Editor's Note: Six candidates are running in today's Democratic primary in the 65th Assembly District in Lower Manhattan to fill the seat that was held by Sheldon Silver for almost 40 years before he was convicted on multiple felony corruption charges. In this first-person piece, Stuyvesant High School student Justin Chae explains why he spent his summer volunteering for one of those candidates, Paul Newell.
It was in the elevator of a Spring Street building where I began to question what I was doing with my life this summer.
“Take my card!” 65th District Democratic Leader Paul Newell exclaimed as a security guard questioned us.
It was in that elevator where I remembered I could’ve been running a jazz camp, with the best jazz cats on the East Coast. Instead, I was sweating like a pig, doing door-to-door canvassing with the man I was trying to get elected to fill Sheldon Silver’s seat in the New York State Assembly.
“You give it to police when they come for you,” said the security guard.
To which Newell replied, “But how are they going to know who to come for if you don’t take my card!?”
It was in that elevator where I remembered why I had joined this campaign in the first place. It started with a Jewish man who I hold in very high esteem, my U.S. History teacher Robert Sandler.
“Is anyone interested in learning about democracy and how people run for office?” asked Mr. Sandler. I would later find out that he had also recruited his students to join Newell in a previous campaign he ran in 2008.
I was apprehensive at first. The millennial group as a whole seems to distrust most of our elected officials and it’s rubbed off on me. Of course this isn’t a millennial problem strictly speaking, this type of zeitgeist was prevalent during the counter-culture movement since the ‘60s. So when Mr. Sandler asked if we wanted to help get a politician elected, I declined. Politics was a language I did not speak until Mr. Sandler made it mandatory to watch the GOP debates. However, Mr. Sandler did seem to think highly of Paul. The least I could do was Google him. Though I didn’t do much of Mr. Sandler’s homework, I did do mine on Paul.
I learned that back in 2004 Newell was upset about the policy positions of his Assembly member and wanted to vote against him. When he went to the polls, he found no alternative – then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was too powerful to challenge, it seemed. Instead of giving up, he decided to run himself. In 2008, equipped with his wire-frame glasses, balding head, and dry humor, he decided to run against Silver. Receiving the endorsements of all three of the major newspapers in NYC (the Times, Daily News and Post), Newell ran on a platform calling for more transparency and accountability in Albany. Making his campaign objective targeting the “Three Men in a Room” system that had long governed Albany, Newell put up a valiant fight against. Newell was the only candidate to make a substantial run against Silver during the 39 years he was in the Assembly, garnering about 1/4th of the vote. Newell subsequently ran for District leader, and won, the following year; he has been reelected every two years since.
I ended up joining Newell’s campaign, a week after Mr. Sandler asked, where I am still volunteering even as I write this piece. Why am I volunteering almost nine hours a day, six days a week? Because I love the refreshing perspective Paul brings and I love what he offers to the people of Lower Manhattan. Picture a bald Woody Allen, living in a Mitchell-Lama building with his angsty twin kittens. Most of the work he has done is non-profit management.
The name “politician” has a very bad rap; while Paul may technically be a politician, he is not what the rap implies. He’s a concerned citizen who says he is now stepping up to more effectively help his community and Lower Manhattan. He has led the charge to use the 421-g law to extend rent stabilization to more than 4,500 apartments in the Financial District and Lower Manhattan. He founded the Coalition for a New Village Hospital when St. Vincent’s Hospital was in danger of closure and is fighting to keep the Mt. Sinai Hospital at the Beth Israel location, which is why he is endorsed by New York State’s nurses’ and healthcare workers’ unions.
Paul’s father’s family survived the Holocaust and his mother’s family has lived for several generations in Lower Manhattan. When Paul was young, he was impacted by the AIDS epidemic as he watched as friends, neighbors and even his Bar Mitzvah tutor succumbed to the plague, ignored and even mocked by the Reagan Administration. This would inspire Paul to become the second employee at Ubuntu Education Fund, a non-profit HIV/AIDS response organization that provided medical, educational, and housing support to communities in Southern Africa and New York. Before he went into the nonprofit world, he had teenager jobs: delivering tickets from a travel agency and VHS tapes from a rental store via bicycle. He later joined YIVO Institute for Jewish Research as a Yiddish archivist when he was around 23.
Paul has continued to work as a writers and researcher, for non-profits, magazines and law firms. He worked with civil rights lawyer Yetta Kurland and her firm, forming a friendship with her and the other lawyers so close that he began to appear on their holiday greeting cards holding one of Yetta’s dogs.
After Sheldon Silver’s conviction on federal corruption charges, his politically ally Alice Cancel won election in April as interim Assembly member. The real election to take Silver’s seat is the Democratic Primary on Sept 13. Paul and five other people including Cancel are now running to officially replace Silver in the Assembly. Though none of the other candidates are corrupt or bad people, Paul is the only candidate who has actually stood up against corruption and systemically thought about how to reform the system of governance in New York State, which makes it too easy for our elected officials to be bribed. Having gone to NYC public schools, Paul is fighting for more seats in schools and middle schools in the area, which is why he is endorsed by New York State United Teachers.
Someone who offers himself as a change from the usual. Someone who was able to get me, a high school student that doesn’t even live in the district to commute four hours a day to volunteer for him.
Justin Chae is a student at Stuyvesant High School.