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For now, no change in Assembly leadership amid unease about speaker’s future

ALBANY – Over the years, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has taken the political hits for colleagues accused of sexual wrongdoing, embarrassing misdeeds and political attacks.

On Thursday, just hours after FBI agents arrested the powerful legislative leader, rank-and-file Assembly Democrats had his back, declaring that – at least for the day – they were standing behind him and that he is innocent until proven guilty.

But that support could be fleeting, as possible successors were already being discussed privately.

As Democrats emerged Thursday afternoon from a 90-minute private meeting just down the hall from Silver’s Capitol office, another thing was clear: Silver’s reign was being maintained for the time being by his years of not only looking out for Democrats’ political needs, but his ability to run the Assembly in such a way that no heir apparent could jump to the forefront so quickly after his arrest on corruption charges.

Only two members of the 106 in Silver’s Democratic majority – Assemblymen Michael P. Kearns of South Buffalo and Charles Barron of Brooklyn – have suggested that the speaker should resign.

But that could change in the days ahead, as full details about the investigation spread and Assembly Democrats realize the potential pitfalls – and reduced influence – of having their political and government interests in upcoming budget talks represented by a speaker described Thursday by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan as a bribery artist who got millions in kickbacks over the last 15 years.

But on Thursday, anyway, some of Silver’s colleagues expressed support, while Republicans called for his resignation.

“The members are overwhelmingly, in the conversation we just had, continuing to support him,” Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, D-Rochester, said as a group of Assembly Democrats – though not all – stood behind him outside Silver’s office. “There is a presumption of innocence, and we have every confidence that the speaker is going to continue to fill the role with distinction.”

Morelle said there was no suggestion from within the Assembly’s Democratic Conference that Silver should step aside.

That Silver was still in control, even as he was being arrested, was made clearer by the presence of all his top staff in the private meeting of Assembly Democrats.

The political implications of Silver’s potential fall from power are enormous, as a power play in the Assembly could be bloody and raise doubts about the house’s ability to help Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo achieve some of his left-leaning budget and policy proposals this year.

If Silver does resign or is replaced, Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1 in the 150-member Assembly, have a choice: Select a “caretaker” or a long-term leader.

The interim approach was taken following the corruption conviction, later overturned, of then-Assembly Speaker Mel Miller of Brooklyn in 1991, when Saul Weprin of Queens took over. In 1994, Weprin died, and Silver rose to become speaker – a post he has held so long he has been one of Albany’s “three men in a room” with five different governors.

Among the caretaker possibilities is Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, D-Brooklyn. Lentol was noticeably absent in Albany on Thursday; he called The Buffalo News in the afternoon to say he was in a New York City hospital with an emergency kidney stone condition.

Some Assembly Democrats pointed to Miller, who continued serving after he was indicted a generation ago, as a precedent for Silver to continue on.

“I’ve seen a previous speaker indicted, and there’s no indictment here. It’s a complaint under federal law, which can include hearsay evidence. It’s not the most compelling of documents,” Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, said after leaving the closed-door Democratic Conference meeting at the Capitol.

Later in the afternoon, though, Bharara said that in the future, Thursday’s criminal complaint against Silver will be turning into an indictment.

One analyst said that times have changed over the last two decades since Miller kept serving while under indictment. “I can’t see him hanging on,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.

“You’ve got a very aggressive, ambitious U.S. attorney, and I’m reading the complaint and this guy isn’t going to bring such a charge against such a big fish without saying he certainly has this guy. I mean ‘have him, have him, have him.’ And I think members of the Democratic Conference are thinking the same thing.”

The calls for Silver’s resignation outside Albany dribbled in through the day. Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor who ran in a primary last year against Cuomo, called for Silver to leave his post after being charged with “a massive breach of public trust.”

And Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, Cuomo’s Republican opponent last fall, said Silver’s arrest must be “the launching point for sweeping change in Albany,” including term limits.

News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report. email: