BY DASHIELL ALLEN | Grace Lee, a community activist, organizer and small business owner, announced Tuesday that she’s running for state Assembly in Lower Manhattan’s 65th District, currently represented by Yuh-Line Niou.
They won’t be competing against each other like two years ago, since Niou, setting her eyes on a bigger seat, is challenging incumbent Brian Kavanagh in the state Senate. But Lee is facing social worker and Democratic Socialists of America activist Illapa Sairitupac, who recently declared he is running for Assembly, as well as Baruch Houses activist Jasmin Sanchez and Justine Cuccia, a member of Community Board 1. Another possible contender is former state Senate candidate Alana Sivin, who is “considering all options.”
Lee enters the race with a large amount of community support, including the endorsement of Aixa Torres, the president of the Smith Houses tenants association. Torres said Lee “is not just another politician, she’s a bright light who has shown up time and time again.” Lee is firmly against privatizing New York City public housing.
After announcing her entry into the race, Grace spoke with The Village Sun about her campaign and priorities for the district.
“I decided to run again,” she said, “because I believe that our community deserves a representative who’s on the ground, cares about this community, and wants to ensure that this community has a strong recovery from the pandemic.”
If voters send her to Albany, Lee’s top priorities will be improving access to healthcare and COVID resources, ensuring that small businesses thrive and combating anti-Asian hate.
“My goal is to serve this community, to understand the local issues, and to find ways to help address the problems that are facing our district,” she said, “whether that’s through legislation, or through building relationships within our community and different agencies.”
She said she would also open “a storefront constituent services office that’s transit accessible to as much of the district as possible.”
Lee has built a reputation for herself as an on-the-ground community organizer, advocating for the rights of deaf tenants on the Lower East Side at 174 Forsyth St., a Section 8 building under private management.
“My friend’s mother is a longtime resident,” she said, “and she called me to show me the deplorable living conditions that these deaf tenants were living in, due to neglectful management by the building management company and landlord.” That led to Lee building up pressure on the owner by organizing multiple rallies and gaining significant media attention.
“Their apartments are getting repaired,” she said, “the buildings are getting repainted, because of the work that I, as well as other organizers, have been doing there, and I feel very proud of that.”
Lee also donated 1,500 turkeys to the Vision Urbana food pantry’s annual Thanksgiving turkey drive, and went door-to-door in NYCHA buildings to deliver them.
Lee is a founding member of Children First, an organization that has fought to prioritize the safety of local schoolchildren surrounding the 250 Water St. site, once the world’s largest thermometer factory and a brownfield cleanup site.
Lee, like many other local parents, was concerned that without proper oversight the site’s cleanup could potentially lead children to be exposed to dangerous levels of mercury poisoning. Recently she and her fellow parent activists pressured elected officials into forming, as she put it, “a task force to bring together the various agencies and the various stakeholders within the Seaport.”
“This is just one example of how I as an assemblymember will help to support our community,” she added. “I will be holding task forces, whether that’s for NYCHA, whether that’s for the Seaport community, or if that includes working with the local city councilmember to do other task forces to do with East River Park.
“I want to make sure that the community is kept aware of what’s going on in our community, and there are open lines of communication and transparency for everyone,” Lee said.
In a joint endorsement statement, Children First activists and public school parents Megan Malvern, Emily Hellstrom and Colleen Robertson (all of the Peck Slip School) and Maggie Dallal (of I.S./P.S. 276) said: “Grace is a thoughtful, diligent and relentless advocate for our children and communities, and we are excited to help elect her to represent Lower Manhattan in Albany. We have worked in close partnership with Grace to ensure the safe cleanup of a toxic mercury site in the Seaport right across the street from our children’s school. Grace is fearless in her fight and has stood up to the luxury developer [Howard Hughes Corporation] to protect our kids and the surrounding neighborhood from exposure to mercury vapor. She is the progressive voice we need in Albany to fight for the health and safety of our families and communities.”
Among Lee’s other endorsements are Don Hong, head of UA3 Digital Divide, a group fighting to expand tech expertise and access; Arnette Scott, a member of Community Education Council District 1; and attorney Wei-Li Tjong.
Again, this isn’t Lee’s first rodeo. In June 2020 she fell short in her bid against Niou.
“The lesson I took away from my last campaign is that the needs and issues of our community go beyond just one single campaign,” she said. “And that is why after I lost my race, I kept fighting. These issues are bigger than one person, they’re bigger than one election cycle.
“I’ve been really humbled by the level of support and encouragement that I’ve received from the community to run for the Assembly again,” she said. “The support I’ve been receiving are from people who I’ve worked closely with and organized with in the community…because they have seen my work and believe that I can do great things for this community.”
She sounds like the kind of “roll up your sleeves” candidate that is very much needed this year for Lower Manhattan after this pandemic and gentrification creep. We need a candidate who champions our children, defends small business owners, protects the NYCHA developments along the East River from privatization, and ensures that the work on the East River promenade is making headway. Looking forward to your follow-up stories on these very important issues affecting our communities!