ALBANY – The sprint to become a member of Albany’s power circle has begun.
At play: the position of Assembly speaker, an immensely powerful job that will become vacant Monday when Sheldon Silver leaves the post after his colleagues agreed to replace him following federal corruption charges.
A handful of lawmakers jockeyed Wednesday to quickly claim backers before a competitor lands a deal. Calls, meetings, texts, promises and head fakes were the rage.
The key to a successful campaign for the next speaker is speed. A vote lined up quickly brings momentum, and rank-and-file members know it’s best to be a future speaker’s supporter before the votes are completely nailed down, not after the fact.
“There almost always comes a point where it starts to become clear that X is likely to put it together, and people run as fast as they can to get ahead of the parade to be with X,” said Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, D-Manhattan, who is now going through his fifth transition to a new speaker.
Chatter about outside influences on the speaker’s race abounds. One said that it’s a fight between two warring Democrats: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Another said that unions, with the teachers foremost among them, are the key influences on some candidates.
But Gottfried, who said he is “not yet” supporting a specific candidate, described an insular body when it comes to a selecting a leader. Not that people on the outside won’t try.
“I think we tend to be pretty adamant about deciding this ourselves,” Gottfried said, adding that the chief exception might be the influence of county party leaders.
“If the governor or mayor of New York City are letting people know who they wanted, I really don’t think that would carry a lot of weight,” Gottfried said.
While the statewide implications of who becomes speaker are enormous, the politics of getting the post are about as inside Albany baseball as it gets.
“The candidate is very much a member of the electorate, and rarely do you have people in a speaker’s race who people would be strongly opposed to,” said Gottfried, who has been in the Assembly since 1971. “So you’re trying to pick among people you almost always feel pretty good about, been friends with, worked with and would hate to disappoint, so it can be a personally difficult assessment.”
The campaign intensified exponentially Wednesday after Democrats agreed on Silver’s ouster plan the night before.
“There’s been a reluctance among many to dance on the grave,” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who has served in the Assembly for 37 years.
Candidates earlier this week were asking for his cellphone number but not yet a commitment of support.
“So it’s only now that the activity now ramps up,” he said.
Bronx Assemblyman Carl E. Heastie on Wednesday took the unusual step of hiring two outside political/communications consultants to help his cause and surrogates were pushing his ties to de Blasio. The mayor said the next speaker should be from New York City to ensure that the five boroughs maintain their influence in Albany. Heastie declared his candidacy Wednesday in a news release via the outside consultants.
Another candidate is Queens Assemblywoman Catherine T. Nolan. She put out her own news release Wednesday morning, declaring her candidacy.
Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, of Monroe County, temporarily takes the speaker’s job until the expected Feb. 10 floor vote for a new leader. That date could be extended if Democrats can settle sooner on a candidate.
Morelle is also in the mix for the permanent speaker’s job, and he reached out to upstate Democrats to appeal to their upstate roots while telling downstate Democrats about his experience on issues close to their region.
Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, of Harlem, was pushing his years of political connections, with help from Rep. Charles B. Rangel and others hoping he becomes the state’s first black speaker. But on Wednesday evening, he issued a statement withdrawing from consideration and throwing his support behind Heastie.
Wright has been interested in the House seat held by U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel when the longtime congressman from Harlem retires possibly next year and Heastie, who is also the Bronx Democratic Party chairman, is in a position to help make that happen for Wright.
Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, of Brooklyn, was leading a somewhat quieter campaign, focusing on downstate Democrats and fellow longtime members. Lentol formally entered the race Wednesday with a letter to colleagues in which he described himself as “one who works to unify.”
While those names have been out there for days, lawmakers say they would not be surprised if more names surface. But time is not on the side of an unannounced candidates and could advance only if other candidates stumble or split apart the Democratic voting bloc.
The common theory, based on history and numbers, is that the next speaker will come from New York City. Of the 105-member Democratic conference that will decide who runs the 150-member house, 61 are from New York City.
“Certainly, I’d love to see an upstate speaker, but … there are pros and cons to it,” said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.
She said she already has been contacted by Heastie, Nolan, Wright and surrogates for Morelle.
The pros – increased influence for upstate in a chamber dominated by downstate interests – were countered by a concern she said she had that Morelle could end up “having to focus all the time on downstate” to maintain support among downstate members.
The messages to her so far from the candidates were “basic,” Peoples-Stokes said.
At least three candidates for speaker are from New York City, which makes Morelle’s chances viable, he said. “But if downstate comes together, end of story,” he added.
Nolan made her candidacy known Wednesday in a statement first sent to a few media outlets, including The Buffalo News. She stressed her 30 years of Assembly experience and noted that the Assembly has never had a female speaker.
“It’s time for that to change,” she said in an interview.
Given the partisan breakdowns, Western New York has three votes – Assembly members who are part of the Democratic Conference – Schimminger, Peoples-Stokes and Sean M. Ryan of Buffalo.
In an interview, Nolan volunteered what she characterized as her abilities beyond Queens. She was born in Syracuse, her father was a Fresh Air Fund upstate kid more than a half-century ago, and she has traveled the state in her role as chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee.
“I have delivered for Western New York schools, for suburban schools,” she said.
When she talked of having great respect for Silver, she stopped herself and added, “I know some Western New Yorkers think that disqualifies you for a long time.”
Nolan added that she is “very comfortable” having Morelle stay as acting speaker for as long as it takes to settle on a permanent speaker.
“It’s not right to say that the speaker has to come from New York City,” she added.
In Albany, history shows that a speaker’s tenure can be a matter of hours. Or, as in a 1987 Assembly leadership fight between downstate and upstate lawmakers, some six months.
Gottried, currently the longest-serving member of the Assembly, said that it is an Albany “myth” that people who don’t line up for the speaker candidate who wins get severely punished.
“A new speaker has no choice but to unify the conference. A speaker who tries to punish those on the wrong side would find it very, very hard to function,” Gottfried said.
“This really is like herding cats, and one of the major checks on the speaker is, you really need to have enthusiastic support of every member every day if you are going to function.”
The chatter about outside influences on the Speaker’s race abounds. One said it’s a fight between two warring Democrats: Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Another said unions, led by the teachers labor group, are the key influencers for some candidates.
But Gottfried, who said he is “not yet” supporting a specific candidate, described an insular group when it comes to a Speaker’s vote. Not that people on the outside won’t try, but he said, “I think we tend to be pretty adamant about deciding this ourselves,” he said. The chief exception, he noted: county party leaders.
“If the governor or mayor of New York City are letting people know who they wanted, I really don’t think that would carry a lot of weight,” Gottfried said. END INSERT