Amid controversy, scandal, Sheldon Silver may soon be longest-serving Assembly speaker in state history

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, presides over a Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, presides over a session in the Assembly Chamber at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Albany, N.Y. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

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ALBANY - The latest chapter in state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's 20 years as leader may have been his rockiest:

Disclosure that he made a $103,000 secret settlement in 2012 to end sexual harassment charges against a legislator. The husband of his chief of staff being charged last year with stealing millions from a charity. The 2013 disclosure that he makes up to $450,000 annually from a private law firm that specializes in negligence law, which is written in Albany. Editorials demanding his resignation.

Yet Silver has survived where lesser scandals and public scorn have ended political careers.

Moreover, a combination of the immense power he wields over Assembly members who would have to dare to try to dump him, an arcane rule that practically assures his position this year, and lessons learned since a coup attempt against him in 2000 have made him stronger.

He is now one election away from being the longest-serving speaker in New York history. A look into how he did this reveals much about the enigmatic Manhattan Democrat and the Albany he has ruled for 20 years.

Last May, Silver made an extraordinary public apology for his role in using public money to secretly settle sexual harassment claims against then-Democratic Assemb. Vito Lopez of Brooklyn, only to have more women accuse Lopez shortly afterward.

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"The degradation and emotional duress" of women sexually harassed by a few members "weighs heavily upon me," Silver said carefully, reading from a text and -- rare for him -- referring to notes to answer reporters' questions.

In the summer of 2013, calls for Silver to resign intensified, coming from Republicans, two of his own Democratic assemblymen, a public-opinion poll and editorials statewide, including some that referred to him as "shameful Shelly." The outrage was met mostly by silence from Democrats in Albany.

Republican Assembly members sent a letter to the U.S. attorney's office requesting an investigation into the "scandalous and allegedly criminal enterprises conducted by the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, and his staff."

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A Quinnipiac University poll found 51 percent of voters statewide wanted Silver to resign, with just 22 percent saying he should keep the job. Fifty-two percent of voters disapproved of how he was doing his job as speaker, including 45 percent of Democrats statewide. Half of New York City voters said Silver should resign, compared with 26 percent who said he should remain speaker.

Last fall, for a guy famous for never revealing a poker player's "tell" in negotiations, Silver was noticeably haggard. He was even less accessible to reporters, and made a rare appearance at the annual private party for current and alumni Assembly members that underscored his effort to mend fences.

 

Getting stronger

Though vilified by his enemies, criticized by a few of his own Democratic members, and the subject of political obituaries in the last six months, Silver has emerged chastened, changed and stronger.

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"Nobody's replacing the speaker," said Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), who has worked with Silver since 1989. "He's really empowered. He should be and he will be the longest-serving speaker in the history of the State of New York."

And Silver feels it. The members issued a proclamation Feb. 11 honoring Silver's 20th year as speaker, just days before his 70th birthday. They called him their leader who "made it his mission to maintain the Assembly as an independent, member-driven institution."

"Terrific," Silver said when asked how he's feeling this year, "terrific. . . . I love doing it."

He said a change in his leadership was never proposed in closed-door conference, which rank-and-filers confirmed. The heat was most intense at the end of the 2013 legislative session, but members were focused on the rush to get their bills passed by session's end in June and a messy leadership fight would have threatened those bills critical for re-election. Afterward, Silver didn't bring members back to Albany for what has become a common late fall special session, when the simmering issue could have boiled over.

"Every two years we talk about it," Silver said of the leadership vote in an interview with Newsday. "That's it."

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"I serve at the pleasure of members of the Democratic conference and I think my track record, and their comfort, and their understanding of everything that takes place, gives me their support," Silver said.

Some of that security is the result of Silver's own political acumen, which has frustrated four governors and as many Senate majority leaders. His ability to outlast his adversaries earned him the nickname "the Sphinx," and he is famous for adding at the end of arduous negotiations, "Just one thing more."

Some of his security is in the immense power of a speaker, who can control not just what bills reach the floor, but which spending items get into the state budget, how much staff, resources and even office space a lawmaker gets, and whether he or she gets lucrative leadership posts.

A speaker also controls how millions of dollars in campaign contributions and resources are distributed to members from the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee.

