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It’s literally an
odd year for politics Downtown.
There’s usually something interesting in the “evens” — state Assembly and Senate races as well as ones for Congress and either governor or president. Every other “odd” has mayoral and City Council elections, but then there’s years like this one with mostly offices for positions few people know much
about like Democratic district leaders — unpaid Election Day watchdogs who are also supposed to keep the paid pols in touch with their communities.
A month ago when district leader Jenifer Rajkumar announced her run for reelection with an unusually high-profile event drawing the likes of Public Advocate Tish James and two members of Congress — Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney— she didn’t know if she’d have a challenger in September. But this week, Gigi Li, chairperson of Community Board 3, announced she would try and unseat Rajkumar.
That’s when things got interesting.
Sean Sweeney, a Rajkumar ally and a longtime leader of Downtown Independent Democrats, told UnderCover that in his view, Li was both a “carpetbagger” and a “sacrificial lamb” whom Councilmember Margaret Chin put up to run against Rajkumar, who unsuccessfully ran against Chin in 2013.
We’re not sure of Chin’s role in Li’s decision since the often press-shy councilmember and Li didn’t comment, but it is true that Li faces a tough battle against Rajkumar in part because she lives in a different part of the Assembly district, Chinatown.
Rajkumar, a Battery Park City resident, has previously beaten two B.P.C. residents with strong and longer ties to the neighborhood — Linda Belfer in 2011, and Robin Forst in 2013 — the same primary she lost to Chin.
“Ms. Li does not live in our district and has no connection to or record in our community whatsoever,” Rajkumar said in a statement. “She and our community would be far better served if she would pursue her ambitions in the Chinatown district in which she actually lives. ”
In an interview, Rajkumar said she takes any election challenge seriously, and Sweeney’s theory about Chin’s influence is “plausible.”
Li is permitted to run in any part of the 65th Assembly district including Part C (much of B.P.C., FiDi, with snippets of the Lower East Side and Soho ) since she does live in the A.D.
For her part, Li, who has taken heat from some Downtowners who think she hasn’t been tough enough on liquor license applications at the community board, did not respond to an interview request.
She sent us a statement saying she offered “genuine leadership experience….I know that together we can make incredible strides and get the real results our community needs. In the coming weeks I’ll be speaking directly with residents across the district about my plan.”
There are at least two challenges in the 66th Assembly district, just to the north and west. Jean Grillo and John Scott, two district leaders, who splintered from Sweeney and the rest of D.I.D, last year, are now being challenged respectively by Terri Cude, a leader at Community Board 2 in the Village, and Dennis Gault, a resident of north B.P.C. and longtime Community Board 1 member.
“It’s been 10 years, I think it’s time for change and new energy,” Cude told us. “I think I can bring a better balance between the south and north edges of the district.”
Grillo and Scott live close to each other in Tribeca. She dismissed the balance argument as phony since D.I.D. endorsed them before she and Scott formed Downtown Progressive Democrats last year.
Grillo said she has always stayed connected to all parts of her part, B. She is proud to have the endorsement of Assemblymember Deborah Glick of the 66th A.D. and Councilmember Corey Johnson, who covers the north, as well as many other pols including Chin, U.S. Rep. Nadler, and State Sen. Daniel Squadron.
Gault, who favors term limits, said he does not look at his campaign as running against Scott, but just as a way to strive toward the democratic ideal.
“One of my lifelong idols is George Washington,” he said. “He said we didn’t fight the English to have another king. He left after eight years as president to let someone else take the leadership role.”
He didn’t compare Rajkumar and her co-leader, Paul Newell, to G.W., but he did say he looks to them as district leader role models for using their positions to raise important issues. Gault, a teacher, wants to focus on education, affordable housing and subway improvements.
Scott did not comment.
We circle back to Sweeney, who unlike Jeb Bush a few weeks ago, had no hesitation saying that if he knew then, what he knows now, he would have done things differently. He said he regrets helping Chin unseat Councilmember Alan Gerson six years ago.
“Yes, everyone agrees [now] Gerson was better — at least he was not vindictive,” Sweeney said. “Gerson was the preferred candidate. He would not have sold us out on N.Y.U. and he would have supported the community’s struggle against the Soho BID.”