The fight for control of the 47th Assembly District has created some unexpected bedfellows, thanks to a common enemy: Assemblyman William Colton.
Several key political players in southern Brooklyn are offering behind-the-scenes support for Billy Thai, the Democratic candidate presented by Chinese Political Club of Brooklyn founder Warren Chan to challenge Colton’s long-time committee person Charles Ragusa in the September 13 primary, Bensonhurst Bean has learned.
Among them is tabloid darling Thomas “Ziggy” Sicignano, founder of Brooklyn USA, a basketball league that helps underprivileged kids use athletic skills to get into college, who told us that he was not alone in wanting to see Thai — an electrical engineer with no political background — succeed.
“There are at least 49 others, and some are a lot more powerful than me,” said Sicignano, who confirmed that he has been aiding the campaign free-of-charge since May.
When asked why he decided to help Chan and Thai, who are focused on engaging Chinese voters, Sicignano said Colton and Ragusa have gone unchallenged for too long.
“It’s the Chinese’s time; Warren is absolutely right,” he said. “I’m personally a big term limits guy. I don’t think there is a conspiracy theory of people ganging up on Bill — he serves his district well and he’s a very good assemblyman — but it’s their time.”
Initially, Chan presented Thai as the first “Chinese American-born” elected official, advocating for Asian American issues like maintaining the admission criteria at specialized public high schools, but more recent literature distributed by Thai echoes Sicignano’s gripes about the failure of Colton’s committeeman to endorse local Democratic candidates.
A recent email titled “District Leader Charles Ragusa Had One Job” starts:
The Democrat District Leader of the NY 47th Assembly District Charlie Ragusa has one main function as a Democrat District Leader, and that is to support and help elect the Democrat Party candidates to office.Yet in the past five years Political Boss Ragusa has failed to do that:
The letter also criticized Ragusa for being a no-show district leader and for proudly rejecting cellphone or email technology. The letterhead was branded with a new slogan: “Vote Billy Thai, the Brooklyn Guy.”
Some lawmakers in southern Brooklyn have been upset with Colton ever since he and his team refused to back several Democratic candidates taking on Republican lawmakers, like Andrew Gounardes who challenged Republican Senator Marty Golden for his Bay Ridge senate seat, and Domenic Recchia who was up against scandal-scarred Republican Michael Grimm for the 11th CD chair.
Longtime Democratic strategist and lobbyist Hank Scheinkopf described the alliance as two groups with a shared goal, though one party’s motive is ethnic and the other’s is political.
“The presumption is it’s an excuse for a battle,” he said of Colton’s abstention from endorsing fellow Democrats. “If [Colton] were held in better standing with people, no one would care.”
Colton often touts the diversity of his team — which includes Hong Kong-born committeewoman Nancy Tong — and has also worked to corral Chinese voters, such as presenting endorsements from former Comptroller John Liu and Steven Chung, president of United Chinese Association, at a press conference last month.
“Whenever our community has a problem — including at Lafayette High School 10 years ago — the neighborhood team always united us together. It doesn’t matter if we are Italian, or Chinese, Russian or Latin American,” said Chung at the event.
However, Chan charges that that Colton, who has publicly denounced Thai as an “imposter,” is trying to suppress Chinese votes by undermining the campaign of his candidate.
Chan, who is new to the political scene, admitted that he learning through trial and error how to launch a political campaign and said that Sicignano has helped him overcome pitfalls like challenges to Thai’s petition.
“All I know, is when I needed help, he came to us and gave us technical support,” said Chan, “He can help me identify the failures of Charles Ragusa, and how he is failing the Democratic Party. He also identifies why the 47th District has such a poor attendance in voting, because he never ever appointed Chinese-[speaking] inspectors.”
Another southern Brooklyn Democratic operative, who says he has helped Chan with press strategy and petitioning, echoed Sicignano’s sentiments about Thai and the Asian American political insurgencies we are seeing in Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, and Sunset Park.
“New Americans want and deserve a seat at the table, especially in a district like this that’s changed so much. There is an inherent urgency in the immigrant community that won’t wait for entrenched or out of touch incumbents to bow out gracefully according to their preferred timeline — that’s just not how it works,” the source told Bensonhurst Bean. “Here you have the Asian community who wants one of their own to represent them and they’re ready to fight for that opportunity. They’re tired of being patronized, paid lip service, or being told to wait their turn.”
Who wins, Scheinkopf says, will depend on which team turns out more voters, “Colton knows how to turn people out, but can the other side?”