ALBANY – Sheldon Silver spent his 7,635th straight day on the job Wednesday as speaker of the Assembly, firmly in control of the 150-member chamber, though facing a new controversy that makes for an uncertain future.
The 70-year-old Manhattan Democrat, who is hoping that a year from now he will become the longest-serving Assembly leader in state history, was re-elected Wednesday as one of the three most powerful government figures in New York, a position he has held since February 1994.
“Needless to say, thank you very much,” Silver told his colleagues after Democrats re-elected him.
How has he done it? How has he managed to stay in power through five different governors, negotiated more than $2 trillion worth of state budgets and shaped which communities get the benefits of being represented by majority party state legislators?
The answers boil down to a keen understanding of how Albany works, Silver’s ability to keep potential political threats from rising against him and deft navigation of the diverse philosophical, geographic and political membership of his Democratic conference.
“He’s an able negotiator, and he defends his members to the point where he gets in trouble for it,” said Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow, a Westchester County Democrat. “He’s always one to stand behind his members, just like a union leader.”
Most recent case in point: The Vito Lopez episode. A couple of years ago, Silver cut a secret deal with taxpayers’ money to end sexual-harassment allegations by female staff members against Lopez, an assemblyman who also was the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss. Silver’s secretive ways in that matter, coming after years of high-profile sexual wrongdoing and criminal cases involving some other Assembly members, still attracts criticism.
But inside some Assembly circles, there was a private recognition by rank-and-file lawmakers that Silver sought to quietly make the problem go away and protect the Assembly.
Now, Silver faces a federal investigation into what the New York Times recently reported are questions about his outside income at a real estate law firm. The investigation is being led by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the Manhattan-based prosecutor who has shown an interest in ending the careers of corrupt politicians.
Silver said Wednesday that he has not heard from prosecutors and rebuffed reporters’ questions, saying it was not “appropriate” for him to comment.
One question lawmakers and lobbyists are asking: Will the federal investigation weaken his negotiating abilities with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Senate?
Only time, and the direction Bharara’s probe takes, can answer that.
Shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday, the clerk of the Assembly announced Silver had been re-elected to another two-year term as speaker, though not with the help of Republicans, one of whom shouted out concerns about the re-election of a speaker under federal investigation.
Silver brushed aside the GOP criticism. Republicans have held up Silver as an example of what’s wrong with Albany. He is blamed for the state’s economic and fiscal problems, for blocking measures to help businesses create jobs and for helping to make property taxes so high.
Critics say he sides more with public- and private-sector unions over local governments. Meaningful tort reform has been blocked, single-handedly critics say, by Silver, who has been associated for years with a trial law firm.
In 1998, Republicans ran a statewide ad campaign depicting sharks rising up from New York City and chewing parts of upstate. A narrator noted the chief source of upstate’s worries: Silver.
Little has changed since then, with Silver regularly attacked by the likes of Buffalo businessman Carl P. Paladino and state Conservative Party Chairman Michael P. Long.
“Businesses are leaving the state. People are leaving the state. … He’s not been a plus for New York State,” Long said Wednesday.
Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who came to the Assembly in the same 1976 class with Silver, recalled other Assembly speakers, including former Republican leader Perry B. Duryea Jr., also have been held up for special criticism. In the late 1970s, an ad ran against then-Speaker Stanley Steingut depicting him as an octopus controlling the Assembly.
“It’s nothing new,” Schimminger said.
Rewards and punishment
Silver keeps his position through well-timed rewards and through punishing those who challenge him. Rewards may come in the form of moving bills to the floor or giving an Assembly member a larger leadership or committee post stipend, which also comes with bigger staffs and easier avenues for turning ideas into laws.
One insider noted how Silver has a keen ability to recall seemingly little favors he has done for colleagues, and then to bring them up years later when a lawmaker has another request.
Then, there is the punishment.
Then-Assemblyman Michael J. Bragman, a Syracuse Democrat, led a poorly planned coup attempt against Silver in 2000.
After Silver beat back the insurrection, he removed Bragman from his leadership positions, making him a rank-and-file member with no power.
Members also know that once a decade, Silver gets the powers of redistricting, when he ultimately controls the contours of Assembly districts. It is a process that has ended or advanced many lawmakers’ careers.
Richard A. Smith, a former Democratic assemblyman from Hamburg, was a Bragman supporter in the 2000 coup attempt. Even though his district was later redrawn to make it more Republican, Smith said Wednesday that it was shifting population trends, and not Silver, to blame for a district that was less friendly to Democrats.
“We won it, anyway, and basically, I became the secretary of the (Democratic) conference, so grudges were put aside,” he said.
Silver’s longevity has been helped by an empty bench of potential challengers.
Some observers believe that the last person who may have been able to make a move against Silver was Anthony J. Genovesi, a smart and respected Brooklyn Democrat. Genovesi died in a car accident in 1998.
Silver works the front end. Many Democrats in office today thank Silver, and the sizable campaign bank account he controls, for helping them initially win office, or later to beat back challengers.
“There is a sense from members that the speaker and his staff and his DACC people are there to cover their backs when they get into trouble,” one Democrat said of the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee.
Assembly Democrats can be split along many different lines, from race to geography. Silver has maneuvered to take advantage of the diversity, whether party factions between boroughs of New York City or more moderate upstate suburban and rural Democrats.
While some people believe he has a harder task of feeding so many mouths with such a big Democratic conference – 106 of the 150-member chamber are Democrats – insiders know that small-party conferences can be far harder for a leader to maneuver.
The speaker has scored points in his conference for representing their interests before governors as different as Cuomo and George E. Pataki.
Frustration for governors
Silver enjoys wearing down – or dragging out – negotiations, and then says: “Just one more thing.”
It is a style that has frustrated all the governors with whom Silver has served for 21 years as speaker.
And in the long and tedious closed-door conferences Silver holds with Democrats, he reads their signals.
“At the end of the day, Shelly doesn’t push his conference into places they don’t want to be,” one lobbyist said.
Silver has 529 more days to go before he can boast of being the longest serving Assembly speaker. That mark is held by O.D. Heck, a Schenectady Republican, whose reign was halted by the heart attack that killed him in 1959 – 22 years after getting the job.