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BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC
Call it a “Draft Jenifer” movement.
A group calling itself the “Women for Jenifer Committee” is supporting Downtown lawyer Jenifer Rajkumar to replace Sheldon Silver in the Assembly before the local Democratic leader has even entered the race.
Just a week after Silver was convicted on federal corruption charges, the group sent out a press release on Dec. 8 touting Rajkumar’s “potential candidacy” for his seat, and featuring glowing quotes from half a dozen prominent women.
“From Alice Paul to Indira Gandhi to Eleanor Roosevelt to Golda Meir to Malala Yousafzai to Hillary Clinton to Jenifer Rajkumar,” wrote Demie Kurz, a women’s studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “the message stays the same: Empowerment, Equality, and Perseverance.”
For her part, Rajkumar said she’s flattered to be placed in such fine company, even if she hasn’t yet decided to toss her hat into the ring.
“I am honored to have the support and encouragement of such an impressive group of women leaders,” Rajkumar said in a phone interview. “I am considering running.”
In addition to Kurz, the committee includes Community Board 1 member and former deputy mayor Ninfa Segarra, Michigan state rep. Kristy Pagan, former head of the Women’s Campaign Fund & She Should Run Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, Women’s Information Network New York City co-founder Monica F. Guerra, and Jodi L. Ochstein of Hillary for America.
“They are transforming the national debate in government, academia and nonprofits, and they inspire me every day,” said Rajkumar of the group.
Currently Democratic district leader for the 65th Assembly District Part C, Rajkumar last ran for public office in 2013, when she launched an unsuccessful primary challenge to Councilmember Margaret Chin.
Rajkumar said she has learned a lot about the district from her three successful district-leader races, as well as her failed bid against Chin.
“Being very active in the community has been transformative,” she said. “I have learned so much from constituents all over Lower Manhattan. In my three campaigns for district leader and in my Council race, I knocked on doors in Lower Manhattan from the east side to the west side. I’ve been to every floor of public housing in this district from top to bottom.”
Segarra, co-chairwoman of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, strongly opposed Rajkumar when she challenged Chin, but put that conflict behind them when it came to choosing whom to back for Sliver’s seat.
“I had to make a very objective decision about this.”
Segarra grew up on the Lower East Side and moved to Battery Park City in 2002, and she said the fact that Rajkumar spent time on the east side of the district was one of the reasons she joined the Women for Jenifer Committee.
She also thinks that as a junior Assemblymember Rajkumar will be able to win over her colleagues in Albany, which can be a difficult and lonely place.
“I thought she had those skills,” Segarra said. “I thought she had a skill set and a temperament that she would be able to go to Albany and build support for our very complex community.”
If does run, Rajkumar said she would champion two main issues: school overcrowding and the lack of local representation on the Battery Park City Authority board, which currently has one local resident.
“The population of Lower Manhattan has exploded and has increased 91 percent since 2001, according to the U.S. Census,” she said. “Building new schools would be one of my top priorities for Lower Manhattan.”
With Silver’s conviction, the fate of his School Overcrowding Task Force is now in limbo, but Rajkumar said she will “seek to continue the incredible work” of the group.
“I meet so many constituents as district leader. Even here where I live in Gateway Plaza people tell me, ‘Jenifer, getting my kid into kindergarten is harder than getting into Harvard,’” said Rajkumar, who has lived at the Battery Park City complex since 2010.
Rajkumar said she would also use a seat in Albany to push for more residents to be included on the Cuomo-appointed B.P.C.A. board.
The special election to fill Silver’s seat is expected to take place next April, but political maneuvering for the seat began even before the former Assembly Speaker’s Nov. 30 conviction. Paul Newell, who is also a Democratic district leader and challenged Silver in 2008, has been making the press rounds.
If elected, Rajkumar would be the first South Asian to serve in the state legislature.