ALBANY - Assembly Democrats rallied behind Speaker Sheldon Silver after he was arrested last week, but they will return to the State Capitol Monday with lingering questions about whether he can lead them in upcoming budget negotiations, experts and lawmakers said.
Silver has been politically wounded, they say, but the next few weeks will be crucial to determining to what degree. They also are looking "anxiously" to what Silver has to say Monday when the return to Albany for a closed-door meeting before the legislative session begins.
"Shelly's task in the coming weeks is to show he can continue to lead without this being a distraction," said one Democrat who asked not to be identified given the shock waves going through state politics the day after Silver's arrest. The Democrat added Monday's meeting will be "very important" for rank-and-file legislators -- who are "getting positioned" -- to assess the situation.
Silver (D-Manhattan), one of the most powerful politicians in New York over the past two decades, was accused of corruption by federal prosecutors who alleged he received $4 million in bribes and kickbacks for steering legislation and grants.
The 70-year-old Lower East Side resident was charged with five felony counts of conspiracy, fraud and extortion that, collectively, carry up to 100 years in prison. He was released on $200,000 bail. Speaking before surrendering to law enforcement, Silver said he was confident "I'll be vindicated."
Assembly Democrats, upon hearing the news Thursday morning, canceled the legislative session and instead huddled in closed-door conference for nearly two hours before emerging to say they were solidly behind Silver, who has run the chamber since 1994.
Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (D-Rochester), the No. 2 person in the Assembly, said Democrats had "every confidence the speaker is going to be able to continue in his role." But he also noted that Silver will address the 106-member Democratic conference when it returns to the Capitol Monday afternoon.
"We'll be here Monday in session and he'll have an opportunity to address that," Morelle said.
Budget task loomsThe immediate job Silver faces is negotiating the $141.6 billion budget that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, also a Democrat, unveiled just a day before the speaker was arrested. It includes items Democrats want dearly (a minimum wage hike, for one) and ideas they will fight (such as a private school tax credit). The budget is due March 31 -- Silver's next court appearance is slated for Feb. 23.
"Shelly," as he's known around the Capitol, has a reputation as a master negotiator -- a big part of the reason he's retained power so long. He is one of the "three men in a room" who resolve the state budget, along with Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).
Some observers don't expect that to change.
"Shelly represents the Assembly effectively and even if he has to come in the room with Morelle and Denny, he still represents the wishes of his members," said George Arzt, a longtime Democratic consultant, referring to Assemb. Herman "Denny" Farrell (D-Manhattan), the Ways and Means Committee chairman. "The governor knows that and Skelos knows that. Shelly still has lots of power."
Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, countered that Silver probably has more power among Assembly Democrats than with his negotiating partners. "Whenever you're under a criminal complaint, indictment, whatever, your power has to be diminished," Muzzio said Friday on The Capitol Pressroom, a public radio program.
Mention of successionHe added that it's a "fluid time" and that some Democrats will "begin to talk about succession." He named Morelle and Assemb. Keith Wright (D-Manhattan), who until recently chaired the state Democratic Party, as a potential successor. Others have mentioned Farrell (though as an interim replacement), Assemb. Joe Lentol (D-Brooklyn) and Assemb. Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).
"I think he's going to be able to hold the conference together unless and until his situation seems lost or near lost," said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at SUNY New Paltz.
Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) expressed confidence that Democrats won't be distracted as a tough budget fight looms. "We have a very strong conference that sets its differences aside and, for the most part, stands united on issues we want to take on," he said.
Privately, some legislators said they are aiming to get through the budget united and not looking ahead to the second half of the legislative session, which runs till mid-June. Others said they will soldier on.
"While the allegations presented in the complaint against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are extremely disturbing, it remains critically important for New Yorkers to appreciate that in a democracy, no one single person constitutes the government," Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) said in an email. "The New York State Assembly is not simply one individual, but is instead the embodiment of the combined will of all of its 150 members."Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) said Silver's arrest casts a "dark cloud over state government" that already has had a an impact.