DSA Assembly candidate blasts opponent for raking in campaign cash from GOP donors

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Candidates for Assembly District 65 Democratic primary Illapa Sairitupac (left) and Grace Lee.
Photos courtesy of Sairitupac and Lee campaigns, illustration by Ethan Stark-Miller

The race to fill the lower Manhattan Assembly seat currently occupied by outgoing member Yuh-Line Niou is heating up in its final week as Democratic-socialist candidate Illapa Sairitupac accused centrist Grace Lee of accepting campaign cash from donors with a history of giving to former President Donald Trump and other Republican stalwarts.

Sairitupac, a social worker and a climate organizer whose campaign is backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), told PoliticsNY that he’s taken aback by Lee’s acceptance of these donations and has called on her campaign to return them.

“I’m just flabbergasted that Grace Lee pretends to be a progressive, grassroots candidate, when in reality, she is bankrolled by massive Republican donors,” Sairitupac said. “And for me, it’s like, why is a Democratic candidate accepting any money from these huge Republican donors, especially from Trump donors? How could this be acceptable in the Democratic Party? And how can local Democratic clubs still support this candidate who’s being bankrolled by donors from the Trump wing of the Republican Party.”

But while a spokeswoman for Lee’s campaign said they would be donating $3,000 to Planned Parenthood of Greater New York to make up for the sum it received from the Trump donor, she pushed back on the idea that these donations are somehow representative of Lee’s campaign overall. Furthermore, she characterized them as a desperate move by Sairitupac to gain an edge in the final days of campaigning.

“Grace is a community organizer whose work serving the diverse and working-class neighborhoods of the 65th District speaks for itself, as evidenced by her broad coalition of endorsements from labor unions, NYCHA leaders, elected officials and residents from across the district,” she said in an emailed statement. “Our opponent is running a negative campaign because he doesn’t have a positive winning message. These contributions have been a matter of public record since January, but are being planted as [opposition research] less than a week before the election out of desperation.”

Lee is a community organizer and small business owner.

The Lower Manhattan district Sairitupac and Lee are vying to represent includes the Lower East Side, Chinatown and part of the Financial District. Also running is Denny Salas, who works in a Bronx school and previously spent time on Capitol Hill. Niou vacated the seat late last year to run for state Senate and then decided to run for Congress instead in the newly redrawn 10th Congressional District.

Sairitupac originally made the allegations Tuesday, when he tweeted that Lee received a total of $3,000 from Frank Bisignano, President and CEO of financial services firm Fiserv Inc., between her 2020 and 2022 campaigns to represent the 65th Assembly District. According to Sairitupac, Bisignano gave a $125,000 donation to Trump Victory – a PAC associated with the former president’s 2020 reelection bid.

PoliticsNY independently verified the amount Lee received from Bisignano and the sum Bisignano donated to Trump in 2019.

But Sairitupac wasn’t done yet. On Wednesday, he took to Twitter again to share that Lee also received campaign cash from Charles Cascarilla – CEO and co-founder of Paxos, a financial services firm specializing in cryptocurrency – and his wife Marissa, who donated a collective $18,800 to her two Assembly campaigns. Both Cascarillas, he said, gave to the failed U.S. Senate campaign of Ohio Republican Josh Mandel – a far-right Trump supporter who lost the state’s GOP primary to Trump-backed candidate J.D. Vance. Collectively they gave Mandel $23,200 through PACs associated with his campaign.

Additionally, they donated at least $5,800 to a PAC associated with Wyoming Republican U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis in 2021.

PoliticsNY verified both Cascarillas donations to Lee, Mandel and Lummis.

Sairitupac said he thinks these donors chose to give to Lee’s campaign because they see her as a possible ally in Albany if she wins the race.

“I think big money flows where it thinks it can have any influence,” he said. “These donors clearly think they can buy politicians. But the Lower East Side and Chinatown and lower Manhattan is not for sale. You know, politicians are accountable to whoever funds them and the working class cannot trust someone who has tens of thousands of dollars from the one percent.”

Lee’s spokeswoman said the $3,000 donation should make up for the money they received from Bisignano, but pushed back on the idea that there’s something tainted about the contributions from the Cascarillas because they’ve given to far-left Democrats as well as conservative Republicans.  

“The campaign is making a charitable donation for $3,000 to account for Mr. Bisignano’s contributions,” she said. “The Cascarillas have given to many prominent Democrats, and we find it notable that our opponent has not called for the Congressional Black Caucus and Bernie Sanders’ National Co-Chair Ro Khanna to return their contributions from these supporters.”

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