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With Albany abuzz, Assembly Democrats back Sheldon Silver

ALBANY -- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's arrest on corruption charges Thursday may yet yield a "political tsunami" that would roil the State Capitol, but history and Assembly Democrats say the corruption charges against Albany's most powerful leader over the past 20 years won't likely change Albany in the short term.

"We have every confidence the Speaker is going to fulfill his role with distinction and the members of this conference were overwhelming in making that clear," said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (D-Rochester) after Democrats met in a two-hour private session.

Assemb. Felix Ortiz (D-Bronx) said the Democratic conference seeks to operate without change. "It's business as usual," Ortiz said in an interview.

Silver, 70, has survived for a near record two decades as Speaker by showing Democrats that he can best deliver the legislation and state funding members need to be re-elected. He has won elections for Democrats every two years and protected his members from individual criticism by being the public face of the Assembly.

Members also remember Silver's swift retribution in quashing a 2000 coup attempt by Assemb. Michael Bragman (D-Cicero), which ended the careers of most Bragman supporters.

"The junior members have the least relationship with Silver, but they also have the least resources to resist him," said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science the State University of New York at New Paltz.

"And in the Bragman experience -- although not recent -- members who supported Bragman had serious setbacks to their careers as a consequence," Benjamin said. "So you have to be sure [if you try to oust Silver] . . . All of that leads to uncertainty and when you face uncertainty you to tend to revert to the status quo."

Silver is expected back in Albany Monday for a public session. Silver through his lawyer has denied five counts in a federal complaint accusing him of using his powerful post to solicit and collect millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks from developers and lawyers.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Silver "illegally monetized his public position."

Silver now joins other veteran colleagues and recent legislators who are under federal investigation, including Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton), former Sen. George Maziarz (R-Newfane), former Sen. Malcom Smith (D-Jamaica) and Sen. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) who are former majority leaders, and Assemb. William Scarborough (D-Jamaica).

"There's a whole bunch of members who have been here a long time who are in the crosshairs of the U.S. attorney's office," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Depending on how that plays it out, it could be a political tsunami."

He said Silver is already weakened as Speaker.

"Any time you are fighting for your freedom, it's going to distract you from the work ahead," Horner said. "The conference is going to have to constantly operate in public with one hand tied behind its back."

A longtime Silver defender agreed the Speaker, known as "the Sphinx" for his negotiating skills, which often bested four governors, faces a fight unlike any he's confronted.

In recent memory, "no one has faced this," said Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman and a senior fellow at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. "It's awful beyond belief."

Brodsky said a key will be whether Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will continue to work with Silver.

"I want to see the facts before I have an opinion," Cuomo told the Daily News editorial board Thursday.

Three previous Assembly speakers served while under investigation in Albany, where only a felony conviction can throw a lawmaker out of office. In each case, the charges were dismissed.

"We have faith in the speaker," Morelle said yesterday.

"It is business as usual -- unfortunately," said Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-Brooklyn-Staten Island).

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