A banker and lawyer from Manhattan is challenging incumbent Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez — who has held the position for 24 years — and he has been ruffling feathers among some of her allies, calling her “tired” and out of touch with the community she represents.
“The long-time incumbent and I share views on many issues – this is, after all, a Democratic Primary,” said Lee. “However, it has become clear that Ms. Velazquez does not represent the district’s diversity and priorities, and has been on low-energy autopilot for many years now.”
Now in her 12th term, Velázquez was a pioneer as the first Hispanic woman to hold elected office in the city, and the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Lee is Chinese immigrant who moved to America from Hong Kong when he was 16, and since coming to New York, has climbed the ranks in banking, law, and the medical world.
“The 7th Congressional District, unique in New York City because it includes three of our five wonderful boroughs, is deeply diverse, and deserves better representation than it’s been getting,” said Lee in a statement when he first announced his candidacy. “Conversations about needing a new Member of Congress began years ago in our Asian American communities in Chinatown and Sunset Park, then connected with similar frustrations in other neighborhoods of the 7th.”
Lately, the congressional race has been mired in controversy over a “war of words” between supporters of both Lee and Velázquez.
A pro-Lee PAC called Community Action Now has called Velázquez “arrogant,” and “unaccountable,” in emails that they sent out. This PAC — which denies being officially associated with Lee — also compared Velázquez with the likes of shamed former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, according to a report by the Brooklyn Eagle.
This angered Councilman Brad Lander who spoke at a press conference late last month to support the reelection of Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon. Lander didn’t hesitate to bring up the anti-Velázquez emails at the press conference saying the messages were “fueled by scumbags … small-minded, nasty, and funded by dark money.”
Velásquez was standing beside Lander when he said that, and didn’t say a word. District Leader Charles Ragusa, who supports Lee, demanded that Lander apologize for his comments.
“Everyone has the right to support who they want,” said Ragusa, in a statement saying he was disgusted by Lander’s remarks. “I am demanding Lander give an apology to the Asian community instead of linking them all as bad people with hateful remarks.”
“We can’t go around calling people names and placing labels. Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez simply stood silently next to Lander and did not speak up to correct this” noted Ragusa.
Lander replied that his comments were not aimed at individuals, but rather at “the LLCs, shell corporations, and special interest money paying for anonymous lies and distortions against Congresswoman Velazquez.”
“You can’t apologize to an LLC,” Lander said.
Unsatisfied with Lander’s response, Lee and other Asian community groups rallied against the councilman outside of City Hall on June 6, calling his comments racist and insensitive.
“In my view it’s over the top of what should be part of our political discourse,” said Lee. “Language like that and the tone of that — he talks about dark money, the attitude is dark. Looking at the big picture of what our democracy should be, we shouldn’t have language like that in our politics. For somebody who proclaims he’s progressive and liberal, it doesn’t look right, it doesn’t smell right.”
This is not Lee’s first foray into politics. Lee participated in anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements in the 1970s while attending Columbia University. He also worked at the Chinatown Health Clinic — now the Charles Wang Community Health Center — where he helped turn it from a storefront clinic to a “model of providing primary medical care,” according to his campaign website.
A graduate of New York University Law School, ran his own practice — Lee, Lee, & Ling — for six years before being appointed by former Governor Mario Cuomo to the position of First Deputy Superintendent of the New York State Banking Department (NYSBD) — a position he held until 1994. There, he focused on protecting taxpayer money during the Savings and Loan crisis and the collapse of commercial real estate mortgages.
After his tenure with the NYSBD, Lee went on to become the President and CEO of United Orient Bank, which remains a family owned community bank to this day.
In 2002, Lee went back to law, serving as General Counsel for the Sun Sun Group, a local privately owned development company. In 2008, he became President and CEO of Global Bank, the position he holds today. Global Bank was in need of turnaround when he started heading it. Today, Global Bank works primarily with small businesses, and is “now a stable $140 million community stalwart,” according to Lee’s campaign site.
His campaign comes after the Chinese community — particularly in Sunset Park — has become more active in the political realm because of the conviction of Peter Liang, and the proposed eradication of Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT). Asians make up 54 percent of the student population of New York City’s specialized high school. Many Asian groups believe eradicating the SHSAT would be discriminatory towards the Asian American community.
A third Democrat, Jeff Kurzon, is also running against Velazquez and Lee. He’s a Lower East Side resident and this is his second time in the race.
The New York State congressional primary election is on June 28.
Updated [June 10, 10:13am]: Additional information about a third candidate in the 7th CD race Jeff Kurzon was added.