ALBANY – As much as anyone else, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is no doubt watching with the greatest interest what Sheldon Silver does next after being arrested last week on federal corruption charges.
Whether the Assembly speaker stays or quits in the days or weeks ahead presents conflicting benefits and pitfalls for Cuomo.
If Silver stays, Cuomo’s political hand is strengthened, most lawmakers and lobbyists interviewed believe.
If Silver quits or is forced by colleagues to resign, Cuomo’s political hand on the surface looks stronger, although he also faces the possibility of being drawn into political turmoil.
Each scenario poses some pitfalls for the governor.
There is no doubt the Cuomo administration is happy that Silver’s legal struggles would reduce his budget negotiation influence and make a better chance for passage of some education reforms that the governor outlined the day before the Manhattan Democrat was arrested and accused of kickbacks totaling nearly $4 million over the last 15 years.
The Cuomo administration was not commenting on the possible impact of Silver’s legal situation on the budget talks beyond what Lt. Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul said immediately after Silver’s arrest.
“Certainly that does not distract from our mission at hand, which is to make sure that the governor’s agenda … becomes a reality,” she said.
She did not answer a question about whether she thought Cuomo’s plans now become easier to get through the Assembly.
If Silver is forced out
Silver is scheduled to return to Albany on Monday to convene an Assembly session.
But as the weekend unfolded, it appeared more possible that Silver could be forced out by colleagues, some of whom only Thursday assembled outside his Capitol office to show their support.
The prospect of more damaging details trickling out against Silver has some Assembly Democrats growing increasingly worried Silver’s alleged illegal acts could rub off and damage an already battered Assembly image.
Should Silver soon depart, Albany insiders interchange the terms “chaos” and “turmoil” for the budget talks.
Those adjectives come with two major caveats: it depends if the succession process is bloody and if a Silver replacement can emerge without angering too many lawmakers in the Democratic conference that is diverse along geographic, political, gender and racial lines.
People whose job it is to work the Albany system say Cuomo could find himself on an uncertain and bumpy path should Silver leave. The two men are hardly best of friends, but Cuomo has relied upon Silver’s abilities to maneuver the fractured Democratic conference.
Cuomo is unpopular with many Assembly Democrats. In Silver, he has a proven, though now heavily dented, ally on many pieces of legislation and spending.
“Silver always had the ability to tell Cuomo how to make the right moves to take the edge off things to allow compromise,” one Albany insider said.
Some lawmakers – Silver backers – say Cuomo should be concerned if the Speaker abruptly departs.
A replacement will be new to the negotiating process and might not have Silver’s ability from 21 years as Assembly leader to help Cuomo get certain ideas through the Democratic conference.
The Silver departure scenario reminded Robin Schimminger, who came to Albany with Silver in the class of 1976, of the disruption to the state budget process when Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign in March 2008 amid a prostitution scandal.
“We remember all too well the upheaval and chaos,” the Kenmore Democrat said of Spitzer’s sudden resignation.
Schimminger is among those who are of the school that Silver is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. And he said key budget decisions must be made before the new fiscal year begins April 1.
“Allowing abrupt decisions to disrupt that process could harm taxpayers and the state in the long run,” he said.
If Silver stays
If Silver decides to stay, Cuomo also could benefit politically.
New York governors already have the upper hand in state budget talks, a power that expanded since 2004 when the state’s highest court, in a case Silver brought against then-Gov. George A. Pataki, restricted the ability of lawmakers to amend certain aspects of the governor’s budget.
Now, with Silver charged federally, how would he not be less effective and less influential, as he deals with both Cuomo and Republicans in control of the Senate?
“The ability for the governor to anytime go wilding on Silver is just too huge,” one Democratic strategist said of a hammer Cuomo could hold over Silver.
Even some Assembly Democrats who support Silver staying on the job acknowledge the Assembly’s hand at the budget negotiating table gets diminished with the speaker as their negotiator.
“It certainly can’t help,” Schimminger said.
The governor’s signature plan for this year is a series of changes to the state’s education laws, such as his call to toughen the teacher evaluation system to raise the bar on the evaluations, make it easier to fire underperforming teachers and increase standards for teacher tenure.
The day before he was arrested, Silver signaled a willingness to oppose several of Cuomo’s plans, such as increasing the number of charter schools.
And of the three-men-in-a-room, Silver is seen as the most closely aligned with the state’s teachers union, though those relations between Silver and the New York State United Teachers union have become strained the past couple of years.
The Cuomo administration is also no doubt happy that his plan to require stronger disclosure of outside income is now all but certain with Silver’s arrest that involved his outside law firm activities.
View from inside
Mel Miller, the Assembly speaker, does not believe the chaos theories if Silver should leave. And he is in a position to know.
Miller was the Assembly Speaker in December 1990, when he was indicted on a federal fraud charge involving a real estate deal six years earlier. He stayed in office for a year until December 1991, when he was found guilty of a felony and automatically expelled from his Brooklyn seat. The conviction was later overturned.
But during that year he served while under indictment, Miller still was part of a tough budget process with then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo when the state’s finances were in the red.
“I didn’t find any problems,” Miller, 75, recalled last week. “I can’t remember anybody asking me to step down.”
Still, Miller agreed that Cuomo is empowered more with Silver remaining in the job.
Albany, particularly with its nonstop news cycle and decade of headline-grabbing scandals, is a different place, he said.
“It was not the same kind of ferociousness,” he said of Albany a generation ago. “There was no feeding frenzy at all.”
A lawyer, Miller believes Silver will not resign and that he also should not make public statements about details of the case, no matter the media pressure to do so. Silver’s ability to stay in his job in the near term and his negotiating strength comes down to one group: the 105 members of the Assembly Democratic conference, which is dominated by New York City lawmakers.
“The question is, does he maintain the confidence of his conference? If the members stick with him, he will be able to do his job. If not, then you have a real mess,” Miller said.
And yet there are the potentially explosive unknowns: What else does U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara have coming?
Without elaborating, Bharara promised Thursday that more cases are coming. His office also has been investigating whether anyone in the Cuomo administration interfered with the anti-corruption Moreland Commission.
Cuomo last March agreed to disband the panel as it was in the midst of a number of investigations.
Bharara, who began his Silver probe the previous June, said information from the Moreland Commission was a part of his investigation.