ALBANY – A plan devised Sunday night to keep Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in power but assisted by five top lieutenants in running the chamber was starting to show signs of falling apart as Assembly Democrats returned to the state Capitol Monday morning.
Whether Silver and his allies can hold the proposal together will become clear when Democrats meet Monday afternoon in a conference gathering at the Capitol.
LATEST: Deal on 5 person committee is dead
The Silver plan met its sharpest public opposition as Assemblyman Keith Wright, a Harlem Democrat, called on the speaker to step down. Wright said Silver’s legal problems will “reverberate for months if not years to come” and that Silver needs to resign immediately. He said “these times demand a change in leadership in order for the people’s work to move forward free of distraction and the stink of scandal.’’
Wright is a former state Democratic Party chairman and his statement was released as Wright and fellow members of the black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus were huddling in a previously scheduled meeting. Wright’s name has been among those floated as possible replacements for Silver.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, meanwhile said he has confidence in the individual Assembly members who would run the chamber while Silver, under the plan floated Sunday night, 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 added.
With Democrats assembled for a 1:45 p.m. closed-door meeting, top Silver loyalists huddled with the Speaker in his ninth-floor office in the Legislative Office Building across the street from the Capitol. At about 2:30 p.m., Silver’s office postponed until 4 p.m. a meeting that could end Silver’s control after serving as speaker since 1994.
One of the five lawmakers Silver has been trying to appoint as a committee to run the Assembly while he temporarily turns over the day-to-day operations of the 150-member house said Silver “knows what he’s in for” at the closed-door meeting of Assembly Democrats.
Asked if the five-person committee idea was going to hold, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a veteran Brooklyn Democrat Silver wants to entrust with serving on the committee, said, “It’s unclear at this point. I think it’s going to change hour to hour as to what the strategy is going to be.’’
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo dismissed the idea of a committee as unworkable in upcoming state budget talks, a comment that Lentol then dismissed. “I think that we are in charge of our own house and we’ll determine what’s best for us in the Assembly,’’ Lentol said as he was going into a private meeting with Silver.
Meanwhile, a bloc of upstate and suburban New York Democrats was trying to put together a coalition to oppose Silver, but no one at this point knows what new plan Silver and his loyalists now might present at the 4 p.m. meeting.
The State Senate, meanwhile, cut session short and cancelled Tuesday’s session, as lawmakers hit the Thruway and trains to try to beat out the severe winter storm that is approaching downstate and parts of the Hudson Valley.
The New York Daily News first reported Sunday night that five Democrats – all of whom have been interested at one point in becoming Assembly leader – will somehow share power and represent the Assembly in upcoming state budget talks with the governor and Senate. The New York Post late Sunday night reported that Silver was leaving office, but then amended its story to say he was in talks to leave. The New York Times reported that the deal was made Sunday night.
The power-sharing group would be composed of four New York City Democrats – Brooklyn’s Lentol, Queens’ Cathy Nolan, Bronx’s Carl Heastie and Manhattan’s Herman Farrell – along with current Majority Leader Joseph Morelle of Monroe County.
A Silver spokesman, however, strongly cautioned that Silver is not stepping down. “He is appointing a group of senior members to undertake various responsibilities such as budget negotiations to ensure a timely spending plan for the state. This will give him the flexibility he needs so that he can defend himself against these charges, and he is confident that he will be found innocent,” said Michael Whyland, the Silver spokesman.
In Albany Monday morning, Democratic lawmakers were holding meetings and phone conferences to discuss the Silver plan before a 1:45 p.m. closed-door Democratic conference at the Capitol.
A number of lawmakers in addition to Wright – speaking privately partly out of concern for publicly challenging Silver while he still clings to his job – said it would be unworkable for Silver to remain as speaker and while temporarily ceding control over aspects of his job, such as negotiating the state budget.
One Democratic lawmaker used the term “bossism” to describe the arrangement while a number of younger and said more recently elected members were outraged that Silver would remain as the head of the chamber. A number of lawmakers, speaking on condition of anonymity, were wondering if Silver could really hold onto power after what promises to be a rollicking closed-door conference. The Assembly Democratic conference has 105 members out of the 150-member chamber; most are from New York City.
The Capitol on Monday morning was a mix of the weird and just another workday. Groups that had scheduled visits – from groups lobbying on issues to tours – were continuing as if it was an ordinary day while a growing number of media outlets were staked out in an around the Capitol trying to grab Silver on his way to his office in a legislative building across the street.
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, said of the unusual deal 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 if Silver should resign from office, 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.’’
Cuomo, meanwhile, was 150 miles south of the Capitol in New York City as the state prepares to assist with a blizzard about to hit downstate.
Silver was arrested last week by the FBI on bribery and kickback charges. The 70-year-old lawmaker, who has been speaker since 1994, was said to be confident that he could hang on to his job as the Legislature’s top Democrat. But as more and more lawmakers read the charges against him since they were made public last Thursday, rank-and-file Democrats were increasingly losing faith.
The weekend showed there was a clear generational divide in the Assembly among Democrats. Older Democrats were more supportive of Silver, while younger Democrats were increasingly upset and were privately looking to oust Silver. Some said they wanted not only to have Silver removed as speaker, but a series of internal rules changes to make the house less reliant on a sole leader.
The likelihood of Silver temporarily stepping aside and then somehow returning if he is cleared of the corruption charges is next to zero. There is a long line of lawmakers who would like his job, but have never had the ability to stand out in a chamber Silver dominates.
Whether the deal Silver and his allies crafted Sunday night holds after the Monday afternoon conference with rank-and-file Democrats remains a serious question, some lawmakers said Sunday.
Silver has had a strong hold over his Democratic conference, but the Assembly has had a large turnover of members in recent years. Just over 40 percent of the Democratic conference has come to Albany since the 2010 elections.