In State Assembly Race, Surprise Endorsement from a Downtown Club

State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, left, and opponent Grace Lee appeal for the endorsement of the Downtown Independent Democrats. Photos: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 03, 2020

At the Downtown Independent Democrats candidate endorsement forum late last month, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who represents a large swath of Lower Manhattan and is running for a third term, ended her pitch for support by reciting a slew of endorsements from elected officials, unions and other Democratic clubs.

“I’m going to read off a whole bunch of names. I’m sorry,” she said, with mock apology and a big smile. “It’s going to be very long.”

But once the members tallied their vote, one major political club failed to make the Assemblywoman’s list: the Downtown Independent Democrats.

To the surprise of many, Niou’s one opponent, FiDi resident and parent activist Grace Lee, won the club’s endorsement. That commits the group to the hard work of petitioning to get their candidate for the 65th Assembly District, among their other endorsed hopefuls, on the June 23 Democratic primary ballot.

“It was extremely close, a hair’s breadth,” said the club’s president, Richard Corman, who declined to provide a tally from the meeting’s modest turnout.

(Also unexpected, the club endorseed attorney and sexual harassment activist Erica Vladimir over longtime Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. Vladimir later dropped out of the race and Maloney became the D.I.D.’s endorsed candidate.) 

“Over the last number of years we’ve been growing with new members that are younger and spread across a wider segment of the district and I might say those younger members are eager for change,” Corman said in a telephone interview. “They’re not as tied to the sense of incumbency perhaps as more traditional political club candidates.”

“A little less political calculus perhaps,” he added, “and a little more passion.”

Lee is the co-founder of Children First, a group of parents and other activists concerned about the presence of buried mercury from former thermometer factories in the future Howard Hughes Corp. development site at 250 Water St.  As the mother of children attending the Blue School, which like the Peck Slip School stands across the street from the site, she built a following of parents, nearby Southbridge Towers residents, and others through her activism. To date, she has raised nearly $156,000 to Niou’s $119,000, and already spent over $69,000 on her election effort, nine times more than Niou, according to campaign finance filings.

“She really put the work in,” Corman said, noting multiple calls to his members as well as heavy fundraising, “and it really paid off.

“With hundreds of families and thousands of residents on 250 Water Street, people love to see that someone from the community who has been fighting alongside the community has been stepping up to represent them,” Lee said in a phone interview. “I don’t think that was happening before.”

Niou did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Speaking to D.I.D. members, Lee said her priorities include protecting communities from toxic development sites, and creating better education and housing opportunities for poor families. Niou, who holds the seat of convicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, emphasized her support for consumer protections and victims of sexual abuse. Both candidates said they oppose changes to the new bail reform laws.

Corman said debate over the endorsement was “vigorous on both sides.” 

“There was clear acknowledgement of the positive things that Yuh-Line has done that are consistent with the values of the club,” Corman said, “and clear recognition of someone like Grace who has been effective at organizing around the 250 Water Street issue.”