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With Silver gone, Assembly Democrats must unite to force democratic reforms

Moments like this don’t come around often. With Sheldon Silver taking involuntary, if tardy, leave of his position as speaker of the State Assembly, members have a rare opportunity to insist that whoever succeeds him commits to a leadership style that has more to do with democracy than with iron rule.

That doesn’t mean lack of leadership. A leader requires authority in any kind of office, but democracy requires input. It thrives on the flow of ideas and on the tests of challenge. Silver, who has been charged with federal crimes involving bribery and kickbacks, would have none of that.

He, along with his Senate counterpart, lorded it over a Legislature that could do almost nothing without their approval. The Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law flatly concluded in its detailed 2004 report that “New York State’s legislative process is broken.”

The report – well respected and, after 11 years, unrefuted – cited five broad areas of deficiency: a dysfunctional system of legislative committees; the difficulty in moving legislation out of committee to the full Senate or Assembly; the lack of debate and amendments together with an inadequate review process; the lack of inter-house conference committees; and the overall inefficiency and high cost of the Legislature.

The system is an unholy, dysfunctional mess focused more on the needs of its members than those of New Yorkers.

It’s time to change that. Those who seek to succeed Silver need to declare, clearly and ahead of time, what they will do to open the chamber to the bracing winds of democracy. More important, the rank-and-file members whose votes will elevate someone into the position need to be clear about the reforms they require in exchange for their votes.

Rep. Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, appears to be leading an effort to do just that. Although it took him a few days to declare that Silver needed to go and that reforms were needed, he is helping to organize a group of Democrats who will insist upon reforms in exchange for their support. Thus far, he is the only Western New York member to sign the letter. We hope that’s just because the others are having trouble finding a pen.

The embarrassment of Silver’s delayed exit shows the strange influence he had over the chamber. A man charged with extraordinarily serious abuses of his office was nonetheless able for a time to hoodwink Assembly members into believing that they couldn’t turn him away.

It was preposterous – gang hypnosis. Some critics likened their submissive behavior to a variety of Stockholm syndrome, in which prisoners come to identify with their captors. Willingly, and for no compelling reason, they ceded to him the authority that should have been theirs. And then they quaked in their boots, even after he was charged with crimes that may send him to prison for the rest of his life.

It has to change. Prosecution of offenses is one path toward that change, and the state’s district attorneys should show greater interest in that matter. But, as others have noted, you can’t prosecute your way out of a culture of corruption. The threat of those prosecutions could help to induce that change, but one way or another, the change is needed. And by that, we mean real change, not the kind the Legislature historically likes to produce, which is just enough to silence the critics – and usually something more cosmetic than substantive.

It begins with empowering committee chairs to be more than figureheads. It requires allowing rank-and-file members to force a vote on measures the speaker, perhaps for nefarious reasons, would prefer to bottle up. It means giving minority party members a real voice. It means decentralizing power to the extent that the chamber becomes a cauldron of ideas, while allowing the speaker to retain enough control to ensure something akin to order.

No one ever said democracy was pretty. A little more disorder could be just the thing that serves the needs of New Yorkers and keeps politicians on the right side of the law.