As a result, most members still won't touch the subject of leadership publicly.

 

Silver's security

Much of Silver's security is because he has kept the diverse Democratic conference happy. Its many factions are based on an upstate-downstate division; one surrounds gay and lesbian issues, another coalesces around a women's and abortion-rights agenda, and others include conservative and liberal blocs.

During the tense months of 2013 a few potential names for successors to Silver were discussed among members, but none appeared to have broad support outside their bloc.

One of the Assembly's own rules nearly assures that Silver won't face a challenge this legislative session. A challenge during the two-year Assembly term would require Democratic members in public session to first approve a motion to vote to pick a speaker, then to stand again and choose someone else.

That failed dramatically in May 2000. Then-Assembly Majority Leader Michael Bragman of Syracuse announced his plan to call a vote to become speaker on a Wednesday against Silver, who was seen by many to have been distant from his members. By that Monday, after frantic secret meetings and arm-twisting by Silver and his supporters, the coup that began with optimism mustered just 20 of 98 Democratic votes.

Bragman and his supporters then felt the full force of a speaker. Their stipends, staff and local pork barrel grants were cut, offices were relocated, and their futures curtailed.

"The precedent was set not to take it to the floor," said Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), who joined the Assembly in 1972, four years before Silver.

"The Assembly isn't the Senate; you can't have a coup on the Assembly floor," Lentol said. He noted the 2009 coup in the Senate turned on just three dissident Democrats who flipped control of the then-62-seat chamber closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. "It's a numbers game."

"It's very hard to challenge a sitting leader in the legislature because the minute you try to organize, you put the leader on notice," said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz.

As a result, just months after it was Albany's hottest issue, the idea of taking Silver out is something Democrats and lobbyists say no one is talking about. They say Silver is safe, at least until December, when the vote for speaker before a new two-year session begins is again handled behind two sets of closed doors.

"From everything from paper clips to election district lines, leaders have tremendous sway," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

"It's a very diverse group of legislators. To cobble together a majority would be very difficult unless you are a leader already," Horner said. "It's like taking out any incumbent: You have to make the case the person is failing in the job, and you have to have someone better."

Back in 2000, Silver was challenged because many saw him as imperial and aloof. Since then, he has quietly shared power with women, African-Americans, Latinos and upstate members in a move that strengthens his power.

He regularly consults a half-dozen senior members who are a cross-section of the conference, with representatives from New York City, upstate, women's and gay rights blocs, including some of his likely challengers, Democrats confirmed.

That sort of informal steering committee contradicts the public image of all-powerful leaders in Albany.

Last year, as he was criticized for the latest string of sex scandals in his chamber, Silver stuck with Democratic assemblywomen when he refused to remove a protection for late-term abortion in a 10-point women's rights agenda, even though a deal on nine other points was offered.

 

Taking the heat

As he always does, he took the heat -- instead of his members -- from angry advocates who had sought the nine other protections.

Last year he also led the approval of a higher minimum wage sought by his New York City members. He continues to push for a Dream Act, which is sought by Latino legislators and would provide college financial aid to American-born children of immigrants who are living in the country illegally. He supported a property tax cap and a "Buffalo Billion" jobs program important to Western New York members.

Silver also has struck an alliance with liberal New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's push -- over Cuomo's opposition -- to tax the wealthy to expand prekindergarten there, which is important to Silver's city members.

"I think it's all those things," Lentol said. "Shelly is a master at being an advocate for all the diverse groups in the Assembly . . . and nobody does it better."

Silver learns and evolves with the same acumen that allows him to remain unassailable -- despite strong disapproval ratings statewide -- in his lower Manhattan district, which has transformed from an Orthodox Jewish enclave to a growing Latino and Asian community.

After the Lopez settlement, and after the lawyers of the women who accused him sued the Assembly, Silver faced two more sexual harassment cases involving legislators. He quickly sanctioned both lawmakers and one resigned in January.

"He handled those issues deftly," said Michael Benjamin, a former Democratic assemblyman from the Bronx and now a political commentator. "I don't see where the imperative exists today to replace Shelly at this present moment in time," Benjamin said. "Despite their talk, I didn't get the thought that members had the stomach to go out and try to replace him."

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