ALBANY – Assembly Democrats on Tuesday night settled on a plan to oust Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver next week, ending the political career of the longtime state government power broker whose rapid fall came just days after his arrest on federal corruption charges.
Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, D-Rochester, will serve as interim speaker until an election, already with at least a half-dozen candidates, is held Feb. 10. The day after Democrats said they had lost confidence in Silver after his arrest last week on federal corruption charges, the emotions of some Assembly Democrats turned to fury with Silver, who remained behind closed doors in his Capitol office a few dozen steps away from the meeting. Democrats had assumed that Silver would resign Tuesday after lawmakers late the night before said he could no longer remain as speaker.
On Tuesday night, Silver, heading out of the Capitol, broke his silence and said that while he will not resign, “I will not hinder the process. I believe very deeply in the institution.”
It remained uncertain, or at least unstated by Silver, why he was staying on.
Might it be a bargaining chip for some legal reason? Reluctance to leave a powerful post, with many perks, that he has held since 1994? Another hand of political poker-playing by the skilled negotiator or some sort of delaying tactic to help someone he thinks should be his successor?
Silver had been expected to address the rank-and-file Democrats again Tuesday afternoon – after making an unsuccessful appeal for his job Monday night – but he never emerged from his office and, like a “Seinfeld” episode, remained on the job even after his colleagues told him to leave.
By the middle of the afternoon, lawmakers said he was no longer welcome in their meeting.
“He would not be welcome right now,” said one Assembly Democrat.
Lawmakers spent Tuesday afternoon not only deciding how to oust the defiant Silver, but working on a process to replace him. Debate focused on whether to appoint an interim leader – while all-out and potentially ugly battles begin in earnest involving any number of lawmakers seeking the job – or go the long-term selection route.
Tuesday was a day where top leaders of the Assembly were in the dark. When asked if Silver was going to resign at some point during the day, Morelle responded: “I don’t know.” Later, after huddling with Silver and attending the Democratic conference, Morelle said Silver told him he would not “impede” the replacement process.
Morelle was among those who met privately with Silver on Monday night to inform him of the no-confidence sentiment in the 105-member Democratic Conference.
It was another day of lockdown in the Assembly at the public building, as guards kept reporters from entering a hallway, from which lawmakers could hustle by without comment. More important, though, guards were keeping reporters from lingering, as they often do, outside Silver’s Capitol office. Late Monday night, Silver left the Capitol, insisting he was still in charge and that no one had personally asked him to resign.
With Silver in what lawmakers called a state of denial, the replacement maneuvering was already in high gear Tuesday.
Morelle is the only upstate Democrat to emerge so far to run to replace Silver as speaker in what will be a tough numbers competition for him against New York City Democrats who dominate the conference. He said he talked with Silver at length Tuesday.
“The speaker will not impede the transition,” Morelle said.
“We’re confident we can go forward,” he added of the move now as state budget hearings and negotiations are getting underway.
The Assembly is set Monday to adopt a rule stating that the speaker will serve at the “leisure” of the Assembly, instead of the automatic two-year term – with no succession process – now in the chamber’s rules. It also will state that the majority leader will serve for a temporary term of 90 days as interim speaker if there is a vacancy in the office. That provision will, in this case, allow Morelle to serve beyond Feb. 10 if no speaker is chosen on that date.
Lawmakers sought to portray picking an actual election date of Feb. 10 as a way to decrease some of the backroom politics that determines legislative leadership deals by ensuring at least a process with a deadline in which candidates will make their case. But that backroom maneuvering was already well underway, as a half-dozen New York City Democrats, and Morelle, were already planning their campaigns for the speaker’s post.
Among those in the mix, with others certainly possible: Bronx’s Carl E. Heastie, Brooklyn’s Joseph R. Lentol, Queens’ Catherine T. Nolan and Manhattan’s Keith L.T. Wright. Some, because of their age, are considered “caretaker” candidates, such as Manhattan’s Herman D. Farrell Jr. Queens’ Jeffrion L. Aubry has also been mentioned.
Asked earlier in the day if there was already a succession fight underway, Morelle said, “I certainly hope not.”
Assembly Democrats have spent two days in long meetings deciding how best to oust Silver – including the accompanying rules changes to do so – and on a process for picking a replacement.
“Democracy has broken out in the Democratic Conference,” said Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo. “We’ve had a speaker who had a very high control over the body and the conference had to come together to decide what to do about the problem at hand.”
“It’s a relief because there’s been so much tension and so much stress in our conference and all over Albany the past few days,” said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo. She called Silver the best speaker in New York history “for working families and poor people” but said it is time for the Assembly to end the distraction and get on to the work of the state budget negotiations.
Silver came to Albany in 1977 and rose to the speaker’s job in 1994 upon the death of former Speaker Saul Weprin of Queens.