ALBANY – Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a fixture of power in Albany for a generation who is embroiled in a corruption scandal, was asked by his colleagues Monday night to submit his resignation as leader of the majority Democrats.
After a five-hour private meeting, Democrats emerged to send Silver, who was huddled down the hall in his Capitol office for most of the meeting, a message with two choices: Resign immediately as speaker or step aside and return if he is acquitted. No one believed, however, that once gone, he could ever return.
Silver left the building shortly before midnight and insisted he is still seeking to remain as Assembly leader.
“I am the speaker,” Silver said. “I have not told anyone I would resign.”
Silver also said he told the conference that he expects to be exonerated of the charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan last Thursday.
Lawmakers said a number of possibilities could emerge Tuesday when Democrats return at noon to likely finalize their options for the Manhattan Democrat. It was also possible that Silver, facing the rejection of his rank-and-file colleagues, would submit his resignation before the meeting.
“There was a consensus that he cannot remain as speaker,” said one Democratic lawmaker after the meeting.
A clear replacement, or replacements, was not settled on during the meeting, as several options fell off the table.
“It was clear after dozens of people have spoken that the speaker no longer enjoys the confidence of the conference,” Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, who earlier in the day became part of efforts to get Silver to resign his post, said in an interview after the marathon meeting broke.
A longtime Assembly Democrat described the closed-door meeting as “somber.” Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, D-Queens, said many lawmakers said during the session that it would be “a great difficulty for him to continue to operate” as speaker.
It seemed now a formality for Silver to quit his post, and colleagues said they were giving him a chance to submit his resignation rather than a formal ouster vote.
Ryan said the noon meeting by Assembly Democrats is to work on a process to pick a successor to Silver. “No one is trying to force the process or force someone into being the next speaker,” he said.
Silver did not immediately respond to his colleagues’ call to leave, and a Buffalo News reporter was escorted out of a waiting area outside Silver’s office as he met with several Assembly Democrats.
The state’s top Democrat, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, did not say Monday whether Silver should resign but noted that the criminal problem facing Silver “hurts the functioning of government.”
All day Monday Silver, holed up in a ninth-floor office suite across the street from the Capitol, made a case for remaining as leader in a 40-minute appearance before a gathering of Assembly Democrats in the evening. He left, as tight-lipped with reporters on the way out as he was on the way into the meeting, and then stayed out of sight in his Capitol office. In the meantime, rank-and-file lawmakers discussed his future in what lawmakers described as an intense session.
The intrigue came after last Thursday’s arrest of the 70-year-old Silver by the FBI on bribery and kickback charges. As is often the case in the Assembly’s Democratic Conference, the information flow from Silver’s office to his members was limited to a handful of loyalists and lawmakers with whom he was trying to forge a deal to hang on to the job he has held since 1994.
Late Sunday night, Silver reached his own deal with four lawmakers from New York City and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, D-Rochester.
But that arrangement, in which Silver would remain as speaker but temporarily turn over the Assembly’s operation to the five-member committee, ran into serious opposition Monday morning when lawmakers returned to Albany. The plan was dead soon after the closed-door meeting began, lawmakers said. It was, they said, unworkable and contained a poison pill for some: Silver keeping the title of speaker.
The diverse elements of the Assembly roared to the surface, meanwhile. Some upstate Democrats pushed for Morelle. New York City political leaders insisted that the speaker’s post remain with one of the residents of the city, given their domination of the conference. Suburban lawmakers from downstate were upset over the exclusion of anyone from their ranks in the idea of a five-member committee. Many veteran lawmakers argued for Silver staying on.
A cross section of newer members – 41 percent of the 105-member conference is made up of lawmakers elected in 2010 or later – sought to form a bloc to get not only Silver removed, but also a number of internal changes that have cut many of them out of any real decision-making in the Assembly.
Pushing ahead the oust-Silver movement expanded when veteran Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, a Harlem Democrat who is close to Cuomo, called in the morning for Silver to step down. Wright, who was a Cuomo-handpicked chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Silver’s legal problems will “reverberate for months if not years to come” and that Silver needs to resign immediately.
By about 3 p.m., Wright, who was cut out of the five-member leadership committee by Silver, was in the speaker’s office for a negotiating session.
Next up was Ryan, who said he has confidence in the individual Assembly members who would run the chamber while Silver temporarily focuses on his legal defense. “But this plan is unworkable. So long as Silver holds the title of speaker, there is a cloud that will hang over all the work we do this session,” Ryan said.
While local Republicans have already called for Silver to quit, other Buffalo-area Democratic lawmakers sent different signals. Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, Democrat, said of the unusual proposal to keep Silver in power with five senior members helping to run things: “I don’t even understand it conceptually or how it will be implemented.” She added, though, that the idea would create the opportunity to continuing operating the Assembly at a crucial time as annual budget talks commence.
Asked whether Silver should resign, she said, “I would not put my family through all this, so in the interest of that, I would. But I can’t make that call for someone else … That’s up to him and his family.”
Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who came in with Silver as part of the Assembly’s Class of 1976, had showed support for the speaker, while Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, who is on the outs with the Democratic Conference and was not part of Monday’s meeting, has been calling for Silver’s resignation since Thursday.
There was some head-scratching at the Capitol Monday over why Silver was trying to keep leadership post. But Silver has not only helped make some legislators’ careers with political advice and money from the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee he controls, but has a leadership style that has largely muted dissent and kept any would-be challengers in weakened political states. Silver, many members will say, has also taken care of lawmakers when they got into any trouble. Moreover, his allies said, Silver has not been proven guilty, and there is precedent for indicted legislative leaders in Albany holding on to their positions until their court cases concluded.