath, who is the ultimate symbol of the corrupt status quo.”

Mr. McGrath, in a statement provided by a spokesman, said he supported term limits and stripping pensions from officials convicted of felonies. As for dropping his law practice, he echoed a common argument against turning the Legislature into a full-time institution, saying that he opposed a professional governing body.

Even as he campaigns to join the Legislature, Mr. McGrath has taken pains to set himself apart from its current occupants.

“He is not,” his official biography notes, “a politician.”

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