ALBANY -- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful New York politicians over the past two decades, will vacate his post by Monday, said Democrats, who last night appointed a Rochester legislator as an interim replacement until Feb. 10.
The move sets in motion not only the ouster of the second-longest-tenured speaker in state history, but also a short-term, intense scramble to succeed Silver. Among the contenders are Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (D-Rochester) -- who will be the interim leader -- along with Assemb. Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), Assemb. Keith Wright (D-Manhattan) and Assemb. Cathy Nolan (D-Queens). Heastie is considered the front-runner by some, but legislators said the situation was very fluid.
Democrats made the decision after spending more than six hours behind closed doors Tuesday -- a day after telling Silver he'd have to resign or face removal after he was arrested on federal corruption charges.
During a short recess, they told reporters they would give Silver till Monday to step down as leader. A short time later, Morelle returned to say he had spoken with Silver "at some length" and Silver agreed to "not impede the transition," though he balked at saying whether the speaker specifically would resign. Silver has held the post since 1994, wielding enormous clout over the state political scene.
"On Monday there will be a vacancy in the office of speaker," Morelle said.
As Silver walked out of the Assembly chamber, about an hour after speaking to Morelle about the Democrats' decision, he said: "I will not hinder the process."
He added, "I do not intend to resign my seat in this house," and said he believes "very deeply in the institution."
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had no immediate comment.
Silver, 70, has been accused of five counts of bribery and corruption by federal prosecutors. If he steps aside, his 21-year run as speaker would fall one year short of the longevity record held by Oswald D. Heck, a Schenectady Republican who ran the chamber from 1937 to 1959.
While Silver has held an iron grip on the Assembly through a previous coup attempt and several scandals, Democrats said his removal became "inevitable" because of the cloud of the corruption charges. They believed he could no longer effectively lead the body and negotiate a state budget, which is due in two months.
"We decided Sheldon Silver is no longer speaker," said Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a freshman lawmaker. "I hope we pick a leader who is above reproach because public confidence in our body is shaken and needs to be restored."
Being named interim leader gives Morelle a leg up on a handful of other lawmakers eyeing Silver's job, some legislators said. But Heastie, the Bronx County Democratic chairman, is the immediate favorite because he appears, at this point, to have corralled more support from New York City.
Wright contended he still has a great shot at the job, saying he's lining up support.
"I have great experience. I've been here. This is the body I love," Wright said after exiting the lengthy confab. He was one of the first high-profile Democrats to say Silver must go, but said the timing had nothing to do with his candidacy.
A night earlier, Democrats first asked Silver to resign, saying he'd lost their confidence.
If Silver resigns, Morelle, as majority leader, legally becomes interim speaker. The alternate way of removal -- by a formal resolution on the Assembly floor -- would open up a lengthy process that, Democrats noted, would allow Republicans to get involved in the fight and sound off on Silver.