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Silver goes from Assembly speaker to the back row

Assemblyman Sheldon Silver sits in his new seat

Assemblyman Sheldon Silver sits in his new seat for the vote of his replacement as Speaker of the Assembly Tuesday afternoon Feb. 3, 2015 at the Capitol in Albany. Photo Credit: Albany Times Union / Skip Dickstein

ALBANY -- He took a seat in a back row, at a temporary desk that had been hauled there by Assembly staff for the occasion. The nameplate read: "S. Silver, 65th District."

It gave no hint of the monumental change in New York State politics that just occurred.

Assemb. Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) was an ordinary rank-and-file legislator Tuesday, after more than 21 years as Assembly speaker and power broker. He sat in an outer row where veterans prefer to sit (newcomers sit in the lower rows), as Assembly colleagues stopped to pat his shoulder or bend to whisper in his ear.

He fiddled with his desk a bit and spoke only when saying "Heastie" when his name was called, voting with colleagues to elect his replacement, new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). And then Silver slipped out the chamber before the day's proceedings were over, ending his first official day out of power since 1994.

"It's hard to get used to," said Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), a 43-year Assembly veteran, who talked to Silver afterward. "It's hard, but reality will set in and it has to set in because this is the end of a regime."

Just 13 days earlier, Silver seemed destined to break a state political record for longest tenure as house leader. But he was arrested on Jan. 22 by federal prosecutors who charged him with receiving $4 million in an illegal kickback scheme. Assembly members called on him to resign as speaker or be removed. Silver resigned effective Monday, ending an era.

Silver, who has always lived on Manhattan's Lower East Side, first won his Assembly seat in 1976. When then-Speaker Saul Weprin was felled by a stroke in 1994, Silver was named to the post on an interim basis, depending on whether Weprin could resume his duties, which he couldn't.

Through the next 21 years, Silver, 70, became a leading voice for liberal causes, fighting for more school aid, prekindergarten expansion, a "millionaires' tax" on high earners and rollback of Rockefeller-era drug laws. He also was blamed for extraordinarily late state budgets and was criticized by some who saw him as anti-business and the voice of trial lawyers.

As speaker, Silver was one of the "three men in a room" -- along with the governor and Senate leader -- who controlled the budget and flow of legislation. In every instance, he was the one calling for more spending, especially on schools, welfare and the environment.

He was called many names over the years. The Sphinx. An enigma. A master of political chess in Albany. Or, for some, the man who outlasts governors -- he served as speaker with five different chief executives.

Colleagues and rivals said Silver always excelled at not revealing what he wanted at the bargaining table -- earning him the "Sphinx" moniker. During Republican Gov. George Pataki's 12 years in office, Silver often waited out the governor and Republicans who controlled the State Senate to get what he wanted in the state budget -- infuriating them. Three times during that era, the budget was more than 100 days late.

Lentol called Silver "the best speaker I've ever known," and said "he really excelled at protecting Democratic interests."

Silver's tenure as leader fell just months shy of the record held by Oswald D. Heck, a Schenectady Republican who ran the chamber from 1937 to 1959.

"There are no thoughts," Silver told reporters on Monday night as he left the State Capitol for the last time as speaker. "I've had a great run."

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