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Republican Candidate Vies for Sheldon Silver's Seat in Democratic Downtown

By Irene Plagianos | February 16, 2016 3:55pm
 Lester Chang, 54, is the Republican candidate running for Sheldon Silver's former State Assembly seat.
Lester Chang, 54, is the Republican candidate running for Sheldon Silver's former State Assembly seat.
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Courtesy of Lester Chang

LOWER MANHATTAN — Lester Chang has never held a political office, but the Republican candidate for disgraced Assemblyman Sheldon Silver's seat said he thinks that works to his advantage.

The 54-year-old businessman and naval reservist said he's not about "politicking" — he's running to "make a difference in a culture of corruption."

Chang, a native of Chinatown, said he was inspired to seek the 65th State Assembly District seat because he was "so angry at how things were getting done in Albany."

Silver, a Democrat, represented Lower Manhattan for nearly 40 years before he was convicted in November on charges of fraud extortion and money laundering.

A special April 19th election — the same day as New York's presidential primary elections — is being held for the vacated seat. Whichever candidate wins the April election will have to run again in November to keep his or her seat.

Though there have been calls for change in Albany, some critics say the Democratic powerbrokers who long backed Silver still have sway in Lower Manhattan, and that may detract from reform in Albany.

Lower Manhattan is a Democratic stronghold — there are more than 40,000 active Democratic voters, in comparison to about 6,000 Republicans — but Chang said he sees himself as a candidate more in opposition of "business as usual in Albany" and for public service, than adhering to strict party lines.

Chang, the son of Chinese immigrants, who lost his father to cancer when he was 8 years old, has worked in global shipping logistics for years and has been a naval reservist since 1998. He was called into active duty as a counter-intelligence analyst after 9/11, first based in Washington, D.C., then at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island. Chang also served in Afghanistan in 2009. 

Along with being "anti-corruption", Chang said he's also passionate about education. He's in favor of lifting any caps on charter schools, to give parents a choice for their children, and also doesn't want to "dumb down" the competitive standards for New York City public schools.

As the son of a small business owner, Chang also said that he's not in favor raising the minimum wage to $15.

"It will be a tsunami that wipes out jobs and small businesses across the city and state," Chang said in a speech accepting the Republican candidacy earlier this month — a position for which he ran unopposed.

Chang is also in favor of term limits in the State Assembly, something he thinks can help squash corruption.

"Shelly Silver is the poster-child for professional politicians who create personal fiefdoms for themselves and their corrupt cronies," he said in the speech. "Holding the same elective office for decades becomes a Petri dish for the creation of corruption and malfeasance by our political class."

The Nolita resident said he's also running because he's a "proud Chinese American" and feels that the state is in need of more representation by Asian Americans — currently, only one State Assemblyman is Asian.

While the voting numbers seem stacked against a Republican who also received the endorsement of Downtown's Independent Party, Rob Ryan, the spokesman for the Manhattan Republican Party, said they see a chance to win.

There's been some splintering in the Democratic Party. Alice Cancel, a longtime Democratic District leader was chosen as the Democratic candidate, but some of the other potential candidates, including Yuh-Line Niou, the chief of staff for Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, called the process unfair. Niou is now running as the Working Families Party candidate.

Voter turnout will also be affected by the presidential primary — and Chang is hoping more Republicans, combined with disaffected Democrats may help in the race.

Whatever happens, Chang said he will run in November.